Saturday, April 21, 2012

The colour of the goddess

Santiago de Cuba is Cuba's most Afro-Caribbean city. 
The motorcycle cop waves us down, swings his leg off his bike. My heart kicks a beat. In all the times Pat and I have visited Cuba, we've never been stopped at any of the seemingly random highway checkpoints. The road can't be flooded out, I worry; it's dry season.
Heat shimmers off the road as the officer walks over and bends to speak to our driver and friend, Rolando. "Going to El Cobre?" he asks, pushing his visor up from his glistening, sun-roasted face. "Bring back some cold water, hermano."
"Of course, brother!" Rolando replies, and we're off again, through the green and lovely landscape northwest of Santiago de Cuba. Roadside vendors sell sunflowers; panhandlers slip glittering stones into our hands when we stop.
On the way to El Cobre, 20 km northwest of Santiago de Cuba.
Our destination: Cuba's most sacred pilgrimage site, the Basilica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre.
Honouring the Virgin by wearing yellow.
Our Lady of Charity, or Lady of Cobre (there's an old copper mine nearby), is the adored patroness of Cuba. The sanctuary is full of offerings for favors requested or bestowed. Fidel Castro's mother brought a small golden guerrilla fighter to protect her son during his early mountain campaign against Batista; Ernest Hemingway left the Nobel Prize he won for The Old Man and the Sea.
A week after our visit, Pope Benedict XVI would make a landmark visit to Cuba and the shrine. For now it is quiet, a few families with babies to be blessed, a tour group annointing themselves with holy water. Something strikes me. From candles to ballcaps to sunflower bouquets, the scene has a definite colour scheme: yellow.
Here, where Cuba's complicated history and cultural mix have layered Catholic iconography over African beliefs in a complex religion called Santeria, the tiny Madonna perched above the altar at El Cobre is also worshipped as Ochun, the Yoruba orisha or goddess of love, dance, pleasure, home and happiness.
Colour has great significance in Santeria and beautiful Ochun is associated with the warm glow of yellow.
As night falls, we drop the cold water off with the policeman, still at his post, and return to Santiago de Cuba for a supper of grilled shrimp at a rooftop paladar. Then we head for the world-famous Tropicana cabaret. As the orchestra strikes up, we settle back under the stars as a parade of dancers sweeps out in incredible costume after incredible costume. Yes, there are male dancers and they shake their mambo sleeves for all they're worth, but the show is clearly a celebration of women, a celebration of Ochun, the goddess alive and well and living in Santiago de Cuba.

Goddesses of dance and celebration at the Tropicana nightclub in Santiago de Cuba.


  1. The beliefs and symbolism of the goddess Ochun sounds like something worth exploring on my next trip to Cuba. Gorgeous photos of the dancers.

  2. Great photos of the dancers and such a touchingdescription of the pilgrimage site

  3. What a beautiful post and such vibrant photographs. I am not too familiar with Cuba but glad you opened this doorway into lands unknown to most of the US. I bet Our Lady of Charity was spectacular and happy that the police gods were appeased with only water.

    1. Thanks, Jeff! As visitors, we've always found Cuba peaceful and safe. And I admire a culture that dotes on its children and treats animals with relative kindness.

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