A minor miracle occurred on a dark train platform in a provincial Cuban town in 1981. I had been a Cuban-American exile for two decades, and had managed to wrangle a visa to visit my sick mother. After seeing her, I had traveled to the train station with some unfinished business. The middle-aged woman in the black dress behind the counter inspected me. My stomach sank. How could she know that I needed a ticket so that I could fulfill a sacred promise my mother had made 22 years earlier? Traveling in communist Cuba was a bureaucratic nightmare, tickets taking weeks or months to obtain, if one could get them at all. What’s more, I had no ID and was suspiciously dressed. I felt certain she had heard every sob story ever concocted.
It all came flooding out: How a childhood condition had required me to have leg surgery, and my worried mother had sworn that we would visit Cuba’s patron saint—Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre—upon my recovery. But we never got to the shrine outside Santiago that houses the figurine. Shortly before my illness, the communist revolution had erupted, sending many of my high school friends to jail. My mother knew I would be next, so she arranged asylum for me in America, where I would attend Catholic University, go on to a career in international banking, and become a collector of Cuban memorabilia.
On this trip I had only a few precious days in Cuba. How could I explain how much this simple trip meant, how I had clung to the idea of seeing Our Lady of Charity for more than two decades?
I don’t know how much the woman behind the counter heard, but she understood. “I have a son in Milwaukee,” was all she murmured. She appreciated the pain of exile and dislocation, the importance of faith. She knew! In a moment a ticket miraculously appeared. I will never forget her smile and kindness.
When I finally arrived at the shrine, in the former copper mining town of El Cobre, I was not disappointed. Almost levitating above the altar, the small Virgin glowed. Unlike many other depictions of her, this one looked directly into my eyes, not at the child in her left arm, giving me her undivided attention. She wore a golden dress and cape, not the usual blue, and the crescent moon, often paired with the Virgin, pointed down, not up.
Everybody in Cuba knows her story: In 1612, in a bay to the north of Cuba, a 10-year-old black slave named Juan and two indigenous young men had found her while rowing out to an island to harvest salt. Despite bad weather throughout the previous day, the 15-inch-tall wooden Virgin figurine bobbed serenely upon a plank on the sea, her dress miraculously dry and unruffled. The story of her discovery spread quickly. The faithful carried the wooden figure to the economic hub of El Cobre, where they constructed a shrine to hold her.
The Christian iconography is hard to miss: She came to Cuba bearing the greatest of gifts—her own child—and appeared not to a priest or bishop, but to common men. She spoke not just to the aboriginal people, but also to the Spaniards, Creoles, and African slaves. The latter would assimilate her image into their Afro-Cuban Santería faith many years later. When Cubans fought the Spanish for independence in the late 19th century, she became a national symbol of the small island’s struggle against a mighty European superpower.
Nicknamed “Cachita,” Our Lady of Charity evolved into a staple of popular culture, appearing on everything from calendars and jewelry to key chains and fans, interpreted again and again by artists, writers, dancers, and poets. The old fisherman invoked Our Lady of Charity in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; when the famous writer decided to give the medallion he received for the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature to the Cuban people, he did not choose the national museum or presidential palace, but Cachita’s shrine. The long period of communism may have driven her from view, but not out of favor and memory. This year, Cuba is celebrating the centennial of Pope Benedict XV’s naming of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as Cuba’s patron saint, as requested by the veterans of the nation’s war of independence.
I have traveled back to El Cobre many times since, becoming so interested in Cachita that I wrote a book about her influence in art, literature, music, film, and dance. Through war and revolution, among exiles and communists, among the rich and poor, Cachita has stood by all of us, no matter our differences. She unites us. She is Cuba.
Last year, I crisscrossed the nation, delivering copies of my book to libraries and churches. My proudest moment came when the bishop of Santiago accepted a copy of the book on behalf of the shrine. It now sits permanently on a lectern there, a token of my deep love for and abiding faith in this extraordinary figure, which took firm root nearly 60 years ago with a distressed mother’s whispered promise, and which have grown stronger every day since.