I was wandering through downtown El Paso, not far from the old neighborhood of Chihuahuita, when I saw the white van. It was parked in the shade, under a tree, and spray painted across the side was the word YAHWEH. I parked and walked over. Two people were sitting inside, a black man and a white woman. Their son was asleep in the back. I asked about the words on their van. They told me to read the other side, so I walked around that way. YAHWEH SAID: GIVE ME YOUR HANDS!! EXO CHAP 20. The handles of the van’s doors formed exclamation points.
They were travelers, coming from California and heading back toward Ohio. We talked about God for a little while, and I had a hard time following what the man was saying. I asked them what they thought about the whole border situation. The man looked at me and said he didn’t want to go all Nazi or anything, but it wasn’t anything a few machine guns couldn’t take care of. He wasn’t talking about the drug smugglers.
And God said, Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.
Later that day I met Rudy Garcia for the first time. He gave me a tour of his mountain shrine, a very high altar indeed. I came back a few months later, on the last Saturday in October 2011, the day before the annual pilgrimage of Mt. Cristo Rey, a mountain straddling the Mexican border just west of El Paso, crowned with a forty-two-foot-high statue of Jesus standing before his cross. Up to thirty thousand pilgrims were expected on Sunday, and preparations were under way. Garcia, a longtime member of the Mt. Cristo Rey Restoration Committee, had invited me to spend the night on the summit with him to guard against the depredations of what he called “the Satanics from Juárez.” No barrier other than the mountain itself would protect us from the most dangerous city on earth.
I arrived shortly before ten A.M. after driving west through El Paso alongside the Rio Grande on Paisano Drive, a stretch of road that only a decade before had been subject to cross-border bandit attacks, past a weedy, dilapidated park commemorating the spot where in 1598 Don Juan de Oñate forded the river with his colonists and his army and his priests to give El Paso its name, past the remaining buildings of Old Fort Bliss, now converted into seedy apartment buildings. An enormous smokestack displaying the word “ASARCO” dominated the view, not quite rivaled by the novelty of the fifteen-foot-high Homeland Security border fence looming over the roadway. Eventually, after crossing the Rio Grande into the state of New Mexico, I turned off the macadam onto a gravel road that led through the bleak and blasted landscape of a defunct silica mine where paleontologists study lithified dinosaur remains. The winding road led me across the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad and up to the base of my destination, the jagged Cristo Rey pluton, an igneous intrusion exposed by eons of erosion, jutting upward from its ancient cradle in the sediment of shallow seas. I left my rental car along the edge of an empty parking area and walked up toward a rock, cement, and galvanized-steel shelter surrounded by human figures. It was already getting hot. Jeeps and pickups drove this way and that. Fine powdery dust billowed and hung in the air. Several ranks of blue portable toilets stood off to the side, and the doors of storage sheds and containers swung open, disgorging their contents. A dozen or more men and women busied themselves with obscure tasks, laughing and calling out to one another in Spanish and English. Walkie-talkies crackled, and power tools whined. The music was loud.