Cementerio Colón is a vast green expanse in El Vedado, Havana’s leafy seaside district. According to Wikipedia, “Colon Cemetery is one of the most important historical cemeteries in the world and is generally held to be the most important in Latin America in historical and architectural terms, second only to La Recoleta in Buenos Aires", Evita’s final resting place.
An impressive stone entrance a short block from Vedado’s main avenue admits the visitor into this sprawling necropolis of 19th century mausoleums. The cemetery’ street grid defines “the rank and social status of the dead with distinct areas, almost city suburbs: priests, soldiers, brotherhoods, the wealthy, the poor, infants, victims of epidemics, pagans and the condemned.” While historical, the cemetery is still used to this very day, and on our most recent visit we came upon a large funeral in the cemetery chapel.
On any regular day locals visiting family graves mingle with foreign tourists and with Cuban pilgrims who flock to the tomb of Señora Amelia Goyri, better known as La Milagrosa, a high society woman who was buried here in 1903 together with her infant after dying in childbirth.
For many years after her death, her grieving husband visited the grave several times a day, always knocking with one of four iron rings on the burial vault and walking away backwards so he could see her for as long as possible. According to the legend, Amelia was exhumed years after her burial and her body was discovered to be uncorrupted, a sign Roman Catholics have traditionally interpreted as evidence of sanctity. Moreover, the baby that had been laid at her feet was nestled in her arms. Her husband commissioned a marble statue of his beloved wife leaning against a cross and holding the infant that died with her. Eventually, as the story spread, the lone visitor to Amelia's grave was joined by a steady stream of pilgrims who saw her as someone who could intercede for them before God. While the myth surrounding La Milagrosa especially attracts women trying to conceive or praying for a safe pregnancy, she has become the focus of any Cuban hoping for a miracle.
For a pilgrim who visits La Milagrosa, there are precise steps that must be rigorously followed. In keeping with tradition, pilgrims circle the tomb, knock with the iron ring on the vault several times, and walk away backwards when they leave. Each person patiently waits a turn while another goes through the ritual. Almost every visitor places flowers on the tomb, and often more personalized gifts such as family photos or hand-written notes asking for help or giving thanks for a wish granted.
We have watched this ritual many times while visiting Havana and its spectacular cemetery. It transcends politics. It is a form of Latin American Folk Catholicism that creates a home-made saint and miracle maker where the need arises.
We turn away from La Milagrosa, and minutes later are back among the throngs of people on Calle 23, Vedado’s main thoroughfare, who line up for buses that never seem to come, run errands, or chat in sidewalk cafes.