To refer to the fiesta that begins on 31 December in the city of San Miguel de Allende as a “New Year’s Eve” party would be to misrepresent it. Many other fiestas come around during the year—Mexican Independence Day, the celebration of the Revolution of 1910, the Day of the Crazies, and more, including the king daddy of them all, La Alborada, which is the celebration of the birthday of the patron saint of the city, Saint Michael, the archangel in command of the armies of God. As with all of those, the celebration of the New Year is an all-nighter and more. The outdoor party is as fervent at 4:00 a.m. as it was at 10:00 p.m. Usually, even more so.
The other thing that all of these occasions have in common is fireworks. And those fireworks are quintessentially Mexican—homemade, delightful, and a bit unpredictable. Substantial amounts of fireworks are manufactured in clandestine workshops. In December of 2016, the San Pablito fireworks market in northern Mexico City was doing a brisk business with people stocking up for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The whole thing suddenly blew up, killing 31 people and injuring another 71.
Ground zero for these affairs in that stunningly beautiful old colonial city is the large plaza in front of one of the landmark churches. It is called El Jardin, the garden, and features meticulously groomed trees and greenery. For me it was an easily doable walk, halfway up the mountain from my residence. The approaching side streets are closed off to vehicles for any fiesta. The plaza and the streets that border it fill up with people. Bands situate themselves at various points around the plaza, each playing its own genre, mariachi or salsa or ranchero or norteño. And then there are the fireworks.
Crews come in a day or two in advance and construct tall, metal superstructures somewhat reminiscent of old farm windmills, and then affix fireworks devices to them. The Spanish term for these structures is castillos en el aire, castles in the air, or simply castillos. When they are ultimately torched, they feature whirligigs, sizzlers, and fountains of sparks of various sorts, dead in the middle of throngs of people. On occasion one of the whirligigs might get stuck and quit spinning. A crewman would then clamber up the side of the superstructure and shake it to free the whirligig amid a shower of fire upon him, to the cheers of the crowd below, with fire again raining down on them as well. Meanwhile, perhaps ten meters behind me might be men in another street firing off aerial bombs one after another like a battery of howitzers. One could walk over and chat with them while they did this, if one wished.
On one occasion I was in that war zone in the plaza in the wee hours of the morning when yet another of the superstructures was torched. Above all the other moving parts, a fiery flying saucer lifted off from the top of it and began its ascent into the sky. Suddenly, the thing listed over and came crashing down into the street amid a crowd of people dancing to a salsa band. It was a veritable explosion. I was appalled and started to move over there thinking that I might be of some assistance to the wounded and dying. It quickly became apparent, however, that not one of those dancers had even missed a step. They had simply kept right on dancing.
It is by no means my intention to demean the importance of rules or restrictions imposed on people for their own protection. Self-evidently, however, any such rule, restriction, or barrier by definition impinges upon individual freedom of choice, including the choice to act like an idiot. In the case of Mexico, law enforcement is stretched so thin that they have no interest in devoting resources to enforcing rules or restrictions, if any such exist, to protect people from themselves. If, for example, one should choose to get drunk and stumble home at night down the middle of an ill-lit street only to fall into a six-foot deep hole left there with no barricades, one is perfectly free to do that. I am not ashamed to say that I found all of that exhilarating. I took advantage of it to act the idiot myself now and then.