Published: August 2007
Mexico's Pilgrim Cowboys
A brotherhood of horsemen in crisp white hats converges each January on a mountain in central Mexico. The journey honors Jesus Christ.
By Alexandra Fuller

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.

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.'

The masses begin on the eve of Epiphany and recur with a frequency that seems calculated as a further test of the cowboys' endurance. Under the statue, from the mouth of a tiny chapel, a young, severely handsome priest drones at the thousands of cowboys who have crammed their horses nose-to-tail, flank-to-flank, at the chapel's steps. The riders tip their Stetsons against the sun and close their eyes. At least one cowboy has collapsed over his saddle horn and is sleeping deeply. The horses slump on cocked haunches. Incense trails blue against the priest's robes. Soon, the cowboys will take turns to dismount from their horses and climb the steps into the chapel to fall on saddle-weary knees in front of el Niño Dios. They kiss the image of the Christ Child with gentle reverence, and the doll's face, as if made flesh by all those lips, begins to shine real sweat.

At night, the cowboys sleep in tents, on hay, on saddlebags, or on the ground next to their horses, which call to one another without cease. One horse, shaking with the shock of colic, has been tied to a wall so that he is unable to sink to his knees or even touch his mouth to his stomach. His eyes gleam in panic. Elsewhere, some horses have found enough room on their ropes to lie down.

Against the night's chill, the González men have made their pampered horses comfortable in blankets and with bales of alfalfa. A fire has been built in front of a canvas tent, and there is meat on a grill. This is Marco Antonio González Guerrero's third ride in the cabalgata, and he is with his father (who has ridden ten times), his two brothers, three cousins, his nephew, his son, and an encampment of friends. They have ridden for three days from dawn to dusk from the family ranch at San Diego de la Unión.

González uses lilting Spanish-tongued English. "I came back from Texas to ride in this cabalgata. A lot of these people come back from the States to show their faith here today. I brought my son"—the American son, a hefty student of architecture, looks worn out—"so that he can see for himself what our faith means to us. In another way, we are saying even though this is our faith, we want to pray for all people. All people are equal under God. We have come here, tired and sore, and we have endured something together. This has made us forget our differences, so we pray for peace in ourselves, for peace in Mexico, for peace in all the world. Whoever you are, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic—we pray for you here, now." For a long time, no one else speaks; the fire dances warmth between the men.

Afterward, González says, "Look, I don't drink a lot. But I had a little tequila out there in the hills where all those oak trees grow, and you know, I really felt closer to God, as if he was right there in that nature all around us." Then, very softly, González begins to recite the Lord's Prayer, "Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo . . ." And to a weary traveler who has been too long in the sun, it sounds like the beginning of hope in a song.