All last week Oaxaca, fighting a withdrawal from a week without festivals, has been gearing up for el Cristo Negro de Esquipulas (the black Christ of Esquipulas), which culminated last night in a giant 3-story castillo (firework tower), dancing monos and pyrotechnics to beat New Year.
This festival has been observed with different activities each day last week starting from January 15th and celebrates el Cristo Negro de Esquipulas – famous for his healing powers. The story (or one of the variations) goes thus:
A bright light was seen to originate from a white clay hill in Esquipulas, Guatemala in 1595. Locals investigated further and upon digging into the hillside where they had seen the light, they unearthed a crucifix with a carved figure of Christ made from dark wood. They named it Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas (our Father of Esquipulas).
The crucifix was taken in procession to the neighbouring village three times – each time it was discovered missing from the village and found back in the cave where it originated. After the third retrieval, the locals decided that “Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas” was trying to say he wanted to stay in Chimayo, and so they built a small chapel near the cave. Both the Christ figure and the white clay hillside became famous for its healing powers.
Both this past week, and the week of Easter sees thousands of pilgrims journey to this hillside in eastern Guatemala, and also to churches containing black Christ figures, made from the same dark balsam wood, all over Mexico.
El Cristo Negro de Esquipulas is worshipped at Carmen Alto in Oaxaca, and so festivities here have been centred on this church all week. I live close to this church, and from personal observation, and also the evidence of soup on my ceiling, there have been many many loud cohetes randomly exploded this week.
Yesterday (Sunday) we started the day with cohetes at 4am, then more at 7am; this afternoon there was traditional dancing in the zocalo to a live band, whilst things got set up at the church.
All afternoon men were hard at work constructing the giant castillo (fireworks castle) frame from bamboo, complete with moving parts that the rockets propel around when they are lit. Castillo making, like skills for other trades in Mexico, is generally taught by grandparents and parents showing their children the skills from an early age.
The night’s entertainment started after 7pm mass, when a parade carrying the Cristo Negro and colourful banners left the church and walked down and around the zocalo. Returning to the church, the Cristo Negro statue was serenaded by the brass band, and enclosed in a circle of banners from other churches, a type of benefaction to provide good luck to other churches in the city.
The statue was then replaced in the church and people lined up to touch the exposed wood or the colourful skirt it wore or just to pray before it, asking for health and luck for the year.
Last night was freezing! OK, probably not to normal cold standards, but I definitely could have used a heavy coat like the rest of the crowd. As it was I wore my striped hoodie up to try and stay warm, and in doing so probably looked like I was about to rob a convenience store, or that I was hiding from the authorities.
We all stood, packed into the church courtyard, shifting from foot to foot doing little shuffle dances to keep warm while we waited for the main event.
The monos (or at least the teen-aged boys wearing the giant papier mache figures) danced to a live band to the enjoyment of the crowd, during which time everyone lined up to receive a tamale and a cup of atole, and of course, a bread roll to dunk.
As soon as everyone had got their food, the band stopped and the men wearing the toros (headpieces shaped like bulls with fireworks strapped to the frames) started spinning and dancing in circles in front of the castillo. The dueling light beams in front of the church turned into a laser light effect in the lingering smoke in the courtyard, much to the enjoyment of the crowd. I will just point out that the church courtyard we were all packed into was actually pretty small. The church doors had also been locked behind us, so if something was to go wrong, it could have been quite dangerous. However, I think this added to the atmosphere of the night, and people were crowded close to the action, jockeying good-naturedly for a view.
About about 40 minutes of toros, to the delight of the crowd, the castillo was lit in a fanfare of light and sound. Unlike the other one I have seen, this castillo was accompanied by a contemporary music soundtrack with songs in both Spanish and English (including Eric Clapton’s If I Saw You in Heaven) played as the different sections of the castillo was set alight. Between sections sets of fireworks were set off on the other side of the church wall, adding to the drama of the night.
The middle section of the castillo even had a image of Christ on the cross in the middle of the structure, and when set alight it rotated as the rockets carried it around. It was a fantastic mix of religious and popular art, and the crowd loved it, everyone clapping after each section had finished burning.
The night finished with a fireworks display, shot high above the central city. I walked home watching the cobblestones colour with the lights in the sky, thinking how very different life is here in Mexico where fireworks, castillos and free entertainment are the norm.