Before this year, I didn’t think anything could or would ever cancel Easter and the Holy Week of Jesus events all over the world. But alas, this virus came along and made everything a complete shit show. Who knew we’d see priests doing drive-thru confessions and the pope performing his yearly Easter jam in an empty church. But there are no rules anymore it seems. We’re all just making shit up as we go.
In Valparaiso, Chile (or Valpo), this was supposed to be a week full of light-hearted Catholic events like a live action crucifixion and the burning of multiple Judases all over town. Because it’s Valpo, these torture-themed affairs also include bands, hippy clowns, magic tricks, and cotton candy. Sunday night would have been the grand finale, with each of Valpo’s neighborhoods stringing up human-sized (or larger!) “Judas” dolls full of coins and then lighting them on fire. Damn you, coronavirus! But despite everything being effectively canceled these days, Valpo is going to still burn some shit on Sunday, one way or another. It’s a town full of artists, weirdos, and rebels after all.
Not even a virus will change that.
I first heard about this beautifully freaky city from some hippy clowns and artists I befriended at a week-long techno festival in Bumfuck, Patagonia, back in 2012. Like most clowns I’ve met around South America, the ones at Moonflower Festival were artsy outcasts who loved to smoke doobies and rail against the evils of unrestrained capitalism (South American clowns aren’t like the serial killer or Bozo types we’re used to up in North America). By the time I finally left the festival, they had sold me on the idea of settling down in Valpo for a while.
I was tired of El Bolson, the tiny mountain town in Argentina where I’d been picking strawberries in exchange for room (a cheap tent with the word pussy graffitied across it) and board (a sack of potatoes thrown on our outdoor kitchen table every night). Even though I’d once been a dumpster-diving adventure guide living in a Toyota truck all over the USA, the last several years of my life I’d been kicking it in the wildest of concrete jungles, New York City. Farm life was too boring and I missed being surrounded by higher grade graffiti and a much larger proportion of weirdos.
So I took a bus to Valpo and talked an English language school into hiring me.
If New York City and a colorful village overlooking the Mediterranean Sea had a grungy, weird little baby, Valparaiso would be it. While it has enough trash, crime, and urine stank to be a biggish city, Valpo’s still small enough to make friends easily and get around by foot. The hills, which overlook the mighty Pacific, are covered in street art, murals, graffiti and homes painted every color of a crayon box. Sometimes Valpo seems like the perfect peaceful paradise. But then you inevitably pass a gang of adorable homeless puppies digging up something in a hole they’ve just found and… oh CHRIST... you realize that’s dead puppy they’re now gnawing on. So yeah, Valpo is as real as it gets—a beautiful mess of a city full of art, harsh realities, bonkers festivals, a shit ton of homeless dogs, even more art, and clowns.
SO many clowns.
I swear, there are more clowns in Valpo than you can shake a juggling pin at. In fact, I lived in a house of clowns when I first moved to Valpo. Would you believe I even hooked up with a hot-ish clown one night. I swear I never thought I’d write that sentence (please don’t judge) and no, he wasn’t in makeup. The only beings you’ll find more of in Valpo than clowns are homeless dogs
Despite many a strange night living in a legit clown house, I can honestly say Easter week was the craziest thing I saw during my entire time in Valpo. I grew up in the South where Easter is kind of a big deal. But in comparison, I now see that bingeing on Cadbury eggs before wearing a ridiculous hat and white lace gloves to church is nowhere near as big of a deal as watching a half naked man covered in blood drag a cross down the street.
Full disclosure here, this ain’t my first crucifixion. But this is the first one I’ve accidentally stumbled upon. At first, I assume a parade is about to pass by because there are people lined up and down the street with glow toys and cotton candy. But over the tops of their heads, I eventually spot some old-timey men on horses trotting by, followed by women and kids in biblical-style robes. Some Roman guards topped in red feathery helmets, carrying spears then stroll on by—holy shit it’s that Son of God fella!
