by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe

The Shrine of the Virgin of Cobre

If you’re interested in religion in Cuba, you’re definitely going to want to take the time and make the effort to travel to The Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre or The Shrine of the Virgin of Cobre. This beautiful place of worship — Cuba’s most famous pilgimage site — lies in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountain chain about 13 miles or so outside of the city of Santiago de Cuba.

The first hermitage was built  in 1608. A larger shrine was built a century later and the present sanctuary opened in 1927.


In 1606 three fishermen — struggling in their storm-tossed boat — found a wooden image of the Virgin floating on the Bahia de Nipe or Bay of Nipe in northeastern Cuba.

In one hand the Virgin carried a baby Jesus, in the other she held a cross. She also appeared to be holding a tablet that read Yo soy la Virgin de la Caridad – I am the Virgin of Charity.

The fishermen — two brothers named Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and their friend, a 10 year old black boy (some say a slave) named Juan Moreno, brought the statue to El Cobre, a copper mining town.

Copper has been mined at El Cobre since pre Columbian times. A Spanish mine was in existence by 1530, and was the oldest European-operated mine in the Western Hemisphere. It is still Cuba’s largest producer of copper ore. You can see the current mine on a hillside opposite the basilica.


According to legend, the Virgin is depicted as a mulatto while the baby is white, making the pair quite attractive across Cuba’s racial spectrum.


Importantly, the Virgin has an appeal beyond pure Catholicism. The statue is also highly revered by followers of Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion that is a blending of Catholicism and African traditional religion.

In santeria, the Virgin is associated with Ochun (Oshun), the Yoruba goddess of love and femininity. In today’s Cuba, devotion to the Virgin and to Ochun is often intertwined. Ochun is represented by the color yellow and so is the Virgin of Cobre who is considered the mother and protectress of all Cubans.

A priest at the shrine says that the majority of pilgrims who venerate the statue are not Catholics. He goes on to say:

We try to take advantage of their search for the transcendental, and educate them about Catholicism. We don’t turn them away.


On May 10, 1916, Pope Benedict XV declared the Virgin of Cobre to be the national saint of Cuba, and in 1936 the Virgin was crowned in a ceremony in Santiago de Cuba. In 1977, the basilica at Cobre was proclaimed a ‘basilica menor.’

During Mass, the statue of the Virgin is mechanically turned to face into the church. She is dressed in an elaborate golden gown, and wears a richly jeweled crown and dangling earrings. She also wears many expensive jewels brought to her by grateful pilgrims over the years.

After the service, she turns around to face a small chapel where she receives her visitors. Here pilgrims adore the statue, bring their requests to her, and leave votive gifts in thankfulness for prayers answered and miracles worked.


Cubans who come to Cobre leave mementos like locks of hair and baby clothes. They also leave a variety of offerings known as votos. Many of these are sold by hawkers who line the winding road leading up a hillside to the church.

Other votos are more personal. For example, Lina Ruz, the mother of Fidel and Raul Castro, visited the Virgin in the late 1950s when her two sons were waging revolution. She left a metal figure — a small golden guerilla fighter — that is now kept under lock and key.

The medal that Ernest Hemingway received when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 is also in storage at the basilica.  The medal was stolen in 1986 but recovered a few days later. Avid readers may remember that the Virgin actually makes an appearance in Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea when the fisherman at the center of the story pledges to visit the shrine if he manages to catch his elusive fish.

On a different note, the shrine is full of sports memorabilia left by Cuban athletes. There are signed baseballs thanking the Virgin for a home run, and Olympic medals from athletes who believe their victories were the result of the Virgin’s intervention. There are also diplomas, letters, candles, bouquets, snapshots, trinkets, lockets, and pendants.

Pope John Paul II

When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, he honored the Virgin while on a visit to Santiago de Cuba, less than 15 miles from El Cobre. Cubans were elated!


In the years following the 1959 revolution, public processions to honor the Virgin were restricted by the government out of concern for unsanctioned gatherings.  Group displays were not allowed to resume until the 1990s.

When Fidel Castro became ill several years ago, his supporters visited the Virgin in large numbers to ask for his healing. Critics were there as well, praying for change.

Before Cubans flee the island by boat or raft, many visit Cobre to beg for a safe journey.

According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, a priest at the shrine — Father Jorge Alejandro — considers the Virgin to be “the mother of reconciliation.” He says:

People who are against the government bring their dreams and their suffering and their pain. And those who support the government come here, too. The Virgin brings them together.

If you’re planning a trip, be sure to check your guidebook for hours and directions.

