Most of us envision Mexican handcrafts and folk art as a timeless tradition, representative of a quiet, dignified life free from the cacophony of much of human interaction. And certainly this can be found. However, there is one product that has had a controversial past.
Southern Europe originated a tradition of burning an effigy of Judas Iscariot on Holy Saturday, commemorating his suicide after betraying Christ. It is a kind of purification ritual, whereby the community “transfers its sins” to the effigy, then burns it. In most traditions of this sort, the effigy is crudely made human figure and set on fire.
But not in Mexico….
The Spanish brought this tradition and a related one, the Fallas de Valencia, to Mexico. The latter, consisted of making a wooden figure in the form of a devil or something related to current events, then burning it for the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th. Over time, these two traditions fused. Modern paper mache was introduced to Mexico in the later colonial period/early 19th century, and it appears that one of its first uses was the making of these devil figures, allowing for much creativity. Somehow, they became intimately connected with the fireworks-making communities in Mexico, so instead of being “gently” set on fire, they are loaded up with firecrackers and ripped apart with a series of bangs.
But that is not the controversial part. The making of non-devil figures related to something that has the attention of the populace got embedded here as well. So on a day devoted to destroying evil, someone who the people are angry with, usually politicians/other authority figures, would appear in these effigies to receive the same treatment as a kind of catharsis… which would not sit well with many authorities. This led to the entire practice of the burning of Judas being restricted or banned at times over history, but always resurfacing.
The last banning occurred in Mexico City in the 1950s. In 1957, a warehouse near the Merced market exploded, leveling nearby buildings and causing deaths. Authorities blamed fireworks makers and sellers, but many believe that the warehouse was being used to store military ammunition. Fireworks making and almost all selling was banned from the city proper (making the suburb of Tultepec the new hub for this activity). Without fireworks, the tradition of the Burning of Judas almost died completely.
In later years, under the guise of safety, the Burning of Judas itself officially was banned, then allowed but only with special permits, not easy to get. What goes in Mexico City often goes in the provinces and many states/cities enacted similar laws. However, many cartoneros do not believe it is a safety issue but rather a political one, which very well could be the case as running around streets with bulls loaded with fireworks (which never had a political aspect) is still permitted.
With the weakening and fall of the single-party PRI system in the late 20th and early 21st century, the tradition of the Burning of Judas seems to be making a comeback. The Linares family in the east of the city has kept it alive this whole time, their fame allowing them to get the needed permissions. But other individuals and groups have had more luck in getting permits, especially in the last 10 years or so including the organizers of the annual Festival de la Cartonería in Mexico City and prominent artisans such as Alfonso Morales of southern Morelos state, who has reestablished the tradition there.
One change is that because of the restrictions, multiple Judases are burned/exploded at events, not just one. Devils make a mandatory appearance as per tradition,but perhaps the real draw is to see what other figures might appear. It is almost guaranteed that with the Linares, both the Mexican and US presidents will appear, no matter what the political party. One year an Italian singer was burned, basically for saying that he thought Mexican women were ugly. In a twist, sometimes the figure being burned is actually admired rather than scorned. This is the case with Judases in the form of figures from popular culture such as Cantinflas and El Chavo del Ocho. This means that any appearance this year by new Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador may be for either reason. It will depend on how the figure is depicted.