Meeting Margarita

No, it’s not that kind of margarita. Get your mind off alcohol. This post is about a girl we saw during Las Fallas, an amazing annual festival in Spain’s third largest city, Valencia. In my mind, the girl is named Margarita. You’ll see why in a bit.

You probably haven’t heard of Las Fallas; we certainly hadn’t. I’m not sure how old it is. Records of it go back about 250 years, but the festival is probably more ancient than that. Reportedly its origins lie in spring cleaning combined with a kind of fiery voodoo. After a long ago cold winter indoors, the hut needed refurbishing and rubbish needed burning. You also may have had neighbors who’d gotten on your last nerve during that period of enforced closeness, and if an effigy of said neighbor happened to make its way into the rubbish fire, so be it. This all has evolved into a festival that draws thousands to Valencia every March. It’s Mardi Gras with more smoke and fewer boobs. As we were being swept along with a crowd, I told Mark that this experience reminded me of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. A fellow next to us laughed and said that this was better, because the weather is warmer and the beer only costs a Euro.

Part of Las Fallas is about fireworks. One giant display occurs at 14:00 (2PM to us Americans). Why shoot off fireworks in the middle of the day? The answer is that it’s all about the sound. The fireworks are launched in a city square, and the sound echoes off the buildings. You can feel the blasts in the sidewalk where you’re packed in with thousands of your new best friends, and at the big finale you actually feel the percussion in your chest cavity. The other giant display occurs at 1AM near the Alameda, a long park that follows the course of a dry riverbed. Those fireworks certainly boom, but the light display is what overwhelms here. It’s so bright at points that you think you may damage your eyes by looking at it, but the spectacle is so compelling that you can’t look away. On a much more human level, kids carry around wooden boxes of mischief and happily snap firecrackers on the pavement. Bigger kids carry around cherry bombs and bottle rockets and have been known to toss them at the feet of unsuspecting tourists. Las Fallas is not a festival for the nervous.

Another significant part of Las Fallas is the creation of a large statue of Our Lady of the Foresaken, which I take it is an iteration of the Virgin. The statue, which is located next to the cathedral, is made of slats on a frame. Local groups of men, women, and children dressed in traditional 18th century garb – think poofy silk patterned skirts and lace overskirts and mantillas for the females, for example – parade through the streets with the group’s banner at the front and a band at the back. The parades undoubtedly conjure up Spain’s past, but modernity makes itself known as well. Several lovely señoritas took selfies during the proceedings, and one band played ABBA tunes all the way to the cathedral. (And watching one señora trying to sit down on the Metro train afterwards in her hoop skirt was a trip; she ended up occupying three seats across, and everyone in the aisle gave her a wide berth.) In any event, in the parade the women carry flowers, which they deposit next to the statue and which workers who perch on the slats slip in to form luscious clothing for Our Lady.

The most important part of the festival, though, is the fallas themselves. A falla is a statue or scene constructed of light wood and shaped and painted into incredible art that satirizes politics, the medical system, attitudes about sex, the prevalence of graffiti on Spanish buildings and monuments, the national obsession with fútbol, and probably a whole lot besides that sailed right over our heads. All 750 of the fallas are erected in the streets over one night, and they basically are around almost every corner you turn. That must make driving lots of fun, but such is life.

On the last night of Las Fallas, every falla is stuffed with accelerants and burned at regulated intervals: children’s fallas first, then adult fallas, and at 1AM, the biggest falla, the one that occupies the square in front of City Hall. As you can imagine, lots of drinking and eating of buñuelos (fried bread covered in sugar) and general frivolity are involved. It rained like crazy on us for the pictured burning, the 1AM finale, but fortunately as soon as the skies opened the ever-present vendors switched seamlessly from peddling drinks to hawking umbrellas. Despite the deluge, the falla burned right on schedule, and we could feel the heat on our faces as it did.

So where does my Margarita come into all this? It struck me at some point that Las Fallas is a festival of the ephemeral. The music, the flowers, the parades, the fireworks, the fallas themselves – all are intentionally fleeting. Las Fallas has a not so subtle, subversive message: build, but don’t expect your work to last; appreciate, but don’t get attached. The cycles will last – winter will become spring, the parades will return, the fallas will be built – but the objects in these cycles are impermanent. Celebration and destruction frolic together through the streets of Valencia.

And my Margarita knew that the night of the burning of the fallas. The falla in question was in our neighborhood, and the destruction apparently was truly a local event. Onlookers were greeting each other by name, and one woman showed up in her polka dotted bathrobe and pink bedroom slippers. I guess that the falla had been built by a group that had set up tables and chairs and a truly scrumptious-looking spread. The group’s members, who all were wearing matching red fleeces with their names on them, were laughing and drinking and having a grand time. When the time came to burn the falla, though, one girl, maybe about nine years old, appeared in the formal, traditional dress we’d seen in the parades. She was given a switch that was attached to the fuse leading to the falla. She looked at the switch and began to cry. Burying her face in her mother’s dress, she refused to turn around and start the fire. We could see her mother comforting her, no doubt crooning the sorts of words all mothers use: it’s okay, you knew this was going to happen, there will be another falla next year. But the girl sobbed on, apparently suddenly and wrenchingly aware that this moment was passing and would never come again. Next year there would indeed be another falla, but it would be different, her mother would be different, she would be different.

As the little assembly waited patiently for the girl to settle to her inevitable duty, I was reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s masterpiece, “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.” Many poets tackle the subject of the fleeting nature of life – think of Shelley’s  Ozymandias and the lone and level sands stretching far away – but Hopkins says it best for me. Do you remember his lines?

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Here, then, was my Margarita, mourning mortality on a street corner somewhere on a Valencian night.

The girl did, of course, as we all do, come to at least temporary terms with her life and her task. After grizzling in her mother’s clothes one last time, she held up the switch and pushed the button. Fire sparked up the fuse, igniting the falla and drawing claps and cheers from the crowd. But despite those outward signs of delight, I wonder if all of us were a bit sobered by what we’d seen. We watched the quick immolation and turned back to our parties or our homes, a little sadder and a little wiser than we’d been. It was, in fact, Margarita that we mourned for.







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