Image: The deceptively beautiful, toxic waters of the mine at El Cobre
While this doesn’t exactly fall under the category of street art, the legend of the Virgin of Charity of the Copper is near and dear to the hearts of Cubans, with her discovery said to have been in 1612 by three men in a fishing boat: two native brothers and an African boy who were out seeking salt to preserve their meat. A sudden squall overtook them and after prayers, the sea calmed and they found the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms, floating on the water and yet miraculously dry. The story has since been changed to a slave of African descent, an indigenous, and a Spaniard, thereby relating the presence and mixture of the ancestries by which Cuba is defined.
The Church of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre is located in a valley not far from Santiago de Cuba wherein lies the remains of a large copper mine worked by slaves in former times. There is a beautiful water-filled quarry, its deceptively-inviting blue hues belying the toxic waste contained therein.
The hill nearest the church is the site of El Monumento al Cimarrón, a monument to all runaway slaves who attempted to find their way to freedom in this very challenging environment. Our group struggled its way to the top of the hill, puffing and panting, perspiring profusely in the heat, a small reminder of the challenges undertaken by slaves running for their freedom, with dogs snapping at their heels, and certain punishment if caught.
At the top of this hill, overlooking both the mine and the church, is a statue by Alberto Lescay Merencio (Santiago de Cuba 1950), which was inaugurated in 1997 and is representative of the kind of Real Maravilloso present in the writings of Cuban author Alejo Carpentier in El reino de este mundo. I hope to write more about Lescay in a future post as his work is very much a part of the public art scene in El Oriente, the eastern part of Cuba.
The monument itself represents the spirit rising out of an nganga which is a repository of Afro-Cuban spirituality in the Santería and Palo Monte traditions. Formed of bronze and standing an estimated 40 feet above the height of the hilltop, it is an impressive sight indeed.
Image: An altar to Eleggúa at the foot of a sacred Ceiba tree.
What makes it even more impressive is the power it holds over the minds of the people of Cuba as it is very representative of the hundreds of thousands of African lives that were transported here, and the strong heritage (both religious and cultural) that continues today.
Juxtapose this with the bright yellow church which lies in the valley below, a shining beacon from far. This Christian symbol oddly enough also represents the heritage of all Cubans, including those whose spirituality is more closely connected to the fore-mentioned Afro-Cuban religions. There is a syncretism here that forms a strong basis for all that is spiritual in Cuba. Except for some specific Christian sects, there is no conflict with a Catholic Cuban visiting a Santero or Espíritualista, or practicing Palo Monte, or doing all three and wearing beads to indicate they are the daughter or son of a particular Orisha.
All of this is very evident in Cuban art. But keep in mind that the ‘official’ church still turned out the lights of the Church of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre the night the monument to El Cimarrón was inaugurated. I am still struggling with the injustice that was forced on so many for so long in the name of capitalism, and this one fact means, at least in my eyes, that the church still doesn’t accept its responsibility in this horrific part of Cuban history.