Home » FEATURES » Feature: Maria, Full of Grace: Hunting Mexico’s Silver Markets.

Feature: Maria, Full of Grace: Hunting Mexico’s Silver Markets.

La Virgen de Guadalupe

La Virgen de Guadalupe (Photo courtesy of www.laorquesta.mx)



A silver lining of faith and hope. 


By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada


“Bella-Bella, you cannot wear black in México,” Maria, a friend, tells me, “They will think you’re going to a funeral.”


But I am in Mexico, the country where Santa Muerte – Death – stares menacingly through the hollowed eyes of skulls from street corners.


Azul Historico restaurant in Mexico City, displays the Santa Muerte skull in time for the seasonal celebrations.

Azul Historico restaurant in Mexico City, displays the Santa Muerte skull in time for the seasonal celebrations.


Could I visit the land of Frida Kahlo dressed in my usual uniform of black on black?  No.  I thirsted for colour and shopped aggressively and with great purpose, filling my suitcase with shimmering emerald, azure, scarlet, and tangerine, indulging in large golden hoop earrings and flamenco lace.  And though I dearly wanted to emulate Frida’s crown of colourful flower buds, I reasoned that I would be working high profile events with Mexico’s first lady – *probably* not appropriate, despite Mexicans’ deep love for all things poetic and beautiful.


Vogue Cover 1938 by Harry Scheihing

Vogue Cover 1938 by Harry Scheihing (courtesy of www.fridakahlofans.com)



I landed in the shadow of Mexico City’s mountains, folded into the city’s embrace, its air warm and fragrant with sweet corn tortillas.  I am drunk with Mexico City’s beauty, plied with velvety tequila, luscious fruit and chocolate, and midnight mariachis.


And in a tiny artisan market, just a few streets away from the Zócalo, the historic centre of Mexico City, I find a lovely traditional huipil – a white cotton sheath with flowers embroidered like a warrior’s breastplate.  A simple peasant dress that would have made Frida proud.   


But among Mexico City’s historic ruins, restaurants riddled with bullets from past revolutions, its memorials to political martyrs, I am haunted by two familiar faces: Santa Muerte, Death, and la Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary.

La Virgen de Guadalupe

La Virgen de Guadalupe


A lapsed and unconvinced Catholic, I had never liked the violence of Catholic iconography.  But I had also grown up in a farmhouse where my grandmother – my namesake – had built a grotto in honour of the Virgin Mary, la Vierge Marie, fulfilling a secret promise between her and God.  Through mystical osmosis, and in spite of my religious skepticism, the Virgin inspired deep reverence in me.  In her stoic silence, her face was an incantation. Marie pleine de grâce.  Maria full of grace.


And the cult of the Virgin Mary is overwhelming in Mexico City, eclipsing imagery of Jesus, gracing street shrines and tiled street murals.  On a sunny Sunday morning at la Villa, I watch as processions of families en route to church lovingly carry their tall ceramic statues Virgin in their arms.  It’s not unusual, says my guide.  After all, this is where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a humble peasant whose tilmàtli cloak now hangs in the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.


Juan Diego saw her at the Hill of Tepeyac, a young woman bathed in light.  When the girl asked him that a church be built at that site in her honour, Juan Diego recognized her as the Virgin Mary.  But the local bishop wanted proof that the young girl who had appeared to Juan Diego was indeed the Virgin.  When Juan Diego returned to the girl, she told him to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill.  When Juan Diego climbed to the top of the hill, he found Castilian roses blooming in spite of the December cold.  The Virgin arranged these in his peasant tilmàtli cloak.  And when Juan Diego opened his tilmàtli before the Bishop, roses spilled to the floor, leaving an imprint of the Virgin’s image in their place.


And thus I came to pray at the altar of Juan Diego’s simple tilmàtli at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.


A few days later, as I gleefully bought my huipil in the Mercado de la Ciudadela, I fall upon the silver market.    Mexican silver is noted for its good prices, and tourists flock to the silver markets to stuff their pockets with shiny baubles.  Display cases show off tinkling bangles and bracelets, dangly earrings, and intricately carved rings, and as I comb through all the sparkling loveliness, my eye falls on a gruesome sight: Santa Muerte.


An example of what can be seen at the Mercado de Artesanias Ciudadela

An example of what can be seen at the Mercado de Artesanias Ciudadela (Photo courtesy of www.minube.com)


For much of the world, death is taboo.  But there are exceptions – Ghana, for example, revels in extravagant funeralsAnd in Mexico, where Santa Muerte stares down from its hollowed skull to remind all of their mortality, death is treated with laughter and affection.  Reverence of death is even infused in local fashion, including the ring I now hold between my thumb and forefinger (how ironic to have Death under my thumb!).


I immediately pounce on the ring, pleased to see that I have found a little bit of Mexico’s passion for this great lady.  Santa Muerte sits on my finger, its menacing scythe held proudly, a skeletal face looking out at me from its hood.


The ring!

The ring!


And then the light catches another silver offering.  I lean down, drawn in by a face I recognize only too well.  Maria, full of Grace.


Nestled in a perfect oval, la Guadalupe stares up at me.  Just as she appeared to Juan Diego, she is bathed in rays of light etched across the ring’s silver surface.


Beautiful works of silver at the Mercado de Artesanias Ciudadela

Beautiful works of silver at the Mercado de Artesanias Ciudadela (Photo courtesy of www.minube.com)


There are three rings, three queens, three Marys.  I choose them all – one for my sister Émilie – who was born years after our grand-mother had passed away; and one for my sister Kathryn, who upon arriving to the family home as an 11-year old, was frightened by my grand-mother’s grotto and deeply afraid that we, her ‘famille de coeur’ (family of the heart) might be religious zealouts.  And one for me, so that I might find comfort in the Virgin’s face.


When I stare down at la Virgen de Guadalupe on my finger, I am reminded of home, and a little grotto dedicated by my namesake to the Virgin Mary.


*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is an aspiring writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.




Here are more global fashion stories

Add Comment Register

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>