What are the Pharisees in Sonora?

In Sonora, the Pharisees are symbolic figures of Lent and Holy Week, who roam with their dances accompanied by drum music and bells.

What are the Pharisees in Sonora?
Pharisees of Sonora: a tradition that dates back to colonial times. Photo: El Sol de Hermosillo

In Sonora, the Pharisees are symbolic figures of Lent and Holy Week, who roam with their dances accompanied by drum music and bells. Wearing peculiar attire consisting of casual pants and shirt, huaraches, they also wear an animal skin mask (it can be deer, goat, or cowhide) and bells on arms, legs, and waist, with which they generate a characteristic sound when they dance the step known as "pascola".

Completing the attire, they carry rattles and one of them is in charge of playing the drum that marks the rhythm of the dance they perform during the Lenten period, during which they are not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages, have sexual relations or bathe. Another peculiar characteristic is that they are not allowed to speak, because of the command they fulfill waiting for a petition to God to be fulfilled, but it is known that during the forty days of this festivity they go through the streets and neighborhoods of the cities of Sonora.

To fulfill the requests to Jesus, they keep silent, they only answer affirmatively with their heads some questions, about the purpose for which they perform these rites in memory of the Passion of Christ. With signs, they indicate that they have pleas to the Creator, among them for the health of sick relatives and, for that reason, they must wander through the cities they choose and to where they travel from their cities of origin in Sinaloa, mainly.

In Sonora, the Pharisees are symbolic figures of Lent and Holy Week.
In Sonora, the Pharisees are symbolic figures of Lent and Holy Week.

How did the tradition of the Pharisees originate in Sonora?

Researchers from the College of Sonora, who conducted an in-depth study, point out that this custom has its origins in the Yaqui people. In one of her articles, Ana Luz Ramírez Zavala, researcher, points out that during Lent it is common to meet with the Pharisees in the streets of the municipalities, who play their drums and make their tenabaris (rattles) sound, "In exchange for a few coins to finance the festivities of the Passion," she said.

This celebration is an important religious tradition among the Yaquis, which dates back to colonial times when their territory was organized into Jesuit missions. To this representation of the Yaqui of the Passion of Christ, from the persecution, death, and resurrection, were added other elements and rituals typical of the Yoéme conception of the world, a term by which the Yaqui refer to themselves in their language.

According to a study by the College of Sonora, the Yaqui and Mayan Pharisees, who reside in Sonora, begin this ritual during Ash Wednesday, when they commit themselves to fulfill the command to God. After wandering during Lent, on Saturday of Glory, the burning of masks takes place, which is a celebration of life, of the culmination of one cycle and the beginning of another, where the participants renounce their mistakes and commit to a new life, for the divine favors received.

Also on this Saturday, the ceremonies of incineration of Judas and the "Paseo del Mal Humor" are held, which are of great joy for the triumph of good over evil, and on the eve of the Resurrection of Jesus.

The Pharisees in Sonora

Pharisees in Sonora represent the evil of the ancestors

The Pharisees are a ritual group brought by the Jesuits during the colonial era, to evangelize the indigenous peoples of the northwest of the country. For this they used a theatrical model, they were large contingents of people of different ages and gender to make this representation, and people who spoke a different language were getting more involved in the Catholic religion.

After the expulsion of the Jesuits from the continent, the mark had remained in many states in the northwest of the country, such as Durango, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Sonora. In Sonora, the groups that followed the tradition of becoming Pharisees were the Yaquis and the Mayos, who, unlike other regions, do it during the 40 days and not only during Holy Week.


They have the task of representing evil with the conversion to the beings coming from juya ania, that is to say, from the world of the mountain. The clothing worn by both Yaquis and Mayos is similar: huarache, mask made of goat leather, which has small holes for sight, checkered blanket, and belt with pig hooves, with which they make their peculiar sound.

Also, in the legs they use the famous tenábaris, which are threads of rope where they are glued or sewn dried butterfly cocoons and are filled with small stones, however, they are also made with other materials.

In the case of the Yaquis are tenábaris made from the butterfly cocoons four mirrors, which are in danger of extinction, lately, it is more difficult to get and is more expensive, has changed by tenábaris made of beer cans or soda, even plastic, as they have a very similar sound.

The mask can be of different personalities, in the case of the Yaquis they use the chayapeca type, which has a long nose and ears, with dotted flowers, or they are from Roman soldiers to caricatures or Mexican politicians.


In the beginning, those who participated during Lent as Pharisees were people who had made a promise before God after having been healed of a critical illness, however, nowadays they also do it simply for fun. The number of members within the "ramadas" can vary, there are some Yaqui towns that have more than 40 members, while in El Júpare, a community near Huatabampo, there are as many as 500.

The ritual work is carried out on the Fridays of "conti" and the weekends of Lent, when they make candles to Christ, which are placed on an altar adorned with flowers and ribbons. In some cases, some of them "campaign" as they say, and go out to other towns to make the candles, the vigil in the case of the Mayos, almost always during the 40 days they make the candles, in some towns, there are even so many people asking for the Christ, that they make the vigil at night and make a stop at noon.

They should not speak

Another of the characteristics of the Pharisees is that when wearing the mask they cannot speak or emit guttural sounds, because when they are characterized they stop being human to be "animalistic" characters.

Their only resource is their mimicry, which is accompanied by a wooden sword and a dagger, which with knocks attract attention, communicate, and above all joke, which is fundamental in their ritual work. There is even an artistic work on the subject of communication because they do it with a lot of histrionics.


Besides the famous Pharisees, some subgroups participate in this tradition, as is the case of the "Veronicas" in the case of the Mayos, they are made up of married women and are in charge of taking care of the Christ.

The youngest girls are called the "Three Marías", while the boys are called the "Three José", who throw flower petals at the Pharisees to protect the Christ since they are considered divine weapons.

The young girls and teenage virgins make up the group of the "Magdalenas" and are in charge of taking care of the female images of the Church and accompanying the procession of each Friday of conti.

The captains are the ones with the highest hierarchy, they are accompanied by the corporals who are in charge of taking care of the order. They are accompanied by the pilatos, who walk on foot, but at certain times during the contis and Holy Week, they walk on horseback and carry a banner with a small red square during Lent and black on Good Friday.

The corporals do not wear a mask, they dress in white with a black hat, although they also carry the sword and the wooden dagger, they are in charge of taking care of the Pharisees when they have to move out of the church area, to make sure they do not break the rules.

End of activities

The characterization ends with the burning of the masks during the Saturday of Glory, in the case of the Yaquis they do it punctually together with the daggers and swords, leaving only two for funeral rituals of some fallen comrade.

The Mayos are more flexible in that sense since some do burn the mask, however, unlike the Yaquis, they can recycle it, sell it or give it away, since in some regions it is very expensive to make.

In the case of the Yaqui Pharisees, they will be on the campaign and they will go out until Sunday afternoon, even if a Pharisee died during Lent they will go out until Monday because after Sunday they will have awake and they will not go out as Pharisees until Monday.

Sources: Tribuna de San Luis and El Sol de Hermosillo