Mexico, Easter and Holy Week in

Mexico, Easter and Holy Week in

Villages and towns all across Mexico honor Holy Week and Easter by reenacting the Passion story, that is, the events that took place during the last few days of Jesus'life. These reenactments usually involve religious processions that take place on various days during Holy Week. In many places sacred statues are removed from churches and carried on floats throughout the town. Sometimes people dress as characters from the Bible and follow behind the floats. In other places people honor the final days of Holy Week with Passion plays, a form of street theater in which local people play out scenes from the story of Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). Good Friday events often include penitentes, people carrying out religious vows to undergo physical suffering as an expression of regret for some past misdeed. A folk custom known as the burning of Judas occurs in many places on Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday often passes quietly compared to what has gone before, with many people celebrating Jesus' resurrection by attending religious services and enjoying a large meal with their families. In villages people may gather for communal feasts, fireworks displays, singing, and dancing.

Holy Week in Taxco

The town of Taxco, in southern Mexico, is famed throughout the country for its Holy Week processions. They begin on Palm Sunday, when inhabitants of a nearby village walk in procession to Taxco, bearing a litter on which they have placed a statue of Jesus riding a donkey. As they enter Taxco twelve men dressed as Jesus' disciples join the procession, which continues to the Church of Santa Prisca for the Blessing of the Palms.

The following day, Monday of Holy Week, the people of Taxco parade the statues of San Miguel and the Nativity through the streets of town, accompanied by rows of men, women, and children carrying lit candles. Many who follow the procession bear staffs decorated with brightly colored tissue paper and gourds. People from nearby towns join in this procession, bearing their own holy images on litters. The citizens of Taxco mount another religious procession on the evening of Holy Tuesday, this one focused around three images of Jesus found in local churches. Drummers, musicians playing the chirimía, a local version of the flute, and church choirs singing sacred music precede the floats carrying the statues. The almas encadenadas, or "chained souls," follow this procession. Dressed in mourning and dragging ankle chains, they represent souls condemned to a period of suffering after death as payment for their misdeeds on earth.

A special church service called Las Tinieblas, the darkness, begins at 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon of Holy Wednesday (see also Spy Wednesday). This service commemorates the gloomy hours before Jesus' arrest, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane while his companions slept. It also honors the trials that Jesus endured during his years of teaching. Later that evening another religious procession wends it way through the streets of Taxco, this one featuring images of the Virgin of Fatima (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin), the Blessed Trinity, Adam and Eve, Our Lord of Calvary, and Our Lord of the Portada.

On Maundy Thursday little girls dressed as angels keep vigil in the garden attached to the Church of Santa Prisca, which on this day represents the Garden of Gethsemane to the people of Taxco. They decorate the garden with fresh greenery and caged songbirds so that it resembles a small paradise. According to Roman Catholic custom, church bells stop ringing on Maundy Thursday. Instead, the harsh sound of matracas, wooden rattles, call worshipers to the late afternoon service, which commemorates the Last Supper (see also Footwashing; for more on the Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday). After the service sayones, men dressed like Roman soldiers, begin to pour into the streets. Many of these men undertake this role every year in order to carry out a vow made to God. Around 7:00 p.m. the man who plays the role of Jesus Christ enters the Garden of Gethsemane. Another man playing the role of Judas enters, too, and kisses Jesus on one cheek. At this point the sayones enter and take Jesus away to jail, where he is kept in chains. At 11:00 that evening a man playing the role of Pontius Pilate sentences Jesus to crucifixion and washes his hands, a gesture which signifies his refusal to take responsibility for what has just happened.

While town inhabitants reenact the drama of Jesus' arrest and trial, people from nearby villages have been streaming into town carrying images of the Crucifixion. Flowers and lanterns festoon the litters that bear these sacred images. Devotees with lit candles walk behind each float. Encruzados, "crucified ones," known elsewhere as penitentes, also appear in these processions. They wear long black skirts and hoods which fall down to their shoulders and march with their arms stretched out so that their bodies form the shape of a cross. They carry bundles of thorns strapped across their shoulders and outstretched arms and sometimes also wear belts made of horsehair to increase their suffering. On Good Friday townspeople reenact Jesus' journey to the site of his execution as well as his crucifixion. First, a band of children carries Jesus'cross through the streets. Then the man playing Jesus must hoist the cross across his own shoulders and carry it to the place where the mock crucifixion takes place. Jesus'body is removed from the cross at around four in the afternoon, after which follows an elaborate funeral procession. The encruzados, drained from the torments to which they have subjected themselves, trudge wearily behind the funeral procession.

Easter in Taxco

The people of Taxco begin to celebrate Jesus' resurrection on Saturday morning. Church bells swing back and forth, announcing the joyous news. The sayones, still in costume, register nervousness and fear upon hearing the news. The final religious procession takes place on Easter Sunday. This procession features the image of the resurrected Jesus.

Mexico City's Passion Play

Mexico City's Passion play lasts several days. It covers an area of four kilometers (about two and one-half miles), features several thousand participants, and draws crowds of three to four million people. The citizens of eight Mexico City neighborhoods spend months preparing the props, sets, wardrobe, makeup, and street decorations, as well as planning to manage the large numbers of people who attend the event. The Passion play takes place in a district of Mexico City known as Iztapalapa. Mexican officials boast that this event may be considered the largest pageant of popular culture in the world.

The Iztapalapa Passion play began in 1833, when residents of Iztapalapa decided to reenact the Passion in order to express their gratitude to Jesus for stopping a cholera epidemic. Although the event has grown over the years, a number of families have maintained the right to certain roles and functions in the event, and some of them even have old documents assigning their ancestors the same roles. An organizing committee, however, elects the individuals who fill the important roles of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the twelve disciples (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin; Peter). In order to qualify for the role of Jesus a man must be recognized as pure and devout, possess a good reputation, live locally, and have parents born in Iztapalapa. He must also be willing to acquire the strength and endurance necessary to carry a 100-kilogram (about 45 pounds) cross for four kilometers. Moreover, when approached by members of the crowd desiring healings or miracles, he must respond kindly. Physical and spiritual training for this formidable task begins months in advance. The young women of Iztapalapa vie for the role of Jesus' mother. To qualify for the role they must not only possess certain physical characteristics, but also possess a spotless reputation and be of high moral character.

Although based loosely on the story told in the Bible, the Iztapalapa Passion play also includes legendary events and characters. The players reenact the Last Supper and Jesus' betrayal on Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday, Christ carries his cross to the scene of the crucifixion. He is accompanied by thousands of people carrying out vows to complete an act of penance during this procession (for more on penance, see Repentance). These people, called Nazarenes, wear purple robes, carry their own crosses, wear crowns of thorns, and walk the procession in bare feet (see also Penitentes). A number of young women express their piety by walking the procession costumed as companions to Mary. The drama concludes with Jesus' crucifixion, while Judas hangs himself from a nearby tree. In 1999, officials estimate that about 4,600 people participated in the staging of the Passion play, more than 2,500 Nazarenes followed Christ to the site of the crucifixion, and three million people watched some or all of the spectacle.

Further Reading

Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Marcus, Rebecca B., and Judith Marcus. Fiesta Time in Mexico. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1974. Milne, Jean. Fiesta Time in Latin America. Los Angeles, CA: Ward Richie Press, 1965.

Web Site

See also "Semana Santa in Mexico," an article by May Herz, available from Inside Mexico, a company dedicated to producing quality educational materials on Mexican culture: