When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean he immediately imposed the Christian religion by force upon the Tainos. Tainos who resisted in any way were persecuted mercilessly. For nearly a century the Tainos were exploited brutally as slave labor in dark lethal mines digging out precious and non-precious metals. Thousands died in these horrid work-hells. Many others died of European diseases to which they had no natural physiological defense.
From the very beginning the Tainos recognized the identity of the Spanish Catholic Virgin Mary as a Mother Spirit. In all the islands where they were introduced to her by their conquerors they found it much easier to identify with her than with the more patriarchal and alien concept of a monotheistic male God.
On the island of Cuba the phenomenon of identification with the newly introduced Mother Spirit image of the Virgin Mary expressed itself in an extraordinary story. This is the story of a little statue called “LA VIRGEN DE LA CARIDAD”.
Early in the history of the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean a group of Spanish conquistadors suffered a shipwreck off the southern coast of Cuba. The Spaniards were desperate. They trudged through a mangrove marsh that was slowly killing them one by one. As they slowly sank into the lethal quagmire of their impossible situation they realized that they were not going to get out of that place alive. The leader of the expedition, a man by the name of Ojeda, was as devout a Catholic as any Spaniard could be. His devotion manifested itself most genuinely in the faith that he placed in his beloved Virgin Mary. Of all the things in his captain’s cabin the most important object he salvaged as he abandoned the doomed ship was a small statue of the Virgin. It was a manifestation of the female saint that had the tanned skin of people of Moorish heritage in southern Spain. She was sometimes referred to as “La Virgen Morena” (The Moorish Virgin). He carried her lovingly mile after mile through that hellish swamp as his men dropped one by one around him. From time to time he stopped to give them a break and made all of them kneel and pray before the statue for deliverance from their plight. At a crucial point in his ordeal the man closed his eyes and with tears streaming down his face he made a solemn promise to the saint. He said;”My loving mother, if you perform the miracle of interceding in our behalf before our heavenly Father, to send us someone to save us, I vow that I will make a gift of this statue to that person, whoever he or she turns out to be. I vow that whatever heathen savage may present himself as our salvation will receive the holy benefit of your presence forever.”
And it happened….. A group of Tainos from the near-by village of Cueyba discovered the half-dead band of would-be conquistadors, and saved them. The Indians took Ojeda and the other survivors of the doomed expedition and sheltered them in their little town. They nursed them back to health and helped them get back to the neighboring island of Hispaniola where they were based. Before he left, Ojeda kept his promise. He gifted the cacique chief of Cueiba with the little statue that he had cherished so much. The cacique ordered a special hut to be built in her honor. Realizing her identification to the Earth Mother, the Tainos began to honor her as Ata Bey herself. At this time in history Cuba had not been conquered yet by the Spanish.
In the following years a number of Spanish explorers who happened to travel past the village marveled at the way the local Indians had adopted the little statue and performed tribal dances in her honor just like the ones they did for Ata Bey.
Eventually the inevitable came to pass. Following in the footsteps of a chief from Hispaniola who had defied them and then escaped, the Spanish governor of Hispaniola, one of the Spanish-born sons of Columbus, ordered a military expedition into Cuba. The Spanish troops were led by a barbaric, war-hardened sadist named Diego Velasquez De Quellar. Velasquez quickly conquered the whole island. He caught the escaped rebel chief, a man named “HATUEY”.
Hatuey was burned at the stake in 1514. In that same year Velasquez founded a city in Eastern Cuba and named it after the patron Saint of Spain, St. James. He called the city “Santiago”. Velasquez made this city his capital and he became the royal governor of the whole island. The Indians around Santiago were rounded up and parceled off to individual Spanish settlers like herds of cattle. They were forced to work for their masters till they dropped from exhaustion or died of European diseases. Some of these Spaniards realized there was money to be made in the metal-rich region near the new city. Copper mines were excavated and hundreds of Taino Indians died under horrid conditions in these noxious hell-pits.
