As a Catholic, traveling to my parents’ Mexican hometown for Holy Week festivities is one of my most vivid childhood memories. On the Holy Saturday we were there, I witnessed a truly memorable event: the burning of the Judas.
Through my catechism classes, I had already learned about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. My mother had also explained to me that Judas hung himself out of remorse for what he’d done, and that the traditional burning of his effigy was a representation of the act that gave rise to Christ’s resurrection. The burnings occurred every year in the quad of my parents’ local church, and every year my family attended.
Judas burnings date back to colonial times. Papier-mâché effigies would be filled with gunpowder so they would explode when lit. By the time of the Mexican Independence in 1821, the effigies no longer represented a religious character, but a parodied bureaucrat or some other despised agent of authority.
Burning an effigy was a safe way for Mexicans to vent their hostility towards the Porfirian regime without disrupting society. Burnings were seen as a way of reversing roles, where for one day, the entitled hierarchies were placed at the bottom and the desires of everyday Mexicans moved to the top.
In the mid-18th century, the burnings were banned, as the effigies had become too representative of local officials. But the Porfirian regime’s attempts to suppress these events did not dissipate the tradition. The burnings became even more symbolic. Today, Judas burnings continue to take place throughout different parts of Mexico.
In fact, during recent protests in the capital, the Judas burning tradition has taken on a new importance. The media has shown the burnings as part of the discontent, a representation of how the Mexican people feel towards their corrupt government. After the massacre of 43 students, in which government officials are suspected of being involved, the Mexican people have reignited sentiments not felt for a long, long time.
On November 20, 2014, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, a 10-foot-tall papier-mâché effigy of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto was set on fire in Mexico City by protesters demanding justice for the students. People are still protesting the President’s lack of action in the face of such tragedies.
While the current situation in Mexico is alarming, it invigorates me to know that Mexican traditions have been kept alive and that the Mexican people will still come together to fight for their rights. From the quad of the church in my parent’s hometown to Zocalo Square in Mexico City, Judas burnings remind us that Mexican identities and traditions first founded in colonial times continue to live on today.