PHOENIX - The image of the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe has moved from the solemn walls of Roman Catholic churches and onto the stylish hips of fashionistas like Priscila Ferrand.
The Mexican version of the Virgin Mary is on the Scottsdale nurse's $300 belt, threaded through her low-rise jeans. The Virgin's dark-skinned face shines on a silver buckle surrounded by green stones.
For almost five centuries, since her legendary appearance to a peasant Aztec atop a Mexican mountain, she has been the religious icon of the devout. Today, la Virgen de Guadalupe is also a pop icon. Trendsetters like Ferrand are rocking her sun-rayed image because it's chic, not necessarily because they're believers.
"It's a piece of jewelry," confessed Ferrand, who grew up Catholic in Panama.
The image of the Virgin's serene face, green cloak and red robe is common in the Southwest and other heavily Latino areas throughout the United States. She is a symbol of hope, liberation and compassion and is the most popular religious symbol in Mexico.
But lately her status in the pop world has risen with celebrities such as Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears and world soccer star David Beckham wearing Virgin-decorated tees and accessories. On the Internet, in grocery stores and at boutiques, she adorns shower curtains, kimonos, key chains and candles.
Christianity in the marketplace is nothing new, especially with movies, musicals and bracelets of Jesus Christ, but the Virgin's popularity is attributed to a growing number of businesses using her image to capture a fast-growing Hispanic market and to women who see her as a strong role model.
Symbols gain popularity
"She was once just a Mexican icon, then a Mexican-American icon, now she's become an American icon," said Kristy Nabhan-Warren, assistant professor of American religions at Augustana College in Illinois and author of Virgin of El Barrio. "(People) take symbols that sometimes are attached to institutional churches and make them their own."
The story of Mexico's spiritual mother began in 1531, a time of unrest. She appeared just before dawn to Juan Diego at Tepeyac, near Mexico City, and speaking in his native Nahuatl language, she told him to build a church on the hill.
As the story is told, when Diego delivered her message to the bishop of Mexico City, he demanded proof of the apparition. The Virgin caused out-of-season roses to grow and directed Diego to gather them in his cloak and return to the bishop. When Diego unrolled the cloak before the bishop, the roses spilled out, and the image of the Virgin's dark-skinned face surrounded by glowing light and a turquoise wrap remained.
The cloak is on display in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Millions of Mexicans descend on the shrine. Nearby, vendors line crowded streets, peddling Virgin woven wall hangings, posters, electric fountains and clocks.
The Virgin Mary is held by many Hispanic Catholics as the most important in the hierarchy of religious figures. Her popularity in Mexico and Latin America intensified in Jan. 23, 1999, when Pope John Paul II crowned her patron saint and evangelizer of the entire American continent.
From ashtrays to ornaments
In Phoenix, men and women of different ethnic and religious backgrounds are buying up Virgin Christmas ornaments, ashtrays, candles and medallions at Suenos Latin American Imports. Sales of Virgin products have soared, said owner Robert Bitto, with today's sales reaching $10,000 compared with about $200 in 1999, the first year he stocked shelves with her image.
Customers buy Virgin-decorated ashtrays to help them quit smoking, he said. "You don't want to put your cigarette butt out on her face, do you?"
They also buy greeting cards, handbags and Virgin-decorated mouse pads.
"One woman came up to my register, slapped down a mouse pad and said, 'I'm getting this for my husband. Maybe he'll think twice next time he clicks on his dirty Internet (sites),' " Bitto said.
The Tarjeta Prepagada La Guadalupana, a $5, 120-minute prepaid phone card bearing the patroness, outsells other cards, said Pedro Adun, president and chief executive officer of Easy Telecommunications Inc. The Phoenix company did at least $600,000 in Guadalupe cards last year, he said. It's permissible to use her as a marketing tool, Adun said, because customers can keep the card as a souvenir.
"Sure, it's a phone card, but it has value with the Virgin," he said. "They don't want to destroy the face of the Virgin."
Twenty- to 70-somethings are snatching up $189 to $360 belt buckles, rings, T-shirts and chokers at Barbwire Western Couture boutique in Scottsdale.
'Good things happen'
"People have said good things happen to them when they wear it," owner Sheila Bryson said. "Everybody except for Mormons and Buddhists will buy it."
The commercialization of one of the church's most sacred figures irritates some Catholic priests and parishioners. Plastering her image on phone cards, belt buckles and nightclubs is irreverent, said Maribel Bueno, 25.
"Some of them don't even know who she is," the administrative assistant from Phoenix said. "As a Catholic, I wish they had respect. She's sacred."
Priests such as John Bonavitacola hope that those who latch onto Guadalupe's image keep in mind her message of compassion.
"If they really knew the message, which is really concern for the poor and outcast, they might not be so quick to cash in on it," said Bonavitacola, of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tempe. "It cheapens it."