Indigenous Caribbean Network

Survival of the Ancient Mother Spirit in Caribean Spiritual Tradition

Tau My Relatives

Cuba has the honor of maintaining a curious spiritual tradition which
nowadays is mostly recognized only within the narrow confines of Afro-
Latin circles. Those of you who are acquainted with the tradition of
Yoruba REGLA DE OCHA (sometimes popularly known as "Santeria") know
of one of the most important icons of this tradition, a female spirit
called "Ochun". This spirit (or orisha) is associated in the
syncretic tradition of Cuba with an image of the Roman Catholic
Virgin Mary called "Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre"(Nuestra Senora De La Caridad Del Cobre)

The tradition of Ochun and the Virgin of Charity in Cuba is an unique
one because in a country that has, for the most part officially
written off its ancient Taino roots on its history book pages in
favor of its more recent African and Spanish ones the echoes of the
Indigenous mayohuakan drum still pulsates in the story of the Virgin
of Charity and her miraculous discovery on the waters of Nipe Bay.

The most popular part of the story is related by Joseph M. Murphy
very ably in the pages of a book called "Osun Accross The Waters"

As I have laid out in my own version of this oft-told tale, the best-
known portion of the story (researched by Cuban scholar Levy Marrero
in his encyclopedic collection "Cuba, Economia y Sociedad") includes
the remarkable participation of two people who represent Taino
survival in Cuba, two brothers called Juan and Rodrigo De Hoyos.
These two young men were direct full-blood descendants of the
original Taino people of Cuba who happened to be working for the
owners of a copper mine near the city of Santiago in the early 1600's.

See below the story as related in the pages of the Caney Indigenous
Spiritual Circle website pertaining to survival of female Mother
Spirit tradition in Cuba:

On the island of Cuba the phenomenon of identification with the
newly introduced Mother Spirit image of the Virgin Mary expressed
itself in an extraordinary story. This is the story of a little
statue called "LA VIRGEN DE LA CARIDAD".
Early in the history of the Spanish colonization of the
Caribbean a group of Spanish conquistadores suffered a shipwreck off
the southern coast of Cuba. The Spaniards were desperate. They
trudged through a mangrove marsh that was slowly killing them one by
one. As they slowly sank into the lethal quagmire of their impossible
situation they realized that they were not going to get out of that
place alive. The leader of the expedition, a man by the name of
Ojeda, was as devout a Catholic as any Spaniard could be. His
devotion manifested itself most genuinely in the faith that he
placed in his beloved Virgin Mary. Of all the things in his captain's
cabin the most important object he salvaged as he abandoned the
doomed ship was a small statue of the Virgin. It was a manifestation
of the female saint that had the tanned skin of people of Moorish
heritage in southern Spain. She was sometimes referred to as "La
Virgen Morena" (The Moorish Virgin). He carried her lovingly mile
after mile through that hellish swamp as his men dropped one by one
around him. From time to time he stopped to give them a break and
made all of them kneel and pray before the statue for deliverance
from their plight. At a crucial point in his ordeal the man closed
his eyes and with tears streaming down his face he made a solemn
promise to the saint. He said;"My loving mother, if you perform the
miracle of interceding in our behalf before our heavenly Father, to
send us someone to save us, I vow that I will make a gift of this
statue to that person, whoever he or she turns out to be. I vow that
whatever heathen savage may present himself as our salvation will
receive the holy benefit of your presence forever."
And it happened..... A group of Tainos from the near-by village
of Cueyba discovered the half-dead band of would-be conquistadores,
and saved them. The Indians took Ojeda and the other survivors of the
doomed expedition and sheltered them in their little town. They
nursed them back to health and helped them get back to the
neighboring island of Hispaniola where they were based. Before he
left, Ojeda kept his promise. He gifted the cacique chief of Cueiba
with the little statue that he had cherished so much. The cacique
ordered a special hut to be built in her honor. Realizing her
identification to the Earth Mother, the Tainos began to honor her as
Ata Bey herself. At this time in history Cuba had not been conquered
yet by the Spanish.
In the following years a number of Spanish explorers who
happened to travel past the village marvelled at the way the local
Indians had adopted the little statue and performed tribal dances in
her honor just like the ones they did for Ata Bey.
Eventually the inevitable came to pass. Following in the
footsteps of a chief from Hispaniola who had defied them and then
escaped, the Spanish governor of Hispaniola, one of the Spanish-born
sons of Columbus, ordered a military expedition into Cuba. The
Spanish troops were led by a barbaric, war-hardened sadist named
Diego Velasquez De Quellar. Velasquez quickly conquered the whole
island. He caught the escaped rebel chief, a man named "HATUEY".

