This is why promises and offerings have always been a link to a direct relationship between the miraculous act from where it came, the divinity solicited and the person for whom this act has been carried out. Although in the wide range of beliefs implicated in what has become known as popular religiosity, this demonstration of fervor is not only produced in favor of the omnipotents, rather it also reaches human personages existing in real life, canonized by the will of certain social groups. In another national context outside the framework of religion, other protagonists who have reached the archetypical threshold of the respected hero, to those to whom offerings are taken (usually floral) on the anniversary of their disappearance or birth, that which contributes to keeping them alive in the social memory.
The floral offerings given to those who have passed away, for some people simply refer to traditional customs that show respect and remembrance for those who are no longer present. Yet for others they signify intents to reestablish the lost tie between the person offering and those who have made their last transition. And so, cemeteries are always a setting open to offerings, although at times they are not always floral. In the Colón cemetery of Havana, many tombs receive devotional offerings materialized in peculiar representations.
Offerings at the tomb of Leocadia the Medium
For many years, in Cuba, “mediumism” was condemned as heresy by the Catholic Church. Almost all over the world, science also refused to acknowledge its existence. “Nevertheless, today parapsychologists have carried out many true scientific studies about the subject in many parts of the world and not just a few of the highest religious representatives, have since stopped being radically opposed to the phenomenon. Fortunately today in all Cuba, the medium is respected by a large number of groups which make up Cuban society, although it is not publicly recognized.
Generally, those who possess this gift develop and use it with humility, generosity, selflessness and skill, they usually make the world see the usefulness of this natural perception. “Among the latter was the médium, Leocadia Pérez Herrera. The Brother José, the spiritual entity who served through her, could adopt different phases; from guide and counselor of doctors, scientists, teachers, students, even a Congolese Negro, but we must point out that even José, who was a priest in real life, as Leocadia both professed the Catholic religion. Our medium liked flowers and most of all classical music, mostly violin. In Leocadia´s home, where the spiritual sessions took place, on a certain day an oil portrait of Brother José was hung as a miraculous offering. Just like he looked in life, the work was that of one of his followers to whom, according to some versions, the priest appeared several years after having passed away in order to be painted so that his devotees could observe their guide. The work was shown to various officials of the Church and all claimed that it was an extraordinary likeness, beside the fact that the painter never had the opportunity to see his image before. There are accounts affirming that on many occasions photos were taken of the painting of Brother José, but they always came out veiled, only stains could be seen on the paper. Upon Leocadia´s death, she was entombed with this portrait, as was her wish. Important people as well as ordinary townspeople were equally attended by the famous medium. Those who came in need of a consultation were never charged a single penny. And those who knew her in life assure that, all the people seeking consultations left satisfied and thankful for her recommendations”. (1)
The story of Leocaldia and Brother José in time became a popular legend, it was later added “the splendid funeral, where even Bola de Nieve, the great Cuban singer-composer was present, according to research conducted by the cemetery historian, Teresita Aloy. Burried in Colón cemetery lies, who was once in life Leocadia, since June 3 of 1962, in the quarter SE 18 Common Field. The medium won the praise of her followers, for her skilled predictions and selfless consultations, she was the object of sincere worship by her followers after death, a showing of faith that was maintained until 2005, including those in her debt, residents from Miami and Puerto Rico, who would go to the tomb on their visits. Every 19th of March, the day of San José, the faithful devotees would arrive at the pantheon seeking help, advice, or to give thanks, as if she were a saint, depositing flowers while a great violin concert played as an offering, played with such fervor that the notes were able to reach frequencies so high they, according to them, could reach her where she was on high”. (2)
Offerings to “La Milagrosa del Cementerio” (The Miracle Worker of the Cemetery)
A beautiful white marble statue by the famous Cuban sculptor José Villalta de Saavedra, that perpetuates the memory of a mother with child in her arms, whose face was sculpted from a photo of the protagonist of this legend, represents one of the most valuable works of art in the entire Colón cemetery. “The tomb fills up with offerings related to motherhood; baby clothes by the dozen, diapers, bibs, wind chimes, baby spoons, gum scrapers, ribbons and toys, that the believers leave on the white headstone acquired years ago by José Vicente Adot Rabell, in quarter NE 28 of the Common Field of the Havana cemetery. The givers, generally women who want to be mothers, kneel in worship around the tomb, in order to solicit the miracle”. (3) These same followers have created rituals, where they draw near the marble figure to touch it while at the same time touching their womb, praying and crossing themselves in a devotional act.
