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Virgin of Guadalupe's image outsells celebs'

By Lisa Marie Gomez
San Antonio Express-News
December 11, 2004

Her sun-glow image can be found on almost anything -- T-shirts, key chains, calendars -- even a piece of toasted bread.

Put her image on something and it's guaranteed to sell. La Virgen de Guadalupe may be a few hundred years old, but among many Hispanics she's managed to out-do female celebrities of more recent times -- Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and
even her namesake, Madonna.

In this day and age, how does one of the Catholic Church's most sacred icons remain so popular? Religion has only a little to do with it, said Ellen Riojas Clark, an associate professor of bicultural/bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
"It's a real thing," Clark said. "She's a symbol of who we are." mestiza

The Virgin of Guadalupe has fascinated Clark, a fourth-generation Methodist, for years.
"I think she's a beautiful, beautiful representation of Mary," said Clark, who has gobs of household items in her living room and kitchen, including statues,
framed pictures and even a potholder.

"She is more realistic than anything that I grew up with in the church -- nothing was ever brown."

But at what point does marketing the Virgin go over the line?

"That's a really hard question to answer," said Craig Pennel, the owner of Tienda Guadalupe, a folk-art and gifts shop. Pennel brought out a cloth patch of the Virgin made of red, yellow, blue, green and pink sequins and studied it for a few seconds as he pondered whether
it was over the top.

"Does this look tacky to you? I think it all boils down to individual taste," said Pennel, who has sold shopping bags, T-shirts, key chains, calendars, tin ornaments and more, with the Virgin's image on them.

Fifteen years ago, Pennel's now-deceased partner wore a T-shirt with an image of the Virgin that raised a few eyebrows at a local mall.

"A group of Mexican nationals chewed him out for wearing that T-shirt because they said it was disrespectful," Pennel said. "And now anything with her image on it flies off the shelves."

A grilled-cheese sandwich said to contain an image of the Virgin recently sold for $28,000 on eBay, raising the question: How much is too much?

"I guess the rule of thumb for me is if you see it at the Basilica de Guadalupe [gift shop] in Mexico City, then it's OK," Clark said.

She recalled a time when the public protested in Mexico City after seeing a display of the Virgin wearing high heels. And locally, Pennel turned away a young artist who wanted to sell him a skeleton of the Virgin made out of papier-mache; such skeletons typically sell well during el Dia de los Muertos, around Halloween.

"I thought that was disrespectful and tasteless," Pennel said. "In that instance, I turned it down."

Carlos Murguia, who owns Pulquerios, a shop that sells jewelry, art and eclectic gifts, said he thinks the Virgin is more popular in recent years because of cultural pride. There was a time even in San Antonio when Hispanics had to "play down and suppress" their ethnicity and observance of their culture, he said.

"But now it's OK to be proud of who you are," he said. "Back then, you wouldn't tell your friends you ate menudo."

And now, not only is it OK to publicly share your passion for menudo, but you can eat it out of bowls imprinted with the Virgin's image. Murguia picked up a wooden egg with the Virgin's image hand-painted by Russian artist Miroslav Divis, who lives in the Czech Republic, and said he has a hard time keeping them in stock.

"This artist sells these like crazy in Mexico through eBay," said Murguia, standing beneath a clock with the Virgin's image on its face.

"Too bad someone Mexican didn't think of doing this first."

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