K Paoletter 27: From On High

When I arrived at the base of Mount Cristo Rey earlier this month, the morning sun had already forced the thermometer on my rental car up into the low 80s, though it was not yet 7AM. A sign in the dirt parking lot advised all visitors to alert the police department of Sunland Park, NM, before they began hiking; I rolled my eyes at that, but did stick my ID in a backpack along with a granola bar and a Nalgene of water. One can never be too careful visiting a religious monument that happens to have been built 1,300 feet north of the border.

The trail was marked by a yellow arch lettered with “Welcome Bienvenidos” and crowned by a white cross. No one was around when I started up the path, which isn’t to say I was alone: at the first bend, I took a look behind me and realized a white truck with a distinctive green sash painted on its back door was parked on the rocky bluff overlooking the parking lot — Border Patrol, the fifth of their vehicles I’d seen that morning. On the fifteen minute drive over from the Airbnb I was renting in El Paso, I noticed three trucks prowling along the base of the razor-wire topped wall that marks the American side of the concrete ditch that we’re still supposed to call the Rio Grande, and an SUV had passed me on the main drag of Sunland Park before I took the turn for the mountain.   

Nothing for it but to continue uphill. Soon I came upon a shrine to Saint Anthony, with a bilingual sign explaining that “some Christians pray to him to help them find lost objects.” No chance of this Saint Anthony getting lost, since he was encased in a beige metal cage with weaving so tight it was nearly impossible to make out the figure inside. As I continued up the gently sloping path, just wide enough for a vintage army jeep to navigate, I passed a similar shrine to Saint Joseph that had been put under lock and key. When I paused to drink some water and sunscreen my legs I heard a whirring noise and looked up to see a helicopter flying low over the stretch of the Rio Grande that separates Texas from New Mexico. 

Up ahead, just before the trail began its zig-zagging ascent of the mountain’s face, a simple wooden cross had been driven into the ground to mark where a dirt path split right, leading over a barren expanse of brush and stone to another shrine. Suddenly, the helicopter reared into view from behind Christo Rey, close enough now that I could make out the green stripe on its tail, and began another pass over the river. Heedless, I headed over to the shrine and squinted through the mesh to see a rendering of Our Lady of Fatima against tiles depicting a blue sky scattered with white clouds.

The helicopter circled again, clearly keeping an eye on me. Off to the south, I could see the border wall, which a neighborhood on the outskirts of Juárez ran right up against. The helicopter approached again, lower now, its rotors obliterating the quiet of the morning. I leaned down to pick up a piece of litter someone had left on the sandy apron in front of the shrine. The label read “Electrolit: Suero Rehidratante.” It was an empty bottle of Mexican Pedialyte, sabor manzana. Not much imagination needed to figure out how it got here. On the Border Patrol helicopter’s next circle, it seemed to pause in the air above me, as if its pilot had a decision to make.

Before it was Mount Cristo Rey, the landmark was known as Cerro de los Muleros — the Mule Drivers’ Mountain — after the traders and wagon trains that once used it as a point of navigation to find a safe place to ford the Rio Grande on their passage north. It stands independently from both El Paso’s Franklin Mountains and Juárez’ Cerro Bola, formed not by the grinding plate tectonics that upthrust the Rockies and the Sierra Madre but instead by an adventurous surge of magma that pressed the ground outward but never erupted, eventually cooling into a loan, andesite peak.  

In the 1880s, the American Smelting and Refining Company, better known as Asarco, set up a plant outside El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from Cerro de los Muleros. Most of the plant’s laborers were drawn from the company’s mines in northern Mexico, and they ended up settling in a ramshackle community on company land that came to be known as Smeltertown (it would take decades for the horrific cost borne by the 2,500 people who lived within a mile of the lead-refining plant to come to light). Not long after the facility opened, a Spanish priest named Lourdes Costa was assigned to lead the congregation in Smeltertown and set up a small Catholic church there, which he named San José de Christo Rey.

