SAN ANDRES FIESTA, AJIJIC, JALISCO, MEXICO
November 30 was the day of Patron Saint San Andres (Saint Andrew) in the Roman Catholic world. San Andres was a fisherman together with his brother, Peter. They were peers of Jesus of Nazareth, generally considered the Messiah by his followers of the Jewish faith and the focus of Christianity. Andrew was originally a follower of John the Baptist, but as the story goes, once John introduced him to Jesus, he followed Jesus instead, part time. Prophesied by Jesus that he and Peter would become fishermen of people, he indeed dropped his trade after Jesus’ death; he left for Greece to become a full time evangelist. He was eventually executed by hanging on a cross by being tied up, not nailed, so a longer process of torture preceded his death. So far a bit of background.
I spent this day and the nine days leading up to it this year in Ajijic, Mexico, to participate in the San Andres Fiesta. This is one of the many fiestas in Ajijic and has the reputation as the longest that is only for “sturdy” people who can survive the long nights and early mornings. My host had not partaken herself for the full nine days in the 15 years she has been visiting this medieval town, so it was going to be a challenge for both of us.
Ajijic first saw the Spanish and their missionaries enter their area in the 1530s, after which the Spanish missionaries immediately started giving the towns (and its citizens) European names of the Christian saints that were associated with their respective trades. Ajijic is located on the largest lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala; still some of the residents are fishermen. Of course, the people that lived there, as well as further out to the area of Tequila to the east, already had their own beliefs and spirituality that did involve all of creation; they did not limit their spiritual administrations to one god only and animals and tress could contain a spirit as well.
The Indigenous nations of that area were the Teuchitlan, together with two other tribes that lived in harmony and settled conflicts by games. Their civilization blossomed from about 1000 Before Christ to about 300 Anno Domini (after Christ). This was before the more infamous Aztec nation that flourished around the 14th to 16th centuries overtook that area. So, an old civilization existed long before Europeans entered the country.
Ajijic was originally named Axixix, but the Spanish could not pronounce that X sound, so changed it to a “C” that sounds more like a soft clearing of one’s throat (Note: not an “H” sound, as English speaking people want to make it, as they can’t pronounce the throat sound of the Spanish “J”). To make a long story much more palatable, the indigenous beliefs were pushed aside by the priests aided by the foreign military by whatever means were needed: the whole population was converted to Christianity over time. Today’s statistics say 99% of the nation adheres to the Roman Catholic religion. The population is now a mixed population, with European (Spanish, Germans, and other) heritage, South American, and Indigenous heritage. Now so far this bit of early history.
During the fiesta, each morning bombs go off at 6 AM when it’s still dark and rockets pearce the air waking up the town. This all is in preparation for the first procession of the day followed by a mass at the San Andres church. A band is always part of the festivities. Ajijic seems to have many bands.
The church of San Andres located in the heart of Ajijic was established around 1754 if I remember correctly. The second procession of the day starts around 5 PM moving towards the church slowly while gathering followers along the way that join in. Of course another mass is being held before the fireworks can start and must finish first. This church is a stone’s throw away from the Plaza.
On each of the nine nights a new 25 foot high “Castillo” is built by the pyrotechnical crews out of bamboo and slats, and loose explosive charges attached to erect a tower of fireworks with turning whirligigs, shooting off flying objects to the delight of the bystanders. Especially the young are their excitement by running through the sparks and trying to catch the corona (crown) at the end of each firework display, which symbolizes the crown of the Virgin Maria. Then all the church bells ring out to confirm its presence of a spiritual undertone of it all, to impress on the audience the fiesta’s religious nature, and to indicate the end of the fireworks.
The crowds got thicker as the days went by and the last night was very crowded in the church plaza. Something like this celebration with fire works, exciting and a lot of fun for young and old, but with an edge of danger and potential of injuries, could not take place in Canada.
At the other end of the village is the “Templo” located , as the locals call the second Catholic church. This church is dedicated to the Virgin de la Guadalupe, a reference to the actual church in Mexico City, with the replica of the image of the Virgin, a brown version of the mother of Jesus, and the Mexican version derived from Mother Earth of the old ancestral belief. Processions might leave from there, or from the oldest village centre nearby–the place called Six Corners (Seisesquinas. From here the procession moves through town towards the procession’s end destination: the San Andres church.
The more secular festivities take place on the Plaza, the village square. A gazebo is built in the middle of flowerbeds with low retaining walls, perfect for lounging on and watching the crowds. Benches are placed along all sides. Each afternoon people come out to chat and visit, much like the town’s living room. If you are looking for someone, just go to the Plaza.
After 5 PM the bands start playing at the gazebo or the podium that is built later on in the fiesta. Not that this is the only music playing. People start entering the temporary bars, erected alongside one side of the Plaza under tents with their own music and the street food places in make shift street restaurants on the opposite side of the Plaza.
