Holy Moly, it’s Holy Week!

Holy week, or Semana Santa, is one of the most important holidays in Mexico. A country with a majority, but declining, Catholic population, Mexico has different events to commemorate the Holy Week of Easter. Semana Santa observes the last days of Christ’s life, the Crucifixion, and Resurrection. It starts on Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) through Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo), Good Friday (Viernes Santo), Holy Saturday (Sábado de Gloria), and culminating with Easter Sunday (Domingo de Resurrección). Each of the days has special events that brings the community together, but probably the one that has received more national and international media attention is the representation of the Via Crucis on Good Friday.


Iztapalapa, 2016

Countries throughout Latin America have different representations of the Passion of Christ and it has often been pointed out as a tourist attraction, as it shows an important aspect of the traditions of the Latin American culture. In Mexico, Iztapalapa—a neighborhood in Mexico City—has gained an important space in the country’s traditions due to its elaborate production in the representation of the Passion of Christ. This tradition dates back to the 16th century, when it was part of the evangelization process of the indigenous population. According to Beatriz Ramirez, chronicler of Iztapalapa, there are documents from the 18th century that make reference to the representations of Good Friday, including the washing of the feet of twelve indigenous people as a way to inculcate the Catholic religion in the native population through very emotional representations.


Iztapalapa, 1954

The representations in Iztapalapa have other origins. According to Ramirez, in September of 1833 a cholera epidemic overtook the community, resulting in the death of a large part of the inhabitants. The local story says that in order to overcome the epidemic, the remaining community members made a procession to the sanctuary of “el Señor de la Cuevita,” which holds an effigy that represents Jesus in the tomb, asking for the cease of the disease and promising to build a new sanctuary in his honor as offering. Days later, the number of deaths decreased. As a result, the eight communities that constitute the neighborhood of Iztapalapa have since made processions to the temple during Holy Week. In 1843, they started the representations of the Via Crucis. By 1944, the representation was performed outside of the churches and brought into public squares and streets of the neighborhood.

The distribution of the roles is done observing a strict list of requirements that need to be fulfilled. Being a native from one of the eight Iztapalapa communities, have proof of being part of the Catholic Church, and having a good standing reputation are a few of them. Although the main roles cannot be interpreted by the same person twice, there are families that have become points of reference of the tradition. For example, the Cano family home has served as the rehearsal house for the past 70 years. The resident that embodies Jesus must train daily to build a strong physical condition that will allow him to carry the wooden cross that weighs approximately 130 kg (286 pounds). Those who enact the Roman soldiers train in the base of the mounted police, whose horses they use during the procession. The band of clarinets that plays during the procession also practice at the mounted police base to accustom the horses to the noises.

The representation of the Via Crucis in Iztapalapa has become the flagship for the religious life of the city. If understood through the lense of assemblage, it can help the spectator understand the complex relationships between the population, the religious identity, and the government. These elements create a relationship that is unique to the event and that make sense in their own context.

The whole event requires year-round organization, and with the years the local government has become greatly involved in the funding of the activities. Government officials provide scenery structures for the representations, lights and sound systems, and security and medical services. Some inhabitants provide free labor and some others, organized under the Organizing Committee of Holy Week in Iztapalapa (Comité Organizador de Semana Santa en Iztapalapa, A.C.), provide economic, logistic, and labor support.


Panoramic of Iztapalapa

In 2012, the government of Mexico City declared the festivities in Iztapalapa Intangible Cultural Patrimony of Mexico City. This recognition allows for the government to present a formal proposal to UNESCO to consider it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The event is also an important economic activity for the neighborhood. The revenues for the 2016 procession were of $10 million pesos (more than $500,000 dollars). For this year’s procession the expected attendance is 2 million people plus 5,000 actors participating. Around 10,000 members of the police forces will be deployed by the local government to secure the event.

Religious events like this, remind us of the strong connections between religion and civil society that extend to government institutions. In a country that declares itself in its constitution as a secular state, religious representations of the Catholic tradition are a “constitutive dimension of the personal and historical identity of the Mexican people.” The involvement of the government in religious activities could seem to be opposite to its idea of secularism, but it illustrates the intricacies between religion and politics. The politicization of religious traditions is hard to avoid. To go a step further, these events have become a battleground for political competition and proselytism. Iztapalapa is the most densely populated of the 16 neighborhoods (delegaciones) that conform Mexico City, with roughly 1.8 million inhabitants and counting. It is also one of the most marginalized. Around 35% of its residents live in poverty. Within the marginalization context, religious traditions stand strong as a route for economic relief and social cohesion.

It will be interesting to follow the evolution of the Holy Week representations in Iztapalapa, especially given the rise of Christian congregations in low income and densely populated areas in Mexico City. Christian traditions that don’t support these types of representations, but that political and economic factors may transform into spectacles.


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