In Central Mexico, time and place are fluid, and history runs into the present, and the present is always straining into the afterlife so that nothing is only what it seems. For example, at dawn on January 5, the day before Epiphany, on a dusty rancho in El Rodeo just east of the city of Guanajuato, roosters are insulting one another and shouting for the sun to come up, and a handful of cowboys on fresh horses are dressed as if for church, in white cowboy hats, shirts with faux-pearl buttons, and boots that still bear a literal resemblance to the animal from which they were made: snake, lizard, alligator. There is an edge of cavalry about the way the cowboys spin their leather-and-silver-clad mounts in the orange-blue dust, but next to them is a skin-and-bones mare whose foal was recently killed and eaten by the dogs. She hangs her head beside the cactus to which she is tied, absorbed in the constant, anonymous scrabble for life that is everywhere here, and there is nothing of cavalry in her. The air is scented with cooking smoke and drying laundry.
It's as if everything may happen (the mare may revolt, the cowboys may burst into prayer, miracles may ensue), or nothing will happen at all (the mare will take one breath after another, the cowboys will dismount and make for their construction jobs, the roosters will find a dusty nest and fall asleep). In the end, because this is central Mexico, something entirely other happens. Like rocks being tumbled under a great river, the road that leads from here to Guanajuato begins to clatter, and out of the dawn, thousands of cowboys on a mix of mounts from eager stallions to a black-and-white-spotted donkey appear. With less flourish than you would think, the cowboys from El Rodeo jog out of the rancho onto the road and join the procession.
Christ the King—or a 65-foot-tall depiction of him —stands on top of Cubilete mountain in the state of Guanajuato, thousands of feet up cobbled switchbacks from the high plateau, which is nonetheless called el bajío, the lowland. It is to this statue's feet that three or four thousand cowboys are riding, just as the three wise men are supposed to have ridden to the manger in Bethlehem on this day roughly 2,000 years ago. It is said that this statue of Cristo Rey is most famous for his expressive hands, the way they are held out from his sides, as if the son of God were about to quell a riot.
Pilgrimages to Cristo Rey, to Our Lady of Guadalupe, to depictions of saints elsewhere in the country, are common in Mexico. But seldom is there such a massive cabalgata —a horseback gathering —of faith; it swells by hundreds of riders each year, a word-of-mouth event of magnificent proportions. "It's no one important who rides," one cowboy says, "but it is all of us who have the Lord in our hearts no matter where in the world we go." It is true the riders include construction workers from Chicago, rig workers from Texas, gardeners from Guanajuato, laborers from San Miguel de Allende, farmers from Jalisco. "We are el pueblo," the cowboy says.