Chiapas state has the most independent-minded indigenous culture in Mexico. Parts of the state were never fully subjugated by the Spaniards, and several tribes continue to deny Catholicism as the national religion and not pose for tourists’ pictures. The state even rejected joining both Mexico and the United Provinces of Central America subsequent to the eviction of the Spaniards in the 1820’s before deciding by referendum to join Mexico. We’ve witnessed some of that edginess during our short stay in San Cristobal de las Casas.

We arrived during the week long fiesta for the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patron saint of Mexico, and she apparently requires that the band start playing at five a.m. to the accompaniment of exploding sticks of dynamite and someone yanking on the church bell 100 times every fifteen minutes. Despite the constant drizzle of rain, uncharacteristic, we are told, the people’s spirits, and the fireworks’ wicks, have not been dampened.

We didn’t plan to stay in San Cristobal for long, having just come from an extended stay in a colonial city (Oaxaca), but I ran Wesley into a telephone pole so we are grounded for a few days while it gets repaired. As we drove to a body shop recommended by someone that we just met, I described to Coconut and J how the repairman would drill a hole into the middle of the dent, insert a tool that would splay out from the inside, and then pull the metal back into shape. Instead, the body guy comes out into the rain and mud with a heavy mallet and a piece of two by four and starts banging away. In an ironic twist, he thinks he might have the van a few days so he can get the paint to match. A perfectionist.

After watching this spectacle for as long as we could take it, we started walking back to town. At a busy intersection, we saw a kid – a teenager – with a plastic liter bottle filled with gasoline. He took a swig from the bottle, spewed flames from his mouth, and then daintily dabbed his lips and chin with a greasy rag. It looked really cool, but was a depressing thing to witness. We gave him fifteen pesos. I told Coconut and J that if they ever needed money that badly they should come talk to me no matter how grouchy I am that day.

Later, while we were eating lunch at the fanciest pizza place in town, a parade came marching through the main pedestrian street. We quickly ran to the balcony of the restaurant to watch and saw an older man at the end of the line nonchalantly lighting bottle rockets with his cigarette and launching them from his hand like he was Cape Canaveral. We didn’t feel nearly so badly about this – in fact, we could hardly stop laughing it was so funny.

Step One: Inhale on cigarette to get embers burning.

Step One: Inhale on cigarette to get embers burning.

Step two: light the fuse.

Step two: light the fuse.


Step Three: Hold explosive in hand while the wick burns towards the gunpowder.


Step Four: Release rocket so it does not blow up in your hand.

The fireworks culture in Mexico is quite different than what we are used to. Explosions are mandatory for any celebration, and ubiquitous at all other times. I think the school principal will often set off a rocket in lieu of opening bell. R and I had fun shopping for cojetes before our Thanksgiving celebration and the kids had fun setting them off – under my supervision, of course, for whatever that is worth. When J had a friend come over for a play date, lighting off fireworks was the featured activity.

Anyway, the rebellious strand that permeates life here seems to have trickled over – this morning even R, a notorious pacifist, got into the act. When the first volley of gunpowder was detonated outside our door several clicks before sunrise, she rolled over and said, “I’m going to kill them.”