This scene repeats itself everyday at the Cristóbal de Colón Cemetery, located in the City of Havana. In her these gift bearers harbor the version of “a woman who died in childbirth and was buried with the baby at her feet”. “The legend was created some years later, that upon exhumation, the body was preserved and the mummified baby was held in her arms. From this moment on, there were many visits by believers to the tomb, who were assured that their prayers were heard and granted by the deceased. The true story is attributed to a beautiful girl from Havana who died on May 3rd of 1901 in the capital, from a complication during childbirth. Her wedding was held on the 25th of June of 1900 together with her sister who was also to depart this world shortly thereafter, during childbirth. Amelia Goiri de Adot, daughter of the marquis of Balboa, was 22 years old when she died and it happened just one year after her marriage to Sr. Vicente Adot Rabell, who returned from the war of 1895 with the rank of captain”. (4)
Vicente was so in love with his wife that her death turned his world upside down. “He mourned her until he died and visited her tomb several times a day, hitting the cold marble with one of the stone rings, in order to waken his love and talk at length with her, having covered the tombstone with flowers. Upon leaving he did so without ever turning his back on the statue, this is possibly what made people notice. These demonstrations of deep pain, together with the evocations of the beautiful statue, perhaps gave rise to the legend. One thing is for certain, “La Milagrosa” is profoundly worshipped by hundreds of believers who, thankful for the concessions to their pleas, place these offerings, flowers and on many occasions, monetary donations. However..., the tomb of Amelia Goiri is never alone. With immense love, and as a work of faith with the legal authorization from the family of the deceased, someone who is eternally thankful for the bestowing of miracles, on a mission that came to purify their life, sees to it that these donations have a beneficent and noble end. The aforementioned offerings are transferred in satchels, by these tender hands performing the work of God, to the congregation of Mother Maria Teresa of Calcutta, to its seat in Vedado (a residential district in Havana). With extreme humility, the author of these charities, who for years has guarded this sacred place and its legend, has asked that their name be omitted (5)
But the case of Amelia Goire, La Milagrosa del Cementerio, is not the only case of its kind in the world. An investigation carried out by Profesor Rafael Briones Gómez, head of the department of anthropology at the University of Granada, Spain, expounds the reverence in popular devotion of “el Señor del Cementerio de Granada”. “It deals with a small tomb in the ground, with a small cross made of white stone at the foot of which stands a snow white stone statue, representing a man of normal stature, with locks of hair, fallen arms and the head slightly inclined looking up, in an attitude of reverence toward the cross. Said symbol is always ringed with numerous flowers and offerings at its base. A legendary halo of holiness and miracle surrounds this grave”. (6)
Various versions of the origin of this adoration exist. “All coincide in that before this tomb of the “Señor del Cementerio” and starting with the devotion of the cult for the dead which is practiced at the beginning of November and sporadically throughout the year, some women or, according to others, a family felt attracted to this tomb and by this statue, prayed, confessed and asked for favors which were granted. And so the fame of the milagroso (miraculous one) began to spread”. “Another detail to keep in mind in the still short tradition of this religious phenomenon is the day designated for the ritual, which consists fundamentally in the prayer of the “penitential rosary” directed by a layman, Manuel “The Butcher”, a man of some sixty five years and to which a group of some thirty people attend. The day is Friday. At the beginning it was only the first Friday of every month, but later on, it extended to all the Fridays of the year. The first people to begin to climb up, were the same that went to pray on the first Fridays of the month at the Cristo de los Favores (Christ of the Favors), in the Campo del Príncipe (Field of the Prince)”. (7)
Profesor Briones affirms that on top of the tomb there is always a profusion of “flowers, candles, votives, money, and above all the promises that people make that are more difficult to see because they are an immaterial element of religiosity which are in the hearts and minds of the devoted”. “Things are offered and given to the Señor del Cementerio (Lord of the Cemetery), a condition and in exchange of receiving a favor or a miracle. The ritual combines objects and orations with a series of gestures of great significance: embrace the “Lord”, kiss him, pass the hand over part of the statue (face, eyes, arms) and after, pass the hand over the corresponding part of the body as such. They usually repeat this same operation with a flower, preferably a carnation, which is later taken to their houses, as if it were the remains. Throughout the celebration they remain on their knees, directing the rosary, very intoned and with much devotion. The rest of the people continue responding. They sing and ask for the dead. When the rosary ends, they recite a series of orations, through which the group “the leaders” make their pitch inviting to come every Friday”. (8)
