SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico (Border Report) – Isabel Villalobos on Friday climbed a mountain overlooking three states and two countries and prayed for salvation and world peace.
“It’s very sad what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. I see (the images) on television and see what people are going through instead of being in harmony and peace,” the El Paso, Texas, resident said.
As she climbed down the ramp to the shrine of Christ the Redeemer, a steady stream of pilgrims made their way up the winding trail leading to the summit of Mt. Cristo Rey. Some led their elderly relatives by the hand, others carried babies, and some made the 2.3-mile rocky climb barefoot to show devotion.
Some stopped atop the mountain straddling Mexico and New Mexico and that can also be seen by motorists from El Paso’s Interstate 10. They snapped photos of sprawling Juarez, Mexico, to the south, the desert in Sunland Park, New Mexico, and the border wall in between.
They bowed their heads in prayer, lighted candles at the foot of the 29-foot-tall limestone statue and joined groups singing religious hymns or reciting the Rosary. A young man, Miguel Martinez, brought a 7-foot wooden cross with his grandmother’s name. “It’s my first time. (The climb) was kind of hard but it’s a nice day, so I can’t complain,” the El Paso Lower Valley resident said.
A Jeep bearing the flags of the United States and New Mexico and carrying two large coolers somehow made it up the steep and narrow trail where even pedestrians must be careful not to crowd the road else they slip down vast ravines. “We have water in case people get dehydrated,” said Antonio Sarabia, a volunteer for the committee that maintains the shrine. He said another volunteer drove the Jeep up the trail at dawn.
Good Friday marked the first time in two years that the shrine revered by thousands of border residents opened to the public.
“It’s great to see people back (after the COVID-19 pandemic). We’re expecting 9,000 people today,” said Ruben Escandon Jr., spokesman for the Mt. Cristo Rey Restoration Committee.
The shrine was the brainchild of El Paso priest Lourdes Costa, who persuaded the Catholic Diocese of El Paso to purchase the land in New Mexico for the project. The shrine was dedicated in 1940 and has been passed over to the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
In recent years, the mountain has also become infamous for migrant smuggling activity from Mexico. Border Patrol agents on horseback, all-terrain vehicles and 4-by-4 pickups patrol the base of the mountain 24-7. Still, Sunland Park has often been overwhelmed by trespassing calls, medical emergencies involving migrants, and border agents chasing locals who agree to transport migrants for money.
A 2020 crash that killed seven people in Downtown El Paso started with border agents chasing a car that picked up migrants near the base of the mountain. Anapra, the Mexican neighborhood on the other side of the mountain, is a known smuggling hotbed for law enforcement.
Local police and event organizers reported no major incidents Friday.