Jesus has had a rough day.
He’s bloodied and bruised, wearing a silky white robe with a red sash across it like a beauty pageant contestant minus a location typed out. A few men are whipping the shit out of him as kids licking ice cream cones watch from the sidelines. The dude can barely walk. In fact, when he passes by, he actually falls into me and the three teenage girls by me. They scream-laugh all embarrassed, then take some selfies. OK I do too.
Despite knowing how this all ends, I’m curious just how this particular crucifixion will. So I follow along the parade at Jesus’ pace. Eventually, he comes up to a giant wooden cross lying in the middle of the road, which the guards bully him into carrying. So heavy! I’m a little concerned people are gonna get hurt now because he’s still having a hard time walking, only now he’s stumbling into the crowd with sharp angles over his shoulder. The whole thing ends at a plaza that has bleachers that are full of people already. Early bird gets the best views of God dying, amiright?
Standing room only for the rest of us.
I can’t see shit, so I explore what the vendors on the perimeter.. I finally find a good cement block to stand on just in time to see them pretend to nail Jesus (very convincingly, I might add) and a couple other dudes to their respective crosses. Eventually, he dies but you know that. While they’re doing the whole tomb part, I go grab some popcorn then return just in time to see Jesus come out of a cardboard igloo-looking thing he’s been hiding out in, stage left. When it’s all over, everyone claps and Jesus bows. What a show!
You’d think having a bloody Jesus fall into you during a parade would be the weirdest part of my Easter weekend, but no. It gets better.
At first I’m a little worried about the very idea of the Burning of Judas. I mean, seeing a crowd of cheering people burn a Jewish man in public sounds like some scary neo-Nazi shit, right? But my Chilean friends I go with assure me beforehand that it’s got nothing to do with Judas really. It’s about betrayal, political protest, family time, community-building, tradition, fried food, clown stuff, and a whole list of things that have zero to do with even the Bible it seems.
For days leading up to the burn, kids ask for coins at traffic stops and around their neighborhoods then they fill the handmade Judas doll’s pockets with them. The doll is sometimes papier-mâché, other times a stuffed scarecrow-looking guy. People dress up in costumes too, depending on the hood. Adults will often write notes with all the bad things that happened that year or what they’re pissed about, then put them near the doll before the fire. On Sunday night, in each of the 44 hill neighborhoods, they’ll sing and dance and eat before finally dousing the doll in gasoline and lighting his ass on fire.
Wait a sec… this sounds all too familiar. Did white people steal this too and create “Burning Man?”
The exciting part of burning Judas for kids is, of course, the money. During the burn, these piping hot metal coins fall to the ground for little children to then pick up (with gloves I hope) and put in their pockets. Sounds dangerous to me, but anything goes in Valpo! It’s kinda like trick-or-treating but with crazy hot money instead of Gobstoppers.
Sometimes it’s Judas, other times folks will vote on who they all agree sucks the most. The doll becomes a target for their anger at behaviors they find repulsive. It’s often Judas because that’s the original shitty dude. But they’re now burning way shittier dudes too. One neighborhood has already burned Trump to symbolize the “extinction through fire of anti-humanist principles such as intolerance and hatred.” Other, more chill hoods will burn the effigy of a rival soccer team. Being a leftist island in a right-wing country, Valpo is still a fan of torching corrupt politician dolls who remind them of Pinochet.
I’d just assumed this whole thing would take maybe an hour max. Things burn fast! But when we get to Waddington Plaza, I find a big ole party similar to the crucifixion scene days before. In the center of the plaza is a 20-foot papier-mâché guy that, I kid you not, looks exactly like Ira Glass wearing clown shoes. He’s got thick black-rimmed glasses, a black track suit, and ginormous red shoes. When I ask my friends why Judas looks like a nerd who’d do my taxes, they inform me it’s not Judas but Rodrigo Hinzpeter. He’s the interior minister and current nemesis of Valpo’s large student population who’ve been protesting their asses off since 2011.
