Tag Archives: Mexico City

The Passion of Iztapalapa

Early morning on Good Friday, actors and their crosses begin streaming into Iztapalapa for the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

Early morning on Good Friday, actors and their crosses begin streaming into Iztapalapa for the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

Since basing myself in Mexico City, most of my personal work has been focused on the water crisis for urban poor in Iztapalapa – the most populous of the city’s 16 boroughs. So when I heard that several million Catholic devotees would be converging on Iztapalapa to reenact the Passion of the Christ, complete with horses, costumes, and fake blood, I knew it was an event I had to cover.

I teamed up with Al Jazeera English, and the following text was originally published there along with a nice selection of images.

I’m adding a few unpublished pictures here, and if you’re interested in seeing the complete edit, you can look though my archives, here.

In short, the Iztapalapa Passion of the Christ is a photojournalist’s dream in terms of visual overload, and if you find yourself in Mexico City during Semana Santa (holy week), it is well worth the trip.

Catholic devotees carry a statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets of Iztapalapa, clouded in incese smoke.

Catholic devotees carry a statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets of Iztapalapa, clouded in incense smoke.

The Passion of Iztapalapa

Every April for the last 174 years, massive crowds have been gathering in Iztapalapa, Mexico City, to express their Catholic devotion at the annual Passion of the Christ procession. A country with a massive Catholic majority, with more than 80% of the population prescribing to the faith at the last census, the event brings in millions of spectators to Iztapalapa – already Mexico City’s most populous borough. They come to watch thousands of actors in full costume wind their way through Iztapalapa’s streets to the summit of Cerro de Estrella where Jesus’ crucifixion is reenacted, fake blood and all. The players come from all demographics, like Miguel Julian, a handyman from Iztapalapa who has been dressing as a Roman legionary for the last 17 years. When asked why he gives his time to sweat in the Mexican sun clothed in heavy leather armour, he says, “to give thanks to God.”

Actors playing Roman cavalry ride through the streets of Iztapalapa. Most of the horses for the annual event are on loan from the Mexico City police force. Despite being well trained, there are horse-related accidents nearly every year.

Actors playing Roman cavalry ride through the streets of Iztapalapa. Most of the horses for the annual event are on loan from the Mexico City police force. Despite being well trained, there are horse-related accidents nearly every year.

Young men dress as Roman legionaries for the 174-year-old Iztapalapa Passion of the Christ procession. Upwards of 10 000 actors will participate in the event.

Young men dress as Roman legionaries for the 174-year-old Iztapalapa Passion of the Christ procession. Upwards of 10 000 actors will participate in the event.

Local bands practice their marching songs for the annual Passion of the Christ procession. Participating in the event is seen as a sign of devotion and a point of pride for locals.

Local bands practice their marching songs for the annual Passion of the Christ procession. Participating in the event is seen as a sign of devotion and a point of pride for locals.

Unlike in other parts of Latin America where similar passion tributes dates back to Spanish colonial times, Iztapalapa’s event was formed after a cholera epidemic in 1843 ended. To express their faith that God had saved them from death, locals wrote and stages their own version of the Passion of the Christ – an event that has now grown to be one of the region’s largest religious events.

The procession has become a point of local pride for Iztapalapa, an urban sprawl on the Eastern edge of Mexico City home to nearly two million people. One of the city’s lowest income areas, Iztapalapa has been plagued with high crime rates and instances of domestic violence for years. The prestige and scale of the Passion procession is therefore a much needed source of honour for a community that is so often portrayed negatively in the news. “I’ve been coming to this event since I was a little boy,” said 38-year old taxi driver and Iztapalapa local Omar Zepeda. “I used to carry the crosses up the hill like the others, and it always made me feel proud that this event happens here in Iztapalapa.”

Catholic devotees dressed as Nazarenes begin the Passion of the Christ procession in Iztapalapa dragging 100kg (220 lb.) crosses behind them for the long walk to the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

Catholic devotees dressed as Nazarenes begin the Passion of the Christ procession in Iztapalapa dragging 100kg (220 lb.) crosses behind them for the long walk to the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

A cross-bearer takes a break from carrying his 100kg (220lb.) cross up the Cerro de Estrella. In the mid day sun, dragging the crosses up Iztapalapa's tallest mountain is an exhausting physical feat.

A cross-bearer takes a break from carrying his 100kg (220lb.) cross up the Cerro de Estrella. In the mid day sun, dragging the crosses up Iztapalapa’s tallest mountain is an exhausting physical feat.

After reaching the summit of Cerro de Estrella, people quickly drop their heavy crosses and rest in whatever shade they can find after the exhausting trek.

After reaching the summit of Cerro de Estrella, people quickly drop their heavy crosses and rest in whatever shade they can find after the exhausting trek.

While there are thousands of actors and participants in the parade, the competition for the main parts – especially Jesus – is fierce as the honour associated with such a role is immense. The actor who is chosen (this year 27-year-old Eder Omar Arreola Ortega won the part) must be able to drag a 100 kg (220 lb.) wooden cross for roughly six kilometres, much of which is uphill. In order not to collapse in front of the nation’s TV cameras, he must train up to six months in advance.

Young women in full costume wait in the streets as the procession is halted in the winding streets of Iztapalapa. An estimated 10 000 actors and actresses will participate in the event.

Young women in full costume wait in the streets as the procession is halted in the winding streets of Iztapalapa. An estimated 10 000 actors and actresses will participate in the event.

Up to 10 000 actors and actresses participate in the annual event, which winds for kilometres through the streets of Iztapalapa before ending on the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

Up to 10 000 actors and actresses participate in the annual event, which winds for kilometres through the streets of Iztapalapa before ending on the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

With an estimated 2-4 million spectators lining Iztapalapa's streets for the procession, a heavy police presence is needed to control the crowds.

