The Dallas Morning News
March 29, 2002

Town shows Passion for Jesus

Mexico City suburb takes Good Friday performance to heart

By DAVID SEDEÑO / The Dallas Morning News

IZTAPALAPA, Mexico Pedro Reyes has been praying the last few days for strength to endure the 39 lashes that he will get across his bare back on Friday.

Erika Méndez has not been able to sleep soundly for the last couple of months, knowing that she will see him tortured and marched to his death. Their mothers, while
seeing their pain, couldn't be happier.

Mr. Reyes and Ms. Méndez will portray Jesus and Mary in the re-enactment of the Passion of Christ, a huge production this week that has transformed this Mexico
City suburb into the streets of Jerusalem and a nearby hill into Mount Calvary.

For Mr. Reyes, 26, playing the role of Jesus Christ included physical, mental and spiritual preparation, including reading the Bible, lifting weights and running with the
remnants of a large tree to simulate the weight of the cross. He also has talked to others who have played the role of Jesus in previous Iztapalapa productions.

"They told me to open up my heart. This has opened up my heart," he said. "Every day that goes by, I pray more so that he is with me."

This week from Jerusalem to the Philippines Christians will commemorate the final days of Jesus. In churches and plazas, the faithful will listen to readings or act
out the moments leading up to his crucifixion.

In Mexico, where about 90 percent of the population considers itself Roman Catholic, Holy Week, or Semana Santa, is a time of rest. Schools shut down and
business slows down. Many of the privileged go to the beaches or travel abroad to be with their families while others in small villages and urban areas use the time to
reflect on the life of Jesus and to take part in celebrations and re-enactments.

The Passion of Christ observance in Iztapalapa in its 159th year is considered the country's largest. More than 4,500 actors, including those portraying
Nazarenes, Romans and Jews, are expected to participate. A two-square-mile zone around the re-enactment area will be closed to vehicle traffic.

With more than 3 million spectators expected to line streets and rooftops, the re-enactment is eclipsed in size only by the Dec. 12 celebration of Our Lady of
Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

The religious observance in Iztapalapa is one that is enveloped by tradition and folklore dating to 1833. In that year, the story goes, a cholera epidemic had claimed
many indigenous people of the area. The Catholic faithful went to a nearby shrine, praying for an end to the deadly disease.

Immediately after the first Mass was celebrated, it is said, the deaths began to subside and, soon after, people who had left the village began returning. Calling it a
miracle, residents of the town decided within a few years to begin re-creating the Passion of Christ in gratitude for an answer to their prayers.

The re-enactments have evolved dramatically, from biblical readings in church in the first years to the current grand productions that include horses and chariots. The
local government now helps in providing logistical and technical support, along with 1,400 police officers for security.

"The world is living in a process dominated by globalization, but Iztapalapa is not reflective of that," said Tito Domínguez, president of the nonprofit organizing
committee that produces the Passion of Christ. "We are an island of tradition. We are tied by the solidarity of religion, tradition and customs."

The Holy Week observances in Iztapalapa began Sunday, when Mr. Reyes rode a donkey into the central plaza of Iztapalapa, commemorating Christ's entrance into
Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It continued on Holy Thursday with the Last Supper, then with Jesus leaving to pray with his disciples and with his arrest.

On the morning of Good Friday as hundreds of thousands of people begin to converge on Iztapalapa Mr. Reyes, as Jesus, will be returned in chains to the plaza.
He will be placed on a stage and will be prosecuted and convicted by the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. He will be stripped, and a Roman soldier will use a whip to
give him 39 lashes across his bare back.

A crown made of 1-inch to 3-inch thorns will be placed on his head, and then he will be made to carry the specially made 200-pound cross about four miles through
Iztapalapa's streets. Through it all, thousands of people will line the streets, some cheering, others jeering and spitting at him.

He will stumble and will be helped along the way before he reaches Mount Calvary and is tied to the cross, along with two others. He will stay on the cross in the
blazing sun for a couple of hours before he simulates his death and is taken down.

Through it all, Ms. Méndez, 19, will be following, watching, praying and crying. Over the past couple of months, Mr. Reyes and Ms. Méndez have gotten to know
each other as they prepared for their roles and talked to the media about religion and the Passion of Christ. Ms. Méndez said she would try to portray the pain that
Jesus' mother felt as she watched the humiliation and torture of her son.

"I talk to God to give me the strength to be able to see the pain and for the length of the journey and the heat of that day," she said.

Mr. Reyes and Ms. Méndez, like their predecessors, competed for the principal roles in a process that is limited, according to tradition, to natives of Iztapalapa.
They also had to pay for their own props and wardrobe.

Ms. Méndez, who is studying computer programming and English, paid a little more than $300 for her black and white vestments. Mr. Reyes, who is studying to be a
chef and works at a restaurant, is forking over more than $1,500 for his purple and white wardrobe.

Mr. Reyes' mother, Elia Limón de Reyes, said her son's portrayal of Jesus Christ in the year that Pope John Paul II is scheduled to return to Mexico City to raise an
Indian peasant, Juan Diego, to sainthood is noteworthy.

"This is really something very special," Mrs. Limón de Reyes said. "He has been wanting to do this since he was very young. I am very proud of him."

The mother of Ms. Méndez, Leticia Reyes Hernández, said of her daughter: "She has always wanted to do this. We are blessed that she was chosen."

Mr. Reyes said he would continue to pray for strength for all that is ahead of him on Good Friday.

"I will be thinking of all of the acts of that day," he said, counting the three times when he will fall and will have to be helped. "I will pray that he will take me in his
arms and carry me when I am carrying that cross."