December 19, 2005

Riddle of “corpse bride” draws crowds

By Tim Gaynor

CHIHUAHUA, Mexico (Reuters) - Peering through the glass at
a mannequin's veined hands, sparkling eyes and eerie smile, the
small crowd gathered outside a store in northern Mexico tries
to settle a macabre riddle beguiling many.

Is the tall, slender bridal figure in the window a richly
detailed shop's dummy or, as a local legend says, the
decades-old embalmed corpse of the former store owner's

The haunting figure known as 'La Pascualita,' or 'Little
Pascuala' first appeared 75 years ago in the window of the
bridal gown store in the city of Chihuahua.

Since then, the striking realism of the dummy has spawned
supernatural tales and reports of a miracle, and even inspired
a foot-stomping accordion ballad played on local radio.

The figure has drawn a stream of people from across the
desert state of Chihuahua over the past eight decades, and is
now attracting curious visitors from South America, the United
States and Europe, the owners of the La Popular store say.

As cars and trucks rumble by the shop on a busy city
street, the entranced visitors smudge their noses up against
the store window and try to decide for themselves if it's a

"She looks good for all the years that she's been here,"
Yolanda Robles, who trekked to the shop out of curiosity from
Phoenix, Arizona, said as she studied the rosary-clutching

"There are just so many details, like her hair and the
nails on her hand, that it just has to be true," she added.


Through the years the story has bloomed into a tale with
all the rich characteristics of magic realist fiction. It all
began on March 25, 1930, when the dummy was first placed in the
store front window.

Dressed in a spring-season bridal gown, the figure
immediately gripped the attention of passers by with its
disquieting, wide-set glass eyes, real hair and blushing skin
tones. Pascualita is unique among other shop mannequins in the
sleepy backwater state capital.

Rapt locals soon began to notice a striking resemblance to
the shop's then owner, Pascuala Esparza. A rumor quickly spread
that the figure was not a dummy, but her daughter who, it was
said, died from the bite of a Black Widow spider on her wedding

"She started to receive abusive phone calls from angry
citizens who accused her of embalming her daughter," the
store's present owner Mario Gonzalez said in his office above
the wood-paneled shop floor.

"She decided to issue a formal denial through a public
notary in the city, but by then it was too late. Nobody
believed her and the name 'Pascualita' stuck," he added.

The name of the daughter, if Esparza ever had one, became
lost in time.

Down the years, the tale has been embellished with claims
of supernatural happenings, including visits by a love-sick
French magician who is said to bring the dummy magically to
life at night, and take her out on the town.

Others say that her gaze follows them around the store, or
that she shifts positions at night in the darkened shop window
to the surprise of passers by.

Spooked by the tales, several jittery shop workers say they
dread being the last to leave the store in the evening, and
some of them refuse to change the dummy's outfits.

Indeed, twice a week her outfits are changed, always using
the more classic bridal styles that Gonzalez and his staff
consider more appropriate and dignified. The changing is done
-- perhaps a bit theatrically -- behind curtains put up in the
shop window to preserve the dummy's modesty.

"Every time I go near Pascualita my hands break out in a
sweat," shopworker Sonia Burciaga said.

"Her hands are very realistic and she even has varicose
veins on her legs. I believe she's a real person."


While Pascualita is more of a curio than a religious draw
in devoutly Catholic Mexico, a few people have left votive
candles outside the shop and even attribute a miracle to her.

"One woman was having a violent argument with her boyfriend
close to the store. As she turned to walk away from her lover,
he pulled out a pistol and shot her," Gonzalez said.

"As she fell she looked up and saw the figure in the shop
window and said, 'Save me Pascualita, save me!' And you know
what? She survived," he adds.

Other tributes to the mannequin have included an altar of
sugar skulls, flowers and candles left by local school children
each year on November 2 -- Mexico's Day of the Dead -- and a
ballad by popular Tex-Mex combo 'Los Archies.'

Among those to visit the bride have been popular television
figures such as Mario Kreutzberger, better known as 'Don
Francisco', whose syndicated show has stirred up interest in
the figure throughout Latin America.

As more visitors come to the shop each year, Gonzalez says
he is thinking of getting a visitors' book and even opening a
small museum to Pascualita.

But asked to settle once and for all whether she is a dummy
or a corpse, he just smiles and shakes his head. "Is it true? A
lot of people believe it is, but I really couldn't say."