El Cobre, Cuba: Images, Voices, Histories – UC Santa Cruz

Despite a complex and in some ways even extraordinary past, El Cobre's significance today is still mostly linked to its legendary character as the abode of the protean figure of the Virgin of Charity. A Marian icon enshrined in the Sanctuary of this village emblematizes a centuries-old local tradition turned into national allegory. Athough El Cobre is the privileged location of this religious and vernacular cultural icon, these sub-sections show that this is by no means a local or localized tradition.

The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre is the Cuban analogue of Mexico's Guadalupe and of the Yoruban deity Osun. Popular Christianity and its stories of saints and miracles intersect with other traditions, notably African ones, to further account for this Virgin's allure (or repellence) to many. Although the matrices of Afro-Cuban religious traditions such as Santería and Espiritismo de cordón are distinct and ultimately autonomous, they interact with and draw imagery and signification from the Catholic popular cult to the Virgin of El Cobre.

To most people, the local history behind this Marian tradition remains fuzzy at best. Yet, that ever malleable legacy and its interlinked traditions have religious, cultural, political and even economic currency for many constituencies to this day. Racial, ethnic, class and gender identities are also social concerns distinctly played out in modern iterations of this iconic tradition in different sites. The images in these sections speak to the multilayered socio-political meanings--and tensions--that crisscross these interlocked traditions. All in all, the cult to the Virgin of Charity that emerged in El Cobre during the colonial period became an important cultural text that, for better or worse, continues to act as a palimpsest.

In even broader terms, the town of El Cobre also constitutes a major symbolic arena where showdowns between secular modernity, particularly but not exclusively in its socialist iterations, and religious culture in its various manifestations are foregrounded. Moreover, despite soft boundaries enabling exchange, conflicts--and accomodation--among various religious constellations are also part of El Cobre's past and present scene. Tension exists between official and popular (and conservative and progressive) forms of Catholic Christianity; between Christianity and Afro-Cuban "pagan" ("quasi-pagan" or "neo-pagan") religions; and among the different kinds of Afro-Cuban religious traditions too. Similar tensions and conflicts also take place, in perhaps more diffused ways, in other related national and transnational contexts.

Ultimately, many of the issues at play in this site resonate with those unfolding in other world locations these days. Others may be said to have global dimensions themselves.


* Why would the icon of the Virgin of Charity be "alluring" to many? And "repellent" to others? And to you? Why?

* What makes this Marian tradition iconic? How may it be said to operate as a palimsest?

* Are icons and iconic traditions "malleable"? In what sense? Are traditions about the past or/and the present? How are they "hybridized"?

* Can traditions move in and between different "registers" (religious, secular, political, cultural) at the same time? How and to what effect? Can a tradition take on contradictory meanings? Can its meaning(s) change through time?

* What kind of "tensions" run through the enactments of this particular iconic tradition? Are these tensions open or covert?

* Is this iconic tradition sui generis ? Can you think of analogous ones elsewhere (religious and otherwise)?

* What kind of impact can tourism have on traditions?

* In what ways are traditions politicized? How has this one been politicized? Are political significations inevitable?

* Is "place" central to this iconic tradition? How? What are the local, national and transnational dimensions of this tradition? Are there any global aspects to it?


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Selections from M.E. Díaz,The Virgin, the King and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre:



"Making Secular Art Out of Religious Imagery" (NY Times: Art Review)

"Fervor religioso cubano: Exposición fotográfica" (El País, 2009)

"San Lázaro Dossier" (Casa las Américas, 2009)

"Reveared by the Castros and their Opponents" (NY Times: El Cobre Journal,2008)