This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico. Leer en Español.
Guadalupe says that swallowing fire and drinking diesel has led to morning coughing fits that leave him sounding like “an old truck.” He also spits black phlegm that emits white smoke when it hits the floor.
He was born in the Yaqui Valley in the northwestern state of Sonora, Mexico. Today, he lives in the city of Hermosillo, approximately 186 miles from the Arizona border. At the age of 14, his dream of working as a gardener in the United States was cut short US Border Patrol detained and then deported him.
Following this, the Mexican labor train left him at various stops along the typical working poor route: He had jobs as a garbage collector, sidewalk sweeper, factory worker, juggler, farmhand, windshield cleaner, and shoe polisher. Each position brought him misfortune and helplessness. Until, one afternoon, in the middle of a hot desert where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees, he saw a glimmer of opportunity beneath a red traffic light. He decided to become a fire-eater, a common money-making practice in Mexico's metropolitan areas.
To learn more about what it's like making a living by taming flames inside your own jaws, VICE Mexico approached Guadalupe as he was fueling up at a gas station, and asked him some questions before he started his show.
VICE: Working at a busy traffic intersection is already dangerous, and you, in addition, are working there eating fire. How did you get started doing this?
Guadalupe: My brother worked in a circus and knew how to do it. Sometimes, I’d accompany him at traffic lights, watching how he and other guys from the neighborhood did it. Since I never finished high school and I was always given jobs that paid badly and left me tired, one afternoon I asked my brother to help me out. I lit the torch, I took a sip of diesel, and I spit; I breathed fire in front of the cars. From that day on, I haven’t stopped.
I’ve felt pain when I’ve burned a finger while cooking, so I feel ridiculous even trying to imagine what it would feel like to burn my face. What are the particular pains of your job?
My work is divided into two parts. When I “breathe fire,” that’s when I swallow diesel and then blow onto a lit torch so that it lights up. That’s when I feel like my back is pricked with red-hot needles, and throughout the day, I have heartburn and stomach pains. “Swallowing fire” is different—it’s also done with a lit torch and gasoline, but this involves putting the torch in my mouth and swallowing so that the flame goes out. It’s an illusion, purely physical in nature: If there’s no oxygen, there’s no flame. In this act, what hurts the most is my mouth. The torch is hot, and I burn my lips; I always have marks.
Is it more dangerous to breathe fire than to swallow it?
Yes. When I breathe fire, I drink diesel, but the problem is that no matter how hard I try to keep it in my mouth, some of it always makes it to my stomach. It’s just a little bit, but daily—and over the course of 13 years—imagine what the inside of my stomach must be like. Another danger is that I spit the gasoline, but it can speckle my cheeks and they can catch fire with the pieces of cotton on the torch. I’ve had first and second-degree burns on my face.
Swallowing fire is really more an act of illusion. I put the torch in my mouth, and as it goes in, the fire goes out because it loses oxygen. So doing this, I only burn my nostril hairs and my tongue as I inhale the fire. It could also give me mouth cancer, but that almost never happens.
Diesel and gasoline are really meant to make trains and cars run. What are the typical illnesses that fire-eaters come down with as a result of drinking these fuels?
You get illnesses from time to time. Your mouth and tongue rot. You get bronchitis, infections, and sores in your throat. It can also give you liver, lung, and stomach cancer. That’s why I drink two liters of milk every day. The milk soaks up the gasoline, and it helps.
Do you think you’re going to die of cancer?
I don’t think so. In this job, the ones who die are the ones who smoke ice—methamphetamine—those who inhale solvents and [superglue]. Why? Because they’re doing drugs so much that they need money, and to get money, you have to breathe and swallow fire over and over, day and night. For five years, I was shooting heroin, but I quit a few months ago. Every day, I woke up in the morning and shot up, and then I spent 24 hours a day swallowing and breathing fire. Two guys I taught died of stomach cancer; they were also addicted to heroin.
What precautions do you take so that you’re not run over by cars while you're swallow and breathe fire?
Before I go to work at the lights, I ask God to take care of me and to let happen whatever has to happen. Afterward, if I don’t know the duration of the stoplights where I am, I grab my cellphone so I can see how many seconds it's been on the stopwatch, so I don't fuck up and get run over. The most important thing is to have no fear, because if you do, you’ll burn yourself or a truck will run you over. My brother is the one who taught me that—he died after being run over by a truck that was carrying bricks. I wasn’t with him that day.
Have you seen colleagues burn their face?
I saw a gangster they call Lacra when his face got lit up; half of his face is burned now. He’d gotten involved with the girlfriend of another guy, and things turned out real bad. We were at a stoplight, and the offended guy changed the diesel in his bottle for gasoline. When Lacra blew the torch, it lit up his face—he ended up flat out on the sidewalk, and the ambulance had to come for him. Later, he told me that when his face lit up, it felt like someone had thrown a bathtub full of hot oil for frying potatoes on his face. Gasoline evaporates really quickly, and it’s likely that some drops are still on your face when you breathe out—any little spark from the torch can light you up, which is why, for that act, we prefer to use diesel. It’s less volatile and dangerous, but more impactful, and its flame is more impressive. What I still don’t understand is how he didn’t realize that he had drunk gasoline rather than diesel because the taste is different. Either way, he was fucked.
Does the fact that you’re always giving off an aroma of diesel and gasoline complicate romantic relationships?
Some girls are surprised, others are scared, and others are embarrassed by what I do to make a living. I always tell them that I’m never going to quit this job. If they don’t like it, I’m sorry; they’ll miss my fiery kisses. Once, a woman asked me to wash my mouth or chew gum so that she could kiss me because she said I smelled too much like gasoline. That’s why I try to brush my teeth every day. The truth is, my clothes, my room, and my entire body always smell like gas. Sometimes I'll even get some crusted diesel on my chest, which is why I try to bathe every day.
What’s the positive part of this job that makes you keep doing it?
I don’t have a schedule, and I like that, because I’m free to do what I want, to walk here or there, or whatever. One day, while I was swallowing fire at a stoplight, I happened to see a friend of mine from elementary school. He was driving his car, and he was so happy to see me that he invited me out to eat and, later, he took me to his home to meet his family. The other positive thing is that it gives me the chance to meet a lot of people. For example, I made friends with a girl who dispenses gasoline at the station on the corner, and thanks to that, she sells me gasoline and diesel in plastic containers. The gas stations aren’t allowed to do this—they’re supposed to sell them in special gallon containers, but since we became friends she's helped me out and even risks getting fired.
The negative thing is that, over the years, I get older, and the drivers give me less money like I'm a prostitute. They feel sorry for you when you're a teenager, but when you're 27 like me, you don't move anyone, so they ignore you. Before, I’d make up to 1,000 pesos [which is roughly $54 USD] per nine-hour day; now I don’t even make 500 pesos [$27 USD] for the same amount of time.
It’s said that our daily experiences are the origin of our dreams. What are yours, with respect to your work?
I dream that my head catches fire and that the drivers see me, but they do nothing. I also dream that I’m one of the drivers and that I can see myself burning, as if I were another version of myself. The psychologists who attended to me when I was detoxing from heroin been would laugh at me when I told them about my dream. They said it’s normal.
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