nytimes.comEl Cobre Journal
Revered by the Castros and Their Opponents
By MARC LACEY
EL COBRE, Cuba — The most bizarre offering that the Rev. Jorge Alejandro has witnessed at Cuba’s most cherished shrine came from the man who bent down and began clipping his toenails. One by one, the man deposited them at the altar, among the many other mementos left by the faithful for the Virgin of El Cobre, widely considered the mother and protector of Cubans.
At this shrine in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, Cubans leave the Virgin locks of hair, baby clothes, baseballs, diplomas, letters, candles and bouquets. They offer snapshots, trinkets, lockets and pendants as well.
Some have even left banners criticizing Cuba’s Socialist government, which might be unthinkable anywhere else on the island. More…
I had forgotten about la Virgen until I stumbled on this article on the Times website. La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, as the article relates, is the patron saint of Cuba. The Virgen first appeared off the coast of Cuba as a statue floating upon the waves, though she was untouched by the water and completely dry, to three boys caught in a storm in 1606. She appeared as a beautiful mulatta woman, a mixture of black, Indian, and Spanish heritage–symbolic of the racial makeup of Cuba. She told them she was the Virgin of Charity and guided them safely to shore and since then she has been worshipped as protector of Cubans who give her offerings in exchange for their prayers and to express their gratitude. She even weathered the banning of religion by Castro’s communist government up through their easing of religious restriction in recent years. Cubans have an enormous respect for la Virgen and exiles hold on to her as a vestige of their homeland and their protector in their new home. She is also one of the central figures of Santeria, a Cuban religion derived from the Yoruba slaves that were brought to Cuba by Spanish conquistadors, only by the name Ochun, goddess of love and femininity. However, as the article notes, both the Castros and opponents turn to la Virgen for help and she seems to be the site of the only acceptable dissent.
I’m not very religious, but I have an indirect relationship with la Virgen. My grandfather on my father’s side has always been respectful of la Virgen. When he was in Cuba, he prayed to her for a way to leave the oppression of Castro’s government safely and promised that if she answered his prayer he would buy a figure of her made of gold and give her offerings the rest of his life. Of course, la Virgen answered his prayers and he kept his promise. He had a statue fashioned and kept a shrine in his house to give her offerings away from the island he left. I never saw her until in my grandparents moved into my aunt’s house in Florida. There he kept a tiny shrine of her in the hallway on a shelf where he would leave little offerings like wine and rose petals and every time he passed he would make the sign of the cross. I didn’t know what she was back then, so I didn’t pay much attention. She was just abuelo’s weird statue.
My indirect relationship was a little more direct before I was born. When my mom was pregnant with me, they told her that I may have all sorts of horrible problems such as Down Syndrome. (When my brother heard this fact recently he said, “Oh my god, I almost had a ‘special’ sister!”) My grandfather again prayed to La Virgen, keeping up with his offerings and strangely refusing to shave until I was born. He got so bushey that one day when he was waiting outside the supermarket for my grandmother someone gave him a dollar thinking he was a homeless man. La Virgen must have answered his prayers because I was born perfectly healthy (though she didn’t stretch too far because I was born with the umbilical cord around my neck…but I did live. ^_^) So maybe I owe my life to this figure, to my grandfather’s faith in her, or maybe not. It’s a cool story to tell and my fanciful side would like to believe it, but like I said, I’m not religious. I do however respect her as one of the symbols of my culture, and in my imagination she’s sitting at my grandparents’ house partaking of her beautiful offerings and watching over my grandfather, and in turn, me.