Many things at Burning Man are meant to burn down to the ground. The Mayan Warrior was not one of them.
One of Burning Man’s flashiest and most famous art cars, the Mexico-City based rig had become a nexus of spectacle, vibes and electronic music since debuting on the playa in 2012.
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Over the years the car had in tandem become a prestige play for DJs turning out to Burning Man, hosting artists including DJ Tennis, Jan Blomqvist, Damian Lazarus, Bedouin, Carlita, Francesca Lombardo and the Mexico-based talent it focused on promoting. It even had its own theme song.
Then, this past April 3, it went up in flames. The truck that formed the base of the car (an International 4400) was en route from Guadalajara to Punta Mita, Mexico for a fundraising event, when a back tire caught on fire — a function, organizers say, of the weight of the vehicle, combined with the rough road and the heat of the day.
The fire immediately spread to the rest of the rig, incinerating the many amps, computer consoles and other sundry pieces of equipment that helped make the thing such an attraction. Ten minutes later, it was all gone.
The driver, the only person with the vehicle at the time, was unharmed. While the truck itself was insured, the onboard equipment team had collected over the last decade was not, resulting in millions of dollars worth of losses.
The first person to get the phone call was Mayan Warrior’s Founder, Pablo González Vargas.
“It was sad, but also liberating in a way,” he says, “because it’s a passion that started growing until we were almost, like, a little bit slaves to it.”
Indeed, it cost the Mayan Warrior team — made up of 10 core members year-round and a team of 34 at Burning Man itself — roughly $600,000 to take the car to the playa each year, along with another $300,000 to run the Foundation, which covered its maintenance, storage and other expenses. This tab was covered by the Mayan Warrior’s touring fundraiser events, which brought the car to New York, San Francisco, Austin and beyond, helping cover costs, but also raising eyebrows among those who felt the car had run afoul of Burning Man’s ethos of commercial decommodification.
“We were not in good standing this year,” says González Vargas. “There was backlash from the community of, ‘What are you doing?’ Because people see a picture of people [at a fundraiser] — but to make money in events, we have to surpass 4,000 attendees.”
González Vargas adds that the the necessity to make money also put the team in “a never-ending touring situation, so the crew was was tired, and I was tired, and then Burning Man was beginning to say, ‘Hey, you guys are eroding Burning Man principles.'” (He also notes that the Burning Man organization reached out immediately after the fire and were “very supportive.”)
In the wake of the fire, rumors of drug war interference and insurance fraud (“of course not true,” says González Vargas) swirled, while the global Mayan Warrior community mourned the loss. Its absence will certainly be felt at Burning Man 2023, which begins in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert this Sunday, August 27. After that, the team will host one final Mayan Warrior fundraiser this Halloween in Los Angeles.
Here, González Vargas talks about the fire, about how he and the team had perhaps outgrown the project and what they’re planning next.
Maybe the best place to start is to just tell me what happened on the day of the fire.
The car was on its way from Guadalajara, where we had our last fundraiser, to Punta Mita, which is by Puerto Vallarta. Basically an hour before arriving to the destination, the back tire caught on fire. I didn’t know they did that, but later on, I read that the combination of [the rig being] overweight, heat and a rough road — sometimes they catch fire.
In the back of our truck, we have a lot of wood; we have a lot of diesel; we have a lot of propane. So that thing… in a matter of minutes, it was really out of control. We did have fire extinguishers, but they did nothing. The driver luckily got out of the truck, and it just incinerated, in like, 10 minutes.
Oh my god.
The sad part is that we did not have insurance. Of course on Reddit, there’s a lot of people saying that we planned this. Either it was like, a drug war thing, or, “Let’s burn it and get the insurance money.” That’s of course not true.
But the reality is that I forgot to to re-pay the insurance after the pandemic — because when the pandemic hit, we were like, “Why are we paying so much money for insurance if everything is just shut down?” I just totally forgot to [put the insurance back on.] The truck base did have insurance, but all the rest of the equipment — zero. So that’s a huge loss for us, because that equipment we have been compounding over 10 years. (Editor’s note: González Vargas adds via email that Mayan Warrior did have liability insurance during all events.)
What were you doing when you found out what had happened?
I was arriving to a meditation retreat, to clear my head. I had a lot of questions in my life — my father died a few months earlier, and a lot of things in my life changed. I sold my company. I wanted to clear my head. The day that I arrived to the place, I got the message from the driver with the picture. But I couldn’t see the picture — it was blurry, because they didn’t have any service, because I was in the middle of the desert. Then I called him, and he said, “This is on fire.”
It was very crazy how my intention was to go and clear my head and get things in order in my life, and this thing burns right before.
So what did you do? You’re about to go into this meditation retreat — take me through those first hours of response.
I was about to go back to Mexico City and handle the situation. But I stayed. I said, “I’ll go into this process with this [situation.]” It was kind of sad, but also liberating in a way — because this project, as I told you last time, we do it out of passion. We all do different things in life, like normal work. This is a passion that started growing until we were almost like, a little bit slaves to it — trying to make it work so it was sustainable. I was at a place where I was working on it, instead of enjoying it.
