I spot my first torito standing by the roadside, looking like a tequila-induced vision. It's 10 feet tall, half-bull and half-frog, with the whiplike tail of a scorpion. Its horns angle down as if it is preparing to charge, and it glowers menacingly. The creature is built entirely of papier-mâché, but you could never call it harmless. Strung like Christmas decorations on its wooden frame are hundreds of brightly colored fireworks – a piñata stuffed with dynamite, waiting for a match to be struck.
Several members of the Solano family are putting the finishing touches on their "little bull," double-checking all the fuses in the final hour before the biggest event of the year in Tultepec, the fireworks capital of Mexico. I'd arrived for the weeklong fiesta of San Juan de Dios, in honor of a 16th-century Portuguese friar, patron saint of firemen, hospitals, alcoholics, and pirotécnicos – all of whom will call on his assistance before the night is through. Tonight is the quema de toros – the burning of the bulls.
I had been told that Tultepec's annual burning of the bulls was like Pamplona's annual running of the bulls, with flames and explosions in place of goring and trampling, but I have only the faintest notion of what I am in for. I have no clue that I'll soon need to dredge up my fading high school Spanish to translate the following: "Disculpe, señor, tu camisa está en fuego." (Pardon me sir, but your shirt is on fire.)
Tultepec is an hour's drive from the center of Mexico City and is said to produce 80 percent of the fireworks for the entire country. If you've ever lit off a Mexican bottle rocket, chances are it came from Tultepec.
Señor Solano, a barrel-chested patriarch with a grizzled moustache, greets me with a warm handshake and an icy cup of Victoria beer. He runs his small family operation from a little brick shed where he shows me his wares: clay pots that gush fountains of colored sparks, three-foot bottle rockets, and firecrackers disguised as candy.
The church bells strike four o'clock – time to get going. The Solanos begin pushing their bull along the pocked asphalt road toward the center of town, rolling it on wobbly casters. Along the way, other bulls join in, painted as cartoon characters, or ax-wielding demons, or Mexican wrestlers, all festooned with thousands of fireworks strung together in garlands and pinwheels. Grandmothers walk with parasols in the punishing afternoon sun, and little kids run ahead of the bulls, barely able to contain themselves. Apparently the excitement of living in a fireworks town never wears off. The enormous phallus of one bull is outfitted with a spigot and doubles as a cooler for spiked punch. Most of the men are deep into their cups.
Rattling through the narrow streets, we come to a traffic jam near a hilltop church. Hundreds of homemade bulls fill the streets, conjuring some DIY hybrid of Mardi Gras, the Rose Parade, and the Siege of the Alamo. There is the X-Men's Wolverine, Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes, Papa Smurf. One is bedecked with the logo of the St. Louis Rams. An enormous bull, perhaps 20 feet tall, has a Native American motif, complete with feathered headdress and CO2 cartridges inside its head that blow smoke from its nostrils.
Of course a town built on fireworks has seen its share of what the locals refer to as "minor mishaps." In 1988, an explosion in the fireworks market killed 62 people. A decade later, 10 people died when a pile of gunpowder exploded, leveling two blocks. Many of the men in town bear waxy molten scars on their arms and faces. A small boy pulls up his shirt with a look of pride to show me the quarter-size burn on his chest, like a badge of honor.
In Tultepec's large plaza is a carnival with amusement rides and men spinning cotton candy. A few pesos get you a michelada, a liter of beer dosed with lime juice and hot sauce in a chili- and salt-rimmed cup. A man walks around with a car battery attached to a pair of metal handles, selling jolts to the macho or the inebriated. A flower-decked statue of San Juan de Dios stands in the back of a pickup, eyes cast heavenward as he holds what one local says is a grenade.
Two firemen lean against their truck at the edge of the plaza. One of them, Mario Noriega Varela, says it's their busiest night of the year, with 300 to 500 injuries, but they enjoy it. For a public safety professional, Mario is remarkably relaxed about the whole affair. "Come back in a little while," he tells me, "and photograph the wounded."
Despite its inherent dangers, the business of fireworks is indispensable to the economy of Tultepec. Roughly 80 percent of the population is involved with fireworks production. Tultepec's fireworks are sold across Mexico and Latin America, with the peak season stretching from Dia de Los Muertos in November through New Year's. Sales to the U.S. are relatively limited, largely due to strict import regulations and the overwhelming dominance of the Chinese fireworks industry, which supplies, by some estimates, 99 percent of the U.S. consumer market. But many in Tultepec would like to change that.