The promise as an alliance
Generally, in almost every place in the world where these actions of faith occur, promises and offerings “attempt to make the divinity intercede, solving the problems which cause man pain and suffering. The nature of the relationship is basically religious since it implies awareness of the inferiority of man and the omnipotence of God, the Virgin and the saints. In the supposed case in which the favor solicited is not received, the offer bearer can break his relationship with God because complying with the promise is conditioned on the fulfillment of the favor”. (9) But in Cuba, it generally happens is that this promise, is also converted into a sacred alliance between the practitioner and his deity. That means that for him, his nonobservance not only breaks this tie forever, rather that additionally, as a consequence of this lack of fulfillment, he can receive the most terrible of punishments.
On the other hand, there are believers and practitioners who by way of their personal fervor, believe that the more outstanding and difficult the request made of the deity, the harder and more difficult the demonstration of testimonial gratitude in his promise must be. This gives way to the existence of payers of promises who by their own will, submit themselves to corporal punishment at times bound to real tortures. With this public and notoriously expressed action, besides the indicated acknowledgement, they also demonstrate their testimony of the most profound devotion to their deity.
The payers of promises of El Rincón
In the municipality of Santiago de las Vegas, in the province of Havana, lies the small locality of El Rincón, where the National Sanctuary of San Lázaro is located, where many people come during the 16th and 17th days of December, ever larger multitudes of believers in pilgrimage. A great part of these are payers of promises to this miraculous saint. “Hundreds of the curious and tourists concentrate on the path from metropolitan Havana, to the aforementioned sacred space. But it must stand out that, among popular statuary, the divinity to whom the most homage is paid almost intimate and personal, whose image is found in the homes of the faithful devotees and that which is found at the feet of the most needy who extend their hand to passersby, does not coincide with the canonized bishop Lázaro, of the national sanctuary; nor with the African Babalú-Ayé of the animist cults which share the same doctrine, notwithstanding having assumed underlying characteristics from both religious cultures, overlapped in one sole personality. The legitimate popular tradition as a saint, to Lázaro of the dogs and crutches, within the national context, under the indisputable nickname of: the miraculous “San Lázaro”. (10)
Some studies suggest that this divinity is a new popular invention of the Cuban nation, which is considered to be extremely miraculous in curing wounds, skin diseases and above all, ailments that affect ambulatory movements, likewise to concede the satisfaction of other spiritual and material needs”. (11)
The ambience of that sacrosanct scenario; the faithful in oration; the payers of promises, in conjunction with the throng of many colors and compact, constitute one of the most impressive religious happenings of Cuba. “The congregation assembled there, is conformed of many people of different religious creeds, of all races, ages and social classes. Some arrive at the place with candle offerings, money and/or flowers, to beg favors of the saint; others, as payers of promises; also likewise there are many curiosity seekers or those who try to understand what is happening there”. (12)
The spectacle of those debtors of promises begins generally from the 16th of December, when those who want to spend the night and the early morning hours at the place, begin to arrive. At dawn on the 17th, the faithful and curious have already begun to form lines on both sides of the road that leads to the sanctuary and with the first lights of dawn, marks the opening of that extraordinary march of souls driven by their beliefs. It starts with a trickle of two or three punished pilgrims, separated, unrelated but perceiving themselves as united by faith. In a short while there are ten or twelve, also disperse, each preoccupied with paying his personal debt. Later there are twenty or so and after that, they arrive by the hundreds. Nobody coordinates this pilgrimage, no organization, no cult, no church organizes it. There is no one who calls or summons these pilgrims, other than their own profound conviction of faith.
