Mexicans Play Christ With Realism

.c The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Throughout Mexico on Friday, men wore thorns, carried crosses, stumbled, were whipped and tied bleeding in mock crucifixions - all as part of passion plays meant to bring them closer to God.

Participants say the reenactments keep the cross - an ever-present fixture on the walls of apartments, markets and taxi stands in this predominantly Roman Catholic country - from becoming just another piece of furniture.

Meant to bring people closer to understanding the suffering of Christ, the passion plays re-enact the crucifixion. They have also come to symbolize unity and community in regions swept by change.

Nowhere is that more true than in Ixtapalapa, a rough, sprawling, Mexico City slum that hosts the region's most elaborate passion play, with some 4,000 actors and hundreds of thousands of spectators.

Unity is hard to come by here and change is hard to resist: in a matter of decades, Ixtapalapa went from a quiet farming town to a barrio so tough that army troops are occasionally sent to control crime.

``Ixtapalapa natives are so united around this, all the parishes come together, all the generations come together,'' said Joaquin Rueda, the 22-year-old law school student who plays Christ this year.

Ixtapalapa has held the plays for 158 years.

``This is a tradition that unites us,'' Rueda said.

That's probably also true of Taxco, 60 miles south of Mexico City, where men in black, pointed hoods drag chains and bundles of thorns through the streets each year, some flogging themselves with nail-studded whips.

With more tourists flooding this once-isolated city's renowned silver markets each year, the hooded ``penitents'' are preserving a local tradition. It may be the only activity in which outsiders are not welcome to participate.

The nighttime processions are often frightening: In the Holy Week's Procession of Lost Souls, hooded women walk through the cobblestone streets, bent at the waist, with candles in their hands and chains dragging from their ankles.

``This is a tradition that comes from Spain, in the middle ages,'' said Juan Crisostomo, one of the organizers of the event, and one of the few who will give his name.

The processions are organized by secret Roman Catholic brotherhoods, or cofradias. Crisostomo said the hoods ``are meant to protect the penitents' privacy, humility and intimacy. Penitence is an intimate thing.''

In the north-central town of Toliman, however, Mayor Alejandro Martinez doesn't disguise himself. An attorney, Martinez played Christ for eight consecutive years before dropping the role last year during his mayoral campaign.

This Holy Week, he is being tempted by the town's economist-turned-treasurer, who plays the Devil. Other city officials play centurions who whip the Christ-mayor as he drags a 180-pound cross up a steep hill.

``People might think this is an opportunity for townspeople to vent their wrath on the mayor, but it isn't,'' said Martinez, 29. ``We're all friends here.''

Martinez describes Toliman's passion play as a cathartic, community-building event. Many townspeople ``come on Friday and some put on crowns of thorns, and others weep.''

Why such grisly detail? Passion plays date back centuries in some towns, to a time when the church needed to explain the concept of redemption to largely illiterate parishes. Similar events are staged all over the world.

``Once a year, the Church invites the people to sit back and contemplate the cross,'' said Rev. Daniel Gagnon, pastor of the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Mexico City.

``The cross is so ever-present throughout the year. But when you think about what it really meant - nails through the feet, the wounds - then you realize what our salvation cost Christ.''

AP-NY-04-13-01 1413EDT

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