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With a crown of thorns around his head and a wooden cross heavy on his shoulder, Eduardo Hernandez will walk through the streets of Pilsen on Friday re-enacting the death of Christ.

3/25/2005 12:45:00 PM by Margaret Ramirez - Chicago Tribune

With a crown of thorns around his head and a wooden cross heavy on his shoulder, Eduardo Hernandez will walk through the streets of Pilsen on Friday re-enacting the death of Christ.

When Hernandez stops at 18th Street and Racine Avenue and falls as Jesus did, he and others gathered for the Good Friday procession will pray for victims of gang violence.

When he is greeted by the woman playing his mother, Mary, the group will ask God to protect their children from the scourges of alcohol and drugs.

Since 1977, parishioners from predominantly Mexican Catholic churches around Pilsen have organized the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, every year on Good Friday. Eight parishes now participate in reliving the path Christ took to Calvary.

The event commemorates the suffering, crucifixion and death of Christ, but in Pilsen the biblical story is made more relevant with the addition of prayers for the social problems plaguing the community.

Graciela Guzman, 44, a mother of four who will play Mary this year, said it is almost impossible not to become emotional when Hernandez, playing Jesus, is tied to the cross and hoisted on a hill in Harrison Park.

"When I look up at Jesus on that cross, I think about my children," she said. "How can I protect them from all the evil in the world today? What would I do if they had to die like this? Then, the tears just come."

The Via Crucis in Pilsen was born of activism, emerging after a 1976 Christmas Eve fire in the neighborhood that killed 10 children and two mothers. Church members organized that first procession to protest unsafe housing conditions, connecting the loss of the people who perished with the death of Jesus.

Since then, the annual event has become a nationally known Catholic ritual that draws thousands of faithful from across the Midwest.

Karen Mary Davalos, an associate professor of Chicano studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who has studied Chicago's Via Crucis for the last 15 years, said the devotion has become a powerful vehicle for voicing injustice.

Although Latino Catholics in other major cities organize similar re-enactments, Davalos said the Pilsen procession stands out as unique because of its meditations on issues like gang violence, unemployment, poverty and drugs.

"The Via Crucis in Chicago is about salvation on Earth and the parallels between Christ's suffering and our contemporary oppression. So, the connection is profound," she said. "When they march on the streets of Pilsen, they are looking and experiencing Christ's pain as it is felt in the community, not just on his flesh and spirit, but also in the people of Pilsen."

The procession, which includes dozens of soldiers in Roman garb and a group of women weeping for Jesus, begins at 9 a.m. at Providence of God Church. It moves west along 18th Street to Harrison Park for the Crucifixion and then proceeds to St. Adalbert Church, where Cardinal Francis George is expected to lead a prayer service around 11:30 a.m.

Esperanza Godinez, one of the lead organizers, said church members select specific stops along 18th Street and a new set of issues to focus on each year.

In 1994, for example, the crowd stopped in front of El Rey Tortilleria to pray for employees working in unsanitary conditions. In past years, they have stopped at bars to pray for an end to alcoholism or Chicago Transit Authority train stations to protest transit cuts.

"This year, we're fighting against gang violence, drugs and the gentrification that's taking over our neighborhood," said Godinez, referring to the new development in the working-class Mexican community.

As of Thursday afternoon, organizers were still hammering out details of the meditations to be offered at each stop.

Each of the eight participating churches is responsible for casting specific roles for the Via Crucis. Providence of God, for example, offers people to play Peter, Judas and Pontius Pilate; Holy Trinity picked Veronica and St. Paul selected Mary Magdalene. A lottery is conducted each year to see which parish has the honor of casting the most sought-after roles of Jesus and Mary.

The man playing Jesus is required to be single and childless--though some favor a change that would allow fathers to take the starring role. Years ago, a similar argument was waged about Mary, traditionally played by a teenage girl. Today the role is open to older women.

Rehearsals, which start after Ash Wednesday, are held twice a week leading up to Good Friday.

Unlike Mel Gibson's treatment in "The Passion of the Christ," the important part of the Via Crucis isn't the graphic scourging of Christ but rather the sense of accompaniment in the procession.

"The idea is that you go to be with Jesus in his suffering, just as you would go be with a friend or even an acquaintance who has had a death in the family," Godinez said.

Hernandez, 21, who is reprising the role of Jesus for the second consecutive year, said he looks at the event as a two-hour-long sacrifice.

"It's incredible what happens when we walk down the street. Many people cry and are so moved," said Hernandez, a political science major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "So, for me, I just feel like I'm praying the whole time."

Maria Lozano, 29, sees participation in the Via Crucis as a spiritual and cultural event she wants to pass along to her children.

For the last five years Lozano and her husband, son, sister and mother have all been a part of the procession. Her husband, Cesar, is one of the apostles; her mother, Margarita, is one of the women of Jerusalem; and her son, also named Cesar, is one of the children who meet Jesus on the way to Calvary.

"I feel like this brings the children closer to our Mexican culture and the church," said Lozano.

Her husband said that since the family moved to Lansing a few months ago, the commute back to Pilsen for rehearsals has been tough.

"It's a one-hour drive, each way. But it's OK. I see it as a kind of penance. If Christ died for us, this is the least we can do for him," he said.

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