Traditional twist

Jan 26, 2000 at 12:00 am

Under the soothing late-January sun, 60,000 residents in the long, lean section of the west-central Mexican state of Jalisco will carry out a centuries-old tradition with a twist that dates back nearly a decade: They will celebrate the patron saints of their towns. And they will celebrate Detroit.

After nearly 10 days of drinking jarritos (tequila, Squirt, limes and oranges all served in a little clay jar), looking for love in la plaza, dancing banda (basically, Mexican polka) all night in the narrow cobblestone streets, maybe gambling at the local cock fights, and then, of course, going to church the next morning no matter how hungover, the residents of three adjoining towns will end las fiestas de patronales with a homage to the Motor City.

They’ll parade: Last year, a flower-laden float crowned with the word "Detroit," its letters the colors of the Mexican flag, began a procession through San Ignacio Cerro Gordo (translation: St. Ignatius Fat Hill), one of the towns. The crowd lining the streets and in the plaza cheered as if greeting heroes.

They’ll pray: In the pristine church, which recently underwent major renovation, they will thank God for the opportunities they and their relatives have been given in Detroit.

They’ll party: In nearby Arandas, one of the daily parades honors ranchers. The town is overrun by livestock and vaqueros (cowboys) in traditional garb. At night, a bullfight and rodeo take place, and almost every night there are cockfights. Last year, one of the reigning cocks was called "Detroit Red."

This year, thousands will also gather at the edge of San Ignacio Cerro Gordo under pink Romanesque arches, which were partly funded by United States dollars earned by natives of the town who are now working mainly in Detroit. Those workers are the relatives of an estimated one-third of the families here and in nearby Jesus Maria. In Arandas, the Detroit link is not as strong, but still evident.

These small towns’ economies have been boosted by their Detroit connections over the past 10 years. The connection makes las fiestas de patronales a fascinating look at the global village. Maybe nowhere else on the planet does a traditional celebration have such a Detroit angle. It’s also one hell of a party.

The basic themes of las fiestas are tequila, lust, Catholicism, dancing, eating and hanging out. There is a daily parade and usually a wedding. When the church bell rings, signaling the final Mass of the day, roving groups of banda musicians begin to play, the dancing on the street starts, the plaza gets jam-packed and the fun doesn’t end until the wee hours. The entire town participates.

A word of warning to anyone who doesn’t drink or eat meat and poultry, as well as maybe animal rights activists and anyone with major problems with Catholicism: Don’t come here. The state of Jalisco is the proud birthplace of tequila and mariachi music, and propagator of the macho image of cowboys and ranchers.

Not that the atmosphere is rowdy or oppressive. Most of it is sweet and romantic, softened by the vibrant colors of the homes and the marketplace, the warm sun, the Spanish colonial influence and the quaint cafés. Street musicians always seem to be playing. At night, the air can get chilly, so bring warm clothes. These towns aren’t tourist destinations, which means learn at least a few Spanish phrases.

Las fiestas is a family and friends kind of thing, so having a Detroit connection helps. For example, a British friend of mine living in Washington visited Arandas this year. Mentioning she knows a Chicano from the Detroit barrio (that’d be me) helped break the ice, and she was eventually invited to family ranches and even a wedding.

Arandas celebrates las fiestas Jan. 4 through Jan. 13, and is the town with the most action. It’s also where the first-class bus (about $30 round trip) from Guadalajara, the nearest international airport, leaves you. Arandas has exactly three hotels, including the first-class Hotel Cazadores, one money exchange place and an Internet cafe. The town also brings in great mariachi groups and other Mexican music for concerts.

Jesus Maria and San Ignacio Cerro Gordo celebrate from Jan. 24 to Feb. 1. Each town has about 12,000 residents and only San Ignacio has a hotel, which is spartan but clean. The advantage of attending these fiestas is that these towns have a much stronger Detroit link.

Day trips to nearby Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, and the charming colonial town of Guanajuato (birthplace of Diego Rivera) are possible. Tequila plants are nearby but tours are sporadic.

Other than that, be prepared to lounge in cafés and wait for the all-night party. If only the real Detroit could be as much fun in January.