Talk about a cast of thousands!
That’s what you can expect when you attend the annual Passion play performance in Mexico City’s eastern Iztapalapa borough this Easter week.
The yearly reenactment of Jesus Christ’s last supper, betrayal and procession of the 12 Stations of the Cross is a neighborhood affair that incorporates the performances of more than 3,000 nonprofessional actors ardently portraying Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, the apostles and the Nazarenes.
For two straight days – Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – the entire borough is transformed into a mockup set of Jerusalem as it might have looked 2,000 years ago.
Considered to be one of the nation’s largest and most important religious processions, the performance – involving virtually every able body in the Iztapalapa community – has become a major national and international tourist attraction, pulling crowds of nearly 2 million people each year.
Although the annual Vía Crucis, as the Passion play is called in Mexico, takes place in more than 340 cities throughout the nation, the Iztapalapa ornately staged spectacle is unique in its devoted performance – perhaps because of its tragic origin – and its highly embellished costumes and props.
According to representatives from the borough’s press office, the traditional Passion play presentation in Iztapalapa began in 1833, after a major cholera epidemic killed off most of the neighborhood’s population.
The survivors of the pandemic decided to express their appreciation to Nuestro Señor de la Cuevita (Our Lord of the Little Cave), who they believed had spared their lives.
That heartfelt thanks, they believed, could best be demonstrated with a reenactment of the last days of Christ as part of their usual Easter Week observances.
The first Vía Crucis in Iztapalapa was, in fact, quite modest, with only a few key actors and no props or costumes.
But over the years, more and more members of the community became involved in the annual procession, and eventually it became a full-fledged extravaganza, replete with sophisticated sets, period-style wardrobes and whole teams of horses and carts, with preparations beginning months in advance.
Today, an organizing committee composed of Iztapalapa community leaders is in charge of selecting the actors for the starring roles based on their physical attributes and acting abilities, as well as their personal conduct and church attendance.
The procession begins in front of the borough’s cathedral, with aspirant Nazarenes dressed in crowns of thorns and purple tunics carrying crosses.
The Nazarenes are followed by the designated Christ, carrying a much larger wooden cross.
The main ceremony then moves into the borough’s main plaza, where Christ is brought to trial and sentenced to death by Pilate.
This is when the most arduous part of the procession begins, as the hero winds his way through three kilometers of Iztapalapa’s cobblestone streets up to the Cerro de la Estrella hilltop, where his tragic verdict is symbolically carried out.
The entire spectacular takes about five hours, and is open to public free of charge.
There will be stands selling Mexican antojitos and other snack foods, as well as traditional Mexican handicrafts, located near the main plaza.
Although there is no denying that the Iztapalapa Vía Crucis is the headliner Passion play performance in Mexico City during the Easter break, many other boroughs offer special activities during the week related to the holiday.
The Coyoacán borough, for example, has its own community Passion play which will be held this year on Friday, March 25, starting at 9 a.m. from the main street of San Bernabé and leading up to the Cerro del Judío.
While not nearly as elaborate or large as its Iztapalapa counterpart, this procession is far less crowded and includes the same basic traditions, and along the path, there is a complementary regional food and drink fest – including flavored pulques – to quench the audience’s hunger and thirst.
The Cuauhtémoc borough, meanwhile, will be organizing a walking tour of “Las siete casas, arte y simbolismo en Semana Santa” (“The seven stations of Christ, art and symbolism during Holy Week”).
The two-hour guided tour is offered from through Friday, March 25, and includes visits to seven of the Centro Histórico’s most magnificent churches.
The Iztapalapa Passion play this year will be held on Thursday, March 24, starting at the main plaza in front of the borough’s cathedral at 5 p.m.
A second performance will be offered on Friday, March 25, at 8 a.m. There will also be an abbreviated version of the play on Saturday, March 26, starting at 9 p.m. and a preliminary procession on Palm Sunday, March 27, at 8 a.m.
The Iztapalapa borough is located in the east of Mexico City and can be reached by taking the Line 8 metro to the Cerro de la Estrella or Atlanlilco station.
Because most of the streets in Iztapalapa will be used for the Passion play procession, local authorities highly advise against trying to arrive in car.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and sunscreen. For more information about the Iztapalapa Vía Crucis, contact the borough’s web page at http://www.iztapalapa.gob.mx.