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Snatching chickens

            In Santa Cruz Etla there is no shortage of reasons for holding a fiesta. Big ones, like Muertos, Independence Day, Candelaria, Carnival, Reyes, Holy Week, Yom Kippur — well, we skipped that one this year — and one or two others that seem to have slipped my mind. Astonishingly, even with all of these fiestas, and the daily celebrations like birthdays, Mothers Day, Grandmothers Day, quinceañeras, weddings, and baptisms, there are always enough fireworks to go around. And as a last resort for people who are unable to sleep through an explosionless dawn, there is always San Santo del Día.


            But Santa Cruz Etla’s pride and joy and annual big blowout are its Fiestas Patronales. Unofficially they start on May 1, international Labor Day. Their official start is May 3, the Day of the Holy Cross (which since it is also Builders’ Day, el Día del albañil, and thus is celebrated at every construction site in Mexico). The fiesta is long-weekended through May 5, which commemorates general Ignacio Zaragoza’s victory over the French occupying army in Puebla in 1862, and then continues for as many extra days as are needed to accommodate all the events. On the fiesta menu are nightly dances, a communal dinner on the covered basketball court, calendas to parade the church’s images, carnival rides and games, visits to the innumerable fast food and pastry stands, a greased pole climb for the macho teenage boys, a greased piglet melee for the 4-to-6-year olds, a donkey race (riders traditionally show up in drag), lots of drinking of beer and locally made mescal, and more rosaries and masses than you could light a candle to. But for testosterone-fired ritual silliness nothing, absolutely nothing, tops the Bajada de Pollos, aka the Jalada de Pollos.


Pollos are chickens. Bajada means to bring them down. Jalada means to grab them. The event is, quite literally, “The Snatching of the Chickens.”


The ritual takes place on the flattish stretch of land next to the three giant eucalyptus trees on the Calle Pípila loma, the ridge just behind us that slopes gradually toward the west. The loma offers a view west to the Etla Valley, north to rolling pasturelands and the rounded hill of La corona, and east to the pine- and oak-covered mountains. The loma to the south is dominated by Santa Cruz’s giant laurel tree, hidden behind which is Qalba’s and my house.


The Bajada was advertised to begin at 4:00, but, this being Mexico, I don’t head up until 4:30.  Once at the site I begin to interact with the crowd of two people who had already gathered. One is belaboring the obvious by chalking white directional arrows on the now blockaded Calle Pípila. The other is setting up the metal stand that launches the skyrockets.

The road has already been flanked with cut-paper pennants, and a green tarp has been strung between two of the eucalyptus trees to provide a shaded area for the band and spectators. In front of the tarp a rope has been stretched across the road, tied to a pole at one end, run through a pulley at the other. I sit down on a stone, rest my back against the middle eucalyptus, and watch people emerge by ones and twos from their trudge up the hill to the Pípila ridge. 


Families: moms with a parasol in one hand, a baby cradled in the other arm, a tyke or two trailing behind, dads with a six-pack. A lady selling tyke-sized plastic soccer and beach balls. Teenage girls in a pack, heavily made up, navels exposed, giggling and eyeing young men, some who arrive on pickup trucks, some on horseback. There are several horses now. These aren’t plow horses, these are for sport. And the people who have brought them, with maybe one exception, don’t look like farmers. In the way they dress, the way they carry themselves, and in some cases the color of their skin, they look like people who can afford to coddle these animals. They ride like they were born to the saddle. One distinguished horseman sports a broad charro hat; several others, including a couple of young women, are barely out of their teens. They congregate down by the lowest eucalyptus, or strut their horses with brief, dust-raising canters along the road.


Some mototaxis, designed to carry three passengers, or maybe five if three of them are kids, disgorge families of eight or ten. More pickup trucks, one carrying a couple of wooden benches, another with a load of folding chairs, to rent at 10 pesos per.

