As popular as Mexican bottles of Coke among certain purists are Mexican bottle rockets–crown king of fireworks and hailing from Tultepec, about an hour outside of Mexico City. Tultepec, otherwise not known for its look-at-me displays, is the hub of the Mexican pyrotechnics industry, producing more than 80 percent of the country’s fireworks and employing an estimated 80 percent of the town’s population.
Every year for the first week in March the town succumbs to its explosive personality for the National Pyrotechnic Festival. The festival honors San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of the city–also the patron saint of fireworks, firemen, hospitals and alcoholics (a riotous but highly practical group). It includes some seriously dedicated fireworks choreography and contests to build mini castles designed to sizzle up in sparks. The fiesta culminates with a major wattage event: The Running of the Toros. A convoy of 250 bull-shaped wooden frames outfitted with 4,000 fireworks parades down the center of town, as a crowd of feverishly excited onlookers line the streets, edging up as close to the heat as possible without getting burned.
New York-based photographer Thomas Prior ventured south this year to photograph the tradition. At first blush, the explosions in Prior’s photos could be outright deadly, street bombs, or random acts of terror. Look a little more closely and the images show that this is a vibrant celebration, albeit a chaotic one cut from the same wild cloth as Mardi Gras. You have to love not only fireworks but flirting with danger. A few hundred people are injured each year, and there was a death in 2010 (though it was the first reported in decades). Pray to San Juan de Dios.