Weeks after it was found floating face up in the Rio Grande, a lifelike statue of a crucified Jesus Christ has attracted hundreds of curious and devout Christians who arrive in a steady stream to touch it and pray.
When the meditating and gawking are done, the questions start gushing forth.
Where did it come from? How did it get in the river? Is it a miraculous sign or blessing for the illegal immigrants who brave the Rio Grande's dangerous waters?
And where is its cross?
The mystery hasn't been solved in the month since U.S. Border Patrol agents spotted what appeared to be a body floating in the river in late August. Closer examination revealed the nearly life-size figure that ran aground on the Texas banks of the river was a vivid depiction of a suffering Jesus.
"He lives," proclaimed Dr. Carlos de la Pena, a devout Catholic who is one of numerous people, churches and religious groups offering to enshrine the statue.
"It's kind of like when Moses was found in the river. It's a tremendous blessing for the entire community," the local dentist said. "The fact that he stopped here in Eagle Pass is big. It's very touching."
Made from lightweight fiberglass, the artwork floated because it was hollow and had no punctures in its smooth painted surfaces. When it was retrieved, its only unusual marking was slight staining from river water, suggesting to some that it hadn't floated for long.
Local Catholic clerics offered few clues to its origins. No artist's mark was found, and even with widespread publicity in South Texas and northern Mexico, no one has come forward with knowledge of the statue.
On Aug. 31, about three days after it was found, the statue was turned over to local police, who plan to store it in their property room until a decision is made about its disposal. Since then, more than 500 people — including a busload of senior-citizen pilgrims from Laredo who arrived Friday — have come to visit the "Floating Jesus," also known as the "Christ of the Immigrants."
"We heard about it on the radio," said Alberto Munoz of Eagle Pass, who visited the statue last week with his wife, Maria. "It's a surprise — a favorable one."
Symbol of faith
Such devotion to an inanimate object may puzzle non-Catholics, but it's neither extraordinary nor harmful, church officials said.
"If it helps their faith, if it makes them more holy and a little bit more spiritual, then why not?" said the Rev. David Garcia, rector of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio. "This is not idolatry. This is an unusual occurrence, and it has the symbolism of religion and of faith.
"The image of Jesus on a cross is a very important image to Catholics and Hispanics, and Mexicano Catholics even more so. They want to be a part of it. They want to be close to it. They want to touch it," the priest said.
Some even kiss it. Many fall to their knees. But most visitors simply stand and pray quietly next to the statue, usually for a few minutes but sometimes for up to an hour, police evidence technician Cesar Torres said. The visitors, mostly female, have been coming so steadily that police allow weekend and evening access.
"The first time they see it, they take a deep breath and cry," Torres said.
Where will it go?
The city has at least 60 days to decide where to send the statue. The city's three Catholic parishes, other Christian congregations, prayer groups and strangers as far away as New Mexico have offered to display it. De la Pena, for example, would like to move the statue to his Rancho Santa Maria in Maverick County, where for the past three years scores of devotees meet on the 13th of each month to recite the rosary. A 12-foot cross, donated by San Fernando Cathedral after 25 years of use in Holy Week rituals, is installed at the ranch for the church-affiliated services.
"We've been searching for a Christ that fits the cross," de la Pena said. "It fits perfect."
As officials mull over what to do with the statue, speculation abounds about its provenance.
Clue to origin
A similar Jesus statue that used to be displayed in San Antonio gives one clue about its mysterious look-alike. It has two holes in the back allowing it to hang on hooks mounted on a matching cross. Because the "floating Jesus" had no such holes, just indentations to mark where the holes should be, it's possible the statue never was displayed as part of a crucifix.
"It could have been an artist made it and for whatever reason he lost it or somebody stole it," Garcia said. "Maybe it was coming from Mexico to the U.S., and they lost it in the river as they were trying to cross it and it floated away from them."
The statue's nearly mint condition bolsters that notion, which competes with theories the item was swept into the river by floodwaters or discarded by thieves or pranksters.
Yet, all the scenarios hit a glitch: No one has reported the item missing or stolen. And notions of the statue floating from far upstream run into difficulty because a power plant obstructs the Rio Grande several miles north of the city.