The band walks in, a dozen teenage boys in identical PSP teeshirts (“La Pura San Pablo”): four trumpets, three clarinets, two trombones, two tubas, one small and one enormous, two drummers, and a young man whose arms seem to end at the elbows, probably from birth, wearing a headset. Turns out he is the announcer and lead (aka only) singer. The band strikes up a set of corridos, the plaintive, often risque, north-Mexican topical ballads, trumpets blaring, drums marking the rhythm, tubas umpah-ing on the off-beat the way corridos do, and they make enough sound that no one seems to notice the lack of the corrido-band’s traditional mainstay accordion. The singer’s voice is clear as a bell, and his pacing and overall delivery are the quality of a future star.


By now there are maybe 100 people, with more trickling in as time passes. The first dozen skyrockets have been shot off. Empty cans have begun to accumulate.

One young lady peddles lottery tickets to support the . . . I never do catch precisely what, at 10 pesos per. Two others circulate with pitchers of tepache, a strong-flavored brown cold drink made from fermented peel and rind of pineapple, piloncillo (a kind of rough brown sugar), and cinnamon, with an alcohol content so low that it is fit for babies and liver transplants like me. I greet a dozen friends –I seem to be the only gringo in attendance- and politely turn down a swig from their unmarked plastic bottles of mescal since two swallows of that would indeed void the lifetime warranty on my replacement part. The three men over by the central eucalyptus, obviously in charge of the event, fuss with the stack of prizes that the riders will compete for. In a wire mesh cage a dozen trussed-up white hens and one brown rooster lie quietly waiting.


They don’t know what is coming.


The band completes its second set, and the announcer introduces the distinguished authority figure —a woman whose name, provenance, and title I do not manage to hear. She extends the ritual welcome on behalf of the Santa Cruz town council, the organizing committee, the town councils of San Pablo and its other dependencies (San Sebastián Etla, Hacienda Blanca, Pueblo Nuevo). Polite applause. One of the incharge-ikehs lowers the rope through the pulley and the other two tie some prizes to the rope: a blue plastic colander, a can of Victoria beer, a red plastic bucket, and a brown rooster, from a string around his trussed feet looped over the rope. The men pull the rope taught. A sudden barrage of firecrackers wakes up half the sleeping babies.


The 15 contestants line up on their horses, and one by one they gallop up the road. As they reach the rope they stand in their stirrups and strain to yank one of the prizes off of the rope. Of course the incharge-ikehs are bouncing the rope up and down to make the task harder. When enough riders have failed to score, the rope controllers slow the bounce and gradually lower the line. Spectators cheer as the red bucket goes to a teenage horseman, and again as a young rider yanks the blue colander free. It seems to be protocol that the youngest riders avoid attempting the can of beer, so instead they make futile lunges at the rooster. Dust rises from the horses’ feet. Then the beer can goes to an older rider on a beautiful brown horse with white feet. And shortly after that, with a cheer that drowns out the accompanying squawk, the rooster is successfully yanked loose.


The incharge-ikeh’s reload the rope. The riders strain for the next round of plastic kitchenware. If they are successful, they toss the prize to one of their support staff (family members, presumably), and circle around to try for another. When this set are taken, the rope is reloaded. And again. And again. Every third or fourth round one of the white hens goes up on the line. And the riders circle again. Some of them don’t even reach for the prizes: it’s enough to be galloping up a road in the company of friends on a warm May afternoon.


Some of the spectators pay attention, but this is really a family affair. The horses and the chickens and the plastic utensils and the music are not really the main event. Young kids run around. Teenagers make eyes across gender lines. Babies get suckled or rocked to sleep. Old men sit in semicircles on their folding chairs (with two old men in their wheelchairs) and gossip. Dads buy treats for their kids, or their elders. Moms snap selfies. An hour goes by. The gringo takes a few pictures. The wind has come up and blows away the clouds that were keeping the temperature down. The pile of prizes is half depleted. Ditto the supply of skyrockets. The tepache girls circle with their pitchers. New people trickle in, while others trickle away, some with chickens under their arms, whether destined for the family chicken yards or the soup pots, who is to say.  


The riders are still riding, but the gringo goes home to feed Qalba some kibble and make himself dinner. String beans, a fresh garden salad, roasted new potatoes and chicken thighs. My chicken, however, was bought at the market, already cleaned and quartered. Whether it spent the previous afternoon trussed and hanging over a dusty road somewhere, who is to say.