The Mariachi start moving around at that time. They offer the bar patrons a song and play whatever they are requested—for a small fee. I paid $200 pesos (less than $20) for an eight-man orchestra. It was great! Another night my host Miguel had the Mariachi play quite a repertoire and the guest were all singing with them (at least those who knew the words).
Dancing is pretty sexy in Mexico and I danced my heart out. The couples have full body contact in their Mexican dance style, sort of a mix between salsa and a close body waltz.
By the start of the fiesta a lot of the Canadians and Americans that mostly live up in the hills in their villas had left town; 15 buses left with people that prefer to leave as they cannot appreciate the noise and bombs going off at all hours. I was suddenly aware of that fact when a young woman asked if she could take a photo of me, the reason given that we were the only non-Mexicans left and even seemed to enjoy ourselves, which apparently was very unusual. I started paying more attention and then saw as I was dancing in the Plaza with a handsome Mexican expatriate, the people around me seated on the walls, watching us, were smiling broadly at me. Another time a young guy leaving a bar walked up to me and said he enjoyed my dancing. Yes, very, very few non-Mexicans, although the last day I noticed a few more.
Mmmm, taco’s! I ate quite a few and even tried some more exotic kinds of the filling: lips and tongue. I liked the tongue (lengua), but did not care much for the lips, although my favourite is still Al pastor (meat grilled close to a vertical spit).
Drinks are cheap and got cheaper all the time as the party proceeded. The cheapest shot of tequila I saw for about $2. This is because more and more celebrants were bringing their own. Many brought their own improvised bar with them: a 10 gallon bucket with a bag of ice, a bottle of tequila and a bottle of mix—-very practical. People stood body to body on the Plaza during the last days; ‘t was almost impossible to move to another part of the Plaza.
The temporary party places stay open till the early morning hours. The last band was finished playing at 2 AM. I stayed a few of the nine days till the very end and saw the way the local police ended the festivities. They just stand around in groups of five, on the corners of the Plaza and at other strategic points. Of course they did wear some large guns, but were friendly nevertheless and responded readily to my “Buenas Noches”.
Without a problem, the people slowly decided it was time to be going home. Everywhere in the village one could see people going home, mostly walking, in small groups, talking and joking with each other. I have walked home after the fireworks on my own once; I have never felt hesitant or unsafe. People know me by know and said hello or goodnight in passing.
I found it amazing that there were virtually no fights and no problems with injuries or accidents, in spite of the stiff drinking going on for nine days straight. Once one brief fisticuffs broke out that was quickly suppressed by the friends of the two fighters.
All the festivities were attended as well by everybody of all ages, it seemed. I saw whole families with small children that fell asleep on their dad’s shoulder or in their mom’s arms, elderly people helped by their relatives, several generations tigether, although the elderly and the little children mostly went home after the fireworks ended.
How does this all get paid for, you ask? Well, the sponsors are community groups, such as trade unions, associations, neighbourhood groups, and rich families. The expatriates that live in the USA are an important group as well and have the last day, as that is the summit of all events where the various groups show up for the last procession to the church that is overfull for the mass.
All over the USA are associations that fund raise for the fiesta. These are people that originated from Ajijic and feel strongly connected to their community, and generally still have relatives there. They are calling themselves the “Huijos Ausentes de Ajijic, Jalisco, Radicados en U.S.A. Many come back every year to the fiesta.
The members living in the same city often gather for events in their cities, to fundraise and keep the culture going. Their gifts are often not visible, although they are substantial. Those that have left are considered to be rich, and they are compared to those left behind. The group this year donated a gold leaf covered statue of San Andres to the community that was blessed in the last mass by the priest.
Each sponsor also pays for the bands, the fireworks, the decorations for the processions and the food distributed to the community and the after party. As well, many bombs and rockets are set off, at times 500 bombs are fired off one at the time throughout the early morning or in the middle of the night and this is ALL beyond the castello fireworks.
Although the village is not rich, nobody goes hungry. I have a huge admiration for the practical way in which the Mexicans live and are able to make something out of nothing or very little. Nothing gets thrown away. All of the pig or the cow is used and even the corn husk are used. I have taken a liking to the simple and quick food. Take the tacos: using everything in small quantities, fresh meats, fish or chicken, some fresh veggies, onions, lime, cilantro and salsa of tomatoes and spices. The only work is making the tacos, cooking the meat and then chop it up, no big deal. I am going to try this out and mix maseca (corn flour) with water, now that I have a tortilla press and already have a plate on my gas stove for that sort of thing. I wonder if anybody else has a response to this view of Mexican culture or has had similar experiences. I would appreciate every comment very much….