From Virgen of Guadalupe to San Miguel Arcángel, this Mexican entrepreneur sells saints for all

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Isabel poses with a figure of the Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgin Mary). Mexican Catholics are fervently devoted to the Virgen de Guadalupe and celebrate her birthday every December 12th. | Isabel posa con una figura de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Virgen María). Los católicos mexicanos están fervientemente devotos de la Virgen de Guadalupe y celebran su cumpleaños cada 12 de diciembre. (Photo by Eugenio Salas for WHYY)

This story is part of The 47: Historias along a bus route, a collaboration between WHYY’s PlanPhilly, Emma Restrepo and Jane M. Von Bergen. 

This article is written in a combination of English and Spanish. To read entirely in English, click or tap here o para leer en español, haga clic o toque aquí.


There is God and there is business and for Isabel Espinosa Sanchez, both have come together beautifully in the city of Philadelphia where she owns la tienda San Miguel Arcángel on Ninth Street, a store that sells religious items central to the Latino Catholic culture of Mexico, Central America and South America.

“Every morning when I enter Philadelphia, I send kisses to this city that supports me and sustains me,” she said, sitting in her store.

Her customers come to buy baptism and confirmation dresses, candles, medals of the saints, and most importantly, statues and medals of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

This store is a boon for immigrants seeking heavenly comfort. But it is also the store for all families when baptisms and first communions are celebrated. The little dresses, the stockings, the diadems, almost everything has the printing of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The store tells us about the Catholicism of Latinos.

For Espinosa, as for many Latinos, it’s a matter of faith — faith in the iconic Virgin in her colorful robes, the mother of Jesus, who answers their prayers for miracles and for health.

“La Virgen de Guadalupe obra milagros increíbles en todos los sentidos. Tú pides y ella es grandiosa. La mayoría de los mexicanos le piden salud para su familia”.

Both here and in Mexico, many homes have altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s an incredible love that feels palpable, especially on her feast day in mid-December.

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“La fe en la Virgen de Guadalupe es particularmente fuerte entre los mexicanos de las comunidades rurales. Es increíble cómo sus pequeños ya reconocen quién es la Virgen de Guadalupe y es sorprendente la fe que tienen en ella. Es asombroso. Es un amor increíble, que se siente, que se palpa”, dice Espinosa.

For Espinosa, being able to build a business based on the Virgin of Guadalupe and other saints, has been a double blessing. “It is a beautiful thing.”

She sees it as fulfilling God’s purpose for her life.

Isabel owns San Miguel Arcángel, a store in the Ninth Street Market that sells Mexican products including religious iconography and clothing. | Isabel es dueña de la tienda San Miguel Arcángel en el Ninth Street Market, que vende productos mexicanos, incluida la iconografía religiosa y la ropa. (Photo by Eugenio Salas for WHYY)
Isabel owns San Miguel Arcángel, a store in the Ninth Street Market that sells Mexican products including religious iconography and clothing. | Isabel es dueña de la tienda San Miguel Arcángel en el Ninth Street Market, que vende productos mexicanos, incluida la iconografía religiosa y la ropa. (Photo by Eugenio Salas for WHYY)

“Mi historia es muy distinta a todos los demás. La mía tiene mucho sacrificio, pero está muy llena de amor. Uno extraña a los amigos, la comida, a su gente, yo creo que ese proceso de estar saliendo es muy fuerte, pero yo fui muy bendecida. Los que estamos aquí es porque Dios nos puso aquí por algo y la verdad que valió la pena venir, esforzarse y quedarse acá”.

Isabel and San Miguel Arcángel, who is believed to protect his devotees from evil. | Isabel y San Miguel Arcángel, quien se cree protege a sus devotos del mal. (Photo by Eugenio Salas for WHYY)

Espinosa’s story begins in a small town in Puebla, Mexico, where she, married at the age of 21, went into business with her husband selling sombreros. But then, fashion changed. When farmworkers came back from the Bracero Program in the United States they preferred American-style caps, or gorras.

“Los famosos braceros, ellos fueron los que llevaron la moda de las gorras a México”.

The sombrero factory closed, the family made its way to the United States, joining relatives, as is often the case. Espinosa and her husband moved to Delaware, and using their business background, opened a grocery store. One of their daughters, attending Delaware Technical Community College, had future first lady Jill Biden as a professor.

