Why you should care
Because a religious item can mean more to a citizenry than just devotion to God.
As you walk on the Plaza de las Americas in Mexico City, you can usually see dozens of worshippers on their knees, crawling slowly toward the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Many wear crosses, while others cradle a precious item, often a candle, that they pray to silently with great vigor. Multiply this scene by a thousand, and you’ve got a decent picture of devotion. According to OZY’s calculations of data from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI):
Sales of Catholic candles in Mexico total about $21 million.
“Wax revenue” — not a term you hear every day. But Mexico has it in spades, producing an estimated 150,000 tons of paraffin wax, a large portion of which is used for Catholic candles. There are 503 candle-producing companies in Mexico, according to the INEGI, the majority of which are tiny and family-owned. And the export market for religious candles in Guanajuato, Mexico, alone increased by 86 percent between 2011 and 2014, from $75,000 to $140,000, according to Guanajuato’s International Trade Commission. One reason is that in Mexico, the population is more than 80 percent Catholic (versus 65 percent in Brazil), and, unlike crosses, candles constantly need replenishing.
Although purchases based on devotion are most critical in the market, others exist. There’s a large market for kitsch and nonbelievers who “have no interest in the Virgin, but love candles because they’re representative of Mexican art and creativity,” says Jason Dormady, a history professor at Central Washington University who focuses on Mexican history. Atheist hipsters, apparently, are huge consumers. A quarter of candle-maker Induvelsa’s sales come from candles used for lighting, as rural and mountainous regions in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco either lack electricity or find it too expensive.
There are other economic factors. The sale of candles, tapers and similar religious products creates local jobs, according to Mario Cedillo, an INEGI director. Induvelsa, for example, has sold a consistent volume of candles exclusively in Mexico for 27 years while also employing hundreds of people. And energy analyst Amy A. Claxton says global demand for paraffin wax is slowly growing, giving Mexican petrol and candle companies the ability to expand. The paraffin wax market will reach $8.02 billion by 2022, according to Grand View Research, a market research firm in San Francisco.
But that’s unlikely to happen. First, Mexicans have been buying China’s wax for two decades to make most of their candles, paying about 25 pesos ($1.50) per candle, or half a candle’s true cost. The wax sold by Mexico’s Pemex oil is low in quality compared with Chinese wax because, Induvelsa owner Carlos Carus tells OZY, the latter is purer, “produces a whiter crystalline color, is more viscous and is harder.” And as long as local, family-run companies create the final product, Mexicans probably don’t care where the wax comes from.
Photographs by Alex Washburn