The celebration of Christian holidays in Mexico is invariably wrapped in a rich pageantry guaranteed to surprise and delight spectators of almost any faith.  Easter, though, is unquestionably the pinnacle experience in the triumvirate completed by Christmas and each town’s annual  fiesta patronale… the patron saint feast.  Publicly religious events on this scale were introduced into Mexico by Spanish missionaries.  Along with the public murals also common throughout Mexico, they’re part of an aural and visual tradition that pre-dates wider literacy.

With more than 9 in 10 Mexicans identifying themselves as Catholic, these celebrations engage the participation of nearly everyone in the village and family-owned businesses often curtail operating hours or close for several days in observance.

Sweeping cobblestones on the procession route

The Ajijic Passion Play is no two hour stage production.  It runs for 6 or more hours, played out at sites separated by nearly a mile over three days in real Biblical time.  It begins on Thursday with Jesus’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, but I’ve decided to take in instead the Good Friday performance in which Jesus is tried before Herod, condemned by Pontius Pilate, and is led to the crucifixion site along the Via Crucis.

I arrive early to scout out the venue, tracing in reverse the route along Calle Juarez that the procession will shortly take to the site of the crucifixion.

Rows of purple and white streamers criss-cross the street overhead like bright, low-hanging clouds.  They cast fluttering shadows on stucco walls and cobblestone streets.

Cascarones for sale on the Plaza

 

 

 

 

 

 

One block over on the Plaza vendors sell colorful Easter cascarones, painted, hollowed eggshells stuffed with confetti.  From the looks of the pavement some intended targets have already had their confetti shower.

A block further, a curtained stage now sits in the church’s expansive courtyard.  It runs the entire length of the church façade and big speakers are stacked at either end.  By curtain time it’s standing room only.  Every square foot of ground is occupied and spectators hang from the surrounding fences and sit on roofs of neighboring buildings.  English-speaking expats are generously sprinkled throughout the local crowd, their signature wide-brimmed straw hats floating head and shoulders above it. The temperature says it’s comfortably spring, but in the open courtyard the sub-tropical sun quickly withers anything in the open and umbrella sun shades dot the crowd.

King Herod’s court (the statues are real actors!)

When the curtain rises I find myself totally and delightfully unprepared for the sophistication of this production.

Costumes, makeup, and music are all impeccably conceived and executed, and the cast – inclusive of extras – must surely number 100 persons or more.

Jesus is delivered to King Herod

Attention shifts from the stage as a procession arrives from the street outside, where Jesus is being led to Herod’s court in chains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am also unprepared for the intensity that these amateur actors bring to their performances.  From the expressions on their faces all seem completely immersed in their characters and thoroughly caught up in the plot.

Jesus awaits a hearing by Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate sentences Jesus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am most unprepared, though, for the sheer emotional impact of the Via Crucis.

The procession sets out on the Via Crucis

As the costumed procession moves along cobblestone streets among stucco buildings under a brilliant sub-tropical sun, time seems eerily suspended in a two thousand year old moment.

Via Crucis procession

 

 

 

These crosses are no Hollywood props, and the route not only covers a mile or so of cobblestone streets, but ascends at least a couple of hundred feet into the foothills.

 

 

As the condemned labor under their burdens their effort is palpable.

 

 

 

Curbside spectators join the procession as it passes until it has swelled to two or three thousand.

Via Crucis procession

On most Mexican holidays the daytime air is filled with the sound of street bands and nighttime air with the sound of firecrackers, but on this occasion all are subdued and not a single baby cries.

As the procession nears the crucifixion site the crowd becomes tightly packed, but there’s no pushing or shoving.

In the last couple of hundred feet the pitch of the ascent steepens and streets and houses run out, leaving nothing above but the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It looks as if earthmoving equipment has recently raked the site. Together with leafless trees awaiting the rainy season this gives it the appearance of a battlefield no man’s land.  The condemned trio and their armed escorts climb to an outcropping overlooking the crowd gathered below.

Grieving onlooker at the crucifixion site

Hammers sound against the planks as the Roman soldier characters shield compadres and victims from the midday sun with their shields.
At last they wrestle the first of the crosses into the air.

Ajijic Passion play 2012 43

Erection of Christ’s cross.

The central cross is erected last, and the Jesus character’s chest is heaving from heat and exertion. Female extras gathered nearby look far too mournful to be acting.

 

It is now two hours since the day’s performance began. The crowd stands before the tableau as if transfixed and the costumed mourners look inconsolable. The Roman soldier characters stand exhausted from their exertion. Only the clear blue sky seems to distinguish the scene from the original account.

I turn and look back down Calle Juarez, festooned with purple and white streamers. It vanishes into the village only a few blocks before the lake. The water is tranquil and the mountains beyond stand crisply in the clear air. It strikes me that on this day Calle Juarez connects a vision of heaven to a vision of hell.

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Golgotha

In the next act the corpses will be taken down and Jesus’ body carried to its tomb, but I’ve decided that this event is far too much to consume at one sitting – emotionally as well as physically – and promise myself to see the missed acts next year.

See the complete photo album “Semana Santa” for this event on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AntonioRambles

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