With an estimated 2-4 million spectators lining Iztapalapa’s streets for the procession, a heavy police presence is needed to control the crowds.

Broadcast by satellite and now the Internet all across the Spanish-speaking world, Iztapalapa’s Passion of the Christ is only growing in popularity, just as the religion itself continues to gain ground in the developing world. And there is every indication that massive crowds will continue to gather on Cerro de Estrella for years to come.

An actor dressed as a Roman legionary prepares the wooden crosses at the summit of Cerro de Estrella on which Jesus will be crucified.

An actor dressed as a Roman legionary prepares the wooden crosses at the summit of Cerro de Estrella on which Jesus will be crucified.

27-year-old Eder Omar Arreola Ortega, the actor playing Jesus in this year's Passion of the Christ parade, carries his wooden cross to the summit of Cerro de Estrella. Being chosen to play Jesus is seen as a huge honor and the actor must train up to six months in advance for the phycial feat of dragging a 100kg (220 lb.) piece of wood up hill in the sun.

27-year-old Eder Omar Arreola Ortega, the actor playing Jesus in this year’s Passion of the Christ parade, carries his wooden cross to the summit of Cerro de Estrella. Being chosen to play Jesus is seen as a huge honor and the actor must train up to six months in advance for the phycial feat of dragging a 100kg (220 lb.) piece of wood up hill in the sun.

Jesus and one of the unnamed thieves he was crucified with hang from crosses on Cerro de Estrella, in a representation of his crucifiction.

Jesus and one of the unnamed thieves he was crucified with hang from crosses on Cerro de Estrella, in a representation of his crucifixion.

A tired devotee in Roman legionary's clothing takes a break after hoisting Jesus onto the cross.

A tired devotee in Roman legionary’s clothing takes a break after hoisting Jesus onto the cross.

After dying on the cross, disciples remove Jesus' crown of thorns towards the end of the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

After dying on the cross, disciples remove Jesus’ crown of thorns towards the end of the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

Actors carry Jesus' body down from Cerro de Estrella as the annual procession ends.

Actors carry Jesus’ body down from Cerro de Estrella as the annual procession ends.

Click here to see a longer edit of images from my archives.

Posted in Blog, Mexico Also tagged , , , , |

Mexico City’s Invisible Rivers – From the Air

Mexico City, beyond being one of the biggest cities in the world, is also one of the most at risk global capitals in terms of water security. This was not always the case, however. In fact, much of what is now Mexico City used to sit on top of Lake Texcoco – a body of water now almost completely covered over by the massive urban sprawl of 24 million people. But even after the lake was sacrificed to accommodate the city’s growing population, there was still a network of rivers that flowed through the city, providing irrigation, drainage, and green space.

Starting in the mid 1900’s, however, the rivers became so polluted from discarded trash and human waste, which when combined with the explosion of personal cars in Mexico led local government to the decision to enclose these rivers in pipes and pave over them with new roads. Some of the city’s main thoroughfares — Rio Churubusco or Rio de la Piedad, for example — still bear the names of the waterways that they replaced. While there is still some form of running water underneath these roads, they are now more sewer than river.

A woman uses an overpass to cross Rio Churubusco, a major freeway that was once a river.

A woman uses an overpass to cross Rio Churubusco, a major freeway that was once a river.

Recently there has been rising interest among architects and environmental activists to dig up these rivers and restore them to their original state, cleaning the water in the process and providing natural space for locals to enjoy. Unsurprisingly these plans have not been wholeheartedly embraced by the government which does not seem interested in spending large sums of money on projects with little promise of economic returns. Yet that hasn’t stopped people from drawing up plans for what such a project might look like and architecture firm Taller 13 has been among the lead voices in advocating the benefits of a city through which rivers once again flow.

 

Concept art from architecture firm Taller 13, showing what the Rio de la Piedad might look like if rejuvenated.

Since moving to Mexico City and starting a three year investigation into all facets of the city’s water situation, I’ve wanted to get a sense of the scale of these former rivers. Previously I’d driven along some of them and taken photos, but the real magnitude of the environment can’t be grasped from ground level. Instead I set aside my camera and travelled across the city with my drone and I think the footage gives a much better idea of both the size of the city and of the invisible rivers that were once above the surface.

Posted in Blog, Drone, Environmental, Mexico, Video, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Sean Gallagher Mentorship Program 2017

I’m pleased to say that I have been awarded the 2017 Mentorship with environmental photojournalist Sean Gallagher. I’ve been following Sean’s work for years, and he was one of the first role models I had to follow when I initially started considering making environmental issues may full time focus. Sean’s work on India’s toxic leather industry and his long-term partnerships with the Pulitzer Center showed me that it was possible to pursue complex environmental stories, even though they might not be dramatic enough to be sought after by the mainstream media.

Ever since I started in this industry I have found that I develop much faster as a storyteller when I have consistently feedback from people I respect, and so I’ve always tried to get as much outside input as possible. In this sense, having a photographer like Sean, someone who is interested in the same issues as I am and who is giving me a full year of his time, will be incredibly valuable and I am looking forward to getting started.

Throughout the course of this program I will continue to work on my long term project about water shortages in Mexico, and I have no doubt that his input is going to increase its power hugely. The visual documentary industry, and the even smaller environmental photojournalism niche within it, can be a solitary one and I am incredibly grateful that there are people like Sean out there who are willing to help along the way.

 

Posted in Blog, Mexico, Photojournalism Tips Also tagged , , , |