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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In the Mexican capital, residents are staging an elaborate recreation of Jesus Christ's final days on earth. For more than a century and a half, the Passion of the Christ has been performed each year in the streets of the impoverished Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa.

Last night, Jesus gave his sermon on the mount, Lazarus rose from the dead, and a few loaves of bread multiplied to feed the hungry masses. Now, preparations are being made for the Last Supper.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on an Easter tradition in one of the world's most Catholic countries.

(Soundbite of music)

JASON BEAUBIEN: Twenty-year-old Gilberto Morales Pedraza, playing the role of Jesus, walks slowly but regally through the streets of Iztapalapa. He's surrounded by disciples in long flowing garbs and tourists in Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirts. Actors heckle Jesus as he walks through what's supposed to be ancient Jerusalem.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Morales portrays Jesus with a quiet confidence, appearing constantly pained by the sin, suffering and ignorance all around him.

Mr. GILBERTO MORALES PEDRAZA: (as Jesus) (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: For the finale, Morales, sporting a crown of real thorns, will drag a 200-pound cross more than five miles through the streets of Iztapalapa. While they spare the actor the actual crucifixion, he will be tied to the cross late Friday afternoon on a hill overlooking Mexico City.

Iztapalapa is often described as a barrio muy popular, which is a polite way of saying poor, crime-ridden and generally unsafe. But for Holy Week, hundreds of thousands of people from all over Mexico line Iztapalapa's streets to watch the annual Passion of Christ.

(Soundbite of music)

BEAUBIEN: Israelites in fake beards and Roman soldiers on horseback march past taco stands and shops selling pirated DVDs. Hundreds of locals practice for months to put on the performance.

Twenty-five-year-old Leticia Vizcaino, who plays the role of Mary, says this event brings the neighborhood together.

Ms. LETICIA VIZCAINO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: She says many people contribute food or places for the actors to rehearse. Others pass out fruit and water along the routes while the processions wind through Iztapalapa.

Normally, Vizcaino works as a manager in a restaurant. She says on a personal level, for her, it's been very moving to play the role of Mary. Tears well up in her eyes. She says after she got the part, she prayed to the Virgin Mary.

Ms. VIZCAINO: (Through translator) I told her to take my body and to use it to show the people how she's suffering right now over our difficulties, to reach their hearts and make them to think about how we are living. During this week, this reflection is very important to us as Catholics.

BEAUBIEN: Mexico is in the midst of a brutal drug war that's claimed more than 35,000 lives over the last four years. Seventy-three-year-old resident Alicia Quintana Becerril, who's just leaving the reenactment of Lazarus' resurrection, also says Mexico desperately needs change right now. Quintana says she hopes an event like this one will have an effect on los malos, the bad ones.

Ms. ALICIA QUINTANA BECERRIL: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I hope everything will change, Quintana says, because here there's a lot of crime, a lot of assaults, a lot of problems. I hope their hearts will change, and they'll leave people in peace.

For residents here, it isn't considered far-fetched to ask or hope that a theatrical production can produce social change. After all, the first Passion of Christ in Iztapalapa was staged in 1843 during the midst of a devastating cholera outbreak.

According to local legend, after that event, the cholera deaths miraculously started to decline. And, within a few months, the epidemic was over. So residents of Iztapalapa have staged the Passion as an act of faith ever since.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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