SAINT JOHN’S MADNESS
In a village like Ajoya, where there is little entertainment other than the self-provided, people are always on the lookout for an excuse to celebrate. For instance, everyone effectively has two birthdays each year. One is his cumpleaños, the anniversary of the day he was born. The other is his día del santo, the day of the saint whose name he bears. Thus, on the 19th of March, “El Día de San José”, everyone named José is celebrated. On the 9th of September, “El Día de San Gregorio”, all the Goyos are celebrated. Thus, for nearly every day in the year. Each village also has its own patron saint. San Jerónimo is the patron saint of Ajoya–the full name of the village being “San Jerónimo de Ajoya”–and when September 30th rolls around people come to share in the festivities from as far away as Caballo and Verano, in spite of the river which is frequently still flooded at that time. In Campanillas the big fiesta is on August 4th, the day of Santo Domingo, who is patron saint of that village. In addition to these saint’s days for individuals and villages there is an array of national holidays to be observed, such as “El Cinco del Mayo”, celebrating the Battle of Pueblo; the 10th of September, which is Independence Day; and the 12th of October, commemorating the discovery of América. Apart from Christmas, Easter, and the other standard religious occasions, there are of course the days of the more notable saints, which everyone in all villages celebrates. No sooner had the villagers finished feasting “El Día de San Juan Bautista”, June 24th, than they were again feasting “El Día de San Pedro”, June 29th, and I was invited to a chicken dinner in the casa of Pedro Celís. And so on, ad infinitum.
There is an element of jovial madness in all the days of fiesta, but Saint John’s Day on June 24th is the maddest of all. It is the Day of Baptism in every sense, for, in the minds of the villagers of Ajoya, it is the day that demarcates the commencement of las aguas. In Verano the rains begin somewhat before the 24th of June, in San Ignacio somewhat later, but whatever villager you ask in Ajoya will reply that “Las aguas empiezan el día 24 de Junio.” This is the day when the owners of the mules turn them over to the campesinos for use in plowing during the rainy season. This is the day when every spirited soul in the village—devout or not, and most are not—rises before dawn to plunge, clothes and all, into the river. This is the day of parading and of horse racing in the dirt streets. But most of all, it is the day that demarcates the new season of water and of growth, of the plowing and planting, of the sowing of the coming year’s food. The weather on this day is an omen for the season. All day people watch the sky saying, “¡Ojalá que llueva bién!” (Oh, that it rains well!) In short, the day of baptism has taken the form, as much as anything, of a ritual to the rain-gods.
This year, long before dawn–it must have been about 3:00 A.M.—there were the sounds of explosions in the streets., People were setting off firecrackers and skyrockets. A few minutes later the big drum of los músicos began to beat, first slowly, then in crescendo, until it was rolling like thunder. The sky was lightly overcast, dimming the stars, and the cagüite—fine mist-like drizzle preceding las aguas put a chill in the air. After several emphatic thunder-rolls of the drum, the “Banda de Ajoya” began to play. From the central plazuela its players slowly made their rounds through the streets, blaring forth in a wild, Latin beat. Doors opened as they passed and sleepy tenants, mostly children, stumbled out and followed. As they gradually woke up they began to shout and frolic, calling out others to join. The stream of villagers behind the musicians grew and grew, and with it the pandemonium. At last “La Banda”, like the Pied Piper, left the village and made its way toward the water. The people swarmed after. When the musicians reached the dark river, flooded by rains higher in the mountains, they stepped aside, still playing furiously, and the villagers plunged like lemmings into the churning water, landing on top of each other, striking heads, smashing into hidden rocks, shouting and dragging themselves out, only to be knocked in again by those to follow, laughing, shrieking! Never short of the Ganges itself was there as insane a “baptism” as this.
As dawn crept in slow and red from the east, I commented to little Goyo—who had spent the night in Ajoya so as not to miss the festivities, and was now standing at my side—that I marveled how apparently no one had been injured or drowned. Goyo replied that some years there had been serious injuries. He added that, “Ahora cuando zamputió un chamaco, le quebró un diente contra una piedra.” (Today when a boy dove in he broke a tooth on a rock.) It was not until later that afternoon, when Goyo suddenly burst into a grin, that I realized that the chamaco he had referred to was himself; he had cracked off the end of one of his canines in the morning’s mad plunge! I was far more upset about it than he.
There was a lull of events during the morning. The haze cleared and the sun rose, sweltering hot. Every female in town from tiny tot to tottering viejita was busy bathing and primping and dressing in her best. María put three clean costumes on little Bene, who promptly piddled on each one of them. “La Banda de Ajoya” continued to mosey through the streets blasting forth, and now there were other groups of guitarists and singers as well. Men folk with enough money to afford to drink—and many without enough to—were beginning to get drunk. But still it had not rained.
Shortly before noon there was a crash of thunder over the mountains upriver, and everyone gave a whoop and cried, “¡Va a llover!” (It’s going to rain!) The clouds built up with surprising rapidity and drifted, black and billowing, toward Ajoya. Slowly, like the eyelid of a big owl, the cloud-front closed off the sun and the sky. The thunder and lightning grew closer, louder, and more frequent. Around one o’clock the storm broke like a dam! Water poured from the sky flooding the street. Children danced in it.
La Aguas had begun! And on the day they were supposed to! Before then there had been a few brief showers, but nothing, nothing like this. Although the storm did not reach even as far as San Ignacio, from Ajoya to Carrisál the road was obliterated within hours. When the rain started Antonio Manjarréz was in Ajoya with his four-wheel drive truck, and he tried to make a run for it. But where the road passes the arroyo the rain had already washed it out so badly, unburying boulders up to three feet, that Antonio had to spend several hours hacking a new trail up through the village and cross-country back to the road again.
The heaviest downpour lasted only about an hour and a half, then shifted to a shower which varied in intensity as the cloud mass rained overhead. The people in their fine clothes, impatient for the rains to stop, began to appear in the streets regardless, on horse-back, on mule-back, on burro-back, and those who had no mount, on foot. They went this way and that, the rain pouring down on them, then slowly began to amalgamate into a group. The musicos fell in ahead, and the wet but happy parade began. At times a child atop a burro or riding horseback would challenge one or two others to a race. The competitors would line up at the far end of town. Someone would give the word, and they would splash neck and neck down the muddy street.
The Casa Chavarín is the last house on the lower side of the main street. At a right angle with it and blocking the end of the street is the house of Carlos, the barber and butcher. As I was standing in the Chavarín house watching events, two valiant horse racers, both drunk, came galloping down the street in our direction. They had started at a given point but had neglected to establish a finish line, and here they came, lickety-split. Women screamed and children jumped out of the way. One of the horsemen had a slight lead on the other. They dashed past the Chavarin house and straight at the house of Carlos gained speed. Just as the lead horse was entering the portál full-speed, the drunken rider noticed the overhang and ducked sideways just in time to avoid decapitation. As the horse suddenly braked, he went flying through the air and landed with a hard thump six feet ahead of the bewildered beast. I held my breath, expecting another tough medical repair job, but the inebriated jinete staggered to his feet, and loading his bruised horse back out of the portál, he looked up at the other contestant who at the last moment had succeeded in drawing a crowd and cried drunkenly, “¡Le gané!” (I won!)