In case you’ve never heard of the Shock Doctrine or the CIA’s long history of royally fucking things up for Chile, here’s a quick history lesson. Decades ago the USA did a little neoliberalism experiment on Chile to see how they’d fare under a hyper-capitalist model similar to (but worse than) the U.S.’s. Well, shocker, the privatization of everything didn't work out so well. In 2011, the students said “fuck this noise!” and raised hell. I joined them a couple times actually. I’ve never been so afraid of police in my life. Coming off the heels of sleeping down at Occupy Wall Street, I thought I could surely handle a Chilean protest. But after tanks shot water at us and police in riot gear threw pepper spray indiscriminately, I had to leave because I didn’t have a gas mask. So a lot of Valpo folks rightfully hate this Ira Glass-looking dude for supposedly trying to outlaw protests through some shady new legislature.
And now they’re burning his corrupt ass.
For several hours before the fire, kids kick soccer balls around Ira, clowns do Capeuroa on stage, and organizers have us all participate in a huge tug-o-war competition. Drummers bang their hearts out, hippy clowns juggle, everyone feasts on greasy food. It’s seriously a great party.
Once the sun goes down, some hippie clowns start juggling pins of fire near Ira. One accidentally flings a flaming pin right next to the giant doll, who’s already been doused in gasoline, while the other swallows some fuel and breathes it out of his mouth like a dragon. Oh the anticipation is killing me! But finally, after a long pause, they torch the bastard.
Ira burns faster than expected due in part to the unexpected gust of wind that picks up out of nowhere and flings giant pieces of burning paper into a crowd of hundreds. Not only are parents holding their eager kids back from fetching hot coins, but the whole damn crowd has to back up from the overwhelming heat. Oh, and there are no firemen anywhere in sight. But that’s another thing I appreciate about here. When it comes to personal risk and responsibility, they don’t seem to have strict rules or lawyers waiting to sue like we have back home. Basically, if you’re dumb enough to stand too close to a fire, good luck with that!
Once the burning is over, we move onto another burning in a bigger plaza. Now this one is professional. The kind that hired grips and electrics to set up lights, speakers, and bleachers all around. And there are firemen with a hose on standby. I feel much safer here, though I can’t figure out who on earth they’re about to burn. No one with me knows. It’s just this hippy dude with dreads and a robe, so I’m guessing it’s basic Judas.
When the show starts, they belt out a techno version of that super dramatic opera song from the movie, The Doors while clowns parade around on stilts, a devil dressed in all red paint and a red cape runs around, and then some magician guy in black appears. He then forces the devil into a box, gives the box a few spins, and stabs it with a bunch of swords. This is by far the most bizarre magic trick I’ve ever seen.
And then they burn the Judas down and everyone continues to party.
To be honest, I’m kinda over Easter by now. You can only watch so many papier-mâché dolls being burned and Jesuses being whipped in a lifetime. So I head back to my home in the hills with five flea-infested dogs in tow.
This Burning of Judas tradition has gotten more political with each year and 2020 in particular was sure to have been heated (pun intended). In 2019, Chilean students started a major revolution and were gaining ground. But thanks to the heavy hand of an over-militarized police, Valpo now looks like a warzone. Unrecognizable. Or so my friends there all say. And then this stupid fucking virus came along and paralyzed the movement all the more.
This is Valpo. The artists and protesters have no plan to stop. In fact, the Burning of Judas seems to offer a flicker of hope for these tireless fighting spirits all stuck inside now. They are organizing an event for everyone to burn their own dolls at home and share them on social media. The message of one of its organizers, Santiago Aguilar, is quite inspiring: “The people will tell the powerful that there is no fear, that when the time is right we will return and we will be millions on the street. We are confined but mobilized.” Maybe we'll find a way to nurture social ties like Valpo and feel connected instead of hopeless.
I prefer that to sitting on my ass at home hoping an orange sociopath doesn’t get everyone I love killed by this goddamn virus.