This is his day, his time. It is at the Hill of
the Star that Granados Juarez, chosen from hundreds who have asked to
take on the coveted role of Jesus, will be "crucified."
More than 4000 local residents act out other
key roles in Ixtapalapa's Semana Santa and Representacion de la Pasion,
a dramatization that's been played out on its gray, thrash-strewn
streets and around its decaying buildings, every year since 1843. In
contrast the Passion Play in the German village of Oberammergau, is
preformed on a huge, tidy stage once every ten years.
Ixtapalapa, once a flourishing Aztec town, is
normally not the destination of tourists. It is known more for the crime
and poverty that plagues it and the swelling shantytowns that choke its
fringes. Yet during Semana Santa more than 2 million people--mostly
Mexican but with a scattering of Americans and Europeans--flock to it.
Semana Santa begins with the celebration of Palm Sunday (Domingo de
Ramos), commemor ating Christ's entry into Jerusalem. The Last Supper is
staged on Holy Thursday (El Jueves Santo), and on Good Friday (El
Viernes Santo), his sentencing before Pontius Pilate, and, finally, his
crucifixion at Cerro de la Estrella.
Those reenacting the events are dressed the way
people did in Biblical times. They portray soldiers on horseback,
magistrates in chariots, military commanders, centurions and praetorian
guards in full Roman regalia, trumpeters, tympanists, citizens. In
Ixtapalapa a real crown of thorns is placed on the head of the actor
portraying Jesus and thorny boughs are used to lash and whip him.
All the biblical characters are here. Mary,
mother of Jesus, Joseph, Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute whom
Christ forgave and saved from stoning. So are all the Apostles, and
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Herod and his court of women are
here, too, and so is Barabas. He is the robber and insurrectionist who
had been sentenced to crucifixion only to be freed after Pontius Pilate
gave in to an angry mob demanding freedom for Barabas in exchange for
the crucifixion of Christ.
On Good Friday in the main square, Pontius
Pilate has sentenced Jesus to be crucified and orders him taken to a
whipping post to be lashed by a pair of WWF look-alikes.
is then that Jesus begins his journey to the Hill of the Star. The way
of the cross is a mile-and-a-quarter of narrow, winding and sometimes
cobble-stoned streets coursing through eight barrios (neighborhoods). A
thousand or so tunic-clad "Nazarenes" follow him, carrying
their own crosses, some larger than his, some smaller. Many are wearing
crowns of thorns. There are six- and seven-year-olds weighed down by
child-size crosses. Angelica Ramos is helping her seven-year-old son,
Miguel, with his.
Jesus is wearing a crown of thorns. His face is
twisted with pain, his feet are dirty, bruised and bloodied. A rope has
been tied around his neck. A soldier pulls on it. Jesus' legs wobble. He
strains to stand tall but the weight of the cross pushes him down. Simon
of Syria, the apostle who forced the soldiers to help Jesus carry his
cross, comes forward to help him. Jesus is lashed again. He gasps and
moans and so do the people nearest him. They bless themselves. Many weep
Enrique Vaquero, a small, dark curly-haired man
in his 40s, shivers as each lash strikes the flesh of the man called
Jesus. "Are you all right?" I ask him. "Yes," he
says, but I feel the pain, too."
A Media Event
Photographers and television cameramen push their lenses closer to
Jesus. There's a thick blood-like blob on the side of his face. Mary
Magdalene has a microphone in her hand. Maybe it's so that what she's
saying to Jesus can be heard by the thousands pushing in on them in the
Plaza de Iglesia Cuevita. But the sound system is terrible - the volume
is cranked up too high. Mary Magdalene's practically got the microphone
in her mouth, and everything she's saying is garbled. Next to me,
Patricia del Castillo strains to hear. But no one, except maybe those
perhaps within five feet of her, can make out what it might be. It's
like MTV doing a live on-stage interview with a rocker in the middle of
a head-banging heavy metal concert.
On Ermita Ixtapalapa, the main street,
thousands of vendors are shouting as loudly as they can: "diaz (10)
pesos, vente (20) pesos." They're selling miniature crosses and
Christ and Virgin Mary statuettes of wood, ceramic and plastic. Huge,
brightly colored murals of the holy ones, painted especially for Semana
Santa, brood over vendor stands overflowing with beaded rosaries,
blood-streaked faces of Christ on white kerchiefs and Elvis-style velvet
portraits of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
A carnival is at the edge of the vendor stands.
There are car rides, train rides and rides on Ferris wheels for the
kiddies. Hawkers try hustling moms and dads toward scales to guess their
weight for five pesos. Eager, hopeful boys and girls throw rings made of
plastic or rope around hoops for a prize that may come with their
Music blares from loud speakers. Frank
Sinatra's voice reaches over the masses singing something about one for
my baby and one more for the road. Mothers with umbrellas protect
themselves and their children from the hot sun. Men riding triciclistas
fitted with cargo platforms in front, wheel sodas and water from vendor
stand to vendor stand.
"Look at all this," said Victor
Serrano. "There was a time when all this was different. It was more
respectful. No more. Now it's like a party, a carnival." He
shrugged and walked on with his son. There are more of the devout than
of the partygoers. The backs of the devout are to the carnival. Their
ears are closed to the shouting vendors and the reverberating music of
On the cobble-stoned streets of the Way of the
Cross, Jesus takes the cross off his shoulder to rest. He is bent over
from the weight of it. A soldier strikes out with his whip, but hits
only the edge of the cross. "Veronica" pushes her way through
the crowds to wipe the blood from Jesus' face.
Horsemen and Helicopters
Ahead of him, a dozen or so horse-mounted Roman soldiers are pushing
their way through the crowds sending spectators scrambling for the
sidelines. Overhead, helicopters from the local television stations kick
up swirls of dust as they circle the Hill of the Star for footage for
the evening news telecast. Dozens of on-lookers hold handkerchiefs over
their mouths to keep out the dust.
Near the top of the Hill of the Star, Judas
Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of gold, "hangs"
himself in a small cluster of trees close to where Jesus will be
The moment has come. Jesus is at the top of the
hill surrounded by soldiers beating him with sticks. When they were
done, they fixed him on the cross. They hoisted him and the cross until
it was upright between the crucified criminals Dimas and Gestas. The
head of Jesus is bowed. Blood streaks down his face and body. There's no
way to count the number of people there on the hill or near it, but it
is easily in the hundreds of thousands. Everyone is shoulder to shoulder
and back to front. Few speak. They are all looking up at the sad, pained
figure of Jesus on the cross on the peak of the dusty hill.
Many are crying without shame or embarrassment.
All of them pray and bless themselves "en el nombre del Padre, del
Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo (in the name of the Father, the Son and the
"Why are we like this?" Antonio Rojas
Rosas asked. "We pray, we cry, as if all this is real. But we know
it is not. We know all this is only a reenactment. We know that."
"But yet….." he paused, then added:
"I don't know, maybe we come because we are all sinners. Maybe
somehow it helps us make fewer sins in our lives." He started to
walk away, hesitated a moment, his eyes reflective, his voice lower now.
Then looking up again at the figure on the cross, he said: "Maybe,
just maybe, people are better because of it."