When she turned 27, Cynthia Martinez' father gave her a not-so-subtle present: a seven-foot statue of an upside down St. Anthony. The legendary message of the upended statue was: Find someone and get married. Pronto.
When she opted to remain single -- Martinez had other things in mind, like opening her own restaurant -- her father gave her 60 more statues over the next six months. All of the same saint in different sizes, and like the first one, all standing on his head.
Why upside down? Because St. Anthony is known as a miracle worker. Stories abound about this, but a popular one says if you stand a statue of the saint upside down, you can kind of blackmail him into doing miracles for you. For instance, if you've lost something, St. Anthony can help you find it. In return, you're expected to turn his statue upright.
At their home in Morelia, capital of the western Mexican state of Michoacan, Martinez' father was looking at another page in the miracle book.
On this one, St. Anthony helps you find your true love. Again, you need to first turn him upside down; next, you write a wish for the kind of guy or gal you're looking for, light a candle, and then wait for the savvy saint to put you together with Mr. or Ms. Right.
Even after getting 61 upside-down statues from her dad, Martinez still wanted to stay single. But all those statues gave her an idea for her restaurant. Besides serving a full menu of classic Michoacan dishes such as Corundas Uchepos (sweet corn tamales), Huitlacoche (corn-grown mushrooms) and Filete Tierra Caliente (beef sirloin with green tomato salsa topped with black beans), she'd make the place famous by featuring a room full of St. Anthony statues, all upside down in the traditional make-a-wish position.
What's more, she'd decorate the rest of the restaurant - she decided to call it San Miguelito - with all kinds of eclectic stuff. Like life-size angels, voodoo masks, baroque mirrors, antique clocks, medieval paintings and chandeliers made of elk antlers.
While jumping through all the hoops to get her restaurant opened, Martinez went out looking for more St. Anthony statues. And when San Miguelito finally debuted in 1995, diners began making wishes in a room brimming with 700 upended St. Anthonies.
Statues ranging from the size of a cigarette to papa Martinez' original seven-footer are all available to hopeful singles today in the wishing room, which Martinez named Rincon de las Solteronas (roughly meaning "Corner of the Spinsters").
Following the traditional process for miracle-wishing, some 27,000 visitors have so far left notes to the sainted match-maker.
So how many matches have actually come about? Martinez says she hears about some wishes coming true from time to time, but she doesn't keep count. She tells the story of a woman from a far-away city who left 25 pages of notes there, and when she got home she really did meet the love of her life. A few months later, the happy couple came all the way back to Morelia to tell Martinez about their good fortune in person.
And what about Martinez' love life? She's still not ready to tie the knot. But she's got a boyfriend.
Getting there: Travelers can fly nonstop to Morelia from U.S. hubs such as Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston, or by way of flight connections at Mexico City and other Mexican hubs.
Staying there: Visitors have a choice of a dozen or so upscale boutique hotels in Morelia's downtown colonial district or at hillside resorts overlooking the city such as the hacienda-like Villa Montana.
Images by Bob Schulman