Holy Week with a great variety of customs and cultural manifestations.
Here we take a glance at the most massive expression, the Passion
in Iztapalapa, and one of the most widespread ones, the burning
Photo by Eduardo Ontiveros
One of the
largest manifestations of popular culture in the world takes place
every year in Iztapalapa, now a district of Mexico City, but once
a proud Aztec city. During Holy Week, the people of Iztapalapa
enact the Passion of Christ; several thousand people take part
in the performance, which ranges over an area of four kilometers,
drawing crowds estimated at up to four million people.
enough, this tradition did not begin as one of the Passion Plays
the Spanish missionaries used to convert the indigenous people
in the area. It was much later, in 1833, after a severe cholera
epidemic decimated the population of Iztapalapa (some say 8 out
of 10 inhabitants died), that the people decided to reenact the
Passion to thank El Señor de la Cuevita (The Lord of the
Little Cave, an image of Christ entering Jerusalem on a Burro,
which was made in Michoacán) for ending the epidemic.
in Iztapalapa does not adhere strictly to the biblical version
of the crucifixion, but was apparently taken from various apocryphal
and profane sources. And, though the organizers claim to still
have the original text, the performance has evolved and changed
over the years to include some unusual features. For example,
the Wandering Jew makes an appearance, as do several women of
Herod’s harem, not to mention a spy and a dog which accompany
Judas Iscariot, who personally brings Jesus in for judgement.
Many of the
parts are passed down within local families, some of which have
the original papers appointing their ancestors to play a role;
but Christ, the Apostles and the many aspects of the Virgin are
elected by the Organizing Committee. Indeed, the community organization
--in part based on indigenous forms-- which goes into this massive
production is impressive. Eight barrios and thousands of people
devote months to this event: not only the many people appearing
in the enactment, but a multitude of others for wardrobe, makeup,
props, decoration of streets and churches, and various organizational
tasks. Families have for generations undertaken certain peripheral
tasks, such as providing first aid for the people injured by walking
barefoot, or painting the image that appears on the cloth with
which Veronica wipes Jesus’ face.
Photo by Eduardo Ontiveros
of Iztapalapa prepare long in advance. Being selected to play
a part entails strict discipline and even physical preparation.
The man selected to portray Christ must be pure, devout, with
an unblemished reputation, a local whose parents were born in
Iztapalapa, amd he must also carry a 100 kilo cross for four kilometers
to the Crucifixion. He begins his training six months in advance
and must also be able to respond graciously when asked to heal
people or perform miracles by members of the crowd. Thousands
of young men, known as Nazarenes, make vows to do penance during
the Passion for a three year period; they follow Christ on the
route to Calvary (el Cerro de la Estrella) in bare feet, with
crowns of thorns, carrying their own crosses of varying sizes.
Many Vírgenes de Pueblo (Town Virgins) also follow the
route to Calvary to express their devotion.
on Iztapalapa for the Procession on Holy Thursday, which culminates
with the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal of Christ. When Christ
is captured, the huehuetl and chirimías (Aztec
drums and flutes) announce his doom to one and all. On Good Friday,
Jesus is taken before Pilate and sentenced. He then walks to the
Cerro de la Estrella, repeating the stations of the cross along
the way. After the crucifixion, the representation ends with Judas
hanging himself alongside Jesus.
pointed to the Cerro de la Estrella as evidence of syncretism
because it is the seat of the Pyramid of Mixcoatl, and was one
of the places the Aztecs performed the rites of Fuego Nuevo, the
lighting of the New Fire each 52 years to signify rebirth. However,
the original enactment did not take place there, but at the Church
of the Little Cave. It was only after a heavy rain in 1920 forced
cancellation, that the people of Iztapalapa decided to move the
crucifixion to higher ground and chose the Cerro de la Estrella,
which they then began calling the Cerrito de la Muerte (Little
Hill of Death).
there are similarities between the depiction of the Passion and
certain rites practices by the Aztecs before the conquest. Joseph
de Acosta, in his Historia natural y moral de las Indias
(Natural and Moral History of the Indies), tells how a man was
elected to represent the God Tezcatlipuca, in a ceremony performed
in the spring with processions, acts of penance and a sacrifice.
