Local news photographers crowd round, trying to get the perfect shot, and a whole sea of umbrellas spring up as people shelter from the heat / Susannah Rigg

In Mexico, Easter means an excuse for the town to get together. Parasols up, popcorn in hand – it’s time for the crucifixion

The sun beats down and I strain to hear Jesus’ voice as he stops at the Fourth Station of the Cross on his path to crucifixion. I’m one of the few hundred people following the re-enactment of the Passion of the Christ in the small town of Animas Trujano, just outside Oaxaca City in Southern Mexico. 

It is a white-hot Good Friday and we’re walking a dusty path that has seen no rain in months. Jesus’ voice is overpowered by the sound of the man with a little cart, shaving ice into a plastic cup, adding a sticky, syrupy flavouring and handing it out to happy customers. “Raspados!” he calls, selling his wares as if a man playing Jesus – carrying a cross and being whipped by Roman soldiers – isn’t just up ahead. No one seems offended, either; in fact, most seem grateful for the shaved ice that cools them off in the heat. Forget Calvary; there’s a queue of people eagerly awaiting this sweet, icy treat. 

I swig some water as the crowd swell forward to the next Station. Up ahead, ‘Jesus’ is crying and moaning. He’s taking his role seriously, pain etched across his face, body crumpling with exhaustion as he drags the heavy wooden cross he will later be raised on from Station to Station. In this town of just over 3,000 people, being chosen to play Jesus in the annual event is an honour that is accepted piously – the player is always a devout church-goer – yet there’s little sense among the crowd that they need to suffer alongside him. They chatter, drift in and out, and eat and drink as they casually watch the brutal scenes. Most carry parasols to shade them from the beating sun.

Mexico has little religious diversity – 89 per cent of the population identifies as Catholic. In Oaxaca City, saints’ days are celebrated almost constantly, though not as you might expect – they’re marked by loud firecrackers booming through the night. Boarding a bus will see you bombarded with images of a crucified Jesus; every time you pass a church, several passengers will cross themselves. Religion is ever-present in everyday life here, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that those in attendance take the crucifixion in their stride. 

Back in Animas Trujano, the fiesta feeling continues as we move through the streets. Another cart cycles past, its merchant honking a horn to alert us to his wares. Popcorn, crisps and fried plantains are his offerings and people munch loudly as we wait for the procession to move forward. The tension is building – we’re anxious to get to the hill and for the crucifixion to start. 

After what seems like hours (and is probably at least two), we arrive at the peak overlooking the town, and preparations get under way to raise Jesus on the cross. The crowd hustles and bustles to get the best spot; children run up and down the small mounds of dry earth, balancing on tiptoes to see.

I was expecting a sombre atmosphere, and while some seem quietly reflective, what’s more palpable is a spark of excitement at the spectacle – perhaps even some macabre joy. Local news photographers crowd round, trying to get the perfect shot, and a whole sea of umbrellas spring up as people shelter from the heat. The crowd chitchat, children get restless and teenagers seem to be using the time when their parents are distracted to flirt under the shade of trees. It’s just another day in Mexico – except there’s a man being raised on a cross in front of our eyes.  

It’s certainly impressive. Jesus’ exhausted, broken body, covered in blood (fake – realistic as it looked, the whipping was just for show) is set against the bright blue Oaxaca sky. Down below, Roman soldiers dressed in deep red cloaks taunt him. The haunting sound of Mary’s wailing echoes round the little valley where we stand, staring up at the display before us. The actress – another member of the congregation, who can only be in her late teens – tries to run to Jesus but is pushed, weeping, to the ground by the Roman guards. 

As Jesus calls out “My Lord, why have you forsaken me?” someone’s mobile starts to ring. “Hi dude,” shouts the man picking up. “I’m at the crucifixion.” No one bats an eye. Maybe nothing is sacred in Mexico – or rather, perhaps, everything is.

Travel essentials

Getting there

AeroMexico flies from Heathrow to Oaxaca City (six miles away from Animas Trujano) via Mexico City from £676 return. Otherwise the journey requires one extra stop: airlines connecting in Europe as well as Mexico City include KLM via Amsterdam and Iberia via Madrid.

Staying there

Casa Oaxaca’s seven beautiful rooms are filled with contemporary local artwork. Doubles from $2,585MXN (£111).

More information

The crucifixion takes place at the Cerro de Animas Trujano at roughly 1pm, while the procession starts around 10.30am.