Sunday, June 29, 2008

For exiles, Miami's 'Ermita' seawall a spiritual link to Cuba

For exiles, Miami's 'Ermita' seawall a spiritual link to Cuba
Posted on Sun, Jun. 29, 2008

When the light is just so, you can stand at the seawall behind the
shrine to Our Lady of Charity in Coconut Grove and see clear to the
bottom of Biscayne Bay.

There's a blanket of coins down there, every glint of copper and nickel
an appeal to the fates. Hang around on a busy afternoon, and you'll hear
the plop-plop-plop of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters hitting the
water in syncopated prayer. There is a scattering of dollar bills, too,
and you wonder whether someone desperate enough might dive in.

Staring into the shallow water is meditation. This breezy spot behind
the shrine, la Ermita de la Caridad, named for the patron saint of Cuba,
is almost as poignant as the building itself, which resembles a 90-foot,
mantle-covered Virgin watching over the sea.

El muro, the wall, is Miami's place of reflection. A site of constant
rituals. Many people come here to cast off the thing that's bringing
them down: a boyfriend's promise ring, a cane after an injury, the keys
to a lost dream house.

The seawall's salving energy is what drew Carmen Penalva when she left a
Miami-Dade courtroom recently and headed straight to la Ermita. Then she
sat at the wall, head in hand, praying for her 15-year-old son.

''He was arrested for stealing, but he'll probably only get community
service,'' says Penalva, a manager for an export company. ``I wanted the
judge to be tougher. My son is cutting himself. He's depressed. He gets
violent. And I'm a single parent who can't really handle him anymore.''

Penalva prayed to la Caridad and tossed seven pennies into the bay in
the name of Cuba's Virgin of Regla.

''She is a mother. I asked for help with my son,'' she says. Penalva had
scattered her father's ashes here 16 years ago. ``We did it when nobody
was looking. This is the closest place to Cuba. This place represents a
little bit of all of us.''

At the northern end of the seawall, where historic Vizcaya serves as a
foreground to the glossy towers of Brickell Avenue, a stone Eleggua (the
Santeria god known as the opener of paths) with cowrie-shell eyes gazes
up toward the water's surface. At the southern end, near Mercy Hospital,
someone's Santeria necklaces cling to a rock, a school of little silver
fish brushing by the yellow and amber beads for Ochun, the blue and
white ones for Yemaya.

Why would a believer part with his protective Eleggua or his sacred
necklaces? Perhaps he died, and a loved one cast the artifacts away. Or
did the believer fling them in some rage against the gods? And those
white rose petals floating toward you -- were they plucked one by one
and tossed into the bay by someone immersed in grief? Or moved by gratitude?


Cuban exiles have been drawn to this spot for decades. They stand here,
straining to see beyond the horizon to the lost homeland. Some give
thanks. Others come in desperation to implore la Caridad to deliver
loved ones lost at sea. The shrine is the first place that many come to
after they arrive from the island, in fulfillment of their promise to la
Virgen when they begged her to let them reach freedom. The seawall, a
few steps away, is their second stop. Sometimes, as with Penalva's
father, it also becomes their last.

Many exiles want this to be their final resting place, often because
they cannot be buried in Cuba and have to settle for the next best
thing. Or because their families don't have the money for a Catholic
burial, and taking the ashes to the place that represents so much Cuban
spirituality and patriotism seems like the most dignified alternative,
no matter what the church says.

''It is Miami's wall of lament,'' says Monsignor Agustin Roman, Cuban
Miami's longtime spiritual leader, who ran a fundraising campaign in the
1960s to build la Ermita. ``We know people throw ashes back there. But
it is not respectful to the departed. If you throw them to the sea, they
become fish food. We have a cemetery niche where we will take someone's
ashes if the family cannot afford proper burial.''

There are signs posted along the water's edge:

``No swimming, fishing, alcoholic beverages, animals, feeding of the
pigeons, scattering of human ashes before first seeing a priest for

Mostly, people follow the rules. Except. . . .

''I'm Catholic. And I know the Catholic church forbids the scattering of
ashes. But what better place is there to rest than right here outside
the Ermita? My daughter and I have agreed that whoever goes first, the
other will bring her ashes here,'' Alejandra Alvarez, 77, says on one of
her regular visits. ``I have been coming here to pray since I came from
Cuba 40 years ago. It is the most peaceful place I know.''

Lee Gavilla, a home-healthcare nurse who lives in Pembroke Pines,
scattered her mother's ashes here in 2001.

''We knew we weren't supposed to, but it's what my mother wanted. It was
always her safe haven,'' Gavilla says. ``We went in the middle of the
week, not on the weekend, so that there weren't a lot of people around
to see us. There were about six of us. We said a few words, shed a few
tears. I know several people who have done the same thing. There is no
other place that is more authentically Cuban. And no matter how stressed
you are, if you go sit there in that breeze, everything feels a little


As Catholic as the shrine is, many of the devoted who come here are also
followers of Santeria. In the religious syncretism of Cuba, la Caridad,
an apparition of the Virgin Mary, is also called Ochun, one of the
orishas, the Santeria gods.

''A sanctuary is precisely a place where the Catholic religion makes
contact with el pueblo,'' Roman says. ``We know there are people who
perform rituals out there by the seawall. But they do it very
respectfully. They don't let us see it.''