Hatuey was burned at the stake in 1514. In that same year Velasquez
founded a city in Eastern Cuba and named it after the patron Saint of
Spain, St. James. He called the city "Santiago". Velasquez made this
city his capital and he became the royal governor of the whole
island. The Indians around Santiago were rounded up and parcelled off
to individual Spanish settlers like herds of cattle. They were forced
to work for their masters till they dropped from exhaustion or died
of European diseases. Some of these Spaniards realized there was
money to be made in the metal-rich region near the new city. Copper
mines were excavated and hundreds of Taino Indians died under horrid
conditions in these noxious hell-pits.
During the course of these events the little statue of the
Virgin Mary dissappeared. She was soon forgotten by whites and
Indians alike. Cueyba ceased to be an Indian village and Cuba began
losing its native population at a genocidal rate. A valliant revolt
was led by a Taino chief in the Sierra Maestra mountains near
Santiago. The chief is only known to history by the title "GUAMA",
which means "Lord". His rebellion spread terror among the Spanish
settlements in the region, but soon they managed to quell the
uprising. Eventually many Indians began to integrate into the general
population and the ancient religion began to make compromises within
the oppressive tyrany of Christianity much as the ancient religions
of Europeans had done centuries earlier. And the Mother Spirit
somehow survived. The Indians joined their Spanish conquerors in the
identification of the old Earth Mother within the devotion of Virgin
Mary. The same was happening all over the conquered territories of
the Spanish throughout the Americas. The Spanish devotion to the
Virgin Mary allowed for the Native peoples to maintain their belief
system and to honor their Earth Mother and their Fertility Matriarch
under the guise of Christian faith. The descendants of the Mexican
Aztecs adopted a version of the Virgin through a miraculous
occurrence and identified her with their goddess Tonantzin. This
version of the Catholic saint is now known as the Virgin of

The stage was set for a similar occurence to take place in
Cuba. By now, after almost a hundred years of oppression the
population of the Tainos had dwindled to a few remnants, isolated in
remote rural villages or scattered among the white settlements
growing all accross the length of the islands. Many Tainos
intermarried with the white settlers who continued to increase in
population. The lack of Indian slave labor forced the Spanish to
begin the black slave-trade in Africa. Thousands of African slaves
were forcibly kidnapped from their native continent and brought to
Cuba and to all of the Spanish colonies all over the Americas in the
next three centuries. Many Tainos intermarried with Africans. The
ethnic make-up of Cuba was evolving into the characteristic Cuban
type of today.
Hundreds of African slaves were thrown into the nightmarish
pits of the copper mines near Santiago. They died as miserably as
their Indian predecessors. Forced to convert to Catholicism the
survivors also found confort in the adoption of the Virgin Mary as
the representative of their own African goddesses.
On a stormy afternoon three boys set out in a boat into the Bay
of Nipe in northern Cuba. Two of the boys were full-blood Tainos and
the third was a little black slave child. The boys were on a mission.
They were to gather salt on the nearby coast and bring it back for
the preservation of meat at the copper mines in El Cobre near
Santiago. They were soon caught in a violent storm and had to pull
their boat onto the shore to wait out the bad weather. When the storm
abated the boys started back out on the broad waters of the large
bay. They had not rowed very far when suddenly they saw something
floating on the water. At first they thought it was a dead bird but
soon it became evident that it was a religious statue. Sensing that
they were participants in an important event the boys fished the
religious icon out of the water. The statue was placed on a small
wooden tablet that could not realistically support her weight. The
words "I am the Virgin Of Charity" were carved on the tablet. The
fact that the heavy ceramic figure had not sank was interpreted as
miraculous by them. They brought the statue back to the local church
authorities. These men, Spanish priests with little sympathy for the
aspirations of non-white devotees, took the little statue and stashed
her away in an out-of the-way altar. This is when strange things
began to happen.
In ancient Taino times religious images made of wood and stone
and clay often showed up missing from the place where their Indian
guardians kept them. Then they would show up someplace else. This was
interpreted by the Tainos as the desire of the "cemi" to be moved and
kept in a different place.

