The crowd is getting anxious. A man about ten feet away from me is yelling obscenities and cracking Virgin Mary jokes. Someone yells out “Move Forward!” I hold my breath.
What people in the back can’t see is the little old woman caught between the railing and crowd, they don’t know about the homeless kid who has passed out up front after sniffing too much paint thinner, they’re oblivious to the three-year-old that is being held on to for dear life by her father.
“Don’t push,” people scream at whoever’s behind them. But it’s too late for calm and tranquility, everybody’s pushing.
I’ve had similar moments in the Mexico City subway, when riders titter nervously, embarrassed by having to elbow senior citizens and children just to get home on time. But no one in this crowd is laughing. This is serious business. It’s San Judas day.
The celebration actually started last night. With hours of amateur fireworks and a singing of Las Mañanitas, Mexico’s Happy Birthday song, to the venerated saint at midnight. There’s plenty of drinking involved and lots and lots of music. Those that can hack it stay till morning.
As the sun begins to turn the sky magenta, the masses start. Every hour the priest’s voice crackles over the crowd from a loudspeaker. People respond with “Hallelujahs” and “Also with yous,” and when the hymns began to ripple through the crowd, you can feel a communal hum run through your body.
At mid-day I stand, back aching, in the middle of one of those masses. It feels like what I imagine about worshipping Vishnu or Shiva in the streets of India. It feels like the kind of thing you watch on a documentary about religious zealots. It feels like I’ve been transported to some exotic land, but this is where I live. This is Mexico City, and these are Catholics, those supposedly dour and orderly Christians. These folks are anything but dour.
The guys next to me light up a joint. The couple in front of me tries desperately to calm their tiny baby. The lips of the old woman behind me move frantically to words of the rosary over and over. People clutch their statues like life preservers in an urban ocean. San Judas Tadeo figures of every shape and size are lifted towards heaven like offerings when the priest inside the calls for them to be raised for the blessing. Kids dressed as mini San Judases—white robe, green sash—are lifted onto shoulders to keep them from the press of the crowd.
The priest reads:
“… Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them … Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”
He takes a special pause at the name of Judas son of James, before the other Judas, the traitor.
“He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.”
Suddenly the bible verses have been breathed into life. But this crowd, the one that fills the streets in front of the Templo de Hipolito in Colonia Guerrero, aren’t from Jerusalem or Tyre or Sidon. Instead they came from Iztapalapa and Azcapotzalco and Tepito. Oh, and a single outlier from the Chicago suburbs. We are all there for miracles, praying to San Judas for our lost causes, and waiting for a blessing.
The priest and people lovingly call him San Juditas, the diminutive form of his name that makes him seem familiar, approachable. San Judas has your back, San Judas is your cuate.
As the saint of lost causes he’s been adopted by the marginalized, the poor, the downtrodden of the country’s capital. Juvenile and not-so-juvenile delinquents look to San Judas as their personal protector.
Each 28th of the month pilgrims bring their images and statues of San Judas to be blessed by the priests at the Templo de San Hipolito, a church dedicated to a different saint altogether but that has been adopted by this band of followers. October 28th is the biggest celebration of the year, the date where if you didn’t make it the other months, you can make up for it.
The Hidalgo metro station overflows with followers and their San Judas figurines. They are tiny enough to fit in your pocket, and large enough that it takes two people to carry them through the crowd. Carved from wood, molded from plastic, created in porcelain, each statue has a story and is deeply connected to its holder.
San Judas is depicted with an image of Jesus on his chest, which although generally attributed to the miracle Image of Edessa, looks like a giant golden coin. Many of his followers believe he can help them with their money troubles.
He’s also depicted holding an axe or a club, a symbol of his martyred death, but in the eyes of his public it has made him the defender of defenseless, including of those “defenseless” thieves and criminals of Mexico City’s underbelly.
The pilgrims’ statues are covered in rosaries, images of loved ones, bracelets with San Judas’ colors – yellow, green and white. They have him holding on to stuffed animals, carrying roses and covered in good luck charms. People have come today to say thank you to San Juditas, to pray for their lost causes, and to fulfill promises they have made to him.
This year’s San Judas mass has particular pain to it. A little over a month ago was Mexico City’s massive 7.1 earthquake that toppled dozens of buildings and took hundreds of lives. The priest prays for the souls of the departed and reads off the name of three of the earthquake’s youngest victims—they were 11, 8, and 4.
When each mass ends, the crowd starts to push. There’s a 30-second period, when we all lurch forward towards the church stairs, that feels like it might be the stampede moment. But just as we are all about to tip, we suddenly straighten ourselves again and thousands move as a single mass into the covered tunnel that leads to the main atrium of the Templo de Hipolito.
Inside are wall-to-wall pilgrims, carrying their San Judas, lighting candles, crossing themselves at each new religious icon they pass. Old ladies take a rest on the benches lining the church, but the ambiance is not exactly peaceful. The room has the heat of hundreds of humans in it and the noise level of a massive bee hive. Pilgrims are praying, crying, sucking on lollipops being handed out to the crowd, but none are silent. Mexico is never silent.
On right side of the church’s main altar a priest douses the crowd and their figurines with holy water. On the left are a handful of San Judas statues without heads—the saint’s actual state at his death. It’s not clear to me whether these are brought in broken or purposefully altered, but they are all dripping with holy water.
The interior of the church is a blur of incense and bodies; in order to remain for the full mass you have to be ready to plant yourself like a defensive guard. If not, you will be moved along like flotsam, as you’re pushed quickly through to make room for the next round of worshippers.
As one of the uninitiated, I find myself at the back of the church before I can even get a good look around. Hours of waiting and it’s over before it began. But there’s a relief from being spit out by the crowd and I can finally move freely again. At the exits, sweet bread, bottled holy water, and rosaries are for sale at tables manned by nuns in full habit. A technicolor San Judas is lit up in the back corner; it’s somewhere between a Christmas tree and a house party.
Outside, the church’s plaza and surrounding streets are turning into a full-on party. Food vendors have set up, Tepache vendors sell their fermented fruit juice to thirsty parishioners. The crowd feels lighter, fuller after their encounter with San Judas. Images and icons of Jude are everywhere: keychains, rosaries, even t-shirts. From the time we entered the crowd to exiting the church the sun has set and the city has taken on its requisite dusky glow.
Guys from the barrio huddle around their motorcycles smoking weed and drinking forties. Entire families, each dressed as St. Jude, eat tacos al pastor and grilled corn on a stick. Police stand at a distance, keeping an eye on the crowd but trying not to get too involved.
After this celebration, many of the pilgrims will travel on to Puebla where they will visit some of the religious relics on display in the San Judas church there. But many more will simply go back to their trades—legal and illegal—hoping that their attendance will mean that San Judas protects them for another year, and that he has their back in this monster of a city.
Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City who spends her time mangling the Spanish language, scouring the country for true stories and "researching" every taco stand in her neighborhood. She is the author of "Mexico City Streets: La Roma," a guide to one of Mexico City's most eclectic neighborhoods and she chronicles her life in the city on her blog www.MexicoCityStreets.com.
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