Earlier I'd been invited by Cesar Urban Silva to see his fireworks factory, down a dirt road at the far edge of town. After the fireworks market burned to the ground in 2005, and again in 2006, manufacturing shifted to an open tract of land far from the town center. Silva is 33, with a baby face and a demeanor of perpetual calm. His family have been pirotécnicos for more than five decades, and today he employs 50 people. It is a strictly artisanal enterprise, everything from fuses to shells made by hand. Silva claims that this gives more accountability to the makers and creates a much more reliable product than one made in a far-off Chinese factory.
The concrete buildings are spread far enough apart to prevent a chain reaction and each is painted with cartoon skulls and crossbones and the term peligro! – "Danger!" – in block letters. There is no electricity, for fear of a spark, and the landscape is spiked with tall lightning rods. There is a rumble of distant thunder, and I look nervously to the horizon, where dark clouds have gathered. Silva isn't worried, though he once saw a fireworks storehouse blown to smithereens after it was struck by lightning.
Given the inherent dangers, I ask him if the government has ever tried to shut the fiesta down. "The people would be out here with machetes," interjects a friend of his, standing nearby. Silva disagrees, laughing. "The people would be out here with bombas."
Silva trained as a lawyer, and is now running for local office, hoping that he can use politics as a platform to help Tultepec's fireworks industry. He says he wants to use a political perch to lower trade barriers and bring his hometown's fireworks production up to a level that meets strict U.S. safety and quality control standards. "I want to bring Tultepec to the world," he says.
Very little of the outside world, however, makes it to Tultepec. I see no foreigners at all, until I stop at a bar on the corner of the plaza and run into a group of middle-aged Americans, one carrying an armload of rockets the size of pushbrooms. They are easy to spot. They're all members of a group called Pyrotechnics Guild International. A dozen of them have come to watch the festivities – and engage in some barely regulated fun. They've bought 13 gross of rockets, called cohetes – that's about 1,800 of them – and have been launching them off rooftops for the past several days. They've rented out the top floor of the bar overlooking the square, and are running an open tab. Their wives, jokingly referred to as "pyrowidows," are back at home.
I sit in the bar talking to Michael Siefker, a 46-year-old master carpenter from Alabama. Siefker got hooked on pyrotechnics at 13, when he made gunpowder out of a formula in a library book and blew up his family's kitchen. His dad beat the crap out of him and then bought him a proper chemistry set. He now holds a Federal Type 20 fireworks license, which permits him to manufacture and shoot effects with high explosives. He keeps hundreds of formulas in his head – compounds of titanium for silver, copper for blue, barium for green – and travels the country putting on shows. Siefker and his friends love cutting loose for the fiesta pirotécnica. "Nowhere else in the world can you set off rockets with a beer in one hand, and the cops are just smiling at you," he tells me. He warns me about the bulls. "When they light 'em, they're gonna start pushing them into the crowd," he says. "When they drop the rockets out, don't stand still, 'cause they'll hit you, and they'll stick. You have to move. Those chupacabras will eat your lunch."
As if on cue, there is a whistling shriek in the plaza outside. The waitresses rush to pull down the steel gates over the windows. There's a loud bang, and a shower of sparks explodes through the bar's door as patrons duck under their tables. The burning of the bulls has begun.
I rush out into the square, which is now filled with people. Around the edges are families, grandparents, mothers holding their infants. Closer to the center of the plaza are hordes of teenage boys, like moths attracted to a flame. A huge bull enters the corner of the plaza, propelled by a group of men racing it through the crowd, zigging back and forth. The crowd moves with it, surging around, theatrically taunting it with a chant of "Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!"
There's a jet-engine wail, and a sound like a Gatling gun, and the bull shudders to white-hot life. Dozens of flaming rockets the size of cigars scream through the crowd, skittering and zipping around our feet as everyone dances and jumps out of the way. Without sticks attached, the rockets fly in erratic, completely unpredictable trajectories, like flaming pinballs. Acrid smoke fills the air and shirtless boys run through fountains of sparks, kicking at the fire-spitting projectiles. I see a small boy sitting on his father's shoulders wearing a giant motorcycle helmet. The first bull sputters out and the crowd roars with delight. A young couple takes the chaotic romance of the moment as a cue to start making out.
Moments later the next bull charges the plaza, wheeling in tight circles before bursting alight amid the half-panicked, half-jubilant townspeople. Rockets scream by at eye level. I crouch as everyone flees, scrambling to escape the scattershot hail of fire. Evasive maneuvers are useless, as rockets zip around like wasps. The smoky darkness of the plaza is like a combat zone, shot through by blinding flashes of light and the machine-gun staccato of explosions. I think I'd be safer taking my chances with a real bull, but the mayhem is intoxicating. Forgetting my terror, I run into the middle of the conflagration, snapping pictures of the local kids as they leap through fountains of colored flame.
