La Milagrosa Reigns Supreme

by Oakland Ross

Havana, Cuba -- In the city of the dead, she is the uncontested queen.
Her name is Amelia Goyri de Adot, and she is better known to Cubans as la Milagrosa or the Miraculous One.
Never mind that she has been dead for more than 100 years. In this tropical land pervaded by saints, spirits and superstitions, a deceased person is by no means a defunct person.
Just the opposite, in fact.
"It's not like in Canada and America," says Leona Anderson, a University of Regina professor of religious studies who is living in Cuba, where she is studying folk-based religions in a society where the emanations of the Afterworld are as prevalent as a salty ocean breeze and a good deal more potent.
"Here, the boundary between the living and the dead is not fixed. There's lots of room for communication."
Communication, of a kind, is exactly what is going on right now in this small corner of Havana's vast Necropolis Cristobal Colon, the largest and grandest graveyard in Cuba.
Under blue skies and scattered cumulus clouds on a weekday morning, a slow parade of pilgrims is filing past the tomb of Amelia Goyri.
One at a time, the visitors rap a brass knocker bolted to the vault, or ring a small bell, or reach up with one hand to touch a stone statue that rises above the tomb, depicting a cross and a woman embracing a child.
As they go about these rituals, the devotees move their lips in silent prayer. At no point does anyone turn his or her back to the tomb, for that might well bring bad luck.
No one wants to offend la Milagrosa.
"I owe her a lot," says Teresa Duran, who works as a custodian at a Havana health clinic. "She always helps me a lot."
"I have a lot of faith in her," agrees Norma Gonzalez, a teacher.
"If you are sick, you pray to Amelia."
On this May morning, about 200 people have trekked out to this vast walled cemetery in western Havana in order to pay tribute to the mystery of Amelia on the 105th anniversary of her death, an event that presaged what people here say was a miracle.
Miraculous or not, what is supposed to have happened to Amelia Goyri de Adot after her death was sufficiently astonishing to sustain a cult that continues to flourish nearly a century later.
On May 3, 1901, at age 24, the young member of Havana high society died in childbirth, along with her stillborn son. They were subsequently entombed together here, with the infant placed between its mother's legs.
The widower of the tale, Eduardo Adot y Lopez, was inconsolable. During the ensuing years, he brought flowers to his wife's tomb almost daily.
In 1914, with his own health failing, Adot asked to be taken to Amelia's crypt one last time.
While there, he requested that the vault be opened so he might gaze upon his wife's earthly remains. What he and others witnessed that day gave birth to the legend of la Milagrosa.
Somehow - so the story goes - the stillborn baby had contrived to make its way from the foot of the coffin and was now safely cradled at its mother's breast, enfolded in her arms.
That's the miracle, and it has spawned a legend in Cuba.
Eduardo died the next day, Dec. 3, 1914, but the tale of Amelia has continued to fascinate Cubans, drawing a daily stream of the faithful to this otherwise unremarkable marble tomb in the necropolis.
On this anniversary of la Milagrosa's death, the throng of her devotees gradually swells.
The visitors mingle patiently in the shade of the laurel trees, areca palms and sea pines that garnish the cemetery, a sprawling netherworld of elaborate tombs, some of which are truly spectacular structures, more like miniature cathedrals than anything most Canadians would recognize as conventional graves.
By comparison, the tomb that contains Amelia's mortal coil is a positively modest affair, just a plain marble box tucked beneath a stone cross and a Madonna-like statue of a mother clutching an infant to her breast.
What sets the vault apart from its neighbours are the bouquets of sunflowers and gladiolas heaped around the tomb and the hundreds of stone tablets stacked nearby, each a testament of gratitude from someone whose prayers - for good health, for a son or a daughter, for some other benefit - were apparently answered by the woman whose body lies here.
"Amelia, thank you for bringing my dream to reality," says one.
"To Amelia, la Milagrosa, we give you thanks for having granted us the trip," says another.
"To you, Amelia Goyri - la Milagrosa - thank you for granting my wish, my beautiful son," says a third.
"It's very practical," notes Anderson. "They're asking for very practical things."
Religious cults are not exactly uncommon on this Caribbean island, where people tend to see signs and portents in just about everything, and where myths and superstitions abound.
The leading figure among Cuban figures of worship - a vast pantheon - is undoubtedly the Virgin of Copper, who is both the island's Roman Catholic patron saint and, like many Christian saints in Cuba, a double-duty deity.
The Virgin of Copper also plays a leading role in Santeria, which is the most prominent of Cuba's several Afro-Christian religions, roughly equivalent to voodoo in Haiti. In the Santeria spirit world, the Virgin is identified with Oshun, the orisha or goddess of love, rivers and streams.
"Santeria is Cuba's fastest-growing religion by far," says Anderson. "People are signing up in droves."
There are probably more santeros in Cuba these days than there are Christians, although the two groups overlap and there are undoubtedly members of both among the crowd of pilgrims gathered around the tomb of la Milagrosa.
"Everybody comes," says a cemetery worker named Eric Li, clad in a pair of orange overalls, who is surveying the unfolding scene. "Believers and non-believers, Catholics and non-Catholics."
In fact, some Cubans regard Amelia with even greater veneration than they do the Virgin of Copper.
"She wears the crown of gold," says Medys Gonzalez Castro, one of the pilgrims commemorating Amelia's death.Eventually, a violinist shows up, along with a guitarist and a white-clad singer.
The musicians assemble near the tomb, where they perform a rendition of "Ave Maria," followed by "Las Mananitas " ("The Little Mornings," the Latin American equivalent of "Happy Birthday") and then more Christian hymns.
The people hum and sing along, many clutching bunches of gladiolas. Meanwhile, the sun beams down through cotton-batten clouds, and everyone seems content.
"A lot of the appeal is the formation of a community," says Anderson. "Things are hard in Cuba. Life is hard in a lot of ways."
But on this balmy spring morning, the world seems downright benign, at least for now - and that's a minor miracle right there.
Chalk up another one to la Milagrosa.

The Toronto Star, 2 July, 2006