Paco was yelling at me, but the gunshots were so deafening I couldn’t hear a word. He finally managed to push through the crowd and cupped his hands around my ear. “No matter what, Miguel, keep your mouth open. There’s less risk of damage to your eardrums.”
Muslims had been well-established in Spain for more than five hundred years when King Jaime I of Aragón wrested control of Valencia from them and founded the Kingdom of Valencia in 1238. Every year in early October, the city celebrates the Christian victory over the infidels with a week-long fiesta of parades, art exhibitions, lectures, concerts and poetry recitals, that is to say, anything that celebrates Valencian culture, especially if it involves fire and gunpowder.
In one of several parades, hundreds of men and women, lavishly dressed as medieval Moors or Christians, march through the city firing trabucos, (or blunderbusses.) Each marcher carries a pouch of black powder. The ritual is simple: You pour a few pinches of powder into the muzzle of the weapon and when you pull the trigger, flint striking steel creates a spark and a deafening blast in a cloud of gunpowder. Multiply these gunshots by the number of marchers and a two-hour long parade and you have a cacophony of explosions that can be heard from several blocks away.
“Do you think a parade like this would be acceptable in California?” Paco yelled. “It’s not only impossible,” I shouted back. “It’s inconceivable.” And that was before I experienced a Mascletà.
The elaborate building with the towers is city hall. Red, yellow and blue flags of Valencia decorate the balcony on which sit the mayor, the city council and other dignitaries, all with a perfect view of the Plaza across the street.
La Plaza del Ayuntamiento (the Plaza of the City Council) is directly opposite City Hall. Normally it is home to a dozen kiosks of flower-sellers. At the moment of this photo, however, it is loaded with explosives. (Current regulations forbid using more than 120 kilos, roughly 264 pounds, of black powder for a mascletà.) Police guards are stationed around the plaza to keep people away, but this does not mean they are necessarily out of danger.
(When I began publishing blog posts two years ago, I decided not to use photographs because I prefer drawings and paintings. Forgive me for breaking my own pact, but in this case, photographs are necessary because without them you wouldn’t believe a mascletà.)
The plaza erupts at 2:00 p.m. and the spectacle lasts between 5 and 8 minutes. Fireworks in the United States usually conclude with a series of loud explosions, but that is where mascletàs begin, making American fireworks seem tepid in comparison.
The orchestration of colors and sounds depends on timing, and the syncopation of explosions is dazzling, not only in variations of volume, but in the rhythms of the blasts. Years ago the thunderous uproar of some mascletàs was so fierce that the alarms of the banks on streets adjacent to the plaza were set off. These, I was told, prompted regulation of the amount of gunpowder that could be used. A mascletà is designed to cause your inner organs to throb in tempo with the flow of explosions. The other major factor is the smell, (some Valencianos use the word, fragrance,) of gunpowder.
The celebration concludes with spasms of ear-shattering blasts and clouds of gunpowder that nearly blot out the sun. If you’re curious and you’d like to see and hear a video version of the festivities, just cut and paste this link into your browser: http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/fallas/mascleta-19-03-19/5074811/
However, before I answer the question of what all this has to do with the Virgin Mary, I should explain that the video shows images of a mascletà from the festival of Las Fallas of 2019. To understand it, you first have to imagine not just one, but nineteen mascletàs, that is, one every afternoon from the 1st of March to the 19th. Las Fallas, (or torches) have been a fixture of Valencian life for well over a century. They are huge sculptures, sometimes erotic, often satirical, that are constructed out of wood and paper maché and stuffed with fireworks, like the female figure you’ll see at the beginning of the video. She and three or four hundred sculptures like her are turned into ashes, burned right down to the ground, on the night of March 19th, the feast day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.
Patron saints, especially for cities, abound in Spanish culture. For obvious reasons, the most common is the Virgin Mary. In Valencia she’s Nuestra Señora de Los Desamparados, Our Lady of the Forsaken. The lovely statue of her in her basilica shows her not standing upright, but tilted slightly forward and looking down, as if gazing on the less fortunate, the poor, the sick and the destitute. She reminds us that her role is to give hope to the Abandoned Ones. Standing in a crowd of thousands at the mascletà, I thought of her often and decided that I was going to invent another Virgin.
Here we were: Moors, Christians, and Jews, packed equally together with heretics, tourists, atheists, blasphemers, travelers, natives and foreigners without the slightest regard as to gender, skin color, beliefs, sexual orientations, age, social status, languages, nationalities or politics. We did not have to be forsaken or abandoned to merit the attention of the new Virgin. Her storm of explosions enveloped all of us, rich and poor alike, as clouds of gunpowder and the debris of the rockets sifted down on us like snow flakes, covering our shoulders and heads with the white benediction of Nuestra Señora de La Pólvora, Our Lady of Gunpowder.