Every year, millions of devotees descend on the bustling Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa to watch the Passion Play, which culminates with a re-enactment of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This year marked the 175th edition of the Good Friday performance and an estimated 2 million watched the event live, with millions more tuning in to watch the procession on television.
More than 162 actors had roles in the play and another 500 took part as extras. As usual, the costumes and makeup were elaborate. The Roman soldiers wore leather sandals and armour, while artificial blood was used to recreate the wounds of Jesus Christ.
After an 8 kilometer (5 miles) uphill trek, the crucifixion was re-enacted at the summit of Cerro de Estrella. This year, the lead role was played by Iván Estrella. A 24-year-old bank teller, Estrella had to prove that he fulfilled a set of specific requirements to secure the leading role. He needed to be single and without children, at least 1.75 meters (5’7″) tall and with no tattoos or piercings.
In addition to these requirements, the selected actor must prove that he is in great physical shape and capable of carrying the cross to the summit.
A committee of Iztapalapa residents are in charge of choosing who plays Christ. They are also responsible for ensuring that the selected actor meets the strict requirements for the position. Last year, Erick Eduardo Guzmán was removed from the leading role after it was discovered that he was married.
The Iztapalapa procession does not date back to the colonial period, as do most other Passion plays in Latin America. Instead, the performance was first enacted in 1843 as a way to give thanks after a cholera epidemic in the area had finally come to an end. According to local legend, if Iztapalapa ever stops performing the play, the disease will return to menace the community.
The Passion play has since grown to become one of the largest religious events in Latin America. Since the 1980s the performance has been televised and broadcast across the region, as well as featured in English-speaking media.
The procession has become a key part of Iztapalapa’s identity, contributing to a sense of community in an area that has long been defined by its poverty and crime rate.
All of the actors who perform in the play must be residents of the sprawling Mexico City borough and the city government has declared the event an intangible cultural heritage as part of an effort to earn recognition from UNESCO.
The annual performance also brings money into one of the capital’s lowest income boroughs. During the festival, there are special offers in local hotels and restaurants. Vendors also line Iztapalapa’s streets offering souvenirs to tourists.
Aided by television coverage and active promotion, the event seems to have grown in popularity in recent years. The crowds will undoubtedly continue to gather in the borough for many years to come.