The colour of the goddess

Saturday, April 21st, 2012. Filed under: Cuba Spirituality
Santiago de Cuba is Cuba's most Afro-Caribbean city.

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. Heat shimmers off the road as the officer approaches our car.  The road can’t be flooded out, I worry; it’s dry season.

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 wreaths of sunflowers; panhandlers slip glittering stones into our hands when we stop.

On the way to El Cobre, 20 km northwest of Santiago de Cuba.

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.

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 anointing 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.

Color has great significance in Santeria and beautiful Ochun is associated with the warm glow of yellow.




As night falls, we drop the 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. The orchestra strikes up and we settle back under the stars as a parade of gorgeous 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.

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