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Tubac Fireworks in Spanish Colonial Times

 In this photograph a boy is shown cutting carrizo  into open ended tubes for cohete powder cases.

In this photograph a boy is shown cutting carrizo into open ended tubes for cohete powder cases.

For centuries, sky rockets, fire-crackers and noise makers have enlivened both religious and secular life in the small towns of colonial New Spain. Tubac was no exception. Particularly in smaller, outlying towns and pueblos, people were extremely fond of noisy, evil-smelling rockets, squibs and firearms. When fireworks were not available, the soldiers fired their muskets at their own expense, or loaded the small cannon and boomed away to everyone’s delight.


Lighting the fuse in this photo

Lighting the fuse in this photo

Fiestas, royal birthdays, military victories, the arrival of a new viceroy in Mexico City, all of these and more were occasions to celebrate by burning gun powder.  Even during phases of the mass, men standing on the roof or outside along the walls of the church, exploded cohetas (sky rockets), triquitraques (firecrackers), and morteretes or camaras (small mortars).  The sky filled with small fleecy puffs of smoke and the air became alive with scores of sharp explosions. How ancient this practice is, it is difficult to say. Perhaps Jesuit priests, returning from China in times long past, brought this custom with them. The Chinese used fireworks to frighten away evil spirits during festivals and religious ceremonies.


Photo of cane castillo framework and basic figures of the gigantes under an open shed in a small Mexican town, ready to be refurnished for the next fiesta.

Photo of cane castillo framework and basic figures of the gigantes under an open shed in a small Mexican town, ready to be refurnished for the next fiesta.

One of our stalwart volunteers found the makings of a mini-exhibit when she was working in the museum last week. Originally, the exhibit occupied a case with 17 firework rockets attached to the wall and laid out on the floor. An entry on the inventory says, “Deaccessioned & destroyed on 12/30/93 on orders of Park Manager & SafetyOfficer due to dangerous & unstable qualities/condition of the explosives.” We include these 1950s era photographs showing the artisanal nature of Mexican fireworks manufacture, and they are great. We will display them on the big table in air conditioned Otero Hall on July 4th.


Some interesting information is contained in these photos:

Castillos are large cane frames covered with a variety of pyrotechnics and brilliant flares. They can cost between 20,000 to 250,000 pesos depending on size and complexity. Other cane frameworks are called Gigantes, large figures that are most often made to honor patron saints or Mexico’s patriot heroes. The cane is variously called carrizo or arundo.


Another cane work frame with the papier-mache shape of a bull is called a torito, (little bull). Generally painted a bright red and trimmed with green or yellow, these can be carried. During festivals, a man or boy holds the shell over his head and shoulders by the legs of the frame, and runs through the streets. Covered with small rockets, fire crackers and “busca pies” (foot seekers) the fireworks dart like fiery snakes from the torito and scoot along the ground or pavement with whistling sounds.

In this photo, another cane work frame with the papier mache shape of a bull called a torito, (little bull).

In this photo, another cane work frame with the papier mache shape of a bull called a torito, (little bull).


When hung over the door or fastened to a wall, they denote a firework maker’s house.  The fireworks industry was (and remains) artisanal, with production concentrated in family-owned workshops and small factories.


The home manufacture of all sorts of fireworks provides many workers with a means of livelihood, dangerous though it may be.  As with many Mexican crafts, much of the work is done in private homes by men and boys, who, in the course of years, become quite skilled.  Paper being scarce in the hinterlands, many of the cases for the rockets and crackers are small tubes cut from the ever present arundo, carrizo, or cane, which is then wrapped with tough twine and covered with pitch.


Join us on July 4th when admission is free from 10am to noon and step into Otero Hall to check out this mini-exhibit, but don’t stay too long or you’ll miss the free hotdogs and nachos, the lemonade and watermelon, and the various games and activities for the youngsters. A fun, safe and happy holiday to all of our readers!



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Don Carlos Siguenza y Gongora-Astronomer and Intellectual

One of the first great intellectuals produced in the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain was Don Carlos Siguenza y Gongora.  Born in Mexico City in 1645, Don Carlos was the youngest of eight children.  His father was a Peninsular (a privileged residential colonist born in Spain) who had been a tutor for the royal family while living in Spain.  He was also related to the famous baroque poet, Luis de Gongora.  Don Carlos was a polymath and writer who held a number of colonial government and academic positions during his lifetime.


Don Carlos took simple vows and entered into the Society of Jesuits at the age of 15, leaving (or possibly expelled) in 1667 or 1669.  In 1672, he was named to the chair of mathematics and exact sciences at the University of Mexico and was ordained as a priest the following year.  He was the chaplain of the Hospital del Amor de Dios (now Academia de San Carlos) from 1682 until his death.


In 1681, Don Carlos wrote the book Philosophical Manifest Against the Comets, citing authors like Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Kepler and Brahe, in an attempt to dismiss the people’s fears incited by the arrival of Kirch’s Comet, which was reputedly so brilliant that it could be viewed in the daytime.  Superstitions and predictions of impending disaster that were based on astrology surrounded comets and, in this work, he tried to separate the fields of astronomy and astrology.  For this he was strongly criticized by jesuit Father Eusebio Kino, himself a learned man, because the views expressed by Don Carlos contradicted the established Catholic beliefs in the Heavens.  Don Carlos audaciously defended his work by publishing Libra Astronomica y Filosofica in 1690.


Don Carlos prepared the first-ever map of New Spain in its entirety and drew hydrologic maps of the Valley of Mexico after which King Charles II named him official geographer for the colony in 1692.  As royal geographer, Don Carlos participated in the expedition to Pensacola Bay, Florida led by Andres de Pez later that same year.  He mapped the area as well as the mouth of the Mississippi in 1693.


While chaplain at the hospital Amor de Dios, Don Carlos became acquainted with the last king of Texcoco, Juan de Alva Ixtlilxotchitl, who put at his disposal a rich collection of documents of his ancestors.  Included in the ancestry were the historian Fernando de Alva Cortes Ixtlilxotchitl and the kings of Texcoco.  Don Carlos began his study of Aztec history and Toltec writing in 1668 and devoted the later years of his life to the continuous study of Mexican history.  Ixtlilxotchitl bequeathed his documents to Don Carlos upon his death.  These valuable documents later became part of the Boturini Collection sometime between 1735 and 1743.

Virgin of Guadalupe Devotee

Among the Ixtlilxotchitl documents was a purported map, or codex, documenting the 1531 apparition of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Because of the association of Don Carlos with these early documents, he is credited with playing a significant role in the development of the legend.  He was a devotee of the Virgin and wrote poems to her as early as 1662.  His most lasting impact on the history of the apparition, however, was his assertion that the Nican mopohua, the Nahuatl-language rendition of the narrative, was written by Antonio Valeriano and this conception persists today.  He also identified Fernando Alva de Ixtlilxotchitl as the author of the Nican motecpana in response to a declaration made in Francisco de Floencia’s Polestar of Mexico, which claimed that the original Nahuatl account had been written by Jeronimo de Mendieta.

Near the end of his life, Don Carlos Siguenza y Gongora retired from the University and reentered the Jesuit Order.  He died of a kidney ailment in 1700 in the Hospital del Amor de Dios in Mexico City where he had spent so much of his career.  He left his body to science and his library to the Jesuit Colegio de San Pedro y San Pablo.  Don Carlos led a full, rich  life and left a valuable legacy of study, faith, creativity and exploration.

Information included in this article was taken from Wikipedia and an article previously published in The Villager and written by Shaw Kinsley.

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