Just then I feel something bump against my chest. And then I hear it: a sizzling popping directly beneath my chin, accompanied by the smell of burning fabric. I frantically beat at the rocket adhering to my shirt like a white-hot leech. Oh, please, San Juan de Dios, don't let it be a chupacabra, whatever the hell that is. Finally the shell falls to the ground, spent. The evil little thing has melted the buttons and collar right off my polo shirt. Besides a second-degree burn where the stubble was torched from under my chin, I am miraculously unscathed.
I say "miraculously" because everyone I speak to seems to consider it great good fortune that I have been burned on the saint's fiesta. People smile and clap me on the back as I stumble over to the triage trailer. Mario the firefighter shakes his head, laughing. They slather me with ointment, add me to their tally of wounded – three bulls in, and they've already filled several pages of their ledger – and assure me that I have been blessed.
I retreat to the roof of the bar, where the pyro-gringos have gathered. It's only marginally safer up there, the rockets landing like mortar rounds amid the tables. A woman dances madly when a spark shoots straight down her cleavage.
Michael Siefker sits calmly behind his tripod, videoing the proceedings. I cower behind him. I tell him I've been to war zones, covered the aftermath of natural disasters, crashed motorcycles, and I have never seen anything more dangerous than Tultepec's exploding bulls. Siefker appraises my charred shirt and tells me about a friend who had worn a Nomex hood the previous year – the flame-retardant cloth used by NASCAR drivers and fighter pilots. Somehow a rocket squirmed its way inside the hood and just sizzled there, leaving third-degree burns on his neck.
In decades of Tultepec's toro-burning, only one person has been killed. In 2010, a burning bull fell on its side and trapped a man under its framework. Nobody realized until afterwards what had happened. Now when a bull tips over, the crowd surges forward through the explosions and rights it again. In the plaza below, a guy who's just been freed from beneath a toppled bull hops up and down like a victorious prizefighter.
A toro the size of a small house is pushed to the center. Touched off, it illuminates the entire plaza like noon, like a nuclear test, like a star going supernova. The people of Tultepec, lacking anything so mundane as a sense of self-preservation, cheer in delight as they dodge a fusillade of rockets and are sprayed with multicolored sparks. It is near 11 p.m., and the crowd is still growing. There are more than 200 bulls to go, and the crowd will stay until the last one blows up at 3 a.m. Without a doubt, San Juan de Dios would be honored.
The following Sunday evening is the grand finale of Tultepec's weeklong festival. In the plaza, a half-dozen towering castillos – castles – have been erected. If the toros are Mexican fireworks at their macho extreme, the castillos are the height of their artistry. They are elaborate wooden frameworks reaching 70 feet above the ground, stayed like ships' masts with ropes. Workers scramble up them making last-minute adjustments. Thousands of fireworks are fastened to the structures in elaborately choreographed designs. They all face the Catholic church that fronts the plaza, which has filled again with townspeople.
I join the gringos on the roof, just in time for the first castillo to be lit. A chain of explosions zips 50 feet in the air, lighting up four huge pinwheels, each armed with rockets. As the wheels are thrust into motion, each lights up a spinning sea creature in dazzling Technicolor: fish, dolphin, octopus, seahorse. When the seahorse gets stuck, a (clearly underpaid) worker climbs the structure amid the smoke and sparks to free it. Another chain of explosions sets a framework in motion that appears like an endlessly blooming flower. A giant sun begins to turn, and from its center a sort of flying saucer, a girandola, spins itself hundreds of feet into the air before exploding. Its spent framework, the size of a lawn chair, falls back to Earth as the crowd jumps out of the way. Each castillo, sponsored by the town's bigger fireworks outfits, tries to outdo the last: moons and hearts and butterflies and peacocks all drawn in fire, raining embers down on the cheering crowd. The final castillo launches a pair of girandolas into the night sky while igniting a 40-foot image of San Juan de Dios, cross in one hand and iconic grenade in the other.
Phil Sandmeyer, a walrus-mustachioed 54-year-old from Kansas, looks on approvingly. "If church was this much fun in the States, they'd pack the churches." Sandmeyer has worked with pyrotechnics since he was 15 and has had his close calls – he even burned off half his mustache once. But like all his Pyrotechnics Guild International buddies, he lives for the smell of the smoke. This was his 20th year coming to Tultepec.
He hands me a lit cigar and a four-foot rocket. "Hand-lighting is a dying art," he says. "Don't drop it, and don't hang on to it."
While puzzling over what other option there might be, I touch the cigar to the fuse. It sizzles down, and then the rocket flares and comes to life, slipping out of my fingers and streaking into the sky before bursting over the plaza.