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Noisy Saint

July 24, 2021

Every year around this time, I do a blog post about my least favourite point in the calendar: the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Maria Magdalena is the matron saint of this village, either because of a legend that Quetzalcoatl’s mother was the goddess in charge of Toltec ladies of the evening (not well supported by evidence), or because Prince Ce Acatl Topiltzin, the most prominent human prototype for the Plumed Serepent, was born here eleven centuries ago. And therefore, the community must be forever in atonement.

Anyway, her feast day is July 22, which means that starting on July 21, the village gets going on making money, and my dogs have to endure a daily onslaught of hundreds of loud, explosive rockets. Victoria, my eldest hound, is terrified of these cohetes, and spent the night before last cowering in my bathroom, since they kept being let off until around 11.00 p.m. I think the bathroom is as far into the house as she can go, so it seems safer to her, even if the acoustics can’t be favourable when there are loud bangs sounding, and echoing off the cliffs around us.

Maria Magdalena’s image awaits her annual circumambulation aroud the village, in honour of her feast day.

For me, the insult is being awakened by these explosions at 6.00 in the morning, followed by a band playing down by the church a couple of hundred yards away. Vicki can’t sleep by day, and I can’t sleep past the hour determined by fun-loving Catholic devotees. 

Today, two days on from the main event, the fuss is over, and we’re sweeping up the broken beer bottles from the streets and clearing away the garbage. The brass bands have gone home, the rocket-fans are out of ammunition, and the impromptu taco stands in people’s front yards are closed. This year’s fiesta was four times as big as the pandemic-afflicted one last year, but not close to the scale of previous years. There was, for example, no children’s midway, nor a bull-riding jaripeo.

But even as the village reverts to its usual, slightly ratty appearance, concerns remain. Covid cases in Mexico last week were up 44 percent over the previous week. As the “Do” versus “No, don’t” wars over masks and distancing play out once more, there must have been some virus-spreading happening, even with light crowds.

And separate from that issue, there is the rain. After local wells ran dry this spring, we welcomed the heavy rains that started early, in May. Suddenly, the threat of fires in the hills was gone, and the water tanker drivers were not running half loads.

But in most previous years that I recall, the Magdalene’s feast day is overcast, if not sopping wet. This year, we’ve had gorgeous dry, sunny weather for the past six days, and there’s no rain predicted for a few days more. In our rainy season, this sort of interval rarely occurs. It’s too early to call a bad season, but there is cause to be concerned.

All the Way to Eleven

Often, like most expats, I complain about the Mexican love of explosive rockets. Cohetes are let off on religious festivals, at high points during a Mass, at any semi-significant halting point in a religious procession; to mark public holidays, birthdays, and any event considered vaguely worthy of a loud bang. In my village, this covers at least one occasion on most weekends. During the annual fiestas for the Marias – the Virgin of Guadalupe in December, Maria Magdalena in high summer – several hundred rockets are released in a day.

And of course, this being New Year’s Eve, people will have stocked up on rockets to let off at midnight. And for some time after that.

One or two of the dogs will spend the time cowering under my bed, and I’ve sometimes thought about joining them.

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All the way up to eleven…

The Christmas season here includes a jarepeo, a three-evening event of bull-riding, which would have been fun if the band they hired had been (a) any good, and (b) had used a sound system that wasn’t designed for metal bands in their stadium-rock heyday. Standing with me sixty feet from the speakers, R and I got to enjoy the pounding from the bass and drums as a physical sensation in our chests. After three bulls had thrown their riders, we gave up. She was feeling physically uncomfortable, while I was reflecting on how Pete Townshend had lost most of his hearing.

I’ve been at family events here where the music is so loud, conversation in my broken Spanish becomes impossible. I arrive, I smile, mouth some greetings, eat some food, have a drink and seek my moment to leave. I could try prolonged, inane smiling, I know, but that has its communicative limits.

Why, I’ve always wondered, do people do this? There are occasions (The Who in their prime doing yet more damage to Townshend’s and Roger Daltry’s eardrums being one) where loudness is fun. At least it is, if you’re not Pete or Roger. But while some traditional music would be fine with the bull-riding, speech-blocking pounding is not.

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The old master doing a windmill on his guitar.

Mexicans seem immune to it, or able to shrug off the assault, but I wonder if they’re aware it could be turned down with enough requests. Sporting events, and the jarepeo is a sport, call for making comments at every skillful turn or dextrous act of balance, but 145 decibels of electronically enhanced bass-strings tend to pre-empt that possibility. R was so distracted at one point, she didn’t catch the crowd’s roar as a bull came out, the roar being drowned by the band.

Brass bands have long been a mainstay of local culture, and a local funeral isn’t a properly discharged affair without musical accompaniment following the deceased to the cemetery. But that’s unamplified: it’s music at the level where it can be appreciated, unless of course the deceased was a close friend or relative. In that instance, it’s hoped the deceased appreciates it via some post-mortem capability that I can’t imagine.

But the village church, for example, likes to broadcast religious music and even some ceremonies over a speaker system on its 55-ft tower. Since my house is on a rise 300 yards away, I can enjoy this at its best when it starts at 6.00 am (or earlier) on a Sunday morning.

And sometimes, people come here to hold a Saturday wedding that keeps on partying till 3.30 am. You can’t very well argue that a wedding should be less boisterous, but there is a point where other people wish they could get to sleep.

I don’t know if Mexico will ever lose its love of loudness. I think there’s a sense in which it unifies people: if you can’t think, you have to join in the collective mood. Still, the best thing about it is that eventually it stops.

“I like Amatlan, because it’s so peaceful there,” people often say to me.

Yes, I say between clenched teeth, it is. At least part of the time. But not tonight.