OXNARD — Although she was prepared for the story's grim ending, Amelia Guzman couldn't help but cry Friday when Christ was put to death.
She had walked for nearly a mile alongside Saul Aguilar, who for the 10th year portrayed Jesus during Oxnard's annual pageant dramatizing his trial, torture and crucifixion.
And she was among the thousands of faithful who looked on in silence as make-believe Roman soldiers tied Aguilar to a wooden cross on a grassy knoll behind Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School.
But it was when Aguilar, asking why God had abandoned him, pretended to take his last breath that tears rolled down her cheeks.
"It is so emotional," explained the 43-year-old Oxnard mother of two, a part-time strawberry picker, who only worked half a day so she could attend the 30th annual Passion play.
"Even though you know the story, it's still very sad," she said. "But it gives you hope that, no matter how hard we struggle, there will be a reward."
In a Good Friday tradition that is part religious ceremony and part community celebration, dozens of amateur actors took part in the drama that represents the final journey of Christ to Calvary.
The event takes place on the streets of Oxnard's La Colonia barrio, which for two hours are transformed into a carnival-like frenzy with vendors selling everything from sugary churros to oversized rubber crayon balloons on a stick.
The shows started at noon in front of Christ the King Church. Backstage, the actors tried to shake off their jitters moments before the production hit the streets.
Centurions strapped on their plastic breast plates and leather sandals, while the actor playing Barabbas the thief was having his hair teased into wild knots. Aguilar, a 37-year-old Oxnard farm worker who bears an uncanny resemblance to popular depictions of Christ, was in the makeup chair having deep purple bruises and blood-red gashes applied to his body.
"I'm nervous, I'm nervous," said 7-year-old Victoria Dominguez, bedecked in a flowing robe and a long strand of gold-colored jewelry. Along with friends Jazmin Gutierrez and Barbara Lopez, they would deliver water to Pontius Pilate as he washed his hands of the whole affair.
"Usually I'm with a lot of other people, but this time I go on stage," said Victoria, who appeared in her second production.
With the rat-tat-tat of a snare drum, the play unfolded before the crowd.
Oxnard resident Rudy Jasso lifted his 8-year-old daughter, Judy, so she could see above the crowd, a swarming mass that moved with the actors through the neighborhood--past Lupita's Panaderia and Tienda Discoteca and Ruby's Beauty Salon.
"My grandparents used to bring me here when I was about the same age, now I'm bringing my daughter," said Jasso, 36, a custodian at Dennis McKinna Elementary School. "I want her to know what Easter is about, that Jesus died on the cross for us."
"And that it's not just about the holiday." Judy chimed in.
As Aguilar shouldered his cross through the streets, parents leaned close to their children to explain the meaning. As he fell to the pavement and suffered fake beatings and bloodshed, parents tried to calm their youngsters by telling them that it was only play-acting.
That explanation was of little solace, however, to 7-year-old Alejandra Ramos, who watched the play with her 3-year-old sister Yesenia and her mom Maria, a sixth-grade teacher at nearby Cesar Chavez School.
"It's kind of scary for her; she cries when she sees the way he was beaten," the elder Ramos explained. "But I want them to see it. I want them to know what this is all about."
It is that same philosophy that keeps Rafael Martin coming back. For the fourth year, he played the part of a Roman soldier. And although he played a bad guy, booed and hissed at by the crowd for his treatment of Jesus, he said it's important to tell the story over and over again.
"It's important for people to know that Jesus made this sacrifice," said Martin, 41, a gravedigger who until a few weeks ago had been unemployed. "They don't pay us for our parts, but God sees that we get paid in other ways."