A fiery celebration at bulls festival


People dancing and dodging a giant paper-mache bull stuffed with fireworks as roman candles and bottle rockets shower them with sparks. — AP

EVERY year, just before spring, hundreds of giant papier-mâché bulls stuffed with fireworks are erected in the front yards of the Mexican town of Tultepec.

Thousands of restless fingers carefully cut, paste and paint the colourful patterns that bring the “toritos” to life during an annual celebration when the bull-shaped figures are set alight.

Thousands of people gather to dance and dodge amid the bulls as roman candles and bottle rockets shower them with sparks, and spinners nip at their legs. Many wear heavy cotton clothes soaked in water to protect themselves against burns.

This year’s nighttime lighting of the bulls didn’t take place in the streets of Tultepec, but rather in an open field nearby.

A paper-mache bull sitting alongside strings of fireworks in a warehouse ahead of the annual festival honoring Saint John of God. — APA paper-mache bull sitting alongside strings of fireworks in a warehouse ahead of the annual festival honoring Saint John of God. — AP

The crowd packed into the field saw a mix of moments, with some running from angry fire-spitting bulls, like a pyrotechnic version of the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain.

Then, it turned into a kind of mass rave where people, mostly young men, danced, jumping up and down to the odd beat of fireworks going off and chanting “Fire! Fire! Fire!” under a rain of sparks and smoke.

The celebration, now its 35th year, pays homage and thanks the patron saint of the poor and sick, St John of God, who the fireworks’ producers – a mainstay of the town’s economy – view as a protective figure.

But the festivities are also a way for the town of Tultepec, just north of Mexico City, to keep their craft alive and draw people to the town after a massive, devastating explosion at the workshops in 2018 killed 25 people and wounded twice that number.

Pyrotechnic artisans creating a bull of lights for the annual festival in honour of Saint John of God. — APPyrotechnic artisans creating a bull of lights for the annual festival in honour of Saint John of God. — AP

One of the best-known workshops is the family-run business, Los Chavitos, which has been producing cardboard figures for fireworks for 15 years.

Their figures range from very small bulls to giant ones, to figures of saints and imaginary animals known as alebrijes.

Every year, the workshop produces hundreds of smaller “bulls,” with roman candles for horns that are carried on someone’s shoulders through the streets of countless small towns in Mexico, sending kids skittering in delight.

The shop also produces “Judas” figures of villains and politicians that are traditionally burned during Easter Week in Mexico.

Members of the Cortes Miranda family constructing paper-mache bulls that will be stuffed with fireworks, in preparation for the annual festival. — APMembers of the Cortes Miranda family constructing paper-mache bulls that will be stuffed with fireworks, in preparation for the annual festival. — AP

But the big, standing bulls of Tultepec mark the high point of the year.

Tultepec was one of the first places that began to produce gunpowder in Mexico during the colonial period, because of the town’s abundant supply of saltpetre, a key ingredient. Today, the town is affectionally known as “the capital of pyrotechnics”.

Francisco Cortes Urban, 51, has been a fireworks artisan as long as he can remember. He learned the craft at the age of 12 and has passed his knowledge to his sons.

A paper-mache figure of Saint John of God standing in a fireworks workshop. — APA paper-mache figure of Saint John of God standing in a fireworks workshop. — AP

Cortes moved about frantically recently, taking calls, giving instructions and carrying small toritos from one corner of the workshop to the other. Clients were waiting for him to deliver.

In the background, a giant bull with colourful pre-Hispanic decorations shone under the sun, where a group of young artisans were busy with the final touches.

Once the bull was finished, they had to secure a base on top of it, to hold approximately 1,000 fireworks that would explode when they were lit during the festival.

Rafael Martinez working with gunpowder to make fireworks. — APRafael Martinez working with gunpowder to make fireworks. — AP

During the festival, about 300 monumental papier-mâché bulls are hauled into the streets of Tultepec, as an offering to accompany the figure of St John in an iconic procession. Smaller bulls also participate, splashing the sky with colourful explosions.

Of course, there are concerns about the safety of it all, but locals are too attached to the beauty of the tradition to worry too much.

“Every kind of work has a risk. This also has its risk,” said Cortes. “But we are passionate about it, and it has become our life.” — AP

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