MEXICO CITY -- After two months of hard work assembling and painting devil-like cardboard figures popularly known as “Judas,” Mexican artisan Marcela Villarreal is eager to watch her creations burn.
Villarreal and dozens of fellow crafters created the figures ahead of the annual “Burning of Judas,” a celebration that takes place in Mexico every Holy Saturday, when people across the country gather in public plazas to light fireworks that will destroy these colorful figures made as symbolic embodiments of evil.
This festivity — filled with satirical humor — is not associated with the Holy Week celebrations led by the Catholic Church in this mostly Catholic country. The practice is common in several Latin American nations and in some parts of Greece.
Originally, the burning figures were effigies of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, according to the Biblical account of the days leading up to Christ's crucifixion. Nowadays, though, Mexican artisans shape their Judas like red, horned devils or other characters considered evil by society.
Villarreal and other artisans made 12 figures for Saturday’s event in Santa María la Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City. Five of them were to be hanged from branches and destroyed; the others will be displayed at a nearby museum.
“It is a spectacle to see how the Judas are lit, to see the emotion of the people,” Villarreal said.
Researcher Abraham Domínguez, in an article published by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, wrote that this ritual originated in Europe during the Middle Ages and reached America with the Spanish conquest.
Although it is unknown when it first took place on this continent, the earliest records date from the 19th century. In modern times, variations of the tradition in some countries have drawn criticism for being antisemitic. A 2019 event in Poland was condemned by the World Jewish Congress and others.
But in Mexico, the tradition is embraced as positive and fun.
“By exploding with rockets, evil and betrayal are symbolically destroyed,” Domínguez wrote. “In the burning of Judas, social evil becomes laughable.”
In a few Mexican neighborhoods that host this event, some satirical figures resembling politicians burn, too.
“They are burned because of what people are accusing them of,” Villarreal said. It is a way of expressing disagreement with humor, she said.
Villarreal has spent more than a decade working in “cartonería,” as the craft of creating papier-mache sculptures is known. Most notably, “cartonería” creations fill Mexican streets during the Day of the Dead celebrations in late October and early November.
Inside each figure lies a reed skeleton covered with newspaper and cardboard. Depending on weather conditions and how fast the glue dries, it can take several weeks of work to be ready.
Villarreal speaks with enthusiasm about a 10-foot-tall Judas she and her colleagues crafted for this year’s celebration in Santa María la Ribera.
“His body is covered in masks representing the seven deadly sins. It’s awesome,” she said.
Painted in blue, red and yellow, the devilish character will be spared from the fire. After Sunday, it will be transferred to the Pulque Museum, a few kilometers away from Santa María la Ribera.
This year’s celebrations in this Mexican neighborhood began on Holy Thursday. The agenda included workshops, conferences, raffles and dances.
“The most gratifying thing for us is to see that our work is part of a tradition,” Villarreal said. “It gathers people who probable didn’t know this tradition exists.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.