Costa soon became infatuated with the mountain that loomed over the town, dwarfing even the lead plant’s smokestacks. One parishioner, Ramon Salas, remembered that the padre was known for gazing out the window of his church at the top of Cerro de los Muleros — eventually, in the early years of the Great Depression, he went to the Bishop of El Paso and told him he’d had a vision of placing a monument atop the mountain (a vision that just might have had something to do with the recent completion of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro). The bishop liked the idea so much the diocese purchased the 200 acres that encompassed the mountain. In 1934, the first monument was erected on the peak of the renamed Mount Cristo Rey, a 12-foot tall wooden cross. Within a few years, that cross had been replaced by one made of iron that had been forged at the Asarco plant and was engraved with a latin rendering of the phrase the Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly saw in a cross hovering over the sun, prompting his conversion to Christianity: in hoc signo vinces, in this sign thou shalt conquer.  

Costa wasn’t done. With the Great Depression still maundering on, he paid men from Smeltertown $1.50 a day to improve the road up the top of Mount Cristo Rey and to smooth out its top so that a larger monument could be erected. To design it, he enlisted Urbici Soler, a fellow Spaniard who resided in Mexico City and had developed a reputation for his busts of indigenous people from Latin America. Soler made plans for a 42-and-a-half-foot cross made of bright Cordovan limestone, which, rather than exhibiting Christ’s martyrdom, would depict the savior after his triumphant rebirth.

The limestone for the statue was sourced from a quarry near Austin and shipped along the original Southern Pacific railroad that ran right through Smeltertown. Forty tons of the stones were hauled up the mountain on a tractor in 1938, and Soler began shaping the statue once the rough-cut materials were already in place. Having fully embraced Lourdes Costa’s vision, Soler continued work on the cross at his own expense even after the El Paso diocese had run out of money to pay him. The Smeltertown parish dedicated the statue in 1939, and it was given a full fête a year later, when the bishop of El Paso held a 5-hour mass at the summit.

I learned much of this history from Ruben Escandon, Jr., who I visited at his cluttered office in the First Presbyterian Church on El Paso’s Murchison Drive two days before I hiked Christo Rey. A former police officer, for the past 17 years Escandon has worked primarily as a wedding officiant. His specialty is ceremonies that take place on the bridges that connect El Paso and Juárez, making it easier for couples to normalize their immigration status so they can live in America together. As I took my seat in an armchair across from him, Escandon laid his bluetooth headset on his desk and let his glasses rest on his chest, supported by a croaky running around his neck. His great-great grandfather, he explained, had first immigrated to Smeltertown from rural Chihuahua in the 1880s, lured like so many others by a job at Asarco. “I’m a third generation volunteer out at Christo Rey,” he said. “My grandfather, father, uncles, were all instrumental when they built this.”

Over the decades, Escandon and his father, who passed away in 2020, worked with the other volunteers to not just maintain Christo Rey, but fully realize Lourdes Costa’s ambitions for the site. His vision included not just Soler’s statue of Christ but a massive crown surrounding the figure, as well as decking out the entire mountaintop in marble so that it would function as an open-air church. To commemorate Christo Rey’s 50th anniversary in the ‘80s, the volunteers organized a telethon that raised $30,000 to build a crown around the statue. That money was enough to not only install the crown, but also a network of spotlights that would light up the statue at night.

The new, improved Chriso Rey didn’t last long. “The lights were stolen,” Escandon remembers. “There’s a bunker up there, a cement, steel-encased bunker that’s probably 12-feet long by 6-foot wide. It was an open pit; we had a helicopter pilot come in and drop a generator inside the bunker and then the welders came in and sealed it. We ran the wires all the way around the crown where the spotlights were installed. That generator lasted less than a month. They stole the frickin’ generator! Pulled all the cable, all the copper out of the lines, stole the lights. We’ve never been able to do the improvements we need to just because of the proximity to Mexico.”