During the course of these events the little statue of the Virgin Mary disappeared. She was soon forgotten by whites and Indians alike. Cueyba ceased to be an Indian village and Cuba began losing its native population at a genocidal rate. A valiant revolt was led by a Taino chief in the Sierra Maestra mountains near Santiago. The chief is only known to history by the title “GUAMA”, which means “Lord”. His rebellion spread terror among the Spanish settlements in the region, but soon they managed to quell the uprising. Eventually many Indians began to integrate into the general population and the ancient religion began to make compromises within the oppressive tyranny of Christianity much as the ancient religions of Europeans had done centuries earlier. And the Mother Spirit somehow survived. The Indians joined their Spanish conquerors in the identification of the old Earth Mother within the devotion of Virgin Mary. The same was happening all over the conquered territories of the Spanish throughout the Americas. The Spanish devotion to the Virgin Mary allowed for the Native peoples to maintain their belief system and to honor their Earth Mother and their Fertility Matriarch under the guise of Christian faith. The descendants of the Mexican Aztecs adopted a version of the Virgin through a miraculous occurrence and identified her with their goddess Tonantzin. This version of the Catholic saint is now known as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The stage was set for a similar occurrence to take place in Cuba. By now, after almost a hundred years of oppression the population of the Tainos had dwindled to a few remnants, isolated in remote rural villages or scattered among the white settlements growing all across the length of the islands. Many Tainos intermarried with the white settlers who continued to increase in population. The lack of Indian slave labor forced the Spanish to begin the black slave-trade in Africa. Thousands of African slaves were forcibly kidnapped from their native continent and brought to Cuba and to all of the Spanish colonies all over the Americas in the next three centuries. Many Tainos intermarried with Africans. The ethnic make-up of Cuba was evolving into the characteristic Cuban type of today.
Hundreds of African slaves were thrown into the nightmarish pits of the copper mines near Santiago. They died as miserably as their Indian predecessors. Forced to convert to Catholicism the survivors also found comfort in the adoption of the Virgin Mary as the representative of their own African goddesses.
On a stormy afternoon three boys set out in a boat into the Bay of Nipe in northern Cuba. Two of the boys were full-blood Tainos and the third was a little black slave child. The boys were on a mission. They were to gather salt on the nearby coast and bring it back for the preservation of meat at the copper mines in El Cobre near Santiago. They were soon caught in a violent storm and had to pull their boat onto the shore to wait out the bad weather. When the storm abated the boys started back out on the broad waters of the large bay. They had not rowed very far when suddenly they saw something floating on the water. At first they thought it was a dead bird but soon it became evident that it was a religious statue. Sensing that they were participants in an important event the boys fished the religious icon out of the water. The statue was placed on a small wooden tablet that could not realistically support her weight. The words “I am the Virgin Of Charity” were carved on the tablet. The fact that the heavy ceramic figure had not sank was interpreted as miraculous by them. They brought the statue back to the local church authorities. These men, Spanish priests with little sympathy for the aspirations of non-white devotees, took the little statue and stashed her away in an out-of the-way altar. This is when strange things began to happen.
In ancient Taino times religious images made of wood and stone and clay often showed up missing from the place where their Indian guardians kept them. Then they would show up someplace else. This was interpreted by the Tainos as the desire of the “cemi” to be moved and kept in a different place.
Many historians now believe that the little statue found by those three boys was the same icon left by Ojeda in the village of Cueyba so long ago. She had returned to her people. And now she welcomed others who had suffered under the same yoke of oppression as her first children. The little African boy in the boat that day represented the thousands of black Cubans that saw in her their own female goddesses. The statue began to repeatedly vanish from the obscure niche into which she had been shoved by the Spanish church authorities. Like her native predecessors before her she reappeared in the presence of humble native peasants far away in the heights over the El Cobre copper mines. Several times she was brought back to her place in the out-of-the-way niche and several times she disappeared and made her reappearance at El Cobre. It was as if the little dark-skinned statue wanted to be near the final resting place of her beloved dark-skinned children who had suffered for so long with only her as a source of hope.
Eventually the Spanish authorities got the point. They built a modest chapel up on the heights above the mines and with great pomp and ceremony they paraded the little statue up to her permanent new home. Perched high above the copper mines the statue slowly began to supersede many of the more aristocratic light-skinned virgins housed in chapels, churches and cathedrals throughout the islands. Slowly a miraculous cult arose around the little icon and the place where she was housed. Soon she was adopted in a special way by the developing Afro-Cuban pantheon of Yoruba/Catholic synchretic spirits. She assumed her place in the Afro-Cuban synchretic religion called “Regla De Ocha” or “Santeria” as the Christian personification of the Yoruba goddess OCHUN.
The Cuban devotion to The Lady of El Cobre grew and miraculous cures were attributed to visits at her shrine. By the mid 1950’s the place was officially the pilgrimage mecca of all Cuba. Thousands of reproductions were created by European craftsmen. Most are incredibly inaccurate likenesses. These, among other inaccuracies, represent the virgin’s face as light or pale-skinned and the two Indian boys are replaced by two white men. Now, the accuracy of the presence of two Indians in the original story is guaranteed by historical record. That fact makes the presence of whites in any image of this icon inaccurate, and yet modern-day devotees of the Virgin of Charity agree that, in visual representations of the icon it is not inappropriate to include at least one Caucasian figure in the symbolic boat. The fact is that millions of poor and low-caste Cubans of European descent have suffered just as much as their dark-skinned brethren under the exploitation of the rich and the powerful. This puts all Cubans, and by extension, all Caribbeans, All people, “In the same boat”.