Ask any Cuban person who La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre is and regardless of their religious or political affiliation, they will know. Not only will they know, it is highly likely they will speak of her with the respect and reverence reserved for dearly loved elders, esteemed celebrities or simply, trusted protectors.
Although she is known by many names – La Virgen, Nuestra Señora, Cachita, Ochun in the Yoruba tradition and Our Lady of Charity in English – among Cubans, Caridad might as well be a one name only celebrity. Think Cher, Madonna, Beyonce, Celia. She is Cuba’s patron saint, patroness of peace and protection and inextricably, part of the Cuban DNA.
She’s a symbol of and for the exile, sanctuary and safe harbor… Caridad’s presence beats in the heart of Cubans no matter where they are.
For over 400 years, she has served not only as a religious symbol but as part of the bedrock of the Cuban identity. According to Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, “she makes Cubans feel more Cuban.” Knowledge of her is passed down lovingly at an early age, generation by generation, like a beloved family recipe or cherished relic. How do I know? Because I’m one of the recipients of that generational passage, shared with me by my mother. I am also her namesake – Mayra Caridad – which has inspired a lifelong source of cultural pride.
Like her sparkling gown of gold lamé, the legend of Caridad del Cobre dazzles. Stretching back to the early 1600s, the story goes that two Native American or Indian brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and an African slave child, Juan Moreno, set out to the Bay of Nipe for salt. They are traditionally known as the “three Juans”. While out in the bay, a storm arose, rocking their tiny boat violently. Juan, the slave, was wearing a medal with the image of the Virgin Mary. The three men began to pray for her protection from the menacing waves and for their lives to be spared.
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Suddenly, the skies cleared, and the storm was gone. In the distance, they saw a strange object floating in the water. They rowed towards it as the waves brought it towards them. At first, they mistook it for a bird, but closer, determined that it was a statue of the Virgin Mary, holding the child Jesus on her left arm and a gold cross in her right hand. The statue was fastened to a board with an inscription saying, “Yo Soy la Virgen de la Caridad” or “I am the Virgin of Charity.” Much to their surprise, the statue remained completely dry while afloat in the water.
Believing it was a literal sign of Mary’s protection, the group rushed it back to their village, where a local official ordered a small chapel built in the village of Barajagua. But soon after, the statue disappeared from the chapel. Distraught, locals formed a search party that night – only to discover the statue back in its original location the following morning. This appearance and disappearance happened three more times before the villagers decided to move the image to the nearby town of El Cobre. But yet again, the statue disappeared. It was soon discovered by a young girl in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains. On that hill, locals erected a church now known as the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity near Santiago de Cuba. In Miami, she has her own popular church, a shrine on Biscayne Bay, La Ermita de la Caridad, built facing Cuba’s direction.
Cuban homes are stockpiled with her statues, medals and other emblems with many front lawns featuring casitas with her statues, the ultimate security system against would-be thieves.
To this day, she remains relevant and inspires all forms of art – a treasure trove of songs, paintings, sculptures and poems. Cuban homes are stockpiled with her statues, medals and other emblems with many front lawns featuring casitas with her statues, the ultimate security system against would-be thieves. As I write this on September 7, I’m holding a vigil in her honor, having created an altar in my home surrounded by yellow flowers and a candle with the statue of her I inherited after my mother’s death and as I was taught by her. I know I’m not alone in this vigil. Cubans all over the world tonight la velan (keep vigil) as her saint’s day is September 8th. That perhaps is the greatest significance of La Caridad del Cobre to Cubans everywhere: the reminder that we are not alone, that we are protected from both the literal storms at sea or the metaphorical ones in our lives.
Cubans have always turned to Caridad del Cobre in times of need for strength and stability. In the late 19th century, Cuban revolutionaries fighting for independence from Spain placed her in their camp for spiritual courage; Cubans braving the Florida Straits have always prayed to her during their dangerous journeys in their makeshift rafts and inner tubes.
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It’s no wonder that in July of this year, during the heights of the protests in Cuba and all over the world, Yotuel Romero y Gente de Zona went to La Ermita in Biscayne Bay, Miami to sing ‘Patria y Vida” with the crowds and to ask for spiritual support in Cuba’s desire for freedom and independence.
Caridad del Cobre remains a symbol of and for the exiled, offering sanctuary and safe harbor. In a country like Cuba where so many have had to flee, Caridad del Cobre’s presence beats in the heart of Cubans no matter where they are. She is a reminder to the exile that they are never alone. Her motherly essence and protection unites Cubans everywhere. Her message: “You are safe. You are not alone. Oh yes and definitely, “Patria y Vida”.