Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A witness forgotten...

Sorry that it took me so long to get to writing this, but now I finally have a few moments to spare.

"Around the year 1600, three boys were sent to gather salt needed to preserve the meat of the town’s slaughterhouse, which supplied food for the workers and inhabitants at the Spanish copper mines near Santiago, Cuba. Two of the boys were native Indians and brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and the third was a 10-year-old black slave, Juan Moreno.On their way back to Santiago del Prado (modern El Cobre) and halfway across the Bay of Nipe, they encountered a fierce storm that threatened to destroy their frail boat.Suddenly, the waters calmed. In the distance the boys saw a white bundle floating on a piece of wood that they mistook for a sea bird. In reality, it was a small statue of Mother Mary holding the infant Jesus in her left arm and a gold cross in her right. Inscribed on the wooden board were the words, Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad (I am the Virgin of Charity).According to recorded testimony, despite the motion of the ocean waves and the storm, neither the image of Mary nor her white robes were wet.The crowned head of the original 16-inch-statue is made of baked clay covered with a polished coat of fine white power. Her feet rest on a brilliant moon, while angels spread their golden wings on a silver cloud. The child Jesus raises his right hand as in a blessing, and in his left hand he holds a golden globe. A popular image of Our Lady of Charity includes a banner above her head with the Latin phrase “Mater Caritatis Fluctibus Maris Ambulavit” (Mother of Charity who walked on the road of stormy seas).The youths brought the statue back to their village of Barajaguas, where a chapel was built and the image venerated by all who heard the story. Much like Our Lady of Guadalupe for the Mayan Indians (Eeerrr... they were Mexica/Aztec not Maya.) , Our Lady of Charity instantly became a pilgrimage site, a reminder for the underprivileged that their heavenly Mother cared and stood beside them. El Cobre was to be the first place in Cuba where freedom was won for slaves.In 1688, the Archdiocese of Santiago, Cuba, initiated the first inquiry into the statue’s mysterious origins in response to the extraordinary and faithful devotion demonstrated by the Cuban people. Surnamed El Cobre — the name of the mining town where her sanctuary was eventually built — Our Lady of Charity was declared the patroness of Cuba by Pope Benedict XV in 1916 at the request of the nation’s bishops and the faithful, with a special appeal by the veterans of Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain."

"Early in the history of the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean a group of Spanish conquistadores 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 conquistadores, 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 marvelled 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" (Remember him ?, if not read here: http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Ffirstnationcatholicism.ning.com%2Fforum%2Ftopics%2Fin-memory-of-hatuey%3Fxg_source%3Dactivity&h=3531a ).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 parcelled 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 dissappeared. 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 valliant 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", whichmeans "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 tyrany 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 occurence 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 accross 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 confort in the adoption ofthe 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 thenearby 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 oppressionBe 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 dissappeared 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 upto her permanent new home. Perched high above the copper mines the statue slowly began to supercede 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.

So now that the story surrounding the image of Our Lady of Charity has been told, now I will present some depictions of The Virgin:

Below is the original image:

Below are some adaptations of the image:


I think by now I've made my point. In looking at the original image and those images produced thereafter, commemorating the encounter of Our Lady with the three boys its readily apparent that there is something lacking. If it isn't, take a close look at both the original statue and how The Virgin is depicted and the later adaptations, but more importantly the three boys in the boat and compare them to the ones in the story. Pppsssttt..., the natives are absent and The Virgin is MUCH lighter in complexion. 

While the lighter complexion is equally regrettable, not because she is fair skin, but because it takes away from a group one of very FEW depictions of The Virgin which they personally identified with (but thats another entry for another day (I'll be posting one about Our Lady of Regla which tradition holds was created by the very hands of ST. AUGUSTINE !!! ): 

http://www.guije.com/public/bohemia/4936/fe/regla.jpg , It also happens to be one if not my FAVOURED image of The Virgin. The one pictured is a later adaptation. I'll be comparing the original with the later adaptations.)). Anyway, the fact that the actual parties involved have been deleted from the artistic/visual record is simply apalling. I mean in practically every account related to Natives and Catholicism, Natives are either depicted as being savagely (in the modern sense of the term) opposed to Christianity or as being good little "Indians" (I'm not contesting the usage of the term "Indian" here, but rather the fact that pious Natives are usually identified DEVOID of any ties to their people/Nation (being called "Indian" as opposed to Cree, etc. when being written of in biographies or being pit at odds with them, Indian vs. said Nation. For a discussion on a similar theme, post your thoughts here: 

http://firstnationcatholicism.ning.com/forum/topics/3584762:Topic:79 ). Why then would officials within the Church (whether intentionally or not is another matter) allow for said depictions to be reproduced and obscuring the identity of individuals (in this case Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos, the two native brothers) who are part of an underrepresented group within The Church ?

There is no one simple answer to this, but possibly a multitude of possibilities stemming from the colonial legacy of the DREADFUL Casta system which ranked individuals based on their skin tone and ethnic makeup (Yep this was present in EVERY Spanish colony (I don't blame present day Spaniards and other ex colonial powers.) and the aftermath is still felt to this day throughout ALL Latin America.). Here is a poster depicting said stratification : 

I can't really offer an explanation, because well I am not the one reproducing the images. But the fact remains that the HISTORICAL/WRITTEN record still exists and would have thus been known to the people creating the images. One possible reason perhaps might be the fact that the two Natives had Spanish surnames, but then again the stories explicitly make it clear that they were two NATIVE brothers. They didn't make that same mistake with the African boy (who is the one who recounted the story), so what gives ? I'll leave that up to you my readers (Please leave your comments.).

Now below I have included images of Our Lady of Charity that are produced in folk Catholic circles or by practitioners of syncretic faiths (namely Santeria and the various Latin American forms of Spiritism (particularly those found in The Caribbean)).

Notice how the images above attempt to recapture the essence of not only the original image of The Virgin, but also of the men who found her image (particularly the last two images (Not that I am trying to give into stereotypes, but if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, its a duck.). Now all issues related to improper Catechesis aside (I'll be making a post one day on the phenomenon of syncretic faiths, folk Catholicism and catechesis as found in Latin America, particularly The Caribbean.), is it any surprise that individuals of these underrepresented groups flock to said circles ? Places where the pictures and plaster images/statues of Saints among other "spirits" mirror back the very faces of those that congregate there (Which reminds me, I need to do an entry on issues of ethnic/cultural heritage/identity in relation to Catholicism, especially concerning my own ethnic/cultural makeup.). Where in the histories of these colonial nation was there an example or representation of members of these under served groups in The Church hierarchy (I will hopefully get a chance to do a post on St.Martin de Porres and his struggle to get acceptance into The Dominican Order and the circumstances of his family life.) ? The fact is none if very few members of these groups ever achieved any level of influence within the Church at the time (even up until recent times this trend still holds true). Most if not ALL Priests in Latin America were brought over from Spain (up until very recently even), slowly now, you have modern Priests and Bishops coming from the native populations, this was not always the case. 

As taken from here: 


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 representstions 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 andthe powerful.  This puts all Cubans, and by extension, all Caribbeans , All people, "In the same boat". 

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments in the italicized and bolded portions.

So I leave you all with the contents of this entry and would REALLY appreciate your feedback and comments.

Below are some really great images from a friend and a fellow follower of the network of a Shrine to Our Lady of Charity in Tampa : 


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