This website is devoted to the Passion plays of eighteenth-century Central Mexico, performed by Indigenous communities in the Nahuatl language, and also in Spanish when the native-language tradition faced censorship, confiscation, and attempted suppression at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Some factors driving the crackdown on this performance tradition were Enlightenment-era intolerance for public religious spectacle, objections to non-canonical content in the scripts, fear that church buildings and church vestments were being disrespected, scorn for what seemed a too festive approach to Holy Week solemnities (including use of alcohol), uneasiness with Indigenous men playing the role of Christ, disapproval of women actors, and a paternalistic concern that Indigenous communities were spending too much money on the performances. Essentially, however, this is a case of colonizers attempting to police and control the religious expressions of the colonized. We seek to make globally available the archival traces of this practice as it existed in the eighteenth century—after two centuries of colonial rule—both to document this moment in colonial history and to explore these earlier forms of the Passions performed today in both Spanish and Nahuatl.
The principal texts for this project are six plays in Nahuatl, found in different archives in the United States and Mexico, and four plays in Spanish, housed in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. The Nahuatl plays are translated by Louise Burkhart, and the Spanish ones by Daniel Mosquera. Similarities and differences within each group of plays, and between the Nahuatl set and the Spanish set, provide much valuable data for exploring popular Passion performances in later-colonial Mexico. The locations, dates, and communities of origin for the Nahuatl plays are shown in this table [LINK]. Three share a connection in that they were collected and submitted to the office of the Archbishop of Mexico in 1757 by fray Miguel de Torres, parish priest in Jonacatepec (now in the state of Morelos). The plays, from three communities within his jurisdiction, are closely related, in that one script combines material from the other two.
One of the Spanish plays was submitted to the Mexican Inquisition office in the town of Chalco in 1768, by a Spanish man who had purchased it in a market and found its content suspicious. The Inquisition launched an investigation, from 1768 to 1770. Three additional Spanish-language plays and some related papers were confiscated, and various reports were filed; all this material is housed in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City (Ramo Inquisición vol. 1072, legajo 5). As there is no information on what town the play that started the investigation came from, we refer to it as Cuaderno 1. Cuaderno, or notebook, is the term the Inquisition reports use to refer to the play scripts. The other Spanish plays come from Ozumba, Amecameca, and Tenango (del Aire), all towns in what is now the state of México. After all the plays have been added to the website, we will be posting transcriptions and translations of these reports and some other documents related to the surveillance and suppression of this performance practice.
Two of the Nahuatl plays have been published previously (in work by Fernando Horcasitas, Louise M. Burkhart and Barry D. Sell, and Raul Macuil Martínez); the Spanish play from Ozumba plays has been published in Spanish (by Juan Leyva); and other texts from the Inquisition case, as well as additional texts relating to the censorship of colonial theater, have been published in Spanish (by a team of Mexican scholars headed by Maya Ramos Smith). This web-based project will bring all of this material into English.
The Nahuatl Passion plays were community theatricals performed during Holy Week, typically on Palm Sunday, culminating in the staged crucifixion of a man playing Jesus Christ. Performances included a large number of actors as well as musicians and singers. Indigenous towns temporarily converted themselves into Jerusalem to reenact Christianity’s core narrative, imposed on them during the Christian evangelization of the early colonial period. The performances exhibited compliance with colonial Christianization, but also presented a powerful appropriation of Christianity into Indigenous hands and Indigenous forms of religiosity, which emphasized communal celebration, oral and musical performance, ritual impersonation, and world renewal.
The Passion play tradition relied on alphabetic literacy in the Nahuatl language, the province of a small minority of men who served as civil and church notaries, choirmasters, and teachers of Christian doctrine. Many of the actors would have depended on these literate individuals to help them learn their parts. The existing plays indicate that written scripts, and also individual scenes and speeches extracted from them, were traded among communities. Since colonial censors never permitted the publication of Nahuatl plays, they existed only as handwritten manuscripts, which could be reworded or rearranged at will, and recopied as necessary.
The Nahuatl Passion plays draw from the canonical Gospel accounts (especially Matthew and John), early apocryphal Gospels, medieval legends, contemplative Passion devotions, liturgical chants, and in some cases a late-sixteenth-century text claiming to be Jesus’s death warrant.
The Nahuatl scripts are so similar that they must derive from a single model play, written perhaps around the beginning of the seventeenth century. At the moment, this text and its specific Spanish narrative or dramatic source text remain unidentified. The known scripts, collectively, provide a lot of evidence of its content. However, each play has features unique to it. Some scenes and other details were added to certain scripts as they were reworked over time, while other material was altered or streamlined. The known plays, even if only a fraction of what once existed, show what is constant within the genre—what a community had to include to stage a proper Passion play, and what parts of the original play were carefully retained—and what was a matter of local people’s choices and preferences, as those developed over time. For example, the scene of Jesus’s farewell to his mother was probably added to the play based on a separate textual tradition going back to the sixteenth century, as it is modeled on a narrative text that survives in a manuscript at Tulane University. Some plays then retained this scene in detail, while others reduced it to a brief exchange. The legend of Veronica and her veil was apparently added to the play, in different versions. New angels joined some casts as well. Clearly, people who prepared new versions of the play felt free to add, remove, and change the content.
Louise Burkhart 3/23/21
Image: Alonso de Molina, Confessionario mayor, en lengua mexicana y castellana. Mexico: Antonio de Espinosa, 1565, folio 19r. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
This project is supported by a Scholarly Editions and Scholarly translations grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency. We gratefully acknowledge this assistance with the development of our website, October 2020 through September 2022.