In a Holy Week ritual hearking back to medieval Spain, teenagers from seven East Los Angeles parishes donned costumes Sunday to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Several dozen youths, garbed in the vivid red cloaks and brass helmets of Roman soldiers or the long robes of Christian followers in mourning, accompanied Simon Mares Jr., a 19-year-old disc jockey, who played Jesus in the Stations of the Cross procession.
They wailed and shouted, in Spanish, as two masters of ceremonies with microphones read a narrative that asked for divine grace while making references to current issues, including dysfunctional families, gang life and drug addiction.
"My parents constantly fight," the narrator said while Mares, smeared with simulated blood, stumbled under the soldiers' lashes. "My peers reject me. . . . No matter how many times I fall, you are there to pick me up."
The ceremony, a common Catholic Lenten ritual across Latin America, is traditionally done in East Los Angeles churches by adults with smaller productions. But for the first time, parishioners, some of whom had attended the 2008 World Youth Day with Pope Benedict XVI in Australia, were inspired to unite several congregations and recruit young actors.
"They were so impressed, they wanted to bring some of that enthusiasm here," said Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church. "The church is always trying to bring the youth in. This is part of their culture, a very spiritual experience about penance and conversion."
More than 300 local residents watched the procession on the manicured lawn of the Calvary Cemetery on Whittier Boulevard, many carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from a fierce afternoon sun.
"It's pretty true to the real story," said Jesse Caceres, 16, a Roosevelt High School sophomore who said he attended with about 50 members of his Communion class.
But Genaro Pineda, 27, a warehouse worker, said the ceremony was less "real" than the ones in his home state of Guerrero, Mexico: "There, they walk further, and the soldiers hit Jesus harder."
Carrying his 18-month-old son, Steven, on his shoulders, Pineda said he came in order to "feel closer to religion in these difficult economic times. There is so much poverty."
Mares, a recent graduate of Don Bosco Tech who works quinceañeras and house parties with disco lights and fog machines, had grown a short goatee and donned a long wig to play Jesus. For months, he worked to bulk up so he could carry the cross through the cemetery in the 1 1/2 -hour event. Every night before bed, he studied his counterpart in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ."
"I tell Jesus, 'If you want me to do this right, let this not be my role. Let it be yours,' " he said at a rehearsal Saturday.
During the rehearsal, Mares had to scold his fellow players to pocket their cellphones and stop giggling. "I'd really appreciate it if you could take this seriously," he said at one point. "I'm getting crucified."
Some of the young actors had been playing minor roles in their parishes' renditions since they were children. They hollered alongside the adults as Pontius Pilate pronounced Jesus' death sentence, then cried out on the sidelines as Jesus was whipped.
Growing up in the church, Mares said he hadn't always felt that his perspective was included in the adults' activities. "I'm glad they decided to change things," he said.
Jesus' mother, Mary, was played by Silveth Renteria, 16, of Schurr High School, who caressed Jesus' face with hands that sported long, glittery nails.
She said some of her friends aren't excited about what she's doing: They think church is boring and don't believe in Jesus' story. "I hope as they see a lot more young people participating, they'll see it's not boring," she said. "It's fun."