Many historians now believe that the little
statue found by those three boys was the same icon left by Ojeda in
the village of Cueyba so long ago. She had returned to her people.
And now she welcomed others who had suffered under the same yoke of
oppression as her first children. The little African boy in the boat
that day represented the thousands of black Cubans that saw in her
their own female goddesses. The statue began to repeatedly vanish
from the obscure niche into which she had been shoved by the Spanish
church authorities. Like her native predecessors before her she
reappeared in the presence of humble native peasants far away in the
heights over the El Cobre copper mines. Several times she was brought
back to her place in the out-of-the-way niche and several times she
dissappeared and made her reappearance at El Cobre. It was as if the
little dark-skinned statue wanted to be near the final resting place
of her beloved dark-skinned children who had suffered for so long
with only her as a source of hope.
Eventually the Spanish authorities got the point. They built a
modest chapel up on the heights above the mines and with great pomp
and ceremony they paraded the little statue up to her permanent new
home. Perched high above the copper mines the statue slowly began to
supercede many of the more aristocratic light-skinned virgins housed
in chapels, churches and cathedrals throughout the islands. Slowly a
miraculous cult arose around the little icon and the place where she
was housed. Soon she was adopted in a special way by the developing
Afro-Cuban pantheon of Yoruba/Catholic syncretic spirits. She assumed
her place in the Afro-Cuban synchretic religion called "Regla De
Ocha" or "Santeria" as the Christian personification of the Yoruba
goddess OCHUN.

The Cuban devotion to The Lady of El Cobre grew and
miraculous cures were attributed to visits at her shrine. By the mid
1950's the place was officially the pilgrimage mecca of all Cuba.
Thousands of reproductions were created by European craftsmen. Most
are incredibly inccurate likenesses. These, among other inaccuracies,
represent the virgin's face as light or pale-skinned and the two
Indian boys are replaced by two white men. Now, the accuracy of the
presence of two Indians in the original story is guaranteed by
historical record. That fact makes the presence of whites in any
image of this icon inaccurate, and yet modern-day devotees of the
Virgin of Charity agree that, in visual representstions of the icon
it is not inappropriate to include at least one Caucasian figure in
the symbolic boat. The fact is that millions of poor and low-caste
Cubans of European descent have suffered just as much as their dark-
skinned brethren under the exploitation of the rich and the
powerful. This puts all Cubans, and by extension, all Caribbeans ,
All people, "In the same boat".
Taino Ti
Miguel Sobaoko Koromo Sague

Compendio De La Historia General De America
Carlos Navarro y Lamarca
A. Estrada y Co. Buenos Aires, Argentina 1910

"A unas 30 leguas de Bayamo (Cueyba) encontró Las Casas la célebre
imagen allí dejada por Ojeda é idolatrada por los Siboneyes."

