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Many Mexicos … Many Christs

5 April 2007

My friend Lee (whom I’ve known since grade school) publishes a “traditional Catholic” blog, View From the Choir.  He seems somewhat bemused to find himself part of a “living Stations of the Cross”… something even the very untraditional (and not necessarily Catholic) residents of Mexico take as the normal course of things. 

The “Stations of the Cross,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia are

either a series of pictures or tableaux representing certain scenes in the Passion of Christ, each corresponding to a particular incident, or the special form of devotion connected with such representations. …

The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make in spirit, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ’s suffering and death and this has become one of the most popular of Catholic devotions. It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn.

Normally, there are fourteen “stations”… recalling various stops on the route to Jesus Christ’s execution:

 

  1. Jesus is condemned to death

  2. Jesus receives the cross

  3. Jesus falls the first time

  4. Jesus meetsHis Mother

  5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross

  6. Veronica wipes Jesus’ face with her veil

  7. Jesus falls the second time

  8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls the Third time

  10. Jesus is stripped of His garments

  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross

  12. Jesus dies on the cross

  13. Jesus’ body removed from the cross (Pieta)

  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

You know, the plot of the notorious Mel Gibson movie that was rated “C” (restricted to adults — just like porn) in Mexico because of its violence.  The “Stations” as a ritual only dates to the late 15th century (not that long in terms of the Catholic Church) — a sort of virtual tour of Jerusalem to replace the real one, that was hard even for the wealthiest West Europeans to reach after Constantanople fell to the Ottomans.  

 In Northern churches, the “stations” are usually just kitsch art along the church walls, and a series of prayers during Lent. In Spain, and even more so in Latin America, the stations were ritualized.  The Spanish, arriving in the Americas in 1492, and in Mexico in 1524, already had a custom of public self-humiliation to expiate their sins… still seen in the brotherhoods that whip themselves through the streets. 

When I lived in Gertrudis Sanchez, in a “modern” development on the outskirts of Mexico City, I admit I was shocked seeing young college age guys whipped through the streets on Good Friday, by guys in Azteco-Roman costumes (or at least Aztec looking guys in sort-of Roman legionaire outfits) with spears and drums. Before you spin some deep theory of sado-mascochism into that, I’d add that the whipping was ritual, and I didn’t see any welts or bleeding… it was a show, like any good ritual, meant to suggest something.

The Aztecs — and the other peoples of Mexico — who converted to Catholicism in the early 16th century, often merged their own rituals and practices with Catholicism and public rituals featuring sacrifice on behalf of the community were already a common religious practice.  So… the two rituals made perfect sense.  And maybe still do, even in the 21st century. 

I translated this piece from the Diaro de Coahuila.  It is not great journalism, and it is not a great translation, but it is a great story on a very real Mexican tradition that lives on, changing to fit the times, and not the sensibilities of some foreigners, nor to fit someone’s pre-conceived notion of what “the real Mexico” is.  

I prefer to use the Spanish word, viacrusis, for the very different “living stations” which are not at all bizarre to Latin thinking.  I wrote on one modern student preparing for the Itzapalapa viacrusis (which attracts about a million people every year) and the photos in the article are from the University of Guadalajara’s annual production. The photo immediately below if from Zacatecas.

viacrusis-zacatecas.jpg

The Unacknowledged Christs, by Karla Itzel Ruiz and Maricela Jimenez

Fourteen stops on a route of suffering and penance, a wooden cross and death at the end of the road… these are the basic elements of the Good Friday services.

Remembrance of Jesus Christ’s journey to his execution gives hope to thousands of Catholics. But the Viacrusis is not just the way Jesus Christ spent his last hours, but the way many of us live today.

Migrants, prisoners, abused women and homosexuals are some of today’s Christs who few recognize.

For them, translating the remembrance into reality is a way of making Jesus’ life and suffering relevent to their own lives.

VIACRUCIS OF THE MIGRANTS

Every step and every wound, the tears shed, the injuries, the separation from the family and falls along the road, are not Stations of the Cross in a church, but the calvary of many migrants on their road of destiny, the United States.

Saltillo, the Coahuilense capital, has become a place to rest and recuperate from the mishaps of the journey, and to replentish the energy needed before heading off towards American territory. Deportation, denouncements, arrest, physical and sexual abuse by authorities, are some of the problems confronted by migrants. They search for a temporary shelter to rest before continuing their trek to the United States.

The Casa del Migrante refuge sees between 100 and 130 persons daily, the majority from Central America, anxious to begin as a marginized working class in the United States. They have left their home, their family, their work and their motherland to take on this project, their own Viacrucis.

As they near the border, the migrants face a long trek on foot, enduring the blazing sun by day, the freezing nights and risk attacks from wild animals.

Luck may smile on those that make it to the other side, but some will be less fortunate – caught by the Border Patrol and deported to their own country, or ending as carrion for the wild animals, another on the long list of deaths of those who sought the American Dream.