Shrine priests and nuns also perhaps have looked the other way when
folks have scribbled their prayers for a rafter's safe arrival on the
concrete. And when they have written out makeshift epitaphs. The words
eventually wash away, or they're erased by staff. But some messages survive:

``EPD (RIP) Mami. We miss you. Your children, grandchildren and

``Alexis Ramirez, 1-20-67, 2-20-08. Your memory will reside permanently
in our hearts. . . . Your wife and children.''

No one knows when people started tossing coins into the bay here. For
years, every penny the exile community could scrape together went to the
shrine's building fund.

''Every day, I dragged sacks of coins to the bank,'' says Roman, who, at
80, is still active but retired from official duties and still lives in
archdiocesan housing near the shrine. ``The community began working to
build a house for the Virgin before they had houses themselves. They
began pledging their first hour of work -- in the factories, picking
tomatoes, washing dishes. Maybe it was $1.25. Or $1.50. That's why you
won't see any plaques here. There was no one family that wrote a big
check. This sanctuary was paid for penny by penny. Which is why you can
truly say that it belongs to el pueblo.''

Costing almost $500,000 and dedicated in 1973, the shrine was situated
so that a priest celebrating Mass would have his back to Cuba while the
worshipers faced the island.

Legend says that in the early 1600s, the Virgin appeared before three
storm-tossed fisherman in the Bay of Nipe on Cuba's northeast coast --
and so in 1966, when Miami's Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll decided to
give some land to the surging Cuban community for a shrine, he knew it
had to be on the water.

''It was important for the shrine to be on the same sea that bathes the
island of Cuba,'' says Roman, one of 131 priests ousted from the island
in 1961 aboard a ship that sailed to Spain.

Roman was forced off the island just a few days after the exile
community participated in Miami's first Mass for Our Lady of Charity.
Archbishop Carroll had expected 5,000, maybe even 10,000 people, to show
up at Bobby Maduro Stadium that Sept. 8, the day of Our Lady of Charity.
But 30,000 turned out.

Just hours before the Mass, the statue that now stands at la Ermita's
altar in a bejeweled cape had been smuggled to Miami from Cuba by Luis
Gutierrez Areces.

Gutierrez Areces had been with the revolution, but he turned against it
when the direction in which Fidel Castro was taking the island became clear.

His life in jeopardy, Gutierrez Areces asked for asylum at the
Panamanian Embassy. He had been there for a month, and had received word
from Castro's government ``that I would rot in the embassy because they
would never let me leave the island alive.''

Then, on Sept. 7, Gutierrez Areces was suddenly told he would be allowed
to leave Cuba the following day.

'A woman at the embassy asked me if I would do her a favor and carry a
suitcase to Miami. She told me what was in it. I had always been devoted
to la Caridad. I said, `It's not a favor.' I will never know how I
received that permit at the last minute to leave Cuba. It had to be la
Virgencita de la Caridad,'' says the 71-year-old Medley businessman.

Gutierrez Areces says no one inspected the suitcase at the airport in
Cuba. He never looked inside, either. When he touched down at Opa-locka
Airport, he expected to give the suitcase to a couple of waiting nuns.
They never showed up. So he took the suitcase to Miami Beach's St.
Patrick Church, where he was headed anyway for the baptism of his
daughter, born a month earlier in Miami.

He handed off the suitcase at the church, and the statue was rushed to
the stadium, just in time for that first Mass.

''She got me out of Cuba. And she has always watched over me,'' says
Gutierrez Areces, who visits la Ermita every Saturday. ``They might have
killed me if they knew I was smuggling the Virgin out of Cuba. But
anyone would have done it. She is the mother of all Cubans.''

She is an exile, too, many devotees say of the statue, which had resided
at a church in Guanabo and is a replica of the Caridad that still stands
in the famous sanctuary in El Cobre.

Which is why the homeless man who agreed to steal the Miami statue for a
case of beer in 1994 had no chance. He managed to grab the Virgin, 15
inches tall, but was chased and wrestled to the ground by a shrine
regular whose prayers he had interrupted.

''We never knew who was behind that attempted theft,'' Roman says. ``But
there are always people inside and outside this shrine. They took the
Virgin out of that man's hands. I visited him in jail. He was a poor
homeless man who had no idea what he was doing.''


The Ermita falls under the Archdiocese of Miami's auspices but is not an
official church with a parish. No weddings are held there, but there are
regular Masses. The sanctuary seats 500.

''Everybody was in a hurry to build it because they expected that they
were all going back to Cuba soon, and they wanted to leave the shrine to
la Caridad behind as a symbol of the time they were here,'' Roman says.

``I wanted to wait, raise more money and build something bigger. But I
couldn't convince anyone. To suggest that we might be here longer was to

Today, half a million people -- many of them not Cuban -- visit the
shrine each year. But to the exile community, the sanctuary and its
seawall stand as a testament to all those who never went back, who
continue to live in a Cuba of the mind.

''I come here almost every day,'' says a frail Jose Luis Barcells, 79,
who is accompanied by Beatrice Mills, his nurse. ``The seawall is a very
peaceful place.''

When did he leave Cuba?

''I never left. I have an apartment here. But I still live in Cuba,'' he

Mills shrugs. Actually, he lives in a house. And he hasn't seen Cuba in
ages. His memory fails sometimes, she says. But anyone at the seawall
would understand.

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