Blowing up Judas

Mexican folk-Catholic traditions are based on those of Spain, and are often reinterpreted (and reinterpreted again) based on the country’s culture, history and current social concerns.

One of these relates to the creation of an effigy of Judas Iscariot for Holy Saturday. In many southern European countries, there has been a centuries long tradition of creating some kind of crude effigy to represent the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, in order to abuse and destroy it as a way to destroy evil and commemorate Iscariot’s suicide.

Hanging and execution of Judas in Santorini, Greece  (credit:Klearchos Kapoutsis)

The Spanish brought the tradition over from Europe and since then it has developed a life of its own. In many places which burn Judas on Holy Saturday, the figure is still usually cloth and/or sawdust, paper, wood, etc and made with little to no artistic thought in the matter. Not so in Mexico.

Paper mache (cartonería) was introduced in Mexico in the late colonial period and became a popular material for creating cheap props for Mexico’s many festivals. In central Mexico, it became the essential material for the creation of Judas effigies.

But instead of a crude human-like figure, the technique allowed for more creativity,  Eventually, the “traditional” paper mache Judas figure became a devil, often naked with (sometimes distorted) limbs, horns and menacing face. Paper mache allows for painting, so bright colors, especially red, became commonly used.  The rigidity of the figure allows for something their cloth counterparts do not… the attachment of fireworks.

Traditional devil “Judas” figures, part of the folk art collection of Juan Jimenez in Mexico City

Judas figures in Mexico are not burnt…. they are exploded, although the event is still called the “quema (burning) de Judas.”  The event is loud and somewhat dangerous.

In Zacatecas, the figures are not only have fireworks, they are also roped and dragged in the streets by men on horseback.

Making of a large Judas figure at the National Cartoneria Gathering in Cuernavaca

This brings me to something of a controversy regarding these figures. In the 19th and halfway through the 20th century, these figures were exceedingly popular in central Mexico, especially Mexico City. For many paper craftspeople (cartoneros), the sale of Judases was one of the largest sources of income.

But that changed in 1957, when fire and explosions at the La Merced market in downtown Mexico devastated the buildings and the surrounding area. Soon after the federal government (who ran the city at the time) banned the making, warehousing and most selling of fireworks in the city limits. “Burnings” of Judases were almost entirely banned as well.

Without the fireworks, Mexican saw little reason to continue buying the Judas figures and many cartoneros needed to leave the trade.

For this reason, it is hard to find Burnings of Judas in Mexico City and even in other places as other states and municipalities adopted the precedent set by the capital. Today it is limited only to those who obtain special permits to hold the event such as the Linares family on Oriente 30 (near Metro Fray Servando), the Annual Feria de Cartoneria of Mexico City, along with those held in Tultepec and Toluca in the neighboring State of Mexico. Celaya, Guanajuato also has the event, but they have since reverted to the literal and older meaning of “burning” where the figure is doused in gasoline and set on fire.

Member of the Linares family setting a firework onto a Judas in front on 30 Oriente Street in Mexioc City

As for the exploding Judases, the official reason given for the many restrictions relate to public safety. And indeed the explosives used on the figures are significantly more powerful than your average firecracker. All traditionally published materials on the subject repeat this claim. However, there are more than a few cartoneros in Mexico City who do not believe that this is the true reason behind the near-ban. There is some evidence to back them up. First, toritos do not have nearly the same restrictions and as their fireworks are going off, and they are plowing through crowds of onlookers.

The second relates to the evolution of Judas figures which are NOT figures of devils. Mexico has a long tradition of higher classes oppressing the lower, with the lower classes finding ways to mock and jeer their “betters.” Since paper mache allows for fairly realistic representations, early in their development appeared versions that would depict politicians any anyone else who might have sparked the ire of a community during that time, taking the place of Judas/the Devil as a symbol of evil. The idea is that the Merced fire created an excuse to clamp down on this form of protest

Judas figures depictiting (L to R) Mexican president Peña Nieto, Donald Trump and Barack Obama

While it succeded in dampening the popularity of the event in general, it did not eliminate the making of Judas figures as a form of protest or effigy of a real person (always male for some reason). The Linares family burns a series of figures during their event, Mexican and even foreign figures appear in the lineup.

And never ones to miss an opportunity for the ironic, Mexican can even make Judas figures of popular characters usually from pop culture such as comedians, actors and singers as a kind of a homage… but these all get “burned” too.

Judas figures waiting to be burned. The middle figure (with baseball cap) is from the popular children’s series El Chavo de Ocho


Other areas where Burnings of Judas still occur

San Miguel Allende (but on Easter Sunday)

Patzcuaro, Michoacan

Cuernavaca, Morelos (Centro Cultural Jardin de Borda)

Colotlan, Jalisco

Obrerista, Treviño and Sarabia neighborhoods in Monterrey

Cuitláhuac, Veracruz

Gomez Palacio, Durango


All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter, unless otherwise specified


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