Home Headlines The Cowboy Pilgrims of Guanajuato on their quest for Christ

The Cowboy Pilgrims of Guanajuato on their quest for Christ

by sanmigueltimes
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SILAO, Mexico — Sheathed in colorful woolen ponchos and wearing crisp white hats, the cowboys rode their horses through green fields and blond meadows, holding banners of Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The cowboys were in the midst of a three-day pilgrimage last month through the central highlands of Guanajuato, an 84-mile trip to the mountaintop statue of Christ the King, among the tallest and most sacred in Mexico.

The first pilgrimage began more than 60 years ago, when an ailing cowboy set out to seek salvation at the feet of the statue. Though the region has transformed since then, with family farming giving way to manufacturing, this tradition has grown, attracting thousands of devotees every January. This year, the pilgrimage drew more than 3,000 people, most of them men.

“Times have changed and we don’t harvest as much,” said Juan Isidro, a farmer from a nearby ranch who has attended the pilgrimage for eight years. “Those traditions are being lost.”

Amid a modernizing Mexico, rural communities have watched such traditions vanish. Family farms have shuttered. Handicrafts have been consigned to curio tables. Construction has blighted the open countryside. For the pilgrims, most of whom tend cattle and grow crops on the farms of Guanajuato, the journey is not merely an expression of faith. It anchors them to the past.


The cowboys rode toward a Mass at the hill where the statue was built in the 1940s.CreditMeghan Dhaliwal for The New York Times

“No matter where you live or work, your roots never change,” said Juan Manuel Vázquez, a former cowboy who now works as an electrician in the tourist town of San Miguel de Allende, a drive of an hour and half away. He closed his business for the occasion. “That is why we all keep coming here,” he said.

As with any pilgrimage, the journey meant many things to many people, from the spiritual to the practical. Some sought the comfort of religious purpose, while others were drawn to the adventure of sleeping under the stars. A few, hoping their sins would be washed away, sacrificed comfort for redemption. Others simply wanted to pray for rain after months of drought.

A few suggested that the desire to take arduous trips in the name of religion was steeped in the nation’s indigenous cultures, which value personal sacrifice and spiritual purity.

“We use our faith to survive, to overcome the bitterness of life,” said José Reyes, who helps oversee the annual journey, which he has made for 40 straight years. He was dressed in bluejeans and cowboy boots covered in a film of dust from the ride; his sunburned cheeks were glowing. “This journey makes me feel alive.”

The trip was a somber affair, the silence broken intermittently by the neighing of horses and the rare bit of conversation. Along the route, the riders passed a General Motors factory, a hulking structure of steel dropped in the middle of a field.

At night, they gathered around bonfires to weather the cold, sharing stories of past trips when horses died and pilgrims could not go on. Some used their saddlebags as pillows, stretching out by their horses. By dawn, they were off again.

Enforcing the sober atmosphere was Mr. Reyes, the trip’s official disciplinarian. On top of his light brown horse, he barked orders at the pilgrims, especially the young ones he suspected of goofing off.

“This isn’t a picnic,” he yelled, inspecting the line of riders. “Don’t even think about drinking. We are doing this for Christ, not for fun.”

The pilgrimage dates to 1954, when a young cowboy named Nicolás García set off to visit the statue. Suffering from nervous breakdowns, anxiety and hair loss, Mr. García was told by doctors that his condition was terminal, his son said.

Seeking help from above, Mr. García climbed the 8,900-foot hill known as Cubilete to pray before Christ the King.

During the journey, he came up with the idea of a yearly pilgrimage for the cowboys of the region, said his son Miguel Angel García, who is now in charge of the event. As it happened, Mr. García recovered from his afflictions after the trip. Convinced that the pilgrimage had miraculously cured him, he became even more committed to making it a tradition, his son said.


A campsite below the 75-foot statue. CreditMeghan Dhaliwal for The New York Times

The next year, a handful of friends and relatives from his small town near San Miguel de Allende joined. By the following year, there were 80 people.

“On his deathbed, he asked me not to let that tradition die,” said Mr. García, who lost his father three years ago.

The 75-foot statue of Christ with open arms replaced a smaller version that was destroyed in 1928 during the Cristeros War, which was incited by the antichurch policies of President Plutarco Elías Calles.

During the war, priests and Catholic parishioners alike were slaughtered, while anticlerical laws were enacted. During a thaw in the relations between church and state in the 1940s, the statue was reconstructed.

The statue’s rich history has reinforced a deep religiosity among the locals.

“This is a land of martyrs,” explained Juan Francisco Rosas, a student at a local seminary who attended the final Mass of the pilgrimage.

The Mass was celebrated beneath the statue, the cowboys attending on horseback, hats in hand. The priest told them that the pilgrimage was a sign of how much they needed God to withstand the pressures of modern life: crushing debt, illness, the violence of drug cartels and unemployment.

Even for those who no longer lived in Mexico, who had gone to the United States in search of a better life, the message resonated. Joaquín Villafranco, who left more than 40 years ago to settle in Austin, Tex., has never failed to return for the pilgrimage.

Coming back every year, he said, is a way to show gratitude for the opportunities he has found in America.

Just before the Mass, Mr. García positioned himself near the front, amid the chaos of jostling horses. The days of grueling travel were over. No more sleeping outside. No more long rides.

He sighed.

“This is it,” he said, clutching the reins of his horse. “The moment where all that cold, heat, hunger and fatigue are worthwhile.

“The moment you feel Christ close to your heart.”

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