Blog 18: Chicken Snatching

 4 February 2014

Weatherwise we are a little ahead of Kingston. I no longer need my fleece vest for the first hour in the morning. At 8:30 the men and women taking their kids to the preschool down the block are wearing jackets and scarves, but at 1:00 when they pick up their little blue-uniformed ankle-biters most of them are in shorts. The women carry sombrillas which—if it ever rained at this time of the year—we’d be inclined to call umbrellas. The birds and butterflies are flitting about romantically in twos, and sometimes quite aggressvely in threes and mores. The first jacaranda tree in the neighborhood has put on is bonnet of violet blue. By 4:30, when the earth has spun far enough so that the sun pours horizontally onto our back terrace, I have to move inside to work or else re-slather all the exposed bits with sunscreen.

Candelaria came and went without a party. Some folks had gone back to the States, some were vacationing in the Yucatán or down at Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast. But enough were around to celebrate last weekend’s San Pablo Days Festival with panache. Well, with beer and mezcal, anyway.

It began Friday afternoon with a mass at San Pablo’s newly renovated church. For the past couple of months masons had been chipping away all the crumbling brick and stone from the wall where the paved road curves around the church’s apse. The have shrunk the wall, faced it in blue stone, and have given the road 6 big inches more of width. San Pablo doesn’t have a town square, but there is a little triangular town minipark at the curve, two  benches and a walk that lets pedestrians transect the road’s curve in safety. While every other town park in the Oaxaca Valley has a statue of Benito Juárez, who is Oaxaca’s favorite

son and scion of independence, for some reason San Pablo’s has a statue of Diana the Huntress, nude, with one arm extended to hold what at one time must have been her bow, and the other pulled back to twang an imaginary bowstring. Someday when I am between projects I will have to try to find out what she is doing here, gazing nobly at the kiosk that sells peso candy and plastic cups of cut fruit.

The streets — no, make that street, singular— in front of the church is decorated with colored plastic pennants punched out especially for San Pablo Days, with every third flag an image of San Pablo Apóstol. Pablo being Paul, of course: maybe he brought the Diana back with him from Ephesus. There are more colored streamers in front of the church, and strung from the front arcade of the Muncipalidad (City Hall) to telephone poles on either side. In the field behind the Municipalidad a little feria has set up: a tiny Ferris wheel, a couple of whirly rides, each the size that can be fit on a single truck. One stand stands sell alegrías, sweet sticky disks of seeds and nuts something like peanut brittle; another is mounded with sweet rolls. There are fried plantains slathered with sweetened-condensed milk and dusted with chili powder, and ears of corn on a stick slathered with mayonnaise and chili powder . . . you know, the usual. I’d gone over earlier in the afternoon to check it all out, see what was happening.

What was happening was me checking it out: a half dozen bored policemen; the grade school band practicing under a stretched tarp to one side of the Municipalidad (two trumpets, two drums, two clarinets, five tubas); and six or seven dogs of indeterminate parentage asleep in the sun. It was hot. The odd passing car weaved around the sleeping dogs. Dogs rule the streets in rural Mexico: people will put one wheel up on the sidewalk to maneuver around them, and nobody ever honks. It’s bad form.

 At dusk the rockets start going boom boom BOOM. The small ‘b’ booms are for everyday saints and middle-class birthday parties. The big ‘B’ booms are for rich folks and important occasions. Baby Jesus, you will recall, likes Big BOOMS. So does the Virgin of Juquila. And so, evidently, does the Apostle Pablo. Linda, not so much.

At 8:00, the poster said, there was going to be a calenda, the word Mexicans use for what everywhere else is called a procesión. An honor guard of mayordomos, preceded and followed by rocket-launching acolytes, carries the statue of the titular saint or Virgin. Behind the march the beatas, the women of the village who are known for their religious consistency and are generally recognizable by their place in the parade, the rosaries in their hands, and their dress – either serious with a preference for dark colors, of their finest native-style huipiles. These women wouldn’t wear a huipil around the house, or to market, or on the street in the city, but—as with Pioneer Days in some parts of the US—holiday means wear the stuff your great grandmother did. The calenda was scheduled to leave the church at 8 and wind up the ridges and across the arroyos until they had covered all of San Pablo. San Pablo, you’ll recall, occupies three long ridges that come down off the mountains, separated by arroyos that are still pretty much used for raising corn and beans. One paved road on each of the ridges; roads across the arroyos mostly dirt.

At 8:00 the rocket intensity picks up. By 8:30 we cand hear the band. For the next two hours, from our house, we follow the progress of the marchers by the thump thump of the tubas and the whooooosh boom BOOM of the rockets. Also by the little ribbon of light working its way here and there across the landscape. About 10:30 the thumping and booming intensifies as the calenda turns at Cuatro Caminos, by Doña Concha’s little store—still open: marchers could be customers. Then minutes later it makes its slow way down our street and I lean over the wall to take a few pictures of the statue, the mayordomos, the beatas, the giants (what is a parade without giants?!), and the straggly line of marchers trailing for the next hundred meters or so.



The next two days were programmed for big events. Mass and calenda, of course. Dancing at the Municipalidad for the grownups. Carnival rides for the kids. That stuff is ordinary; happens at every fiesta. But for San Pablo Days there were special events, too.


A greased pole climb. A prize at the top. In some unfathomably determined order, men try their luck, fail, and then go home to wash. The trick is that three guys have to work together: A on B’s shoulders, C on A’s, then split the prize. Every year, I’m told: same problem, same failures, same solution. Sorry to say that a compelling prior commitment and incipient sniffles kept Linda and me from the pole climb.

By morning we had long since passed incipient, and were now deep in the bosom of contagious, energy-sapping colds. So we missed the rest of the big time events. But we got lots of reports from friends.

The rodeo in the circle of the temporary bleachers behind the Mercadito where we have Sunday lunch was a success, and lots of the local teenage boys and some late-maturing middle-aged macho men got to sit—briefly—on the backs of some bucking bulls. 

The cock fight was a success, with many small sums changing hands. Although this is a presumption, not a report: none of the people I talked with would admit to having gone to see it.

The jalada de pollosthe chicken-snatching event— started late, but seems to have been a crowd pleaser. Our friend Tom was going to ride in it and try his hand at snatching a chicken, but the neighbor who had promised to lend him a horse didn’t show up. Tom said that he had gone early to find a prime spot for witnessing the 4:00 parade of horsemen, but the street was deserted though he waited until 5:30 no horses had shown up. Of course as soon as he started home he heard the clop-clop of hooves behind him. About twenty-five men showed up, some on work horses, some on weekend go-for-a-ride horses. They paraded down to the rodeo circle, across the center of which a rope had been stretched. From it—at a height where you would have to stand up in the saddle to grab it, if you had a saddle—were hung several plastic bags, some with little toys in them and some with vouchers for prizes like a frying pan or a six pack of beer. Some farmer had brought in a dozen live chickens, and these were tied to the line as well. Another farmer unloaded a crate of rabbits: ditto. Then, when all was ready and the bleachers were full, two and a half hours after the announced starting time, riders cantered by two by two and strained upwards to snatch a bag or a rabbit or a chicken. Whatever. Tom said that since most of the riders were not adept enough to ride one handed, and since no one could reach the prizes with their teeth, it took a while to empty the line. But a good time was had by all.

With the chickens and rabbits all snatched, the bleachers emptied and the carnival rides cranked up as the dancing began. We enjoyed the dance vicariously, far into the night. Sound travels a long way in this dry mountain air. Especially tubas.

Can’t wait for next year.

David & Linda