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Towering Figure of Christ Gives Tijuana an Instant Landmark

Sculpture: Fiberglass statue, the brainchild of a 78-year-old parish priest, is a show of faith and captivates motorists on city's east side.


TIJUANA — Above the haze of a truck-choked boulevard appears a transfixing sight--a towering white figure of Jesus Christ looming as high as the church belfries next to it.

The brainchild of a 78-year-old parish priest, the newly completed statue is nearly 80 feet tall, looking taller still from its perch at the edge of a hill on the city's heavily industrial east side. The fiberglass Jesus, its giant arms outstretched, captivates motorists and has instantly become one of the most dramatic landmarks in a rambling city sorely lacking in what might be called skyline pizazz.

The priest, Father Antonio Mata Villegas, claims his Cristo Rey, or Christ the King, is the largest such statue in Mexico and second in Latin America only to the famed Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Meant as an eye-catching expression of devotion, the Tijuana monument is also earthly testament to the priest's considerable willpower.

"I like grandiose things," Mata said. "Our faith shouldn't be represented as something small, but as large. It's a faith that's grand, splendorous."

After initial stumbles, Mata's project took two years and some $60,000 in donations to complete on the grounds of the Catholic parish. Rising in stages, the monument reached its full height--76 feet, five inches--in April. Mata plans to add steel girding inside the fiberglass shaft and build a spiral staircase leading to a viewing window near the top.

And he isn't stopping at the giant Jesus.

Mata's next move is to continue his ambitious make-over of the church, San Martin de Porres, and its grounds by constructing an elaborate plaza that would be ringed by a decorative wall and more than two dozen 6-foot angels. The most daring element involves hoisting the Christ figure onto the domed roof of a chapel being built nearby--a delicate operation that appears roughly akin to balancing a Coke bottle on an orange.

The priest, who also turned big construction plans into reality at a previous church, is undaunted.

"I don't know calculus, but an engineer told me, yes, it could be done," he said.

Mata and other church officials in Tijuana dream that one day the complex will become a tourist draw--complete with a little shop for selling figurines and Cristo Rey T-shirts. Proceeds could fund church charities. Curious motorists are pulling off three busy roads that crisscross below and venturing uphill for a closer look.

"It's not just a show of faith. It's also an interesting cultural and architectural expression," said Father Pedro Alvarez, a spokesman for Tijuana's Catholic diocese, which has endorsed the project. "It's going to be a center of faith and a center for tourists, too."

Observers agree.

"There's kind of a mystery or something," said Alex Batista, a Los Angeles mechanic who stopped by during a visit with relatives. "To be [here] for one minute or two minutes--you feel something."

There is little in Mata's retiring manner to suggest the splashy ambitions of a builder. A sixth-grade dropout, Mata as a young man plowed fields by oxen and rode horses in local rodeos in his home town of Panindicuaro, in the state of Michoacan.

He moved to Baja California at age 24 to join the seminary and has remained ever since, joining the priesthood in 1958. Almost immediately after taking over the San Martin parish in 1981, he set to adorning the boxy modern church with the baroque touches of the country's colonial past.

With no formal training in architecture, he built a huge new altar and two small chapels, installed ceramic chandeliers, lots of stained glass and topped the church with three tiled cupolas. The crowning touch is twin bell towers, like those he erected at a prior parish. The look is of Mexico's tradition-bound interior in a border city that has brashly hurtled toward modernity.

"We have no other church here in Tijuana with that kind of style," said Alvarez.

The vision of a Jesus statue began humbly enough--as a mere 30-foot figure--and grew as time and planning went on. Parishioners from the middle-class neighborhood donated generously, as did Mata's friends elsewhere in the city. Some help came from north of the border.

Based on a design by a friend and craftsman named Virginio Ramirez, workers created plaster models of each section of the body and used them to make molds for shaping fiberglass pieces. All told, some 360 parts were cemented together, top down, starting with the head. "Like a puzzle," Mata said.

A crane lifted the monument-in-progress as each new section was added underneath.

Now at full height, the statue commands from its bluff top spot, a stretch of junk car lots, carwashes, gas stations and, in the distance, the shiny U.S.-style strip malls of the fancier Rio Zone.

Some visitors find it a tad precarious. The monument stands but 15 feet from the hill's edge, one arm tethered by rope to a tree, the other to the unfinished chapel on which it is to stand someday.

"Won't it fall?" asked Maria Luisa Lopez, a Tijuana housewife who thought the statue was otherwise quite marvelous. "When the wind blows, it's very strong. If it falls one way, it's one thing. But if it falls the other, it could really cause damage."

Mata says the monument is securely anchored by buried rods. He said failure never really occurred to him. But he's anxious about finishing. He'd hoped to have the plaza complete by year's end--in time for the new millennium--but a shortage of workers has hurt. The roof of the chapel is a concrete skeleton. Mata is seeking stained glass panels for the walls; he'd like to illustrate the story of missionaries in Baja California.

"It's not the job of the priest to build churches. That's something for the architects and the engineers," Mata said. "But I like to. I want to leave something behind."

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