Mexico observes 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 of Judas.

Photo by Eduardo Ontiveros

The Passion in Iztapalapa

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.

Curiously 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.

The Passion 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

The people 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.

Crowds converge 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.

Some have 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).

Nonetheless, 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.

The Catholic 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 to use.

Today, much 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.

Burning Judas

A Mexican 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 art forms.

During the 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

Around the 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.

The Judases 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
Casasola Archive

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.