The Burning of JUDAS Figures

Toluca, Estado de México

Annually, on the Saturday before Easter, Mexicans love to flex their satirical and artistic muscles by creating effigies of politicians, world events, and "diablos" in paper mache, then blowing them up in spectacular fashion. One might expect Judas himself, but it is the idea of a traitor, the liar, or one with two faces that is being publicly destroyed.

This rite brings together the talents of paper mache artisans and fireworks maestros, who have been traditionally linked through many decades due to this very event. It is widely known throughout Mexico that the finest fireworks maestros live in the nearby village of San Pedro Tultepec. The Judas burnings were moved from this village to central Toluca 12 years ago for safety reasons, and so that larger crowds could enjoy the annual holy week spectacle.

Earlier in the day, Judas figures rest like lifeless dolls on the pavement. These massive forms are fashioned from a bamboo-like infrastructure, then layers of paper mache are expertly applied. Finally, imaginative expressions are painted on the paper "husks" in the brightest of colors. The actual burning of the Judases in Toluca is a competitive, juried contest (a "concurso"), and prizes will be awarded in several categories.

More figures wait for fireworks to be attached. A crowd of thousands is gathered in the main zócalo of Toluca to enjoy the event.

At last, the "giants" seem to come alive as they receive their carefully orchestrated fireworks. A proper Judas cannot simply blow up, but should explode in stages…leg by leg…arm by arm…followed by a fantastic finish of an exploding torso and head blown to confetti. Now it is past twelve noon, and time for the pyrotechnics to begin.


Two extremely important components are the cherry-picker and the fire squad. The cherry-picker hoists each entry high above. Being a highly organized event in Toluca, the crowds are cordoned off at a safe distance, but firemen and ambulances are at the ready just in case.

The dangerous art of the fireworks maestros, "los coheteros", cannot be minimized. Only a few months ago in Metepec, we watched a lone fireworks maestro ready the "castillo" (fireworks tower) for a celebration. Only one week before, he had lost his mother, father and sister in a fatal explosion. The cohetero explained that his family had always recognized the danger of their art. Today, he was compelled to prepare the castillo because, "That is what my departed family would have wanted".

One by one, Judas figures are brought to the center of the zócalo and hoisted above with the help of the cherry-picker and ground crews.

Seeing the colorful giants "float" in the air before total obliteration is quite a sight!

As a veteran of many Mexican fireworks displays, I thought I knew exactly what to expect. But, I was COMPLETELY caught off guard by the thunderous boom of the first exploding Judas. In this zócalo, what was already a deafening explosion was made more so as the amplified sound reverberated off the surrounding plaza and buildings. In fact, I screamed at the first sound shock (and screamed again and again at every one thereafter)!

As I studied the crowd, I began to notice that veteran attendees came prepared. Most were wearing industrial-strength ear plugs while recording photos via digital recorders, fancy cameras and via cell phones. Babies cried with fright, children applauded and cheered, and adults loved every deafening minute of the spectacle. This was a true Mexican family outing complete with grandmother and grandfather in tow!

The fuse is touched with fire…as the sparks fly, the anticipation builds.

Then the thrilling explosions proceed until all is completely destroyed.

Remember, the Judas figures are a representation of something taken from life. In Toluca this year, several effigies represented the idea of a tsunami and its terrible destruction. By blowing up a symbolic tsunami, perhaps a future tsunami would spare humanity, or Mexico. Rick and I were again reminded of how immediate and relevant Mexican folk art can be.

The firemen (the "bomberos") rush forward with their hoses to safely extinguish the last embers. At the end, all that remains are the skeletal carcasses of the once awesome giants.

As collectors, our first instinct is to rush in and rescue these wonderful folk art forms from being destroyed! But then, the colorful giants would be denied their very purpose. Why not embody politics, horrific world events and bad thoughts in ephemeral art ? Why not imagine destroying all of life's evils? With pleasure I now say, "Let the fireworks begin"!

July 4, 2005
By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO

Photos taken March 26, 2005 in Toluca, Estado de México.
All photos by Deb Hall.