De orbe novo, the eight Decades of Peter Martyr d'Anghera;
edited by Francis Augustus MacNutt
published by G.P. Putman's Sons, New York and London(1912)

(Peter Martyr's version of the Cueyba story)
"An unknown sailor,[2] who was ill, had been left by some Spaniards
who were coasting the length of Cuba, with the cacique El Comendador,
and this sailor was very kindly received by the cacique and his
people. When he recovered his health, he frequently served the
cacique as lieutenant in his expeditions, for the islanders are often
at war one with another; and El Comendador was always victorious. The
sailor was an ignorant creature, but a man of good heart, who
cultivated a peculiar devotion for the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God.
He even carried about him, as constantly as his clothes, a picture of
the Blessed Virgin, very well painted on paper, and he declared to El
Comendador that it was because of it that he was always victorious.
He also persuaded the latter to abandon the zemes the people adored,
because he declared that these nocturnal goblins were the enemies of
souls, and he urged the cacique to choose for his patron the Virgin
Mother of God, if he desired all his undertakings, both in peace and
in war, to succeed. The Virgin Mother of God was never deaf to the
invocation of her holy name by a pure heart. The sailor obtained a
ready hearing from these naked islanders. Upon the request of the
cacique he gave him the image of the Virgin, and consecrated a church
and an altar to it. The zemes, whom their ancestors had worshipped
were abandoned. These zemes, Most Holy Father, are the idols made out
of cotton, of which I have spoken at length in the tenth book of my
First Decade. Following the instructions of the sailor, the cacique
El Comendador and all his people of both sexes went each day at
sunset to the chapel dedicated to the Virgin. Entering, they knelt,
and reverently bowing their heads and joining their hands they
saluted the image by repeated invocations, _Ave Maria, Ave Maria_;
for there were very few who had learnt the whole prayer.
[Note 2: Las Casas tells an identical story concerning Alonso de
Hojeda, who gave an image of the Blessed Virgin to a cacique of
Cueyba. During the campaign which ended in the conquest of Cuba, Las
Casas offered to trade a Flemish statue for the one Hojeda had left
there, but the cacique refused, and taking his image, he fled into
the woods, lest he should be forced to exchange. The two stories,
doubtless, refer to the same incident, though it seems strange that
Peter Martyr should not have identified Hojeda as the "unknown
sailor." See Las Casas, _Hist. de las Indias_, tom, iv., cap. xix.:
_B. Las Casas, his Life, his Apostolate, and his Writings_, cap iv.]"

Travel Cuba website
description of the arrival of the statue of the virgin Mary to Cueyba

"The historians say that Alonso de Ojeda arrived at the indian
village Cueyba in 1510, after a shipwreck, crossed the coast swamp in
an exhaustive march. Alonso came with an image of Maria Virgin saved
from this disaster. He was a passionate devout to this Virgin.
During the travel he promised to give the image to the first town he
find. When he arrived to Cueyba;, he gave the image to the indian
chief and suggested him to build an hermitage. So was born the first
place of adoration of the catholic religion in Cuba.
After 1513, when Bayamo was founded, Las Tunas territory stayed
inside of the demarcation of Bayamo town concil and at the end of
XVIII century Las Tunas party in Bayamo was founded with a more
independent character"

The Spanish Conquest in America and its Relation to the History of
Slavery and the Government of Colonies
Arthur Helms
page 452

"Before they reached the province of Camaguey, they came to a place
called Cueyba. This was the very spot where Ojeda, when shipwrecked,
had left an image of the Virgin. Ojeda, as may be remembered, had
been recieved with great kindness by the natives, who had built a
church, adorning it inside with ornamental work made of cotton, and
had set up an altar for the image. Moreover, they had composed
couplets in honor of the Virgin, which they sang to sweet melodies,
and accompanied with dancing. This image was also held in reverence
by the Spaniards, and Las Casas being anxious on that account to
obtain it in exchange for another image which he had brought with
him, entered into treaty with the cacique for that purpose. The
Indian Chief, however, was so alarmed at these overtures, that he
fled by night, taking the beloved image with him."

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