At the heart of Cuban spirituality lies a unifying figure: The Virgin of Charity of Cobre.

She is not only the patron saint of Cuba but also a revered symbol for devout Catholics, followers of Afro-Cuban Santeria, and Cubans both on the island and in exile. The wooden statue of the Virgin Mary resides in the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, nestled amidst the serene Sierra Maestra mountains. A replica of this cherished icon is housed in the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, where Cuban-Americans pay homage to their cultural heritage.

Standing just over a foot tall, this modest wooden statue holds immense significance. According to Michelle Maldonado, a theology professor at the University of Scranton, the Virgin of Charity is not only a religious emblem but also a symbol of Cubanness. Many Cuban families, like Maldonado’s own, have passed down statues of the Virgin through generations, cherishing them as cherished heirlooms.

Affectionately known as “Cachita” by locals, the Virgin of Charity is omnipresent in Cuban culture. She graces makeshift home altars, inspires popular songs and street art, and even adorns tattoos, paintings, and cartoons.

The legend of the Virgin of Charity dates back 400 years, beginning with the discovery of her statue by two Indigenous brothers and an enslaved African boy. Found floating in the Bay of Nipe, the statue miraculously remained dry despite the surrounding water. Inscribed with the words “I am the Virgin of Charity,” the discovery marked the beginning of her revered status.

Throughout Cuba’s tumultuous history, the Virgin of Charity has been a source of solace and strength. Soldiers during the struggle for independence from Spain sought her intercession for healing, leading to her eventual recognition as Cuba’s patron saint by Pope Benedict XV.

Across centuries, worshippers of various faiths, including practitioners of Santeria, have sought her blessings. Known as “Ochun” in Santeria, she embodies feminine sensuality and maternity, symbolized by the color yellow and offerings of sunflowers.

As her legend grew, so did the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, now a majestic ivory-colored structure with red domes. The church displays offerings from grateful devotees, including jerseys, medals, and crutches, symbolizing the Virgin’s miraculous healing powers.

Renowned figures like Ernest Hemingway and Pope John Paul II have paid homage to the Virgin, recognizing her significance in Cuban culture. Even Cuban-American exiles in Miami maintain a deep connection to her, fostering a sense of unity across generations and political divides.

In essence, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre embodies the spiritual resilience and cultural identity of the Cuban people, transcending borders and generations with her enduring presence.