My Debt, My Devotion

Maria Matienzo Puerto 

Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A while back I had decided to review a book dedicated to the patron saint of Cuba: la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre).  It had been written based on unpublished notes by our country’s pioneering ethnologist Fernando Ortiz.

But time passed, the book got lost and is no longer in the bookstores, so I wasn’t in a position to complete the work.

The Caridad del Cobre, syncretized in the African “oricha” Ochun, is really more than the patron saint of Cuba; indeed she’s a national symbol that draws people to Santiago de Cuba on pilgrimage like Muslims to Mecca or Jews to the Wailing Wall.  Both (La Caridad del Cobre and Ochun) are identified with the color yellow, sunflowers, bee honey, squash, fertility, love, sensuality, money and especially with justice.

So let me tell you what happened to me a while ago.

Like many Cubans, I went to La Caridad’s sanctuary (“El Cobre”) without promising anything.  Maybe it was because I was there on a day when mass wasn’t being conducted, but what I came upon was the grayest church I’d ever seen.

I was with a Spanish woman who had renounced all of her Christian feelings because of herself having been a victim of the hypocritical moralism of her nation.  This contributed to my thinking about this shrine also being hypercritical, because all I saw there was a virgin that was too small in relation to the magnificence with which she is described in the popular imagination, in addition to “offerings” that were displayed in poor taste.  In the end, I left the place feeling pretty much disappointed.

That night I feel asleep early.  The altitude, the city among mountains, the trip and my fatigue all conspired against me, so my desires to get out and have a good time had to be postponed.

Already journeying in a trajectory of time that I can’t describe, I felt like someone’s hands were shaking my bed pressuring me to wake up urgently, like someone who was about to lose out on something important.

I opened my eyes and in my sleep I was able to make out the virgin right in front of me.  Her face was lit up brightly, in fact it was so illuminated that her features weren’t defined – only her halo, her dress, her surprising stature and her making a gesture of consent or of summoning.

The experience lasted only a few seconds, but amid the confusion I began trying to wake up my companion.  I don’t know if I had the intention of sharing the vision (so dreamlike) or whether I was just terrified, or perhaps I was thinking she was playing a joke on me.  The reality was that I found it difficult to locate that person who was less than an arm’s length away from me.

As the image was disappearing, I was able to touch my companion and — without knowing what I was going to say — she began saying to me, “Don’t speak, have a spoonful of honey.”

Later, trying to understand what had happened to me, the question imposed itself:  How was it that this woman (someone who didn’t have the least understanding of popular Cuban religion, and who herself is a confessed atheist) had almost forced me to eat honey?

There was no response.  We only established an inexplicable connection.  I prefer to imagine that the “oricha” was between us and that the reaction of my friend was responding to: “Yes, my dear, you weren’t dreaming, I’m here with you.

Today I feel alone.  Though time has passed, I hope the virgin is still on my side guarding my steps.  I worship her the only way I know how – writing.

Maria Matienzo

Maria Matienzo Puerto: I dreamed once that I was a butterfly who had come from Africa and discovered that I had been alive for thirty years. From that time on, I constructed my world while I was sleeping: I was born in a magic city like Havana; I dedicated myself to journalism; I wrote and edited books for children; I met to discuss art with wonderful people; I fell in love with a woman. Of course, there are certain points of coincidence with the reality of my waking life and it’s that I prefer the silence of reading and the pleasure of a good movie.

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2 thoughts on “My Debt, My Devotion

  • You write beautifully! I haven’t read here before but I’m going to bookmark your site. Very interesting topics and ideas. Thank you…

  • Thank you for sharing your experiences and journey. Although I, like your friend, am skeptical concerning supernatural experiences, nevertheless, as I enter life’s twilight, I am more open, less critical, in trying to understand experiences like the one you had at El Cobre. Who knows the limits of our potential to go beyond the perceived limits of our senses? At an earlier age, I too, with the assistance of certain mind-altering substances, had the priviledge of excaping the limits of the self. Now, I depend on both the reflections of others, my interaction with Nature, and reflections on the cosmos, to accomplish the same ends.

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