‘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.

Playing Jesus in Iztapalapa, Mexico

But Villagran was well prepared for his ordeal. He has been in training for the role since January, when he was selected during a casting process from 20 young men from the neighborhood (watch the video above, filmed over a period of three months, to see Villagran prepping for his big day).

Playing the lead made Villagran into a temporary celebrity here in Mexico, and he says he has had at least one media interview a day since he was given the role.

Over the last few months in the build-up to his big week, Villagran trained daily on the Cerro de la Estrella, a steep hill that doubled as Mount Calvary on Friday. His preparation included dragging a 190-pound cross around a 2.5-mile running track and doing push-ups with a brick on his back.

But he also said that he had to do some spiritual preparation for the role that included, naturally, regular visits to church, but also what he described as “finding himself, within himself,” and asking himself at every step of the process why he was doing it.

“It doesn’t scare me to play this role – it makes me feel proud and gives me confidence,” says Villagran, who is unusually tall for his 18 years and stands head and shoulders above most of the men in the neighborhood.

Although a big guy, Villagran is still boyishly handsome, and he was striking in the role of Jesus. But he says that acting isn’t something he’s planning to pursue, adding that he’s more interested in becoming an engineer at the state-owned oil company Pemex.

"Since I was little, I’ve watched the procession, and I always wanted to see myself there – I always wanted to play the main role," says Villagran.

"And now that they’ve given me the chance, I’m going to make the most of it."

Well, he certainly did.

Click here for the New York Times coverage of the event, and here for the Washington Post piece.

– Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Video: Diego Villagran trains for the role of Jesus on Iztapalapa’s Cerro de la Estrella. Photo image: A video still taken from the above film. Click here for more images on Flickr. Video and photographs by Deborah Bonello