MEXICO CITY— – The Virgin of Guadalupe is everywhere these December days: emblazoned on key chains, memorialized on coffee mugs, embodied in tiny figurines and life-size statues alike.
An estimated 8 million people will make their pilgrimage this season to the Basilica that bears her name, and many along the way are paying homage to Mexico’s most honored mother – vendors especially. The range of what’s for sale spans from 50-cent plastic pendants at street stands to fountain pens made by a luxury Italian label that cost more than $5,000.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Catholics in the world.
Joel Gilberto Valencia Diego sells a variety of icons and images of the Virgin at a makeshift stall along the avenue that leads to the Basilica, where pilgrims have been making their procession for the past month. The pilgrimages will culminate on day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Dec. 12.
The economy has been tough, Valencia said. His car repair shop went bankrupt, so now he is trying to capitalize on the rush of the faithful to the sacred ground where the indigenous Juan Diego is believed to have seen the Virgin on Tepeyac hill in 1531.
“The cheapest stuff is what sells the most,” he said, pointing to a display of metallic key chains, which cost 10 pesos apiece, or less than $1.
The buying of tokens, trinkets and pictures of the Virgin “is very traditional,” said Felipe Monroy, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico. The faithful “pass with an image or picture card or package beneath the Virgin” – there is a moving sidewalk beneath the hanging canvas with her image at the Basilica – “to receive the presence of her blessing.”
Mari de la O browsed for trinkets at a stand selling rosaries and other goods near the Basilica. She came with 10 of her family members from Tabasco state, she said – a 10-hour ride and her first-ever pilgrimage. She brought along a statue of the Virgin as tall as she is, about 4-feet-nine-inches tall. The Virgin stood beside her as she shopped.
“We came for a blessing and to hear Mass,” she said and declined to say what she paid for the life-size statue.
When it comes to the Virgin of Guadalupe, there is clearly an upper-end market, as well. Large, elaborate statues; oversized oil paintings and other tony goods don’t come cheap.
A three-foot-tall statue of the Virgin sells for 5,000 pesos, or about $370, at Gisela Prina’s store behind the hulking Cathedral in Mexico City’s historic center. Overall sales are down about 40 percent this year compared to two years ago, Prina said. Still, November and December are her best months.
Icons of the Virgin outsell icons of Jesus, crucifixes and even the popular San Judas Tadeo, patron of difficult causes and a Mexico City favorite.
“It’s enviable, the faith people have,” she said, taking a drag on a long cigarette.
On the finer side of this season’s offerings is a limited edition Montegrappa pen with the classic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe encrusted in silver and gold. Just 480 rollers and 480 fountain pens have been made available to celebrate the 480th anniversary of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance. The rollers cost $4,740. The fountain pens cost $5,150.
Javier Servín, 24, said his main task is to bring back Virgin images blessed by priests to his family in Temazcal, Oaxaca. He spent about 500 pesos, or $37, on several plaques.
“It makes me happy to come see her,” he said, as he rested on the sunny plaza outside the Basilica. “I feel good. I come to give thanks for my health. Everyone comes for their own reason.”
Lauren Villagran is a freelance writer based in Mexico.