If anything, you can see the whites of their eyes as the men walk through the flower-carpeted streets carrying a statue of Jesus of Nazareth. On Good Friday, a day of penance on which the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is commemorated, more than 160,000 people from across Mexico and abroad gather to watch the procession of the Brotherhood of Nazarenes during Holy Week. Reverent silences are punctuated by joyful drumbeats as the members, cloaked in black and wearing conical headdresses, march in a show of public penance. Many of those in attendance fall to their knees and cry—an expression of their Catholic faith.
Beginning and ending at the Parroquía de Nuestro Señor San José where the Jesus of Nazareth is on display year-round, roughly 1,300 members of the Brotherhood circle the historic center of Puebla, carrying the statue for nearly two miles. Their distinctive headdress, known as the capirote, is the same design as the one historically used among Catholic brotherhoods in Spain.
Although the organization dates to the 16th century, it was not always welcome in Puebla. After a 132-year ban, the Brotherhood was revived just three decades ago, and has since become one of the largest religious gatherings in Mexico.
Founded in 1545, the Brotherhood’s primary purpose was to spread and strengthen Catholicism, which was brought to Mexico by Spanish conquistadors. During the 1861 Reform Laws, which separated church and state, the government disbanded the Brotherhood in a move to limit the power of the Church. The ban lasted more than a century, until 1993, when Hugo Teyssier and Dr. Arturo Sánchez Barragán began to reassemble the organization. (Discover how the Apostles spread Christianity around the world.)
Teyssier and Barragán, friends and devout Catholics from Puebla, spent much of their youth traveling to Seville, Spain, and Jerusalem, Israel, to attend processions during Holy Week. “Once you participate and you feel the emotion and see people falling to their knees and crying–it moves me a lot,” explains Teyssier, who says he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to reestablish the Brotherhood and create a community that venerates Jesus of Nazareth.
They decided to organize their own procession in Mexico, where 81 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, and chose the Brotherhood of Nazarenes based on its history in Puebla. “The bishop didn’t want to approve [the capirote], because he was afraid we would be attacked or killed. It has been a lot of work to institute it,” Teyssier says, acknowledging that the capirote is an image that has been associated with the violence of the Inquisition and Ku Klux Klan.
The Brotherhood was ultimately revived, but over the course of their century-long prohibition, their history was slowly erased from Mexico’s collective memory. “If you ask around to other Mexicans or show them photos of confraternities with their attire, [many] don’t understand the meaning and think they are fanatics,” photographer Alejandra Rajal told National Geographic in an email. “In reality, these groups were brought by Spain to [promote] evangelization and create a religious community in a more approachable way.”
During the Holy Week procession and mass, members are required to wear the black uniforms because the color signifies mourning and a rejection of worldly possessions. According to Barragán, the capirote became necessary because members fought to be at the front of the procession for visibility, and some “even rented photographers.” He argued that for the procession to remain a profoundly spiritual event, members needed to become anonymous participants in the ritual. However, due to the cost of the black cloak and capirote, around $62, only some 80 members can afford to wear the traditional garment during the procession, Teyssier says.
To join the Brotherhood, men must be between the ages of 15 and 60 and pass through a yearlong trial where they prove their devotion to Jesus of Nazareth by attending events like masses and processions. Women and girls can become members of the Brotherhood with the support of a male family member, or in some cases, alone—but only men can wear the capirote and carry the 1,000-pound Jesus of Nazareth statue during the hours-long procession. “It is a brotherhood of men, but we are now in the 21st century, and women have to participate,” Barragán says. (See portraits of women ordained as priests.)
José Francisco Tereso Analco, who has been a member of the Brotherhood for 24 years, talked about the importance of attending mass with the Brotherhood every eight days and of the sense of community he gets from the group, including going to the gym and movies together. He decided to join the Brotherhood after being moved by the procession and described the freedom of anonymity beneath the cloak.
“If we cry, nobody knows,” he says. “We could be meditating, but because we wear the capirote, nobody knows.”
Moved by faith, Analco and members of the Brotherhood will carry the Jesus of Nazareth statue through the streets of Puebla on Good Friday. By the end of the day, some will be elated, weary, or weeping, but all will pray together as they place Jesus of Nazareth at the altar in the Parroquía de Nuestro Señor San José once again.