The riders proceed under winter-bright skies. There is blue agave planted on blood orange soil; there are cornfields stacked with pyramids of harvested stalks; there are bright tangles of lush alfalfa. A river, sluggish with sewage and decomposing garbage, is crossed, and the horses stop to drink deeply, for the sun has risen completely by now. Another quilt of cornfields appears and, beyond that, a blond meadow. A dust devil picks up a spiral of foam plates, an empty beer box, swaying plastic bags, and the lively dance of rubbish spooks a horse. Now, the ride clatters through a village whose squat, brightly painted houses sprout rebar out of the tops of their walls in hope of a more prosperous and elegant future, at which time they will grow a story or two taller. Dogs bark from the rooftops, and children run between the horses' legs and shout up at the cowboys for candy. A boy runs up to one of the El Rodeo cowboys with a letter for the three wise men, whose inspiration the cowboys are following. "I send you this letter to ask that you bring me a racetrack," the child has written in agonized Spanish (careful lettering over erased mistakes). "I hope that you bring it to me. Thank you."
Nicolás García Diosdado is 84, and he has tears in his eyes when he surveys the multitude of cowboys riding up the mountain. The horses are struggling now, their flanks pumping, coats soaked, mouths frothing. Some of the cowboys are euphoric, a little drunk and shouting, "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" as they crack the last energy out of their exhausted animals with whips. Most have settled into a kind of saddle-weary, sunstruck meditation. The old man with the spotted donkey has got off to lead his flagging mount the final steep miles.
García says, "Fifty-two years ago, I had no hope, no health, no future. I was likely to die. The doctors did not know what was wrong with me. Then I had the idea to perform a pilgrimage on horseback to Cristo Rey and to ask for just one year of health. Although I was so ill, still I came, and it was difficult back then, for there were no roads. But look for yourself. A miracle was performed, and my life was saved. Now, I am an old man, and I am still here, still standing, still walking, still praising the Holy Child. And look now at all these riders." He breaks off, momentarily distracted by the grand spectacle of a rider outfitted to resemble Pancho Villa, resplendent on a shiny black stallion. Then García adds, "That first year, just 25 riders from my village came with me to praise Cristo Rey and ask for his blessing. Now, it is thousands of people from all over." The old man looks ecstatic in the real sense of the word, as if his pulse is attached to the rays of the sun, which beat down now with afternoon force. "It's a miracle," he says at last, his voice shaking.
In Central Mexico, stories of miracles seem always to include, at their inception, heroic sacrifice and awful bloodshed. Blood has been so liberally spent in this country that it is no wonder the soil has taken on the hue it has. In 1924, Plutarco Elías Calles became Mexico's president (dictator, you might say). The illegitimate son of an alcoholic, he was himself an agnostic and abstemious man. Almost as soon as he took power, Calles set out to neutralize the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, enforcing laws from the 1917 constitution that made it illegal to teach religion in schools or hold open-air Masses, and he denied the Catholic clergy the right to vote or criticize public officials. Bishops ordered the churches closed in protest, and for the first time in 400 years, there was nowhere for the people of Mexico to worship.
On New Year's Day, 1927, the war cry went up from the faithful, "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" By the time this holy war—la Cristiada—ended two and a half years later, at least 70,000 people had been killed, including some 90 priests, agricultural production had dropped sharply, and 450,000 people had emigrated, most to the United States. The original statue of Cristo Rey erected here (in the mythical, if not the actual geographic, heart of Mexico) had been blown up, supposedly by federal agents, but by some coincidence—or miracle—the heart and head of the statue survived the explosion, and the two placid chunks of carving now sit in a glass case in a tiny museum near the present statue. Pilgrims file past the glass case, and it is here that they leave their petitions, little scraps of paper that say, "Keep my boy safe as he crosses the frontier." Or, "Cure my little mother of her cancer." "They even shot a boy in those days," a priest tells the weary, dusty pilgrim cowboys (he himself is weary and dusty, having ridden for three days to the summit of the mountain with others from his village). "He was on the ground playing marbles in the dust, and he was wearing a white cowboy hat with the words 'Cristo Rey' written on the brim. The federal agents told him to take his hat off, and he wouldn't. They shot him through the head."
Grown men cry. Someone passes a flask of tequila, although alcohol is not thought well of on the mountain. The priest looks over his shoulder and accepts a sip, wipes his mouth, passes the flask along to a teenager with wet eyes. Then, someone quotes a line or two from the Ballad of Valentín of the Sierra: "Before he went up the hill, Valentín cried, 'O Mother of Guadalupe! For your religion, they will kill me.'