So yeah, I felt liberated. I felt also a blank slate creatively, because the car was 10 years old, so it was a super old design. I didn’t even know what to do with it, in the sense of “should we [keep doing] it or not?”
You announced that the car had burned down via Instagram on April 5. What was that day like, in terms of the community response?
I was really surprised, because the response we saw from people is the same feeling I had — a relationship with it as, like, a living being. It gave all of us as a community a lot of good things, good relationships, good moments, a lot of friends all over. It was kind of the hub of the community.
The response of the people was also kind of like as if someone died, not a thing that burned. It was very nice to see the response and what it meant to most of us and to other circles of the community. It was a very emotional week.
There are 3,912 comments on that Instagram post. I read them all, and they’re almost entirely supportive and respectful and sad. It must have at least felt affirming in the sense that the empathy was there.
True, because you have haters on one side. That’s what you really get on normal days. Some people are angry about the drug war rumors thing, or from the angle of “this business and they’re printing money” without understanding what it takes behind the scenes. Which is kind of s–tty.
So the positive response was nice to see, because it’s been so many years of hard work and sacrifices — financially, in time and in our work. It was basically taking three months of the year and doing almost nothing other than this. People don’t understand what it takes to do stuff at Burning Man in general, so so it was reaffirming and nice to see that people actually cared and were supportive.
What was the what’s the size of the core team?
Year-round, the core team is 10. Then when we go to the Burn, we’re at like, 34.
When those 10 people first found out, what was that like?
Very emotional. I cried, because I was very grateful, because this thing gave me so much in my life. And I think the response [among the group] was very similar. Burning Man is a big part of our lives, and when you’re building something at Burning Man, it creates an identity, and that identity becomes a little bit of your identity. So many people on the core team, their identity is very intertwined with Mayan. So this dying is also a part of you. Part of your identity is also kind of dying.
The sense I’ve gotten from what you’ve announced is that there’s a new concept or art car coming from your crew. Can you tell me about that, what you guys are working on now?
We want to go to Burning Man first, because everything started at Burning Man. We got inspired at Burning Man, so I think that has to happen. We need to feel inspired to do whatever we’re going to do. I think the beautiful cycle of Burning Man is to inspire and to be inspired. That’s the most beautiful thing that happens there.
So we want to go and feel it and see what the next step is, because there are some things we don’t like about the project, and some things we do.
What don’t you like about it?
The amount of work it takes, for one. Also music-wise, electronic music has its own energies that are sometimes not great. When we started this, I was 32. It’s very different, 32 and 45, in terms of what you’re searching for. So are we going to re-do this in the same formula? Do we like it? We have to decide.
One thing I know is that we are never going to stop doing things at Burning Man. That’s for sure. The project will continue at Burning Man. The question is how, and in what genre and in what form? It could be mobile. It could be stationary. What type of music? Maybe it’s more live shows? Maybe we need to dial down the DJ thing, because also that’s affecting the Burning Man demographic in a big way.
I think I know what you mean, but tell me exactly what you mean.
To make the point, I’m going to go to an extreme — which is like, the Afterlife demographic. Which is a young crowd with phones, and it’s less about having a good time and having an experience and more a show than a party. So if we go the DJ route, we’re pulling that energy.
I’ve seen the Burn morph more into that in our little space of music. It’s a big city, but in music listeners or music seekers, the demographic has changed over the last six years.
The gradient went more Afterlife, without going fully after Afterlife — but I personally don’t like that. I think live shows are something we might pursue. But it has a complexity, because they’re way more expensive. A DJ is just them and their USB. But if you bring a band, it’s way more difficult.
So we’re trying to figure that out. And also if it’s the same [Mayan Warrior] name, or not. There’s a lot of questions and we want to understand at Burning Man [this year] — What are we vibing? What is the next step?
In terms of the cultural shift you’re talking about, certain realms of Burning Man have definitely gotten more Instagrammy, more DJ-centric, more mainstage-ish. It’s changed the vibe out there. Did you feel any sort of way about being involved in that shift and in ways catalyzing it?
For sure. There’s no way we’re not involved … we have contributed to that cultural shift, and we need to be aware of that. I think that’s also something to think about. If we keep doing it, how can we — not reverse it — but steer it and do something more into the experience side, and less about an image situation, with talking about Instagram? I would want that.
Financially there is also an issue, for sure. Doing the art car is one of the most irresponsible things I’ve done in my life, financially.
I was still renting most of the years [I’ve had the car], because I couldn’t buy an apartment. It basically all went to the art car during the first half of its life. Just because I loved it, and I didn’t care about anything else, and doing a camp and bringing a lot of stuff to the desert costs a lot of money. So I don’t know if I want to do that again. I don’t know if it’s a wise thing to do. Maybe we need to scale down.
In terms of your camp at Burning Man this year, is just a smaller crew? Something pretty basic?
Nothing. Just me, my RV, my bike, my fiancée and that’s it.
I don’t mean to be glib, but that sounds maybe refreshing for you.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
We’re grateful, and we want to still contribute to Burning Man. And we care. We owe a lot to that place, and we want to do it right. We want to do something beautiful, and we hope we can.
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