When Javier was little, he liked to play with fireworks, cuetes they called them (cuete is Mexican slang for cohete, or rocket). That is, Javier liked to set off cuetes until la Navidad (Christmas) when he was fifteen years old.
That year his parents went out shopping for the big dinner to be held on la Buena Noche (Christmas Eve). Javier was alone at home. He decided he wanted to set off cuetes. Normally, you set off cuetes with your friends or brothers or cousins, but Javier was alone, and he wanted to set off cuetes. Just a couple. Sometime before, a few months at least, his sister had bought a package of cuetes from China, a package that contained 40 cuetes. The good ones from China, really strong. So Javier thought, I'll just set off two of my sister's cuetes. He found the cuetes and some matches and took them outside.
He took two cuetes out of the package, and tried to put the rest in his pocket. His jeans that year were very tight, so he had really had to squeeze to get the 38 remaining cuetes in the left front pocket of his jeans. Then he held the matches in his left hand, lit them, and set off two cuetes with his right hand.
Then he tried to put away the matches in the same pocket as the cuetes. But his pants were so tight, the matches lit, and the cuetes went off. All of them. In his pocket. Boom boom boom boom boom (38 times)….
When the explosions were finished, he was really scared, more scared than in pain. The explosions had cut a hole in his jeans, about the size of his pocket.
He was still alone. There was nobody home but him. So he took off his jeans, and looked at his leg. There was a big round spot, red, but no blister, no bleeding. So he put ointment on the spot, put on a different pair of jeans, and threw away the old pair.
When his parents returned, his father asked him:
--Whats wrong, Javier?
--You look really upset.
--Oh I'm just sad. Thinking about la Navidad. Todas las Navidades. The past.
--But you look frightened.
--No, just sad.
His father sniffed the air.
--What's that smell? Cuetes?
--Oh yeah. I set off a couple of cuetes.
His father accepted the explanation, and they went on with preparations for the dinner for la Navidad.
Little by little the wound healed, and a month later his leg was back to normal.
A few months later, his sister asked him if he had seen her cuetes, the packet from China.
--No, I haven't seen them.
--Yeah, I don't know where they are.
--Well, said his sister, they were old cuetes. Probably no good any more.
And since the age of fifteen, Javier hasn't liked cuetes. His friends would ask him to set some off, but he'd say no, no I don't like them. And when he hears fireworks, his leg still hurts.
The semi-permanente teachers' protesta occupying el Zócalo, the main town square.
Note 28 Dec 2014: The above line shows what happens when you try to type in English while the Español keyboard -- and therefore, the español spell-checker -- is active on your phone.
By my count, there are nine nested squares in the Zócalo on The Night of the Radishes:
- Outermost: the sidewalk cafes, mostly connected to expensive hotels but including a few mid-priced and low-priced chains ( Subway, Italian Coffee Company, places that use English words in their Spanish brand names. In the outdoor seating of the elegant restaurants, the waiters shoo away the street vendors and beggars; in the cafés of the chain stores, the street vendors negotiate persistently with the customers.
- The outer lane of the streets surrounding the Zócalo, which for the night are strictly pedestrian only. Here it is crowded, but access is open. Police are everywhere. There's a line of people (especially tall foreigners, like myself) who are trying to look over the shoulders of people who have waited in line to observe the carved radishes in the official manner.
- The first barricade: white metal, interlocking.
- The outer concourse of observation: a raised ramp. This seems to be the the intended place for the crowd to observe the carved radishes.
- The second barricade: also white metal, interlocking.
- The inner concourse of observation, at street level. In some parts of the Zócalo, access to this concourses seems strictly limited: old people? handicapped people? important people? It's hard to tell. In other places, this concourse is full of people.
- The next square is contains the reason for all the fuss: a ring of exhibition tables constructed of plywood especially for the event. On the tables are displays of giant radishes carved into figures representing various subjects: the nativity, of course, and the Virgen, but also Mexican history, Mexican mythology, pop culture, and whatever the radish happened to inspire in the artisan. Above each display is a little roof, also specially constructed of plywood. Hanging in front is an officially printed descriptive sign from the Oaxaca tourism office with the artisan's name and and a description of the theme of the display.
- Next is a ring of folding chairs, in which the artisans themselves are sitting (or maybe their family members).
- Finally, in the center, is the Zócalo itself, a raised public square, where the protesting members of the radical faction of the teachers' union are camping out, dozens of tents all over the place, the faces of the 43 disappeared normal school students hanging on banners above, the central gazebo covered with giant posters, manifestos and the looming faces of the victims of past injustices. The inner part of the Zócalo is closed to the public, so it has become a private party, guarded by the police and the tourism officials, and limited to the artisans and the striking teachers: a VIP lounge with very Mexican rules for entry.