Easter in Mexico

It may sound like a surreal dream, but on Sunday morning I was woken up by the sound of a man’s voice, amplified through a loud speaker, calling for the apostles to gather and meet by the church. It was real. I was in a pretty market town, one hour south of Mexico City, and for the 90% of the population who are Catholics, Palm Sunday kicks off the country’s most important holiday of the year. Now, I’m not religious, but Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Mexico is a cultural extravaganza and not to be missed.

Mexicans are renowned for their love of fiesta and the passion and creativity employed in marking the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is truly awesome. Palm Sunday commemorates the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem astride a donkey. In 2009 AD, in the rural idyll of Tepoztlán, every street corner has someone weaving palm leaves into crosses. The idea is that you carry them into church where they are blessed, before you hang them on the inside of your door until they naturally disintegrate.

As the week progresses the national celebrations become more elaborate; On Maundy Thursday, in villages and towns across the country, the washing of the apostles’ feet, the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane are recreated. But the climax comes on Good Friday with various passion plays and solemn processions marking Christ’s long walk to Calvary and the enactment of his crucifixion. The largest of these takes place in Iztapalapa, south of Mexico City.

Here, a procession, stretching over eight miles, is repeated on each of the four most important days of Holy Week. This is a culmination of three months of rehearsals involving some 2,000 amateur actors. There are strict rules: You are only allowed to take part if you were born in one of the eight neighbourhoods (barrios) of Iztapalapa, or if you are the child of someone born there. A community association is in charge of auditions for the most important roles: Jesus, Mary and Judas. For those playing Jesus and Mary the particulars are very specific – they are banned from drinking alcohol; piercings are prohibited anywhere on the face or body; and Mary, is not allowed a boyfriend throughout the rehearsal period and week-long performance. The minimum height for the actor playing Jesus is set at 6-foot-3 so that he stands out in the crowd of participants and spectators.

Iztapalapa’s particular tradition is over a century old and is rooted in the cholera epidemic of 1833. The local community prayed to their local saint to save them and gradually the deaths dwindled. They dedicated an annual Mass to their saint and over time this became an elaborate representation of the life, passion and death of Jesus.

Rather more alarming is the custom of self-flagellation that takes place in Taxaco – an attractive colonial town famed for its silver – that lies between Mexico City and Acapulco. But at this time of year it is transformed by a procession of willing penitents - men and women who demonstrate their faith by inflicting pain on themselves (a medieval custom that Spain introduced to Mexico nearly 500 years ago). The penitents remain anonymous – their faces concealed by a hood. The men are bare-backed and carry a large wooden cross, a rosary and a whip with metal points affixed to the end. Ever so often, at set points, they stop to whip themselves on their backs until they are bloody and raw.

Needless to say I will be giving that Easter Parade a miss. But Good Friday in Iztapalapa promises to be a supremely spectacular and theatrical occasion and I will be heading there for the day.