Mexicans Hope For Miracles In Staging Of The Passion

April 20, 2011

Jason Beaubien

Jason Beaubien
Gilberto Morales Pedraza, 20, as Jesus Christ, leads the disciples through the streets of the Mexico City neighborhood of Ixtapalapa. This is the 168th year that residents of this neighborhood have re-enacted Christ's final days in Jerusalem, his crucifixion and his resurrection.
Jason Beaubien
Residents of the Mexico City neighborhood of Ixtapalapa re-enact Jesus Christ's final days.

In the Mexican capital this week residents are staging an elaborate re-creation of Jesus Christ's final days on Earth — an Easter tradition in one of the world's most Catholic countries.

For more than a century and a half, the Passion of Christ has been performed each year in the streets of the impoverished Mexico City neighborhood of Ixtapalapa.

Monday night, Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, Lazarus rose from the dead, and a few loaves of bread multiplied to feed the hungry masses. Now preparations are being made for the Last Supper.

Gilberto Morales Pedraza, 20, playing the role of Jesus, walks slowly but regally through the streets of Ixtapalapa. He's surrounded by disciples in long flowing garb and tourists in Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts.

Actors heckle Jesus as he walks through what is supposed to be ancient Jerusalem.

Morales portrays Jesus with a quiet confidence, appearing constantly pained by the sin, suffering and ignorance all around him.

For the finale, Morales, sporting a crown of real thorns, will drag a 200-pound cross for more than five miles through the streets of Ixtapalapa. While they spare the actor the actual crucifixion, he will be tied to the cross late Friday afternoon on a hill overlooking Mexico City.

Ixtapalapa is often described as a barrio muy popular, which is a polite way of saying a poor, crime-ridden and generally unsafe neighborhood.

But for Holy Week, hundreds of thousands of people from all over Mexico line Ixtapalapa's streets to watch the annual Passion of Christ.

Israelites in fake beards and Roman soldiers on horseback march past taco stands and shops selling pirated DVDs.

Hundreds of locals practice for months to put on the performance.

Leticia Vizcaino, 25, who plays the role of Mary, says this event brings the neighborhood together. She says many people contribute food or places for the actors to rehearse. Others pass out fruit and water along the routes while the processions wind through Ixtapalapa.

Normally Vizcaino works as a manager in a restaurant. She says on a personal level, for her it has been very moving to play Mary.

Tears well up in her eyes. She says after she got the part she prayed to the Virgin Mary.

"I told her to take my body and to use it to show the people how she is suffering right now over our difficulties," she says through a translator. "To reach their hearts and make them think about how we are living. During this week, this reflection is very important to us as Catholics."

Mexico is in the midst of a brutal drug war that has claimed more than 35,000 lives over the past four years.

Alicia Quintana Becerril, 73, who is just leaving the re-enactment of Lazarus' resurrection, also says Mexico desperately needs change right now.

Quintana says she hopes an event like this one will have an effect on los malos, the bad ones. She talks about the rash of crime, assaults and other problems and says she hopes los malos will decide to leave people in peace.

For residents, it isn't considered far-fetched to ask or hope that a theatrical production can produce social change.

After all, the first Passion of Christ in Ixtapalapa was staged in 1843 during the midst of a devastating cholera outbreak. According to local legend, after that event, the cholera deaths miraculously started to decline and within a few months the epidemic was over. So residents of Ixtapalapa have staged the Passion — as an act of faith — ever since. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.