Santiago de Cuba


May 14, 2018
By Hallie Kircher-Henning, a Macalester College Student on the University of Havana Program

Santiago de Cuba, the birthplace of the Revolution, is absolutely stunning. The Sierra Maestra Mountains surround the city and an ocean inlet hugs its southern edge. The streets, narrower than those of Havana, present steep inclines due to the terrain. Instead of maquinas for collective transportation, Santiagueros get around on moto-taxis, or people that ride around on motorcycles offering have an extra seat and helmet to one passenger at a time.

Santiago is home to the famous cemetery, Cemeterio Santa Ifigenia. After eating breakfast at our casa particular, we piled once again into the van and set off to visit the resting place of several notable Cubans. Welcoming visitors into the cemetery is a large statue of la Madre de la Patria, Mariana Grajales, the mother of Antonio Maceo. Maceo was an extremely important major in the Cuban Independence War against Spain. However, the prize for the most eye capturing edifice in the cemetery goes to the huge mausoleum of Jose Marti. Pillars, each one representing a different Cuban province, support the structure.

Inside the mausoleum are plaques dedicated to each country in Latin America, paying homage to Marti’s influence throughout the region. Observers look down from a round balcony at an ornate wooden box containing Marti’s remains. Another more recent and significant addition to the cemetery are the remains of Fidel. Next to Marti’s mausoleum lies a giant rock with a plaque which simply reads FIDEL. Behind that plaque is a small compartment containing Fidel’s urn. This appeared by far to be the most visited grave marker. Our drivers, who had never before visited Santiago, were overcome with joy upon seeing the comandante’s grave. A long line of observers gathered, eager to take a photo with Fidel’s giant rock. When Fidel was buried in December 2016, many Cubans made the pilgrimage across the island to witness Fidel’s burial. The woman who owns our residence told us that when Fidel died, she and her mother dropped everything to go see the momentous burial. After the burial, Raul announced that Cuba would ban naming any monuments or roads after Fidel. Fidel strongly opposed his image becoming commodified or turned into a “cult of personality,” as he believed Che’s image had been. Therefore, unlike Che, it is very unlikely that Fidel’s face will appear on money or t-shirts any time in the near future.

Benito walked us around the cemetery, showing us the graves of the important Cuban leaders who we had learned about in our classes. His tour was so compelling that a small contingency of other Cuban visitor began to join our group to ask Benito questions about their national heroes. There is an immense pride in being Cuban and an acute awareness of how these influential figures helped to shape the Cuban identity.

Next, we visited the famous museum in the Moncada barracks, the site of an armed attack by revolutionaries led by Fidel on July 26, 1953. This attack signaled the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Therefore, Fidel named the revolutionary movement Movimiento 26 Julio or M-26-7. Fidel led 160 young rebels from the Partido Ortodoxo, trained to fight against Batista and his military dictatorship. The group intended to gain possession of the barrack’s weapons and use the communication systems within to confuse the military. The attack ultimately failed. Many rebels were killed in the struggle or later executed by Batista’s regime. Fidel and others were captured and sentenced to prison. Eventually, Batista released them in order to gain legitimacy through “amnesty.” Fidel and his followers were then exiled to Mexico, where they met Che and began to plan a renewed revolutionary attack: the landing of the Granma in 1956. After the triumph of the Revolution, Fidel ordered that the building of the Moncada barracks be converted into a school. As part of the Revolution’s education campaign, many of Batista’s old military bases across the island were turned into schools. Today, half of Moncada is a museum and the other half is home to one of the biggest primary schools in Cuba.

After lunch, we headed to El Cobre, a small town in the mountains right outside of Santiago. El Cobre, which means copper in Spanish, was home to Spanish run copper mines in the 16th century. The mines no longer function, but now the pueblito is mainly known for its basilica honoring the patron saint of Cuba, la Virgen Caridad del Cobre, Our Lady of Charity. The stunning basilica was built in 1926. Light yellow in color, it stands impressively at the top of a small hill in El Cobre, surrounded by mountains. The interior is filled with pews facing an ornate statue of la Virgin Caridad dressed in a beautiful golden gown.

On our drive up to the basilica, we purchased sunflowers to offer her and candles to light in her honor. Many Cubans make pilgrimages here from all parts of the island to pay their respects, but not all worship la Virgen Caridad under that name. While Cuba is a traditionally Catholic country as a result of Spanish colonialism, many Cubans practice the religion of Santeria. Santeria is a belief system that combines aspects of Yoruba religion brought to the island by enslaved people, Catholicism, and indigenous religions. To avoid persecution for practicing their traditional beliefs, slaves syncretized their orishas, or deities, with Catholic saints. The syncretism between Catholic saints and Yoruba orishas is prevalent to this day. La Virgen Caridad is worshipped as Oshún, the goddess of love, fertility, and river waters. In Santeria, different orishas are assigned associative colors. Oshún’s color is yellow, an ancient tale stating that when Oshún was poor, she only had one dress that she washed until it turned yellow. For this reason, we offered her yellow sunflowers. Throughout my Afro-Caribbean studies course, we have studied a lot about Oshún and other orishas. It was amazing to see the site of worship and syncretism for la Virgen Caridad/Oshún. Next to the pews, people queued around an altar to leave an offering and light candles with intentions. Along the wall, there was a glass case full of famous offerings to la Caridad/Oshún, including several Olympic medals/entry tags of Cuban athletes.