Related topics

Easter Brings Passion Play to Brazil Slum

April 19, 2003

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Easter is a special time in the Rocinha favela: It’s when Jesus visits Brazil’s biggest slum.

Actually, this year it was just 16-year-old Lucas Valentin playing the role of Jesus in the ``Via Sacra″ _ a passion play depicting the life of Christ _ but for many slum dwellers the symbolism is so potent it’s almost the real thing.

``For the people here it is very important, it gives us a sense of value. It is a way to remember our roots,″ explains Milton Leonca, a tourist guide.

Thousands of residents flood the slum’s crooked streets and narrow alleys to watch the play, a mobile spectacle that uses various locations around the favela for its sets.

While Judas negotiates Christ’s betrayal by the hillside grocery store, skinny shirtless kids take turns hanging themselves on wooden crosses erected for the cruxifiction scene near where the local drug dealers hawk their wares.

Passion plays are performed across Brazil during Holy Week, especially in the poor northeast, where the Catholic faith runs deep.

The most famous is the ``The Passion of Christ in New Jerusalem,″ which attracts as many as 70,000 people nightly to an open air theater in Caruraru, some 1,000 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro.

By contrast, the Via Sacra, which has been performed in Rochina for the last 11 years, is a low-key affair.

The costumes are made of old sheets and towels, donated by neighbors or scavenged from the garbage and brightened up by pieces of costumes collected from the ground after Rio’s annual carnival parade.

Illumination comes from the kind of flood lights favored by street repair workers. The sound system, on loan from a local DJ, is nothing short of awful.

Drunks and young men on motorcycles occasionally interfere with the proceedings.

None of this diminishes the crowd’s enthusiasm.

The story is a natural in Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country, but for many of the slum residents it’s also the only staged performance they’ll ever see.

``No, I still haven’t been to a theater. I mean, I’m from Rocinha,″ explains Maria Jose Alves da Silva, 47. ``But I come to watch this every year. I love it. I love the crucifixion, everything.″

The idea of holding the play in Rocinha, a sprawling neighborhood of 80,000 people covering a mountainside facing the Atlantic ocean, belongs to Aurelio Mesquita.

A former-circus performer who now ekes out a meager living teaching theater, Mesquita sees the play as tool for awakening social consciousness.

``Because in his time, Christ was a like a bandit, it’s very easy to put our story in him,″ explains Mesquita, who is not particularly religious.

The idea that someone perceived as a bandit can actually be a great man is a poignant idea in Rio’s slums, whose residents are automatically associated with the gun-toting drug traffickers who rule the favelas _ even the though the vast majority are hardworking citizens.

Update hourly