On a typically pleasant August 14 afternoon in Huamantla, an unassuming town in Tlaxcala, Mexico's smallest state, preparations are already underway for the evening's festivities. Soon the town will be carpeted with over 8 kilometers worth of multi-colored sawdust tapetes (carpets).
It's La noche que nadie duerme (The Night When Nobody Sleeps), the colorful star of the Feria de Huamantla, which is a two-week August extravaganza of culture, comida and color, bringing together bull runs, dances and traditional stuffed chilies.
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Already, no street in Huamantla looks like the last.
One is strung with tiny mirrored discs (that will come into their twinkling, twisting own after dark), while another is topped with fluttering papel picado bunting. Bags of pre-dyed sawdust are being moved into position and giant stencils are in place.
At 6 p.m., a man strolls past, inexplicably, with a pig on a leash. By 9 p.m., the streets are overflowing (with both eager onlookers and errant wood shavings).
"We receive visitors from every corner of the world," Huamantla-born tour guide Maria Celeste Caballero Martínez tells me via email, adding that the celebration is "an incalculably grand show of faith, given that it unites the village with one single aim -- to give thanks to the Virgen de la Caridad."
This thanks is given through the creation of elaborate, fleeting and intensely photogenic wood shaving art that covers most every street in town.
Tapete designs run the gamut from florals to religious imagery, while geometric patterns are also favored. Glitter is practically a given, and when I stopped by, one elderly gentleman seemed to have dedicated himself solely to the liberal sprinkling of sparkle.
Yet while the tapetes look gorgeous from a distance, the real charm lies in seeing them being made by skilled local artisans up close.
"I started to make tapetes as a child, together with my brothers Enrique and César," Oscar Ruiz López, a tapete-maker from Huamantla, tells me. "All the neighbours and families that want to get involved can take part," he adds.
And the preparation for The Night When Nobody Sleeps really is a community affair.
Three months prior to the celebration "every street within the circuit [of the parade] has its neighborhood meetings to collect the money, choose the design and create the tapete for the street," Caballero Martínez notes, a fact reiterated by Ruiz López.
After that, residents start putting together the stencils using thick cardboard, bordered with wood and reinforced with wire.
Meanwhile, the sawdust is dyed with the colors needed for the design. "Water is brought to the boil, aniline or powdered dye is added, along with a little salt, before being poured over the pile of sawdust," Ruiz López explains.
Each design, he tells me, has at least six colors and no tapete will ever be the same as the last. Even the adornments strung across the street are all unique.
Nothing about this labor-intensive preparation is cheap. Just one kilogram of dye costs between MXN $800-1300 (USD $42-68), and you need anywhere from 300-500 kilograms in order to produce roughly 20 bags of colored sawdust.
On the night in question, artisans stencil and sawdust their way around the town then, tap-tap-tapping on tin cans full of the stuff.
They watch as the colorful shavings spill out over every nook and cranny of the intricate pattern immortalized in a cardboard cut-out. Like bakers adding the icing sugar to a cake, the process is rinsed and repeated along the length of the street.
The materials can sometimes vary though. "Nowadays the main base is sawdust, but breadcrumbs, seeds, iron filings and flowers are materials that are also used in our tapetes," Caballero Martínez tells me.
Beyond these borders
In fact, in neighboring Ixtenco, Tlaxcala -- an Otomí community where some claim the tradition originated -- sawdust carpets created every June 23 regularly incorporate flowers and corn.
After all, while Huamantla is certainly Mexico's biggest and best example of sawdust art, it's not a practice unique to the town. It's not even a practice unique to the country.
Guatemala, Nicaragua and Brazil, amongst other countries, partake in the creation of ephemeral sawdust tapetes too, while wider Mexico indulges during the Easter season in particular.
In Huamantla though, "once [the tapetes have] been made, the stay on the streets for around four to six hours so they can be admired by the residents and visitors. Nobody can step on them until the procession starts...that's the way of the ephemeral art: The creation takes a long time, but it only lasts a short while," says Caballero Martínez.
She's right. When the clock strikes 1 a.m., the procession of parishioners, led by the image of the Virgen de la Caridad-- Ruiz López notes that she's known as such in Huamantla, although "her original name is the Virgen de la Asunción"-- heads through the streets of Huamantla, mussing up the carefully crafted tapetes as it goes.
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