La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Religion

'Jesus Christ Superstar' in Iztapalapa, Mexico

It wasn't hard to imagine what the real crucifixion of Christ might have been like if you were anywhere near the populous, working-class neighborhood of Iztapalapa in Mexico City last Friday.

Nothing was left to the imagination in what is one of the world's biggest Passion plays. Holy Week, or Semana Santa, sees the staging of a number of scenes from the Bible on the streets of Iztapalapa, including Palm Sunday and the Resurrection. But none are as dramatic as the reenactment of Good Friday.

An estimated 2 million people descended on Iztapalapa on Friday to witness the 166th annual crucifixion, this year of Diego Villagran, the 18-year-old local playing the role of Jesus.

The sheer number of people taking part in or watching what was well-organized chaos was similar to portrayals of the crucifixion one might have seen in films such as "Ben-Hur" and Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ.” Babies and young children sat atop their parents' shoulders, crammed into crowded streets and pushed up against police barriers as some of the 4,000 actors in the street play bayed for the blood of "Christ".

Meanwhile, Mexico’s ubiquitous street vendors showed no shyness in taking advantage of the religious event. They were everywhere, flogging sunhats, bottled water and stamps of the face of Jesus, while offering to imprint the faces of those willing to pay five pesos.

The heat of the April sun, combined with the severe water shortages that the borough also experienced over the week, made the setting feel uncomfortably real. When the blood-soaked “Jesus” staggered past, surrounded by a jeering crowd that kept pushing him to the ground and laughing, it was hard to resist the urge to wade in and save him from his violent destiny.

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Mexico City is the world's top religious tourist destination

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Mexico City finished first in a list of the world's most visited religious tourism destinations, ahead of the Vatican and Lourdes in France, reports Milenio.

A study carried out by the Spanish Office of Tourism found that Mexico's capital is the preferred destination of tourists seeking religious sites, largely because of its Basilica de Guadalupe, which receives millions of pilgrims each year.

The site of the basilica marks the spot where, according to Catholic tradition, the Virgin de Guadalupe -- Mexico's most revered saint -- appeared to indigenous farmer Juan Diego in 1531. Every year, millions of pilgrims make their way to the shrine -- arriving in their biggest numbers around Dec. 12, the Dia de la Virgin. See La Plaza's video report on last year's pilgrims here.

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Second place on the list of top religious destinations was claimed by Lourdes.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Photo, top: One of the basilicas on the site where the Virgin de Guadalupe -- Mexico's most revered saint -- is believed to have appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. Credit: Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times.

Photo, bottom: Millions of pilgrims descend on the Basilica de Guadalupe each year, many of them carrying statues of the Virgin or walking with heavy pictures of the icon tied to their backs. Credit: Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times. See more photos here on Flickr.

Video: The Virgin of Guadalupe brings Mexicans to their knees

Julio Cesar, a 19-year-old metalworker, crawled on his knees for five hours to reach the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Surrounded by four of his friends, who had to physically support him in the final yards as he scaled the steps of the huge church, Cesar was fulfilling a promise.

“I asked the Virgin to look after my children,” he said, his young face burned red by the sun on this December day. His prayers were answered, he said, and this was his act of thanks to her.

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Cesar was one of an estimated 7 million Mexican Catholics who made the annual pilgrimage to the basilica in Mexico City this week. Today is expected to bring the largest numbers of people to the spot that tradition holds is where the Virgin de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most revered saint, first appeared.

Bertin Nava, a salesman, and girlfriend Mayra Sanchez, a hairdresser, both from the working-class Iztapalapa neighborhood of Mexico City, walked hand in hand toward the church. Each of them had a small statue of the Virgin tucked under an arm.

“This is a family tradition. My father started coming when I was small and started the custom of coming every year, walking from the house to here,” said Nava.

He and Sanchez had been walking for six hours. Nearby, Ricardo Lozano walked for 2 1/2 days from Atlixco, in the central state of Puebla. He arrived Thursday. He had a thick blanket rolled and tied to his back, and walked gingerly on feet rubbed raw by his boots.

But he was in high spirits.

“I have a strong faith and wanted to make the journey to the Virgin,” he said.

Two churches actually stand on Tepeyac hill in the north of Mexico City, known as La Villa de Guadalupe -– the old and the new basilicas. Both were besieged by visitors Thursday, many of them with heavy, wooden-framed effigies of the Virgin tied to their backs.

