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Column 040615 Wall

Monday, April 6, 2015

Holy Week, Religion and Politics 2015 in Mexico

By Allan Wall

The crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ are foundational to the Christian faith. That’s why the major branches of Christendom (Roman Catholic, Protestant and the Eastern Churches) memorialize – in various ways – the death, burial and resurrection of Christ each spring.

Mexico has a variety of traditional Easter customs, many of them deriving from Spain, with a diversity of traditions linked to particular regions and cities.

The Easter season begins on Miércoles de Ceniza (Ash Wednesday) and continues through Cuaresma (Lent), the 40-day period until Semana Santa (Holy Week).

Semana Santa (Holy Week) begins on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday), the day of Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The Last Supper was held on Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday). Viernes Santo (Good Friday) commemorates the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Sábado de Gloria (Holy Saturday) is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday) celebrates the Resurrection of Christ.

Mexican schoolchildren get two weeks of vacation from classes, the week before Easter and the week after.  I remember when I lived in Mexico and was teaching English in school, that two-week vacation was a good time to travel. 

Various folk customs are observed throughout Mexico during Holy Week.  These are deeply-rooted religious, cultural and social practices that vary from place to place.  They are folk expressions which don’t necessarily depend upon the Catholic hierarchy to be carried out from year to year, they are longstanding traditions.

One such custom, also practiced in other Spanish-speaking countries, is the Quema de Judas (The Burning of Judas).

An effigy, with fireworks inside, is set on fire and publicly burnt.  It represents Judas Iscariot, and it also represents an unpopular contemporary figure, usually a politician.  Thus, a traditional folk religious custom is combined with political expression.

One example: In 2015 Mexico City an organization called “Los Olvidados de Tepito” (“The Forgotten Ones of Tepito”) selected as its “Judas” not an individual but an entire government agency.  It was INE, the Instituto National Electoral, the agency in charge of elections. 

The INE/Judas in effigy was a huge diabolical-looking figure holding an INE box.  (See photo here in this La Jornada article.)

The INE/Judas was given a public “trial,” in which the assembled were asked “Where shall this citizen be taken?” 

The multitude cried “Burn him, he’s a Judas!”

 “Proofs, what are the proofs?” asked the questioner.

The multitude replied, “They say it’s an organ to legitimate democracy, but since its creation the INE was made to rob the people.”

One of those in attendance, a certain Ana Garcia, explained why she agreed: “There is much social anger, for the quantity of money that is spent on the elections when there is so much poverty in the country.  For us this type of tradition is both a spectacle and a catharsis for this generalized dissatisfaction.”

During Holy Week various passion plays, dramatic reenactments of the crucifixion of Christ and the life of Christ are held in Mexico.

The most famous is held in the Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa.  It began in 1843 when the borough suffered a cholera outbreak, and has been held ever since except for a brief suspension during the Mexican Revolution.

The Iztapalapa Passion Play is a true community endeavor, organized and carried out annually by the locals.  It draws several million spectators annually.

All the pageant’s actors must have been born in Iztapalapa. Whoever portrays Christ is selected on the basis of both good moral character and physical strength. The actor wears an actual crown of thorns, is flogged, and bears a 200 pound cross through the streets before being “crucified” (tied to the cross, not nailed).

This year at least 411 actors participated, 136 of them with speaking roles.  There were 500 extras and several thousand others participating in the procession.  See photos here.

The Iztapalapa Passion Play is truly a sight to behold. When a reporter asked a local man about it one year, he replied. "We pray, we cry, as if all this is real. We know it is not. But yet … maybe we come because we are all sinners. Maybe somehow it helps us make fewer sins in our lives....  Maybe, just maybe, people are better because of it."

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Allan Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years.  His website is located at http://www.allanwall.info.

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