By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It was a sublime slice of time, made of a machine gun, a new dawn, and two shots of Cuervo gold.
It happened on the First. You know the mantra: Day. Month. Year. Century. Millennium. It was early in the morning, still dark, and I was standing on the sea-sprayed cliffs at the far southern tip of Isla Mujeres, a tiny island in the Caribbean, about eight miles off the coast of Mexico.
The big flip of the calendar page was six hours in the past, having been cheered by a thousand voices in the cobblestone town square of the pre-Columbian fishing village on the island's northern edge. The countdown had been led by the island's harbor master, whose voice rose first in the Spanish, then English. The harbor master had stood on a stage decorated with Mayan symbols, across the square from a Catholic church which had overflown a week earlier during Christmas Eve Mass.
To one side of the square was a Nativity scene large and lit-up enough to rival any on the Mormon Temple grounds in Salt Lake City, though I have seen no such displays erected by the Church of the Latter-day Saints in which the wise men were accompanied by a sizable entourage of fishermen, cowboys and chickens.
To the square's other side, next to the church, was the town's basketball court, which had chain nets long rusted by the warm, salty breath of the Caribbean trade winds. A seasonal mural, freshly painted above a seven-tiered set of weathered stone bleachers, depicted falling stars above a log cabin and snow-laden pine trees, somewhere in the Arctic wilderness of the artist's imagination. It also featured a yearning, scripted in Spanish, that peace on Earth somehow become more than perennial rhetoric, sometime in the next 1,000 years.
Which brings me to the machine gun.
It was an M-16, presumably sold by our government to the Mexican government, who put it in the hands of Pablo, who is 19 and a new recruit in the Mexican navy. As such, Pablo had to work on New Year's Eve, providing security for a group of party promoters from Quebec who had paid the state government of Yucatán to rent the ruins of a Mayan temple built circa A.D. 400 to honor the fertility goddess Ixchel. This temple and its statues of women (mujeres) which gave the island its name had stood largely intact on the southern tip of Isla Mujeres until Hurricane Gilbert descended in 1987.
Though the monuments to the Goddess of Mothers have finally bowed down to Mother Nature, the fallen stones and fragmented temple structures retain their power, if only for the auspiciousness of their real estate. The temple to Ixchel was built on an elevated cliff, so worshipers would see the first rays of sun each day, rising above the confluence of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The promoters from Quebec thought the temple ruins would make a bitchin' spot for a private party.
The locals of Isla Mujeres, who have made a New Year's Eve pilgrimage from the village square to the ruins for as long as they've followed the Christian calendar, had other ideas.
Per tradition, after the midnight countdown they had partied in the village square and surrounding streets, and partied hard. (The next morning, the waiter who took my order -- coffee, just coffee -- recognized me from the square, and we traded knowing, commiserating, sickly grins that transcended all language barriers.)
My recollection of the first few hours after midnight remain an appropriate blur of fireworks, funny hats, flower garlands and dancing in the streets. Islanders mingled with other Mexicans who'd come over on the ferry from Cancún, along with the usual smattering of tourists like me.
About three in the morning, a procession -- essentially a massive conga line -- began traveling the five miles from the village to the temple, arriving in waves to find their entrance ostensibly barred by the Quebecker promoters, who, to their credit, had hired bands and erected a massive multimedia screen showing satellite broadcasts of simultaneous parties around the world. However, the promoters were also demanding a 300-peso (about 32 bucks) charge to enter the temple grounds. This did not go over well with the incoming throngs, who began demanding free admittance, drunkenly sneaking around hastily erected barricades and generally creating a delightful havoc.
Perhaps foreseeing this sort of trouble, the promoters had contracted the Mexican navy to supply a squad armed with M-16s to control the crowd and ensure admission payments. Faced with an increasingly large and querulous procession of their countrymen, though, Pablo and his fellow hired guns quickly and wisely assumed a neutral role in the conflict. I watched as well-dressed French-Canadians with money on the line approached the white-uniformed soldiers, angrily gesticulating and demanding action, while the sailors just sort of looked away and shrugged, as if to say, "What do you want us to do, open fire?"
By five in the morning, roughly an hour before sunrise, the promoters had capitulated, and the paying customers were partying with the insurgents amid the ruins. The soldiers mostly just stood around, watchful to prevent the random fool from getting killed.