Father Pedro Pantoja, director of la Casa del Migrante, holds weekly services during Lent. Each Friday, he uses both Bible readings and the experiences of his guests to give meaning to the Stations of the Cross, drawing parallels between the accidents and savage attacks on the migrants and the suffering and final journey of Jesus.

Although a Catholic priest, Pantoja respects the diversity of religions of those entering the Casa. However, he does invite the youths at la Casa to participate in the Mass, the prayers, the Lenten services and preparations for the Viacrusis.

He is trying to make the Viacrusis of the past into a social reality. For those accustomed to the plaster representations in the churches, he hopes to have them live it, and see it in the present, in the experiences and challenges faced by real people.

GAY JESUS CHRIST

Homosexuals are another Christ of our time, suffering daily rejection and discrimination from conservatives, denied acceptance by the religious, alienated from the people, institutions and moralistic norms – and, it seems, from God.

According to official reports, 295 murders (275 men and 15 women) between 1995 and 2003 can be officially labeled as caused by discrimination or homophobia.

Deputies, senators, political parties, Mexican machos, housewives, businessmen, priests… the ranks of homophobes include all those who overlook or close their eyes and chose not to see the obvious reality to the pain inflicted on a minority of great importance to the country’s future.

Four year ago, the Bishop of Satillo appointed Father Robert Coogan to the Comunidad San Elredo, named for the Abbot of Rievaulx, an historian and writer of homilies, whose homophilic writings show he was a homosexual.

Coordinated by Noé, Eduardo and Gaby, San Elredo brings together gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transexuals, transgenders, transvestites and heterosexuals, as well as politicians, doctors, business owners, teachers, priests, religious, family members and opinion leaders who participate in religious and other activities.

One of the most important is a homosexual Viacrusis, held Good Friday every year for the last three years.

Contrary to popular opinion, this Viacrusis is not a drama, nor an eccentric production. It respects the traditions of the Catholic Church and seeks to avoid appealing to the morbid curiousity of those expecting a flamboyant display of some kind. The fourteen stations of the Cross are represented in banners, where homosexuals, their families and friends read a reflection based on the experiences they have had with suffering, rejection, discrimination and even deaths caused by homophobia. This year’s Viacrusis will be held on Good Friday at Plaza Nueva Tlaxcala in the Centro.

CALVARY AMONG THE CELLBLOCKS

A darkened room, far from any people or noise, with only the rats running down the hallway for company, is a unique place to meditate and reflect on the meaning of Good Friday.

The Men’s Center for Social Readaption in Saltillo has close to 800 inmates, about five percent of whom are membery of the Penitentiary Parish, also coordinated by Father Coogan.

The group conducts different spiritual activities, including retreats, prayer meetings, baptisms and weekly or monthly masses, and assisting convicts in integrating religion into their daily lives after they compete their sentences.

One of the most important activities the group undertakes is a Convicts’ Viacrusis. The Parish selects the people who will incarnate the personages in the production and prepares the necessary staging. While the traditional Viacrusis only includes fourteen stations representing different points on the route to Jesus’ Crucification, the Convicts’ Viacrusis also includes Jesus’ imprisonment, with reflections on heart-felt repentance. The original service, prepared years ago by members of a religious order, the Missionary Servants of the Word, it has been revised continually over the years by the convicts to reflect their own needs and sensibilities.

Prisoner’s families and some members of the Diocese of Saltillo also participate in preparation and the Viacrusis. Costumes and makeup come from the outside, and – being a Men’s prison – outsiders take the role of the Virgin Mary and the other women who accompanied Christ during his Passion.

While the whole thing might be seen as a game designed to touch the conscience of the inmates, everyone can relate to someone – whether Judas, the traitor who repents or Peter who wouldn’t squeal.

For “Jesus”, the identification with his role has been so strong, he asked to be put into solitary confinement to reflect on his part. He wants the dramatization of the whipping to be true, and hopes to truly repent of his sins and to feel as Christ felt that day.

THE INNER CHRIST

Migrants, homosexuals, convicts, single mothers, beaten women, abandoned children, each person lives their own Viacrusis.

Failure, rejection, mistreatment and regret are a daily battle, and everyone hopes to see an end to their own pain.

No one can judge a person based on first impressions, because no one knows what another person has been through, or what they must go through. They can only reflect on their own experience. It is up to each person to live their life, and to bear their own cross. It is enough that everyone relates and understands that many years ago, Jesus Christ did the same.

It won’t expiate your sins, but you’ll feel better if you donate:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. el_longhorn permalink
    5 April 2007 8:23 pm

    Great piece. Reading the MexFiles makes me want to visit Mexico again. Bustamante, Nuevo Leon has some beautiful religious processions, especially la fiesta del Señor de Tlaxcala in August, durante la canicula.

  2. Lee permalink
    21 April 2007 9:02 am

    Bemused?

    Nah. I’ve been doing the stations for years.

    I’m more concerned with the media consistently refusing to cover it because it is pro life – even as an anti-government Stations with one tenth of the people gets covered each year.

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