Thousands climb Mount Cristo Rey as Good Friday tradition returns


As the sun rose over the Borderland, hundreds of people made their way up the dirt road to the summit of Mount Cristo Rey to perform a Good Friday pilgrimage canceled for the past two years due to COVID-19.

Some were chatting happily, while others were praying the Rosary. Women carried babies, pensioners leaned on canes, and young men carried simple wooden crosses on their shoulders.

Volunteers from the Mount Cristo Rey Restoration Committee, dressed in red t-shirts, surveyed the crowds, which would number in the thousands by the end of the day. Unlike years past, there was no mass at the top of the mountain. But people stopped in prayer before the imposing limestone statue of Christ. Many have reflected on the profound changes that have taken place in the three years since the last Good Friday march.

“I’ve definitely missed it the last two years,” Rolaura de Anda of El Paso said, while resting at the top with two friends who joined her. “I had checked and checked to see if they would hold it this year.”

She was carrying a water bottle, imprinted with a photo of her mother who died a year ago. She thought of herself on the way up, covering two and a half miles and climbing 820 feet.

“I appreciate the calm here,” de Anda said.

Catholics and other Christians observe Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A pilgrimage also takes place on Mount Cristo Rey on the last Sunday of October to celebrate the construction of the monument and the feast of Christ the King.

Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park on Good Friday April 15, 2022, photographed with a drone.  Members of the community climbed the mountain as part of the annual pilgrimage of Christians and Catholics from the border.

Continuing the tradition and creating new ones

Mt. Cristo Rey is just south of the Rio Grande and just north of the US-Mexico border. At each bend in the trail, a new view unfolds, some facing south into Mexico and some north into the United States.

De Anda convinced her friend, Carmen Corral, to join her this year.

“I lived in El Paso for 53 years and I’ve never been there,” Corral said. “These views are incredible. It’s just the mountains that separate our life here from life over there in Mexico.”

Siberio Holguin prays for his sick son at Mount Cristo Rey.  Holguin climbed the mountain as part of the annual pilgrimage by Christians and Catholics to the Sunland Park border region on Good Friday, April 15, 2022.

Angel Armendariz of El Paso said his mother told him his grandfather had once hiked up the mountain barefoot, praying for his grandmother to overcome an illness. It was the first year that Armendariz, a military veteran, did the march himself.

“I was looking for a mask in the glove box when I got here,” he said. “And I found my grandfather’s pocket rosary, so I took it away.”

He spent the walk thinking about his grandparents, who are no longer living.

Along the promenade, people stopped in front of small turquoise crosses representing the 14 stations of the cross to say prayers. There are also shrines to Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe along the trail.

At the top, the platform surrounding the statue of Christ was crowded with people. They remain respectfully silent, some standing in silence while others recited prayers. Several women were singing religious songs and playing the guitar.

After stopping to rest at the top and admire the view, the participants descended. A steady stream of people continued as the sun rose higher in the sky.

After:Mount Cristo Rey was once a figure of peace, now a symbol of struggle

Members of the community walked to Mount Cristo Rey as part of the annual pilgrimage of Christians and Catholics from the frontier to Sunland Park on Good Friday, April 15, 2022.

The pandemic strikes at home for the Mont Cristo Rey Committee

Mount Cristo Rey Restoration Committee spokesman Ruben Escandon Jr. was pleased with the strong turnout. Although COVID-19 didn’t seem to deter attendees, the committee struggled to attract enough volunteers this year.

The Diocese of Las Cruces owns the monument property but committee volunteers manage crowds and logistics. The Sunland Park Police Department and Border Patrol were also on the scene.

“The average age of the volunteers is around 70,” Escandon said. “The pandemic has taken its toll on them.”

Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park on Good Friday April 15, 2022, photographed with a drone.  Members of the community climbed the mountain as part of the annual pilgrimage of Christians and Catholics from the border.

Committee Chairman Rosario “Toto” Bustillos Jr. died at age 65 of COVID-19 on March 19, 2021. Bustillos was born in Smeltertown in 1955, where he lived until it was demolished in 1971. After retiring A 24-year-old in the Border Patrol, Bustillos followed in his father’s footsteps by volunteering on Mount Cristo Rey.

“Once he retired, he always helped out,” Escandon said. “But in March of last year he contracted COVID and unfortunately was one of those who didn’t survive.”

After:Trek for the return of the faithful after a pandemic break, the hike of Mount Cristo Rey is scheduled for Good Friday

Smeltertown’s legacy lives on at Mount Cristo Rey

Mount Cristo Rey’s history is tied to the Smeltertown community, located just east of the mountain. Mexican American employees of the Asarco smelter lived in Smeltertown until it was demolished.

Father Lourdes Costa of San Jose de Smeltertown Catholic Church proposed to build a cross on top of the mountain in 1933. Parish members built the road to the top of the mountain, which was renamed Mt. Cristo Rey de Cerro de Muleros, or Mule Drivers Mountain.

“We grew up in Smeltertown and La Calavera,” Escandon said. “My family and several other families were instrumental in building Mount Cristo Rey. Many families who lived in Smeltertown were involved in building the monument.”

Spanish-born sculptor Urbici Soler made the 29-foot limestone statue of Christ. The statue was consecrated on October 29, 1939, when the first pilgrimage took place in the mountain. Since then, an October Pilgrimage and a Good Friday Pilgrimage have been observed.

Volunteers have maintained those family ties to the mountain through decades of change in the Borderland now through a pandemic.

“I’m a third-generation volunteer,” Escandon said. “It was passed down from my grandparents to my parents. And hopefully I can pass it on to my kids.”

After:First pilgrimage to Mont Cristo Rey 80 years ago

Editor Martha Pskowski can be reached at [email protected] and @psskow on Twitter.

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