The passion play of Iztapalapa is one of the most popular and one of the biggest, most important religious celebrations in Mexico and in the world.
In just one day, more than a million visitors come to a small district to watch a 150-year-old tradition. What is behind this event? What motivates the inhabitants to go through this representation with so much dedication? What does it mean?
Iztapalapa is a small district south of Mexico City, an ordinary neighborhood like any other, with its main plaza and its church. It has perhaps, the same problems as other districts (or colonias, as they are called) but something sets it apart from the others: a very special fiesta in which everyone takes part, where no one, no matter how small, is left out.
During Easter Week, each inhabitant abandons his normal life as a laborer, student or housewife, and forgets his daily tensions and conflicts. All the townspeople come together with a common goal, and become actors representing Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Nazarenes, the guards, the apostles, and the people of a town that existed thousands of years before. The entire community becomes the cast and the streets, the stage!
In recreating the passion and death of Christ, not one person is a professional actor, but this doesn’t matter, the purpose is to offer all of one’s energy to God, observing the Catholic tradition as closely as possible, with suffering and courage, but above all, with a great deal of enthusiasm and love.
The Passion of Iztapalapa was first performed a long time ago, in the year 1833, when a cholera epidemic laid the region low and the majority of the population died. Only a few people survived.
In thanks, and as an act of faith in the Lord of the Cave, a statue of Christ that was venerated in this place, the survivors gave the first performance of the Passion of Christ. A few actors began the tradition, without costumes or horses, and much less stage props, but being able to offer something to the Savior, that is what was important.
Year after year, intent of making the presentation better and better, the people of the town began to organize in order to create costumes in keeping with ancient custom, representing each of the biblical passages more faithfully, including the tears and suffering.
The main reason for this presentation is to give thanks to God for having saved the community so long ago. Each of the participants, however, also has a personal reason for gratitude, and is very proud to be able to take part with the rest of town.
Although the event lasts only a few days, the preparations begin several months in advance; everything must be ready for the first Sunday after Holy Week.
There is an Organizing Committee, formed by the inhabitants of Iztapalapa themselves, people who have taken part for several years and are highly respected in the community. They are in charge of choosing the actors who will play the main roles of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. Many people want a role, but they have to meet the prerequisites such as height, age civil status and above all, impeccable conduct.
The role most disputed by the young men of the district is precisely that of Christ, because it is a great honor, an example of physical and spiritual strength that not just anyone can undertake.
Representing Christ, even for only a few days, means being acknowledged by the entire community.
The preparation is arduous because the physical fitness of an athlete and great spiritual preparation are required in order to be able to bear the whipping and carry a heavy wooden cross along the route.
There is also an important role for the girls of the district, very much disputed among them: that of the Virgin Mary. As with the role of Christ, the choice is made from among several candidates who have to meet certain physical characteristics as well as have an exceptional moral position. For the girl chosen and her relatives, this choice represents a high honor, as not just anyone is so highly distinguished in public for their generosity of spirit.
The Passion of Iztapalapa is a neighborhood event. To take part in this event, one must have been born here. People say that otherwise, the original meaning of the representation would be lost.
Although not everyone can be an actor, most of the inhabitants of this region help in producing the wardrobe, in building the sets and in coordinating rehearsals.
The celebration has become so popular, that thousands of spectators congregate in this tiny district, with the results that the government authorities have had to provide public safety services, medical care and street cleaning.
On the day of the great celebration, everything is ready. The people begin to arrive early to make sure they get a good place to see.
The Way of the Cross begins around nine in the morning with the procession of the Nazarenes. These are people who are going to fulfill a manda or religious promise that some fervent Catholics make, out of gratitude for having received some favor from Jesus Christ. It is their way of showing their thanks for having been cured of some illness, for not having been injured in some accident, for having found a job, or for having stopped some vice. Each Nazarenes fulfills a promise.
In order to be a Nazarene, one does not have to have been born in the town; anyone may do so who wishes to make the trip. The only requirement is to wear the same outfit: a crown of thorns, a purplish tunic, and carry a cross. The Nazarenes are of all ages and from different regions throughout the whole country!
At the end of the Nazarenes’ procession comes Christ, carrying His cross. For the actor representing Jesus, this is a moment of truth! He begins the trip carrying more than 200 lbs. on his shoulders, before the gaze of thousands of spectators. There is always the question as to whether he will be able to carry it the entire trip, if he will bear up to the physical and emotional demands of this leading role!
First he is taken to trial in the main plaza. This is where he will be whipped and sent to crucifixion. But it is when the trial is over that the real martyrdom begins. By this time of day, the sun is directly overhead and fatigue begins to take hold of the actor. The procession is one of the most difficult moments of the celebration.
Almost at the end of the route, the actor looks tired and anxious. His family suffers his effort with him, but from afar, anxiously. They cannot help him now. He is alone…with his cross.
Meanwhile, young girls who represent the virgins accompany the Virgin Mary in her pain. The tears stream down the faces of the actors and many of the spectators.
The most emotional and impressive moment takes place on the top of the hill of the Star: the crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
More than a million spectators have come to Iztapalapa. Even though the Passion began as a local tradition, with the passage of the years, it has become a celebration watched by thousands of people from other parts of the country and even of the world.
The event is covered from beginning to end, even by the international media. Television reporters and journalists from all around the world come here to keep abreast of everything that happens. And what happens is more than a dramatization…. It is the pride of a community, the honor of taking part, and the unity of the people through tradition.
Family, faith and tradition unify this community as well as the rest of the country.
Mexico is passion and spirit!
Our Semana Santa Video was taped in Iztapalapa, capturing every aspect of this wonderful tradition.
The community was kind enough to give us an insider’s view of the celebration. We were able to see them rehearse, to speak with the “actors” and their families. The organizers shared with us and our viewers the history of this passion play.
Taping Semana Santa in Mexico Video was one of the most interesting experiences we have had. We hope we can share it with you through this article and our video.