Mortal Combat: El Salvador's Fireball Street Fight

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  • Image: Rodolfo Villeda

    It looks like a war zone or at least a riot in full swing. Fireballs tear through the streets painting the night air orange as young men, their faces emblazoned with fearsome patterns, prowl the streets waging in pitched battles against one another.

  • Image: Mario Pleitez

    Scorched earth policy: Blazing trails as proceedings get fiery.

    The incendiary missiles explode on impact – sometimes in the faces of their targets. Pyromaniacs take note. If you love fire – and fireworks or trick or treat are too tame for your taste buds – you’ll be blown away by the Bolas de Fuego festival in El Salvador.

  • Image: Rodolfo

    Scorched earth policy: Blazing trails as proceedings get fiery.

    Every August 31, the El Salvadorian town of Nejapa is set alight by Bolas de Fuego, meaning balls of fire – though some might consider balls of steel equally essential for taking part.

  • Image: Mario Pleitez

    Goodness gracious: Pitched battles watched by onlookers.

    In the kind of event that would’ve been banned or smothered by health and safety regulations long ago in a lot of countries, men in opposing teams fling burning fuel-soaked rags at each other. Yet in this part of Central America, the chaos is semi-organised – and part of a tradition stretching back many years.

  • Image: Mario Pleitez

    Some say the historic spark for Bolas de Fuego came in 1685 when the nearby volcano El Playon erupted, forcing the people of the old village of Nixapa to flee and re-establish their homes at Nejapa’s present location. During the eruption, bombs of lava and fire flew through the air, which gave rise to the commemorative ritual. Or so the story goes.

  • Image: Rodolfo Villeda

    Stand-off: Like the antithesis of a snowball fight.

    According to other versions of how the tradition started, the combustive custom marks a more recent violent volcanic eruption and forced evacuation of 1917 or 1922.

  • Image: Mario Pleitez

    Stand-off: Like the antithesis of a snowball fight.

    Further complicating matters, religion is bound up with Bolas de Fuego in the saintly form of San Jerónimo. By one account, the celebration recalls the legend of Jerónimo fighting the Devil with balls of fire. Another story ties the devout figure in with the 1685 eruption, when the fleeing villagers took the image of their patron saint and named a new church in his honour – but as punishment left the image facing the wall because he had not protected them from the volcano’s destructive force.

  • Image: Rodolfo Villeda

    Pause before a flare-up: Revellers take a breather.

    Whatever Bolas de Fuego’s exact origins, today the festival blazes on brightly. Shrieks fill the air in Nejapa, but the emotion they express is less pain or terror than frenzied excitement. Despite safety concerns – and the ferocity of some of the point-blank shots to face – serious injuries are reportedly rare. Presumably this is helped by the participants’ habit of soaking their jeans and gloves in water.

  • Image: Rodolfo Villeda

    Great balls of fire: Burning rag bundles fall.

    One spectator watching kids lighting a melon-sized bundle of rags compared proceedings to the tradition of young hooligans throwing eggs at cars on Halloween. Fireballs may not be so forgiving, but in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, Bolas de Fuego is probably the least of its worries.

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Karl Fabricius
Karl Fabricius
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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