Many people participate in this pilgrimage walking the 7 or 8 kilometers which separate the village El Rincón, from the temple, many without shoes, with some purple clothing or they dress in very simple clothing made from jute sacks, these are identified with San Lázaro. Others come in horse drawn carts and also in cars. The devotees come from all roads leading in and incorporate themselves. Many drag themselves, some come on their knees others with their feet or hands tied and there are some with both extremities tied, generally carrying or dragging some weight. There are those who tow heavy rocks for many kilometers. There are also women with babies on their backs hurting their bodies in one way or another while they advance on their knees along with the crowd which always makes way for them. Then after mid day some men make their pilgrimage, whether withstanding the cold or under the blazing sun, with bare torso and barely covered with a coarse jute sack, some flog themselves while they walk, drag themselves or move forward on their lacerated knees. In this manner the interior and personal image of each devotee is revealed, in its most communicative external demonstration. Since each one of them needs public confirmation of their actions. The act of faith also offers public communication, notoriety and shows the miracle received.
Promises and offerings as metaphors
In the expression of religiosity, promises and offerings come from the deepest roots of human behavior. From the anthropological viewpoint “they have great historic and ethnic value and they are a source of knowledge especially valuable in the search for understanding about the subject of beliefs. Although they not only teach us about religious attitudes, but also about material culture from present and past periods, that in another way might have disappeared or would not be easy to reconstruct”. (13)
In this way promises and offerings in essence, independent from the tradition that they come from, inspiration to which they consecrate and the train of thought in which they process or execute, have always been and will always be elements, that need the ritual or ceremony as a stage, both identical in meaning and origin, although in appearance they are manifested in the most varied and changing ways. Both then, will be symbolic actions and symbols; therefore in their own right, metaphors consecrated by different traditions; intermediate allegories between two realities, one known and the other to be discovered; and therefore, vehicles in the search of knowledge of the venerated, sublime and eternal mystery of the sacred.
(1)Rivero Glean, Manuel y Chávez Spínola, Gerardo E.: Catauro de seres míticos y legendarios en Cuba. Ed. por Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Cultura Cubana Juan Marinello, La Habana, 2005, pp. 318-319.
(2)Ibídem, pp. 318-319.
(3)Ibídem, pp. 376-379.
(4)Ibídem, pp. 376-379.
(5)Ibídem, pp. 376-379.
(6) Briones Gómez, Rafael: Aproximación antropológica a tres casos de religiosidad marginal en la provincia de Granada. Gaceta de Antropología, 1995, 11, artículo 09.
(9) Sarnago, Elena: Promesas y ofrendas religiosas: los exvotos. Diccionario de Mitos y Leyendas - Equipo NAyA http://www.cuco.com.ar/
(10) Rivero Glean, Manuel y Chávez Spínola, Gerardo E.: Ob. cit., pp. 79-80.
(11)Ibídem, pp. 314-315.
(12)Ibídem, pp. 314-315.
(13) Sarnago, Elena: Ob. cit.
Daniel Fenton (Cubarte)