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for people who care about the West

A pilgrim with a battered Nikon

 

Name Jaelyn deMaría

Hometown Albuquerque, New Mexico

Age 26

Vocation Photographer at the Albuquerque Journal

Pet Tweak, a Chihuahua

Favorite food Her grandmother’s Sunday breakfasts of eggs, beans, fried potatoes, tortillas and homemade chile.

She says "When we decide to become a pilgrim on any sort of religious pilgrimage, what is important is just the individual journey and the relationship between the individual and the earth on their journey. There’s a transformation and then a return."

 

Rising out of the barren desert hills near El Paso, Texas, the 29-foot-tall limestone statue of Jesus at the shrine of Monte Cristo Rey draws tens of thousands of pilgrims every year. The crowd — Anglos, Mexicans, Hispanic-Americans, Indians — is a cross-section of Southwestern Catholics. Dressed in ceremonial costumes and casual clothes, they arrive on the last Sunday of October to walk a three-mile path that winds past 14 tile murals depicting the Stations of the Cross.

One path begins in Mexico and, as it crests a small hill, crosses into the United States. In years past, Border Patrol agents were on hand, but not to detain people. "Agents were actually, physically, reaching out their hands to people who were crossing an international border," says photojournalist Jaelyn deMaría, who has focused much of her recent work on the shrine. "It was like, ‘wow,’ a place of religious devotion can do this."

A Ph.D. student in American studies at the University of New Mexico and a photojournalist for the Albuquerque Journal, deMaría goes to Monte Cristo Rey each year to work on a lengthy personal photo project. DeMaría started out as a writer, but she found that she could better capture the narratives of her subjects’ lives with lenses and film.

DeMaría is fascinated by Monte Cristo Rey, and the vital lives people have built in nearby border towns, despite the desert’s harsh landscape. "It is difficult to have things grow there, literally … not only that, but it is a militarized zone. But people are still managing to build community."

She is also drawn to the ritual itself: As a child, deMaría traveled to the church at Chimayo in northern New Mexico, one of the most widely known pilgrimage sites in the Southwest. "Growing up Catholic was a beautiful thing to me," says deMaría. "It was the way my grandma sees the world and it helps me to see … the same beauty that she does."

DeMaría’s aesthetic tends towards the underground and the heart-felt. She appreciates rap music because "it is the journalism of the streets," and she is rereading a worn copy of Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca, a New Mexican author who learned to read and write in a maximum-security prison.

Her small, clean apartment is full of the detritus of a graduate student’s life. The digital camera and laptop reflect her trade as a photojournalist, but in her personal work, deMaría prefers using a manual camera with a bashed-in lens shade. She even develops the photos in her small kitchen.

With the current national focus on illegal immigration, deMaría’s most recent trip to Monte Cristo Rey had a different feel. Border Patrol agents scrupulously watched the Mexican side of the line, and something of the sense of international friendliness was lost. "The people that I’ve met, literally on the border, are human beings just struggling to survive. If there’s any message, that’s the message I’d like to get across," she says. "The border isn’t a policy, it isn’t a line or a security issue, it’s a place where people live."

DeMaría now plans to go back to Monte Cristo Rey and ask the people what her words and pictures mean to them. "I think that’s where my personal work is a lot different," she says. "The people that I’m photographing comment on my work and critique me on my work … It shouldn’t be about my interpretation, it should be about the story they want to tell, too."

Lee Ross finds all kinds of adventures as a freelance writer in his home state of New Mexico.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.