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 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 desecrated, 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 was 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.

We are pleased to announce that this project has received a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Scholarly Editions and Scholarly Translations program. We will be expanding the content beginning in late 2020. 

The colonial Passion plays were community theatricals performed during Holy Week, 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.

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