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A Symbol of Everlasting Faith Keeps Rising Above Challenges

Worship: A thankful Baja patron and a renowned sculptor's son persevere to build a 100-foot-tall Jesus.

July 14, 2002|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROSARITO BEACH, MEXICO — Just south of the main strip in this tourist town, where vendors sell black clay vases from Oaxaca and ironmongers forge lacy beds and candelabras, Jesus is rising. And the sight is stopping traffic.

Up close, what appears to be emerging from the earth at roadside is actually half a statue--a towering red-caped Jesus. The figure ends at the chest. Its midsection lies nearby and the legs and feet are not yet done.

Even for a nation where religion and cultural identity are intertwined, where homemade displays of faith dot the landscape, the multi-story half-Jesus has become a phenomenon.

Neither a civic project nor a church monument, the giant homage is one man's life's mission, a work so all consuming that it has enveloped the builder and another family and endured, despite considerable challenges and a few deaths.

Don Antonio Pequeno, the 75-year-old developer of the Villas San Pedro housing development, calls the statue his folly, his craziness--his locura.

For years he and his oldest son, Pablo, talked of building a statue of Jesus. At first, they envisioned something modest, to demonstrate the family's devotion to God. But Pablo was killed in a car accident several years ago and never got to see work on the Jesus begin.

At first, the statue took shape slowly, growing as Don Antonio's real estate development prospered. Begun about 30 months ago, it will one day stand 100 feet tall--about 25 feet taller than the statue of Cristo Rey in Tijuana.

The two statues share a common bloodline.

The one in Tijuana was designed by craftsman Virginio Ramirez. And the ambitious Don Antonio decided that he would commission Ramirez to design the even bigger Rosarito version. Ramirez, in turn, brought along his two sons for the work.

("That one in Tijuana was just to practice for this one," Don Antonio says.)

When Virginio died last year after a long illness, and one son unexpectedly followed him to the grave, the giant Christ figure lost two of its principal craftsmen. But it instilled the surviving Ramirez--Gregorio, 33--with a passion to finish the job.

Ramirez, looking into the statue's face, said the project "meant everything" to his father.

He feels the spirit of the master craftsman still there beside him, pushing for completion of his last, best work. Monday through Friday, the son works at the site. On Saturdays, he takes his children, Edgar, 8 and Adrian, 2, to see it.

Don Antonio's passion for the project remains intense as well, nearly three years after the work began.

With his success in business, he could be doing many other things.

He began his adult life as a butcher, but bought land 30 years ago just south of the town. At first, Villas San Pedro was almost worthless, despite its sweeping ocean views.

Then a population boom hit Rosarito Beach and the tourist town has been growing ever since. Don Antonio is the owner of one of the most sought-after housing development sites in the area.

"Now that it's worth something," he said, "I take a little for my statue."

You wouldn't know the old man is a land baron to look at him.

Beside the giant Christ figure, Don Antonio is simply dressed. He could be one of the laborers at the site, rather than its owner. He says little about the project--leery of seeming to court attention.

What he will talk about is his abiding faith in God.

"If I don't cling to God in times of trouble, who will I cling to?" he said. "I have no mother any more, no father.... God is my father."

His young employee, Gregorio Ramirez, estimated the statue will cost about $700,000 in all. But Don Antonio won't say.

"I don't keep accounts with God," he said, shaking his head, "because I don't want him to keep accounts with me."

They have imported resin from Los Angeles, painters from Guadalajara. When the colossus is complete--next March, they hope--cranes will move it to a hilltop about half a mile south, where a cross already waits.

There, the giant Christ will be the tallest landmark on the landscape. It will stand atop a small chapel. Don Antonio said his tomb will be there one day, directly beneath the feet.

He is aware that people of other faiths may not appreciate his statue.

"I respect all religions. If you believe in Buddha, that's fine with me, I respect it too. But this is my expression of my faith.

"I know people who say 'I don't believe in anything.' They are their own god. And I know people who believe in money--that is their king, their god." He shrugged. "Well, you have to believe in something."

While Don Antonio talked, Roberto Carmona, the owner of a small hotel that caters to surfers across the highway, arrived to take pictures. He stops by every few days with an instant camera to document the progress.

"I've seen the one they have in Brazil, but this is prettier," he said, gazing up. "Look at the face.... It's like he's ready to speak to you."

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