To many people, chocolate itself is a miracle. But to workers at a Fountain Valley candy factory, the real miracle occurred when a glob of the melted confection became molded into what some believe is a miniature statue of the Virgin Mary.
"It's absolutely a miracle," said Jacinto Santacruz, 26, a Mexican-born Roman Catholic who found the 2 1/2 -inch piece and saw a likeness of Our Lady of Guadalupe this week at Bodega Chocolates on Newhope Street.
Apparently others agree: With word of the discovery spreading, a steady stream of the curious and devout have been making the pilgrimage to Bodega's lobby where the tiny chocolate piece is displayed.
"It's really emotional," said Santacruz, a packager at the company for three years. "I can't describe the feeling -- the emotions made me cry."
She said her spiritual odyssey began early Monday when she arrived at work to find the little piece of hardened chocolate on a table where it had apparently dripped over the weekend from the spout of a recipe-testing kettle left on. She immediately whipped out an Our Lady of Guadalupe prayer card she always carries in her pocket and was amazed at the likeness between the image on the card and the chocolate.
"I thought, 'Why me; why was I the one to come across it?' " Santacruz, clad in an apron, recalled Friday. "Probably because of my attitude the day before; I was questioning my faith because of personal issues."
As news of the unusual find got out, the company's employees and their friends -- most of them Mexican American Catholics -- began to show up to see it. Eventually, co-owner Martucci Angiano said she contacted her publicist, who alerted the media and the crush was on.
"People have been bringing candles and flowers," Angiano said.
Others have taken pictures with their cell phones, gingerly touched the small plastic case in which the chocolate piece is housed and, in one instance, rubbed it on the belly of a pregnant woman to bless her baby.
"I respect and appreciate the passion this has stirred," said Angiano, who adamantly denies that the chocolate piece was created as a publicity stunt.
The Virgin Mary has shown up in odd edibles before: an Internet casino recently paid $28,000 for a 10-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich resembling Mary, and $10,600 for a pretzel that looks like the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Jesus.
Other settings in which she is said to have appeared include office windows, a locust tree, ceiling stains and a chimney.
On Friday, however, no one visiting Bodega's had ever seen her in a piece of chocolate.
"This is the first time anything like this has happened so near to me -- a miracle that's very clear," said Horacio Velazquez, 23, who works next door at a computer parts manufacturing plant.
He said his encounter with the chocolate had renewed his faith.
Concepcion Cisneros, 35, whose sister works at Bodega's, said she was hoping for good luck. "I think it's real," she said.
Angiano said she isn't sure just how long the icon will remain on display. "The whole idea is to preserve it so people can come and appreciate it," she said.
But how long will the candy last? "I don't know," she said, "we don't do molded chocolate all that much."