EASTER IN MEXICO – SEMANA SANTA AND PASCUA
Easter in Mexico is a two-week holiday consisting of Semana Santa (The Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday and ending Easter Saturday) and Pascua (Starting with Easter Sunday and ending the following Saturday). Semana Santa is undoubtedly the most important holiday in Mexican culture. Schools and often businesses in Mexico close during these two weeks and many Mexican families go on holiday during Semana Santa and Pascua.
In some of the more devout regions of Mexico like Taxco, the reenactments include penitentes – men and women who show their penitence and prove their faith by inflicting physical pain on their bodies by whipping themselves or carrying large religious objects on their backs. This is an ancient tradition that dates back to the middle ages and was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish more than 500 years ago. During the reenactments, the actor playing Jesus usually wears a real crown of thorns and carries a massive cross weighing hundreds of pounds over great distances to the scene of crucifixion. Actors prepare both physically and mentally for months before hand with the support of their families and communities.Across the country, Mexicans celebrate the last days of Christ during Holy Week with elaborate and much anticipated processions, ceremonies, and rituals. Most of the larger Semana Santa celebrations include a dramatic reenactment of the capture, the trial, and the crucifixion of Jesus. To be a part of these productions is a great honor and the actors are known for delivering inspiring and moving performances. Different regions of Mexico are known for practicing unique traditions during Semana Santa such as acts of physical torture, public displays of political/social ridicule, and displays of resolutions and commitment.
In towns like San Miguel de Allende, another Spanish-influenced tradition is celebrated during the Holy Week called “The Burning (or Firing) of the Judases.” In Spain, carpenters would make wooden dolls representing Judas, which would be hung and burned in town squares to punish Judas for betraying Christ. During the Holy Inquisition, when the Spanish were burning people at the stake for heresy, Mexicans protested by making dolls and dressing them like Spanish inquisitors and burning them instead of Judas. This evolved into the current tradition where giant Judases made from paper mache are dressed and painted to resemble political and public figures not currently in favor of the public. The dolls are then hung and blown up with fireworks, scattering limbs in the street for children to collect as souvenirs. Famous Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were strong proponents of the value of art in political commentary and quickly adopted the tradition of creating Judases.
Other traditions focus on different ways to show your dedication and appreciation of Jesus’s sacrifice. In Iztapalapa, people called Nazarenes parade the streets before the procession of Christ, marching in promise to fulfill a manda, or religious promise, as payment for a granted favor from God. In many regions of Mexico, people show their devotion by visiting twelve different churches in a single day – one church for each apostle. In more remote regions like the Copper Canyon, local cultures mix christian celebration with ancient native rituals, paying homage to both their Spanish and Indian heritage.
The Fariseos or “Chapayecas” (meaning long-nosed in Yaqui), representative of a custom from the Yaqui tribe of Sonora. It is a tradition full of symbols and representation that dates back to the colonial era, from around the 17th century and the Jesuits. In teaching Catholic doctrine to different pueblos, theatrical representations were valuable and through time these fused with indigenous beliefs, resulting in a colorful way to interpret and bring specific dates to life.
They are called Fariseos (Pharisees) in being the most hated characters from the Passion of the Christ, a representation of the evil of hypocrisy, and the absurd, which is way the Yaqui take on this role as a mandate (a sacrifice offered to God for a special request). They suffer and expunge their sins. Fariseos make their own masks, which they must wear for forty days as they go through pueblos. The Fariseos signify commitment, discipline, and are always accompanied by a “corporal,” who is similar to a godparent who cares for them and assures they do not fall for temptation. This role is for three years, but can be extended for life.
During the festivities of Holy Week, young men and adults adorn particular dress and cover their faces with handmade masks of cow, goat, and deer hides so they are unrecognizable. They are prohibited from speaking and can only communicate through signs. Under the mask it is said they have a rosary cross in their mouth, which is worn around the neck, in order to prevent them from speaking as well as to prevent sin from entering or to fall into temptation. It is said that when a Yaqui man goes to put on his mask, he must lay on the ground and from there place it on their head, simulating as if he were dead and now lives through the character of the mask.
There are those who assure that when Fariseos ask for money this doesn’t have much to do with raising funds, affirming they are very spiritual people; rather, begging is to represent the roles of evil and frugality.
It is not until Black Saturday (Easter Saturday) when the dress and masks worn throughout Lent are removed, and burned in a fire. Then, flowers that represent Black Saturday are thrown upon the burning masks, symbolizing the sinner’s re-encounter with God.
This is a broad picture of the Fariseos, which can vary depending on the region; there are small details that differentiate among each Yaqui group as it is very important to define roots and territories. So, once this period is gone, silence returns to the streets and it won’t be until next year when these mysterious men reappear, and the drum and the rattle remind us of their shocking masks, theirs and ours.