Church has alternately banned and blessed this semi-orthodox expression
of popular religious fervor; and lay authorities have also wavered
in their support. A letter dated 1867, in which the people of
Iztapalapa appealed to Benito Juárez for help in preserving
their tradition in the face of hostile officials still exists;
legend has it he came to their aid. The Passion was suspended
during the revolutionary period at the beginning of the century,
and the locals report that Emiliano Zapata himself ordered them
to renew it in 1914, lending his army’s horses for the Roman soldiers
of the representation takes place on the esplanade in front of
the district government offices. The Museum of Popular Cultures
has held several exhibits and published a pamphlet about it. In
1992, the Mexico City government headed a joint research effort
published in a 279 page book called Semana Santa en Iztapalapa
(Holy Week in Iztapalapa).
This is one
tradition which seems in no danger of dying out. This year, in
1999, approximately 4,600 people performed the reenactment, with
over 2,500 "Nazarenes" keeping vows, and an audience
of three million.
tradition dating from the evangelization of the native indigenous
peoples by the Spanish conquistadors is that of punishing Judas
in effigy for his betrayal of Christ. The origins of this ritual
in Spain are variously attributed to a festival of the carpenter’s
guild, which would make wooden dolls and burn them with gunpowder
– the Spanish love of fireworks was acquired, in turn, from the
Arabs--, or to a Medieval custom of making a straw or rag doll
which fought against lent and was later tried and burned for his
presumption during Carnival; in Santander, this doll was called
Judas. At any rate, the missionaries used all the available pageantry
as a tool to convert the native Mexicans to Catholicism; and Mexican
artisans took these implanted customs and made them into local
Holy Inquisition, when people were burned at the stake for heresy,
Mexicans protested by making effigies of the inquisitors and burning
them in turn, in parodies of the executions. Of course, these
Judases were banned, but they did not disappear. Satire and political
protest have remained a strong element of the tradition. As in
the case of the calaveras which allow caricature of public figures
around the Day of the Dead, the effigies made for Holy Week are
still used to mock public figures and social customs. In 1853,
a ban was issued for "the dolls commonly known as Judas,
so long as they bear any clothing or sign which ridicules any
class of society or a specific person", because then President
Santa Anna was burned in effigy. In 1865, the French Empire found
itself in the same dilemma, and forbade both Judases and the accompanying
fireworks. Mexico City has since outlawed fireworks because of
accidents and pollution, but Judases continue to be made and burned,
though perhaps most of them are now collector’s items.
Diego Rivera in his studio, 1956
middle of this century, Mexican fine artists rediscovered the
richness of the popular art surrounding them. Diego Rivera and
Frida Kahlo were two of the main proponents of the artistic value
of the crafts which abound in our country. They became especially
interested in the Judases and adopted Carmen Linares as their
personal provider of these cardboard delights. The Judases and
skeletons she made are prevalent in Diego and Frida’s homes, photographs
and paintings, and were celebrated in their writings and interviews.
are made primarily in two fashions: molds are used for the smaller
ones; but the larger figures are made with reeds as a frame or
skeleton, which is then covered in paper maché and painted.
They come in all sizes, shapes and forms, ranging from the devil
himself to politicians, actors, policemen, and even pretty painted
dolls with earrings and glitter. The Museum of Popular Culture
in Mexico City offers workshops in Judases, and Iztapalapa has
an annual contest.
Judas-burning, downtown, 1920
At ten am,
on Holy Saturday, the Church bells used to ring, signifying the
resurrection of Christ, and the Judases, previously strung across
the streets and filled with gunpowder or dotted with fireworks,
were set afire to burn and explode. In the olden days, bags of
bread, candies and even alcoholic beverages were tied to the figures
so that they would be released into the crowd as they went off.
In the more well to do neighborhoods, Judases were sometimes dressed
in fine clothing with shoes, umbrellas and other accessories,
which also went to the lucky onlookers when the firecrackers exploded.
It is a festive occasion, more playful than punitive.