Do you have stories that you’d like to share about the Virgin of Cobre? We’d like to hear from you.



by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe


This acrylic painting by Adrian Rumbaut shines a spotlight on the icons Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967).

In the work, Adrian Rumbaut has reproduced Alberto Korda’s famous 1960 photograph of Che Guevara, and he inserts his vision of American Richard Avedon’s iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe as well. In the letters on the side of the painting, Rumbaut gives credit to both Korda and Avedon for their images, and provides the date of his painting.

Interestingly, Korda worked as a fashion photographer as a young man, and he wanted very much to be the Richard Avedon of Cuba. He photographed the “beautiful people” of the Batista era before the revolution, and models lined up in front of his studio to have their picture taken. Surprised by the “triumph of the revolution” in 1959, he worked subsequently with Raul Corrales, Castro’s official photographer, to capture the excitement of the revolution. In his image of Che, something survives of his earlier experience with beautiful women.

Korda’s image of Che — snapped in 1960 and also known as Guerrillero Heroico — has been repeatedly reproduced worldwide, serving as both a symbol of protest and as a fashion accessory.

The iconic photo has taken on increasingly exotic forms, each created with different intentions and evoking varied responses. Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ, Madonna, and Princess Diana have all had their pictures adapted and inserted under Che’s familiar red star beret. It isn’t an exaggeration to note that Che the icon has overtaken Che the revolutionary.

The original “Che” photograph was taken at a dangerous moment, a time when the new revolutionary government was preparing for imminent US invasion. It was at the start of the Cuban Revolution’s second year, and Castro’s government had ordered a boatload of weapons and ammunition — mostly rifles and grenades — from Belgium. The armaments were loaded onto a French ship, La Coubre which, unfortunately, exploded upon arrival in Havana Harbor in March 1960. The crew and 75 Cuban dockers were killed. More than 200 were injured.

The incident was reminiscent of the destruction of the US battleship Maine in the same harbor in 1898, raising questions as to who was responsible. Was it American sabotage, or was it an accident?

At the funeral ceremony for the dockers, Fidel Castro claimed that the explosion was the work of the Americans.

The celebrities Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir shared the platform with Castro, and behind was Che Guevara, the man who had invited them to Cuba.

Alberto Korda, a photographer working for the newspaper Revolucion, snapped away at the luminaries. For a moment there was an empty space in the front row, and in the background the figure of Che appeared. Years later Korda told Jorge Castaneda, one of his biographers:

He [Che] unexpectedly entered my viewfinder and I shot the photo horizontally. I immediately realised that the image of him was almost a portrait, with the clear sky behind him.

Korda took two shots of Guevara, but neither photograph attracted the attention of the picture desk of Korda’s newspaper.

The photo of Che was first printed a year later in an advertisement for a lecture that Che was giving in April 1961. The photo ended up appearing twice since the lecture was postponed due to the Bay of Pigs invasion. The picture then disappeared for several years. Not until August 1967 was the Korda photograph printed abroad.

Two months after the photo appeared in Paris Match, in October 1967, Guevara was captured in eastern Bolivia and shot. Castro addressed a huge memorial rally at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. He faced a huge blown up photograph of the Guerrillero Heroico that had been placed over five stories of the building housing the Ministry of the Interior. A more permanent metal sculpture is in that location today. The vital connection between the recently martyred Che and Korda’s evocative photography had been established.

Che’s image soon went viral abroad. Korda liked the photograph and had it pinned up in his studio. He would sometimes give a copy to favored guests like Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a radical Italian publisher who blew himself up outside Milan in 1972.

Che’s diary of his Bolivian expeditiion surfaced in Havana in 1968. Shortly thereafter, Castro gave Feltrinelli the Italian rights, and the book was published in Italy with the Korda photo on the cover. Feltrinelli also arranged for the printing of hundreds of posters that gained tremendous popularity with Italian students demonstrating during the summer of 1968. The image spread through Europe as a symbol of student struggle and international protest.

Adrian Rumbaut Rodriguez was born in 1973 in Cienfuegos, Cuba. After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas in Havana in 1991, he returned to Cienfuegos where he co-founded Grupo Punto, a consortium of visual artists that has achieved world reknown.

As a solo artist, Rumbaut has participated in more than fifty exhibitions in Cuba and abroad, including the 11th Havana Biennial.

Widely collected, his work has earned more than twenty awards, and is found in both public and private collections in Cuba and around the world.

Rumbaut is included in the book Art Cuba: The New Generation edited by Holly Block and published in 2001 by Harry A. Abrams, Inc.

Collection of Cuban Art World (ReynoldsWolfe LLC) | Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe



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