Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Original Villages | Iztapalapa's Holy Week Passion Play: Part I - Palm Sunday

When we moved to Mexico City nearly six years ago and settled into a fifth-floor apartment in Colonia Parque San Andrés in Delegación Coyoacán, we discovered that we had a view of a low, tree-covered hill about five miles straight east.

We soon learned that the hill was called Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star. An extinct volcano, it played a significant role in indigenous history as the site of a temple where the xiuhmolpilli (sheeoo-mol-PEEL-yee), the Binding of the Yearswas enacted every fifty-two years by the Mexica (Aztecs). This date marked the point in time when the first day of the 365-day Solar Calendar and the first day of the 260-day Divinatory Calendar, based on the human gestation cycle, coincided—a critical juncture of human and cosmic destiny. In Spanish, it has been called Nuevo Fuego, the New Fire ceremony, as fires in all the pueblos were extinguished and a new fire was lit as part of the sacrificial ritual. 

So we made the Hill, called Huizachtecatl by the Mexica, one of the first historical sites we visited, relying on a taxi driver to take us to the Delegación of Iztapalapa and up the hill to where the Museum of the New Fire sits. A gate on the road means visitors have to walk from there up to the summit, which we did. (See our post on Hill of the Star for the history of the hill and the foundation of Iztapalapa at its base). 

Subsequently, we heard of the Passion Play that is put on each year by the people of Iztapalapa during Semana Santa, Holy Week. We were intrigued, but when we heard that as many as four million people attend the Good Friday reenactement of the Crucifixion of the Christ under the hot sun of an April afternoon—and that Iztapalapa was "dangerous" because of "a lot of crime", we were dissuaded from trying to attend. 

However, over this past year, as we engaged in exploring the original indigenous villages of the City as part of our Mexico City Ambles, we came to realize that we needed to go to Iztapalapa—one of the most important such pre-hispanic setttlements. During our explorations we quickly learned that the best time to visit these barrios and pueblos is when el pueblo, the people, are holding a fiesta—vividly, energetically and proudly celebrating their centuries-old communal identity. So we knew that we had to visit the original barrios of Iztapalapa during Semana Santa and witness its Passion Play. Fiestas are also the safest time to visit an unknown neighborhood, as the community, including its leadership, is out in the streets. 

Day of Palms

So at about 11am this Palm Sunday, we board Line 12 of the Metro at Estación Ermita (the Hermitage Chapel) and head east. Traveling underground we know that we are crossing what was the channel between Lake Xochimilco to the south and Lake Texcoco to the north. The next stop, Mexicalcingo, marks the beginning of what was the Iztapalapa peninsula before the lakes were drained. At the next station, Atlalilco, we change to Line 8.

Exiting at the next stop, the Izapalapa station, we find ourselves on Calzada Ermita-Iztapalapa, the wide boulevard that follows the path of the original Mexica [meh-SHE-cuh] causeway that began in Tenochtitlan and, at its southern end, divided to connect Coyoacán on the west shore with Iztapalapa on the east shore.  

We immediately know that a typical Mexican fiesta is in progress. The street has been closed to traffic, and families are walking in the roadway. As always, there are vendors selling. As it is Palm Sunday, the main item is palm fronds woven into itricate patterns.

We follow the crowd into the first side steet which leads to the main plaza of Iztapalapa a block further on. 

Los Nazarenes

The first thing that strikes our attention are numbers of men and boys dressed in purple robes. Purple is the color of penitence for the Season of Lent. These must be the Nazarenes who participate in Holy Week processions as an act of penitence, often walking barefoot and sometimes carrying a cross. We had seen them in such processions in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, where we lived before coming to the City. Here they are holding large palm fronds. We have read on the internet that Palm Sunday in Iztapalapa involves a procession recreating Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem.

As they are obviously involved in the procession, we approach them and ask when the procession begins. Being muchachos, teen-age boys, their answer is rather lacking in specifics. They say it will pass by here at some later time this afternoon.

So we walk along the side of the plaza, which is hidden behind vendor's puestos, stalls. We ask some adults about the procession and one tells us it begins at the church on the other side of the plaza. 

So we head across the plaza, a large, pleasant, tree-filled space.

Wending our way though the puestos on the far side, we see the wall of the church atrio, atrium and find an entrance.

The Church of St. Luke

Church of St. Luke

It is the church of San Lucas, St. Luke, the parish church for the Barrio de San Lucas. The atrio is full of people, some obviously in costumes for the Passion play. Others wear orange T-shirts identifying them as security staff. And still others who have come to watch the spectacle. Inside, Mass is in progress.

From the front door we can glimpse behind the altar a bearded figure with long, flowing hair in a white robe, At his side stands a woman in a blue shawl. It is Jesus the Christ and his Mother, the Virgin Mary. Behind them stands a very blond angel. It must be the Archangel Gabriel. A priest is speaking from a lectern to one side.

Once again in our ambles, we have found what we were looking for. This time, it's the Son of God and the Mother of God, or at least actors representing them. Semana Santa is starting off in Iztapalapa at full steam. The Passion Play is about to begin.

Some Actors

We turn from the sanctuary entrance back towards the waiting actors. We wonder what roles they will be playing. We have read that only residents of the eight original barrios of the indigenous altepetl, city-state of Iztapalapa­—San Lucas, Santa Bárbara, San Ignacio, San Pablo, San José, San Pedro, La Asunción and San Miguel—can participate. There are 136 principal speaking roles, along with another 275 actors and 500 extras. We approach some in distinctive costumes, introduce ourselves and ask about their role.

