La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre y Los Remedios (the Virgin of Charity of Cobre and Remedios) is a name given to the Virgin Mary. In response to a petition signed by more than 2,000 veterans of the War of Independence against Spain, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed her to be Patroness of Cuba in 1916. Twenty years later, in 1936, the Virgin was crowned for the first time by Bishop Zubizarreta; the dress, halo, and crown she now wears were created for that occasion. In 1998, during his visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul II crowned her and placed a rosary of gold and pearls in her right hand.
The first images of the Virgin Mary were brought to the New World by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. In Cuba, the faith in Mary soon began its transculturation process with the cult of autochthonous divinities related to the waters, the moon, motherhood, and also with the devotion to Ochun, an African deity of aquatic origin who lives in the foams of marine, river and vaginal fluids. She is traditionally represented, among other attributes, by the color yellow, the number five and its multiples, the yellow metals, amber, honey, etc.
The tradition goes that the image of the Virgin conserved today in the Sanctuary of El Cobre appeared in 1612 floating on a board that bore the phrase “I am the Virgin of Charity”, and miraculously saved three humble people who were looking for salt and had been caught by a surprise storm in the Bay of Nipe, in northeastern Cuba. With the passing of time, the rescued men were added to the iconography of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, and they were baptized in the popular imagination as Juan Criollo, Juan Indio and Juan Esclavo (Juan the Cuban-born, Juan the Indian, and Juan the Slave).
The three Juans, sailing together in the boat at the mercy of nature’s forces and divine intervention, represented (and still represent) the hope of the Cuban people to attain a space of integration and coexistence opposed to the racial, social, and cultural violence generated by so many years of conquest, colonization, slavery, underdevelopment, and political outrage.
Ave María, the piece we presented in the Cuban Pavilion at the 57th Venice edition, consists of a wooden board with a phrase engraved in Spanish and English from the historical speech given by our apostle José Martí in 1891 at the Cuban Lyceum in Tampa, Florida.
“The republic is either based on the full character of each one of its children . . . or is not worth a single tear of our women or a single drop of blood of our warriors.”
On the board are 55 different images of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre. We collected them during our pilgrimage to many cities of Cuba and the United States. Ave Maria is an altar to plurality, to Cuban racial and social equality; that Pandora’s Box so fragile and delicately sealed with Martí’s hope to build a Republic with ALL and for the good of ALL.
This piece becomes a prayer for the unity of the Cuban family that has cultivated, on the Island and beyond, that indisputable, syncretic, and racially mixed identity that is protected and symbolized by La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.