25. Playing with fire: Tultepec

Before entering Cuautitlán I was surprised to see a little white shed with “danger” written on it in red paint in the middle of one of the pastures in front of many-storied social housing units. A pack of dogs crossed the field before the shack and I wondered what kind of danger was meant. The dozen dogs and their large black leader seemed somewhat dangerous and I knew there were Mara Salvatrucha streetgangs around the railway tracks nearby. Surely they were dangerous. But this odd simply lettered sign on the white shack didn’t seem to fit with that either.

The next day I stood near the center of Cuautitlán in the late morning by a torta stand, having a loaf with omelet, garnished with union, avocado, beans and mayonnaise. The man behind the stand was talking to a customer about a village a little bit further on along the edge, Tultepec. The village of Tultepec lies on a low hill in a large northern plain reaching to the lake of Zumpango in the north.

I made up out of the conversation that the people of Tultepec dedicated themselves to fireworks. It suddenly dawned on me that the shack had been a storage place for fireworks. That is why it had been marked dangerous and been in an empty field.

He said that the village had competitions for who was the best pyrotechnician. This work was dangerous and accidents were a regular occurrence. The fireworks on display during this event are enormous towers with spinning rods and crosses. The village is perpetually on the point of blowing itself up.

The master pyrotechnicians bore those scars with pride, as marks of their experience with explosives. The greatest of them all was missing an eye and three fingers on his right hand. The government had tried to put an end to firework production in this village but protests had ended that initiative.

I walked out of Cuautitlán along the road towards Tultepec, lined with shops selling piñatas where I had an excellent wood grilled steak for lunch.

The village was still separated from the city by a few fields, which I passed in order to reach the fireworks market. The market was among fields and consisted of about fifty stands. It was tamer than I had expected. Box after box of fireworks as if they were sweets in a village wholesale market. I didn’t buy any. Peak season was Christmas and New Year.

A few years later I would visit the fireworks competition and see the castillos screech to life searing the night sky. Sparks cascade over the children and adolescents running under the firework towers. Structures of spinning flames three stories high explode like a clockwork firecracker. The whole central plaza is a screeching battlefield of flares and rockets. Nobody was hurt but the sheer risk involved was unimaginable anywhere else. A Dutch fire-safety inspector would have had a stroke.

The little shack in the field behind its barbed wire fence was a bomb. That is why it was marked dangerous.

I curved back along the north of Cuautitlán. The flat lakebed reminded me of the Netherlands. Tultepec on its low hill loomed to my right across the fields. I imagined the master firework-maker with his one eye and sombrero walking proudly through its streets.