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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Mexico City’s massive Passion Play reopens to the public after two years of closed events

Authorities said that attendance matched pre-pandemic numbers: as many as 1.5 million visitors crowded into the streets of the capital’s Iztapalapa borough to witness the spectacle.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Five years ago Alejandro made a promise he had to keep. So on Good Friday he joined the ranks of pious residents of the Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa in bearing a literal cross to show his devotion to the vow he made.

The Covid-19 pandemic put his promise on hold the last two years, but this year Good Friday events in Iztapalapa were reopened to the public. He and dozens of others who make this burdened trek are known as the Nazarenos (Nazarenes). 

Wearing a crown of thorns on his head and no shoes on his feet, the 22-year-old made regular stops to switch shoulders and catch his breath. His cross measured almost 20 feet long and weighed over 150 pounds.

While the promise he kept was too personal to talk about, Alejandro has another reason he performs his pious act: the birth of his now 3-year-old daughter.

“There were complications in the pregnancy, and I told God that if he brought her into this world healthy, I would do this pledge until she was 10 years old,” he said as sweat poured down his face. 

Alejandro, 22, carries his cross weighing over 150 pounds in gratitude for the healthy birth of his 3-year-old daughter. He will continue the tradition each year until she reaches 10 years of age. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Some, like Hiriam Palma, do it to thank God for helping them make difficult life changes like quitting alcohol and drugs. 

“I asked God for strength to stop, and now every year I come out to pay him back,” said Palma, 26, now eight years clean. 

Others, like 17-year-old first-timer Juan Carlos, do it to ask God to keep their families safe and healthy.

“I’ll do it as long as God allows me to,” he said. 

While these personal displays of devotion are part and parcel of the celebration of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Iztapalapa, the densely populated and high-crime borough in southeast Mexico City is best known throughout the country for its annual production of the Passion Play. 

Also called the Viacrucis, the four-hour televised event — hailed as the world’s largest of its kind — begins in the borough’s main square and ends after crowds of spectators witness the actor playing Jesus Christ carry his cross over a mile to depict the crucifixion on a nearby hill. This year’s production brought as many as 1.5 million people to the neighborhood, borough authorities said.

“The Viacrucis gives the people of Iztapalapa identity, attachment, support, tradition,” said Miriam Guadalupe Cruz Mejía, a social anthropologist and professor at Mexico City’s Lumen Gentium Catholic University. 

Iztapalapa local Axel González, 22, portrays Jesus Christ being persecuted before the crucifixion during the Mexico City borough's massive production of the Passion Play, considered to be the world's biggest. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Being a part of the play is considered a high honor and gives the actor prestige and good standing in the community. Throughout the year before the performance, actors end up going by the names of the characters they play. Neighbors consider them to be spiritually close to the sainted ones, and they often ask the actors to make prayer requests on their behalf, Cruz said.

Interestingly enough, however, this massive production is not organized by the Catholic Church. The autonomous organizing committee COSSIAC was formed in 1994 to make independent decisions on everything from funding to casting to scriptwriting. 

“The notion of power has a lot to do with the organizing committee,” said Cruz. “It was created so as not to leave that power in the hands of either the church or the state, and in doing so the people made this tradition their own.”

Joaquín Rueda, who sits on COSSIAC’s board of honor and justice, boasted that the Church has absolutely no control or influence over the play. 

“This autonomy has weight,” he said. “We don’t need the Church to approve what we do.”

And COSSIAC has taken full advantage of this independence. Up to 80% of the dialogue in the production is taken, not from the Bible, but from a 19th-century text by Spanish author Enrique Pérez Escrich that contains passages from apocryphal gospels. 

Belly dancers entertain King Herod in Iztapalapa's Passion Play. The play's organizing committee has complete autonomy from the Catholic Church, and much of the script is written from sources considered to be apocryphal by the Church. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

It also contains passages inspired by the myth of the Wandering Jew, a story of a Jewish man who was cursed to roam the earth until the Second Coming for refusing to let Jesus rest by leaning on his house while carrying his cross to Calvary. It has been deemed anti-Semitic by Jewish scholars. 

“We have passages that are apocryphal to the Church,” said Rueda. The production has even been deemed blasphemous by Church officials in the past. 

But the point isn’t to please the church. It’s about preserving the cultural identity of the people who have conducted the spectacle for the better of two centuries. 

“The origin of this tradition is what gave rise to the committee. We just safeguard it, preserve it, promote it. We didn’t create this identity, rather, we received it from the people of Iztapalapa,” said Rueda. 

A man practicing the tradition of the Nazarenos (Nazarenes) rests his feet from the hot asphalt on Good Friday, 2022. While some wear sandals, it is traditional to perform this custom barefoot. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Now in its 179th iteration, the Viacrucis officially began in 1843. Friday's production held special historical significance, for the tradition began as a way to honor a saint known as El Señor de la Cuevita (The Lord of the Little Cave), who is revered for having ended a terrible outbreak of cholera in Iztapalapa in 1833.

Cruz, the anthropologist, said that the people of Iztapalapa celebrated the Viacrucis even before these dates, but that 1843 was the first time it was conducted with actors in the streets of the town. Reopening the event to the public after the worst of Covid-19 echoes the play's spiritual origin.

Honored in a church next to Iztapalapa’s main graveyard, El Señor de la Cuevita stands as a perfect example of how the people here have appropriated Catholic symbolism to create their own cultural and religious identities. The Church chose Luke the Evangelist as the neighborhood’s patron saint, but ask anyone from here who that honor belongs to and they’ll tell you El Señor de la Cuevita

A participant of the Viacrucis of the Divine Savior, a much smaller procession than the televised event, swings a censer as a priest leads visitors in prayer. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Still, there are those for whom the main Passion Play has become too big and commercialized. Borough Mayor Clara Brugada Molina said she expected the production to boost the area’s economy by 100 billion pesos — around $5 billion — on Friday alone. Vendors sold everything from crowns of thorns to food to mirror periscopes made from candy boxes to view the event from behind the crowd.

The televised play is merely one of more than 20 Viacrucis celebrations in Iztapalapa on Good Friday, and the smaller ones have become places where some locals can get the spiritual connection they say has been lost in the histrionics of the main event.

Alicia Sabas set up an altar to the Divine Savior outside her home on the route the celebrity Jesus was to take on his way to the hill.

Held outside the church near the graveyard, this smaller Viacrucis, she said, more closely follows the Bible’s version of events and is a chance for reflection and prayer.

“It’s different from the one that is going to pass by here,” she said. “This one’s all theatrics. The Viacrucis for the Divine Savior is only prayer.”

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Categories / International, Religion

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