CALEXICO, CALIF. — A Mexican restaurant in this border town is drawing the curious and the faithful to see what some believe is a likeness of the Virgin Mary that appeared miraculously on a griddle.
A cook at Las Palmas restaurant was the first to see the image.
"She started to cry and didn't want to clean the griddle anymore," said Brenda Martinez, who manages the family-owned restaurant.
The griddle has been taken off the stove and is now displayed in a room behind the kitchen that is quickly filling up with rosaries, flowers, votive candles and other offerings left by visitors from the Imperial Valley and from Mexicali across the border.
"I feel she is here with us. I can feel her presence," said Joe Acuna, who owns a landscaping firm.
"She looks real, very real," handyman Mike Breseno said in Spanish.
The Rev. Edward Horning, associate pastor at St. Mary Catholic Church in nearby El Centro, examined the griddle Thursday. He would not say whether he thought the outline on the griddle looked like the Virgin Mary.
But he said, "If God wants to do something like this, he can do it."
To some visitors, the image looks like the Our Lady of Guadalupe artwork in a basilica in Mexico City, considered Mexico's most popular religious and cultural symbol. Mary is said to have appeared on a hill outside the city in 1531.
Among the offerings brought to Las Palmas was a replica of a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Visitors glance at the painting and then the image on the griddle -- and some see a similarity.
"She's here, I know it," landscaper Alfredo Luna said.
Only the church hierarchy can confirm that the apparition is a true revelation.
But that hasn't stopped people -- including several Mexican wrestlers in colorful costumes and masks -- from making the trek to the restaurant, which is known for its menudo and carne asada and is tucked in a corner of a popular swap meet at Hacienda Drive and Ollie Avenue.
The restaurant -- and the room with the griddle -- is open Wednesday through Sunday.
Alberto Lopez Pulido, director and professor of ethnic studies at the University of San Diego, said that claims of apparitions, particularly of Mary, are not uncommon among Latino and Mexican Catholics.
The Catholic Church in Central and South America is Mary-centered, while the church in most of North America is more Christ-centered, Pulido said. Seeing images of Mary in public places or work spaces fulfills the need of Catholics for a personal relationship to their religion outside the church, he said.
"It establishes a sense of community, of personal connection and access," Pulido said in an interview. "It makes their religion real to them."
Martinez said one of the cooks felt the image had materialized to give her strength after her brother's fatal heart attack a few days earlier.
"Mary is here for us," Martinez said. "She wants to show us her love and tell us to keep the faith."