He is to play a blind man.
This beautiful young woman
tells us she is playing "a virgin".

Mary Magdalene
A "lady of the night"




Others who—while not in costumes—seem to be related to the play.

These two gentlemen, wearing sashes that say
Society of Jesus of Nazareth.
tell us they have responsibilty for accompanying "el burrito", the little donkey.

At about this point, two men in orange shirts approach us and ask if we are "press". We say that no, we are a retired estadounidense, USer, with una gran inquietud, a great curiosity, about the original pueblos of the city and that we have a blog on the Internet where we publish stories and photos of our paseos. We hand them our Mexico City Amles/Paseos card. They energetically welcome us and offer any help we may need. 


We tell them it would be helpful to know the schedule of events for the coming days, so we would know when to arrive. They tell us there is a Web page for the Semana Santa Passion Play with the schedule, but basically, if we come at 4PM on Tuesday and noon on Thursday and Friday, we will see the important scenes. We thank them for being tan amable, so kind and considerate.

The Play Begins   

Soon, there is movement in the crowd near the right side of the church. Evidently, something is about to happen. Within a few minutes, over the heads of the crowd, we can see the top of a statue of a saint moving towards us—the sure sign that the procession is beginning.

Lord Jesus on el burrito, the little donkey


The donkey statue and the Nazarenes are followed by the Son and His Mother, Jesus and Mary.

Jesus, Mary and the Archangel Gabriel

We are immediately struck by the actors. Jesus is over six feet tall, broad shouldered, with very strong facial features and large hands. He is no retiring, thin, sad Jesus. He is a strong force. Mary, while less dramatic, conveys with her eyes a quiet strength one would not want to provoke.

We have read that tradition demands that those chosen to play these two roles may not date, drink, smoke or go to parties until they have finished their commitments, along with two newer ones—no tattoos or piercings. The candidates must also show that they have the economic means to buy their costumes. The candidates are investigated to ensure they meet these requirements.

In addition, candidates to play Jesus must also show that they have the physical strength to endure beatings and carry a 100 kilo (220 lb) cross four kilometers (2.5 miles) uphill. Once a candidate is chosen, he is then required to remain celibate for the intervening year before the performance and begin physical training six months in advance. Wikipedia

Gabriel the Archangel is strikingly güero—blond, fair-skinned—and fine-featured for this usually more or less moreno, brown-skinned, people. He is extremely guapo, handsome. 

Added to the guapas/os other actresses and actors we have met, we think that whoever did the casting had a very professional eye. We are also impressed that, if the rule holds that all of them come from the eight original barrios of Iztapalapa, there is such a range and depth of physical beauty in the rostros, countenances of this ancient community. And such confident sense of personal presence.

The Miracle Worker

As we are observing all of this, Jesus lets go the arm of Mary, who walks on, and he stops right in front of us! We cannot believe our good fortune. We have the best seats in the house! Front row, center! As that credit card ad used to say, "Priceless!"

Jesus of Nazareth,
called the Christ, the Messiah,
the Annointed One.

What then unfolds are a series of scenes from the life of the Christ and his final week of Passion.

A crippled man is brought on a litter and placed before Jesus

Two Pharisees, enforcers of Jewish law, watch with skepticism and concern.
As it is a sabbath, no work should be done.

Jesus prays over the cripple—who falls back in failure on his first two tries to rise to his feet, leading the Pharisees to laugh in scornbut on the third try the man manages to stand up.

"I can walk!"

Next, a child leads to Jesus the "blind" young man we met earlier.

He, too, is miraculously cured.

Joy and thanksgiving!

Then a series of women approach Jesus and ask forgiveness of their sins. 



Then, Mary herself approaches her Son.

She asks why he is doing what he is doing.
He responds that it is God's Will.
In the background, a threatening face.

She pleads that he relent. She sobs over the tragic end she foresees.
She then accepts what is now inevitable

Judas Iscariot

The procession then moves on from the church atrio into the street.

Outside, an initial encounter takes place between Jesus and Judas.

Gabriel watches impássively.
He is impassive throughout the drama.
He also constantly holds his arms in a lifted position.
(After some time, we figure he must have a supporting frame under his robe.)

Entrance into Jerusalem, the City of God's Peace

The procession moves on into the plaza, where some stages await. 

On the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jesus, Mary and the Disciples
stop for a meal.
Mary Magdelene weeps at Jesus' feet, washing them with her tears.

The group then begins the procession into Jerusalem; that is, through the streets of Iztapalapa.

Two bugle corps announce the approach of Jesus,
who is called the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.

In training for future Semana Santas,
and other fiestas.

Photo thanks to Semana Santa Iztapalapa

The Faithful follow

Delegación of Iztapalapa
is large, green area on mid-east side of the City

Barrios and colonias of Delegación Iztapalapa
Original barrios are marked by green and yellow star.
Just below them is Cerro de la Estrella (dark green area)

Original indigenous barrios of Iztapalapa
lie north of west to east Calzada de Ermita-Iztapalapa

Oranage and yellow star marks the Plaza Cuitlahuac in Barrio San Lucas
Green and yellow star marks site of crucifixion enactment
on Cerro de la Estrella

See also: Iztapalapa, Part I: Hill of the Star and the Origins of Culhuacán and Iztapalapa

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