The show of faith was a formidable sight.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Photo: Julio Cesar, a 19-year-old metalworker, crawled on his knees for five hours Thursday to reach the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Credit: Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times. Go to Flickr to see more photos of the annual pilgrimage.

Mexico church assailed for maligning miniskirt

Last week's condemnation of the miniskirt by the Mexican Catholic Church has enraged some Mexican women, who say the church's statement that women should wear less provocative clothing makes it easier to justify rape and other forms of violence against them.

Last week's statement, which advised women not to get into "spicy" conversations with men if they wanted to avoid rape and violence, said:

If you want to avoid sexual aggression ... do not use provocative clothing ... watch your glances ... don't be alone with a man, even if you know him ... don't permit spicy chats or jokes ... look for help when you suspect bad intentions.

Women protested in front of the cathedral in Mexico City's Zocalo over the weekend — wearing miniskirts of course — and the statement has been lambasted by newspaper columnists and women's rights activists.

Guadalupe Loaeza, a renowned Mexican social commentator, said she worries the priest's statements will be taken seriously and make it acceptable to blame the victim.

"It gives rapists permission to say, 'Well, she had on a miniskirt,' " Loaeza said. "What the church says has credibility — that's why this type of statement is so dangerous."

Click here for the full Associated Press report.

For more on Mexico, click here.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Santeria priest won't let religious freedom be sacrificed

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Ernesto Pichardo, co-founder of the first incorporated Santeria church in the United States, has filed a lawsuit stemming from a police raid during a worship ritual in 2007. 

Pichardo, 53, is a small man with a weather-worn face and a comb-over, a chain smoker and a trash-talker, argumentative, opinionated and occasionally profane, writes Richard Fausset.

He is a proud member of the Cuban American bourgeoisie and a Republican. Yet his streetwise English carries a hint of Abbie Hoffman, with sentences that often end with a sardonic "man."

"Jesus Suarez, a Santeria priest, had slit the throat of one goat that June afternoon. He had three more goats, two sheep and 44 chickens to go."

"But before he could finish the ritual sacrifice, Coral Gables police swarmed the house where he and some 20 other followers of the Afro-Cuban religion had gathered to worship."

"...Soon thereafter, word of the raid made its way to the great defender of Santeria in the United States. That would be Ernesto Pichardo -- high priest, physical extension of the fire spirit Shango and co-founder of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the first incorporated Santeria church in the nation."

Read more on Pichardo and Santeria here.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Photo:  “It’s almost offensive, the mentality of the Coral Gables mayor,” Ernesto Pichardo says. “To him, it seems that it’s OK to practice these backwards African things in some other city, just not [his].” Credit: David Adame / For The Times

Mexico kneels to its 'Little Virgin'

Every year, on the north side of Mexico City, a remarkable sight begins to materialize around mid-December. Thousands of worshipers of the Virgen de Guadalupe converge on the basilica named for her, an oasis of calm and spiritual contemplation in the heart of this restless metropolis.

They come by foot, subway, bus and car, from all parts of the republic. Some arrive on their knees, inching along the rough sidewalks in a gesture of contrition and devotion. Some carry children in their arms. Some pilgrims bear flowers, or paintings of the icon strapped to their backs. Mexicans revere their national heroes: Pancho Villa, Frida Kahlo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

But by far the country's most beloved figure is the Virgen de Guadalupe, the dark-skinned, Mexican incarnation of the Virgin Mary, synthesized with the indigenous Aztec goddess Tonantzin. According to Roman Catholic belief, she first appeared as a vision to the Indian peasant (and, eventually, saint) Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin between Dec. 9 and Dec. 12, 1531, and spoke to him in the indigenous Nahuatl language.

Since then, her image has spread across the hemisphere, and she is worshiped as ardently in East Los Angeles as in Guadalajara, by Latinos and non-Latinos alike. But for the faithful, there is nothing quite like the ritual unfolding this week in Mexico City, where the Virgencita (little virgin) is making her annual procession before the powerful and the poor.

For those wanting a more strenuous pilgrimage, residents of Tilaco undertake a 250-mile torch relay to their town from Mexico City in veneration of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

— Reed Johnson in Mexico City

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