$12.5 million offered for rights
San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 18, 2003
Dane Schiller, San Antonio Express-News
Mexico City — The Roman Catholic Church wants to make this clear: Mexico’s dark- skinned queen is not a commodity.
The Archdiocese of Mexico City said it terminated a deal to give an American company commercial rights to the official image of La Virgen de Guadalupe for five years for $12.5 million.
“For the tranquility of Catholics, the sacred image of the Virgen of Guadalupe is simply not for sale,” Monsignor Diego Monroy said in a statement intended to squelch a growing scandal.
“The sacred image of the Virgen of Guadalupe is the property of all Mexicans,” he said.
It doesn’t take much to fan emotions among the millions of faithful who each year visit the spot near where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared more than 500 years ago to an Aztec peasant now known as St. Juan Diego.
News that the archdiocese negotiated the Guadalupe contract last year had many in Mexico City shaking their heads last week.
“No one has a right to sell our faith,” said Yolanda Martinez Solano, 46, whose family has sold religious trinkets for four generations outside the Basilica de Guadalupe, built where the Virgin is said to have appeared.
“They’ve hurt themselves with this,” Martinez said of church officials. “How could they be so sick in the head?”
The trouble began Feb. 9, when Proceso, a leading weekly political magazine, reported that church officials in March 2002 sold the commercial rights to the Virgin’s image that appears on Juan Diego’s cloak.
It hangs in the basilica, considered by the faithful as proof of her appearance here and her love for Mexico’s indigenous people. It has been reproduced on millions of calendars, popular prints and art objects.
The reported deal would have given exclusive image rights to Viotran, a company in Orlando, Fla., that handles wire transfers immigrants use to send money home. The deal included the official church portrait of Juan Diego, unveiled for Pope John Paul II’s visit here to canonize him last year.
Exactly what the company might have done with the image is unclear; in theory, any use of the Guadalupe image on T-shirts, glasses or anything else would have been illegal without Viotran’s permission.
Proceso, which in the past has questioned the authenticity of the Juan Diego cloak, claims to have a copy of a signed five-year contract.
The Proceso story featured a full-page image of the Virgin accompanied by a trademark symbol. Rodrigo Vera, who wrote the story, titled “La Guadalupana, ‘Registered Trademark,’ ” said the church is trying to hide its affairs.
“I spent weeks trying to interview the archbishop or the legal representative of Viotran in Mexico, but my requests were denied,” said Vera, who stands by the story.
The statement by Monroy, the archdiocese spokesman, acknowledged the church had indeed signed a preliminary “project agreement” with Viotran, but that both parties decided to void the deal.
He said the basilica never considered selling exclusive use of the Virgin’s image, but merely official seals to verify the authenticity of her image where it was used by the company.
Ruben Ojeda, president of Viotran, which has 300 outlets in the United States, said he had never heard of a deal with the church, but if it happened, it was before he took over the company in July.
“We have no record here of any discussions, a contract or an agreement with the church,” Ojeda said. “We have never commercialized (the Virgin), and we would never do so.”
But Ojeda said a woman named in the Proceso article as a go-between for the company and the church had provided services in Mexico for Viotran.