Indeed, in the years before the Border Patrol fully clamped down on the region, Escandon says the holy site developed a reputation around El Paso: “Going up to Christo Rey? You’re gonna get robbed.” He says people would climb the mountain from Juárez and lay in wait for unsuspecting tourists, who they’d mug for their cameras. “Now that Border Patrol works the area for the smuggling side of it, for alien traffic and everything else, people can go up there a little bit more at ease, enjoy a walk up there.”

Perhaps there are people who are put at ease by the presence of surveillance helicopters, but I am not one of them. As I ascended up the switch-backing trail away from the shrine to Our Lady of Fatima, I realized that the Border Patrol wasn’t watching me in particular so much as they were keeping a close eye on the western flank of the mountain. The reason why became obvious once I got closer to the top and could peer down toward Juárez: since the border wall is unable to continue up the hillside, it stops abruptly where the mountain begins its rise out of the desert floor, creating an easy circumvention point for migrants.  

After throwing back a few mouthfuls of water in a rare shady spot on the trail, I continued upward, stopping only briefly when two middle-aged dudes came trotting down from the peak. One, who looked a bit like a Chicano Guy Fieri, gestured to me gravely, saying, “Hey man, it’s closed up there. It’s a whole situation, they got it closed off.” For a second, I believed him — who wouldn’t given the caged shrines and the certitude that our every movement was being monitored? But when his friend broke into a smile I grinned too, snapping back, “Oh yeah, they closed the whole cross?” He laughed and slapped me on the arm before continuing on his way.

As I made the last bend in the path at the top, the wind gusted so hard I had to grab my hat to keep it from blowing over into Mexico. A concrete ramp with a yellow handrail led up to the Christ figure, which stood on a pediment studded with chipped tiles commemorating donors to the monument. My only company at the summit was two teenagers, who huddled together in the shade cast by the cross in a posture more lusty than prayerful. Over the rim of the crown, I could see the remains of the spotlights: concrete platforms with rusted rebar jutting out the top. Beyond, the view of the valley was utterly stunning. It’s only at a distance that you can see El Paso and Juárez as the singular metropolis they once were.  

Looking up into the cloudless sky, Urbici Soler’s Christ of the Rockies loomed over me, the mountain’s lone religious figure that remains unsecured. Even squinting up into the sun, one can perceive the softness of the sculptor’s rendering — the easy drape of his belt, the relaxed tilt of his hands, the pacific expression on his face. This, remember, is meant to be the risen Christ, victorious and eternal. I couldn’t help but wonder: If He really did look out over the borderlands from this fabulous vantage, how many kingdoms would he see?


You can pick up this month’s Boston magazine to read a package I put together about how the city’s downtown core is adapting to the new world created by the pandemic (a scaled down version is available online). Elsewhere, Components just put out a new report about Product Hunt, a website with close ties to the VC world that serves as a clearinghouse for start-up tech companies. The data we culled from the site showed a distinct preference for productivity software among Product Hunt’s users, a finding that suggests an ouroborosian infatuation among investors with software that duplicates the basic functionality of Excel over the sort of apps consumers actually like to spend money on — video games. 

If you’re in the market for a quality summer read, I highly recommend Mirror Made of Rain, the debut novel from my old pal Naheed Phiroze Patel. It’s the arresting story of Noomi Wadia, the unruly scion of a degenerating society family in Kamalpur, a town where the wealthiest residents “all had their roots tangled up like banyan trees; it took some skill to figure out where one household ended and the other began.” Though Noomi escapes home for Mumbai and then Delhi to start a new life for herself, she can’t help but become drawn back into the stultifying customs that drove her mother into alcoholism. Though much of her material is grave, Naheed addresses it with welcome skepticism and humor. All told, it’s a fantastic examination of the uneasy coexistence of traditional Indian hierarchies and contemporary mores. 



That’s all for now. I’ll be back next month with some more musings on El Paso. Until then, you can find me on my website, or taking my coffee on the porch, the better to monitor all the neighborhood dogs on their morning perambulations.

Your pal,

Kyle

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