The Virgen Comes to My Havana Neighborhood

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

The Virgin of Charity during its pilgrimage in the Cuban capital.

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 23 — One day last month, the pilgrimage of the “Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre,” a religious figurine discovered 400 years ago and known as the patroness of Cuba, came to my Havana’s Santos Suarez neighborhood.

Not since the capital city’s baseball team won the championship have so many people turned out to celebrate such a popular event of national significance.

On this occasion, though, people’s participation didn’t have the organization or unity of the day the Industriales baseball team publically celebrated their victory with Santo Suarez locals at the intersection of Luyano and Diez de Octubre streets.

The procession of the Virgen was announced only minutes earlier by a car with a loudspeaker. Only people living nearby and those who were in the street at the time were able to witness this religious event.

I say “event” because this is the first time that the Cuban Catholic Church has led a popular street celebration in over thirty years. When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, people had to go to public plazas or to the governing religious institutions.

This time, one could see the procession of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre from the balcony of their house or just peek into the neighborhood church.

This could be more evidence of the revival of hegemonic institutional discourse by the Cuban Catholic Church, a religious and social hegemony with a new type of media identity. Indeed, this could be a new field of action of Catholic power, one which made its opening with the televised “appearance” by Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Under the pretext of communicating the arrival of the pilgrimage of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre to the capital — although it’s no less certain that the religious event was unknown to most people in the capital — the cardinal gave the first televised Mass in our country since the early 1960s. What’s more, Jaime Ortega ended his speech by asking people to love God above all things.

The pilgrimage leaves much to be desired as a people’s celebration. I don’t think it’s the result of a lack of foresight by the Catholic Church. Rather, this is an old form of dialogue with the Cuban people, now being done publically.

A sacred glass case in a 4X4 truck has been driving the Virgen through the main avenues of the capital. People only have to turn their heads to watch the procession for the few seconds that the figurine travels by.

This was very different from what happened in neighborhood churches and their surroundings. In those sites, people gathered en masse to celebrate and announce the celebration of the patron saint of Cuba marking the four hundredth year since her mystical appearance.

The country experiences changes of power or changes in the roles of power, though in these times it’s difficult to tell the two apart.

Using their common sense, people perceive that economic and administrative changes are underway, but it’s difficult to associate these to a political and ideological reconfiguration of the elites in power.

However, there are events like the procession discussed here that intuitively awaken the analytical capacity of the people.

Young people born after the 1990s are discovering themselves in the face of unprecedented events like this. They interpret these as the genesis of a new situation in Cuba.

Maybe that’s why they fail to recognize other forms of the personalized power of states in the procession of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.

But we shouldn’t worry too much right now. There’s no better school than day-to-day life. At the moment, we’re joyfully welcoming the relaxation of Cuban society, with both its oppressive and liberating results.

In this way we all win as we do better at defining the various political interests at stake and to which side we belong. In this way we will know how and where we want to participate, and what type of training is required to achieve our dreams and aspirations.

The celebration of four hundredth year since the appearance of the Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre is a benefit to many sectors of Cuban society. It is a democratically distributed benefit at the moment.

Let’s make it ours with legitimate utility, without violating its religious dignity, which does not always coincide — or, better said, rarely coincides — with its church and state utility.


Yenisel Rodriguez

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez: I have lived in Cuba my entire life, except for several months in 2013 when I was in Miami with my father. Despite the 90 miles that separate Havana and Miami, I find profound reasons in both for political and community activism. My encounter with socio-cultural anthropology eight years ago prepared me for a commitment of love for cultural diversity.

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