For Espinosa and her husband, everything changed when a vendor walked into their store, offering hand-embroidered backpacks decorated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. They bought them for $6 apiece and sold them, instantly, for $10. They were stunned to learn that anything Mexican, especially if decorated with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, flew off the shelves.

The vendor offered them an excellent piece of advice: Cuando vayas a México, trae lo que sea porque lo que traigas te lo van a comprar.

Instead of going to Mexico for Mexican goods, they went to wholesalers in New York, buying, ironically, gorros decorated with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe along her image on belts, bandanas, purses and shirts.

Just as they had done in Mexico, Espinosa and her husband decided to go store-to-store selling their wares. Buying wholesale in California and Las Vegas, they peddle their goods up and down the East Coast, racking up miles on their cars.

Isabel holds a figure of San Francisco de Asís (Franciss of Assisi) one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity. | Isabel sostiene una figura de San Francisco de Asís (Francisco de Asís) una de las figuras religiosas más veneradas del cristianismo. (Photo by Eugenio Salas for WHYY)

The traveling got old. It was time to open a store for saints – but where?

“Como recorremos muchos lugares, sabemos la dinámica de cada ciudad. La única ciudad de las que visitamos, donde están concentrados los latinos (mexicanos y centroamericanos) es en Filadelfia en la calle 9”.

Philadelphia turned out to be the perfect location. There may be more Mexicans and Central Americans in other cities, but in Philadelphia, they were concentrated primarily in one neighborhood, near the Ninth Street market, served by the Route 47M spur.

Customers come from everywhere, and from many countries, not just Mexico. While the Virgin de Guadalupe is a best-seller and the Archangel Chamuel, known as the angel of love, is becoming increasingly popular, customers from different countries seek out the saints most meaningful to them.

Puerto Ricans venerate San Lazaro, Jesus’ friend. Cubans look to the Virgin of Charity El Cobre who, in Cuba, is enshrined beside an abandoned copper mine. People from Peru are drawn to Our Lady of Sorrows, or the Virgen Dolorosa, an image of Jesus’ mother mourning for her crucified son. Dominicans prefer the Virgin of Mercy, who frees people from jail, addictions or diseases.

“San Judas Tadeo es el santo de los casos difíciles y desesperados. La mayoría de sus fervientes son hombres”.

And the police who visit her store?

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They seek the protection of Saint Michael – the Archangel.

“Los policías, su protector es San Miguel Arcángel. Y sí porque realmente andan en todo lo malo. Entonces tienen que tener quien los cuide quien los cobije. El santo protector de los policías de los Estados Unidos es San Miguel Arcángel”.

And of course, every child needs a guardian angel.

San Miguel Arcángel is the place for Latino Philadelphians to find dresses for quinceñeras and other cultural celebrations. | San Miguel Arcángel es el lugar para que los latinos de Filadelfia encuentren vestidos para quinceñeras y otras celebraciones culturales. (Photo by Eugenio Salas for WHYY)
San Miguel Arcángel is the place for Latino Philadelphians to find dresses for quinceñeras and other cultural celebrations. | San Miguel Arcángel es el lugar para que los latinos de Filadelfia encuentren vestidos para quinceñeras y otras celebraciones culturales. (Photo by Eugenio Salas for WHYY)

Even Americans become customers. It brought Espinosa to tears when an Italian parade in South Philly began with devotees carrying statues of both the Virgin Mary clothed in blue and white, and the Virgen de Guadalupe, in her colorful robes, accompanied by flowers and a mariachi band.

“Yo sé que es la misma madre de ellos y la mía, nada más que la de ellos está vestida de blanco con túnica azul que es la Virgen María. Porque la Virgen es una. Es la Virgen que se le apareció a todo el mundo vestida de blanco, pero en México se le apareció con esos colores y es como la pintamos”.

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Her business, Espinosa believes, establishes her place in the community. But there’s more – by providing people with religious symbols important to them as they strengthen their relationship with God, she is building a more beautiful society here in her new land.

“Ya que tienes un Dios que te cobija, un Dios que te consuela, un Dios que te da todo, eso es muy reconfortante para los que estamos dejando todo, porque en verdad, el dejar tanto en nuestros países como familia, costumbres, tradiciones… encontrar a Dios aquí es fortalecerte”, dijo. “Si desde una edad temprana, te fortalecen con el hecho de que hay un Dios todopoderoso que te apoyará, que te guiará, que te hará sentir bien, me encanta”.

“And that makes me happy.”

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