"La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre" | CC 3.0 (Cropped /  resized to 740x493 px)

“La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre” | CC 3.0 (Cropped / resized to 740×493 px)

When my second daughter was born, I was not prepared for how her big sister, age three-and-a-half, would react.  She had watched with great interest as my belly grew and she knew—though she didn’t really understand—that a baby would somehow be coming out of there. 

When the baby was born, my three-year-old loved the baby, though that was no surprise; I knew she would be my helper and cheerleader because that’s her nature.  I wasn’t surprised that she had big plans for playing with the baby and I nodded when I saw her pick out clothes every morning and afternoon.

The real surprise came with the nicknaming.

My oldest, who had always been verbose, immediately began coming up with pet names for her sister, and some of them have stuck.  The “baby” will probably enter high school answering to “Noonie.”  We discouraged some of them as inappropriate—though accurate, such as “Poop-poops”—but couldn’t help joining in ourselves.

I realized, in the midst of watching this, that we have a family habit of nicknames.  A favorite aunt is “Aunt Bug” or “Pitty,” while her husband is Uncle “Dee.”  When my oldest was just learning to talk, “Padre,” for our parish priest, was translated as “Wobby.”

I’ve found myself adopting my daughter’s nicknames for my own use.  I still call him our priest “Wobby” every so often, especially when I’m feeling particularly fond of him.  He is close to my heart, after all, and has walked with me down the path to conversion to Catholicism and conversion within Catholicism, even as he’s been a family friend and an employer and, most recently, my younger daughter’s godfather.

It seems only natural to call my mother-in-law “Nanny,” just as my girls do, because of the love that flows from the name as I say it.  It was supposed to be “Grammy,” but I love it more for the modification a small mouth made to it.  She’s done so much for me, been such a loving example, prayed and encouraged and shared…how can I not refer to her intimately and with love?

A few years ago, my husband nicknamed a niece “Mabel,” and we now call her that.  We can’t help it any more than we can help any of the other name modifications in our life.  It just fits.

When I hear my children calling me “Momalee” or “Gobbgees” or some other strange-sounding soubriquet, I smile.

After all, you only nickname those you love.

And so, when I read about “Cachita,” Cubans’ nickname for Our Lady of Charity, I felt tears stinging my eyes.  Once again, the most famous mother, the Virgin Mary, inspired an entire people to nickname her.  Cachita is a familiar nickname, one that comes from the heart, the sort of nickname you would give a favorite aunt or a dear grandmother.

She’s more formally known as Our Lady of Charity or La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.  Sometime between 1604 and 1612, depending on the source, three young boys headed across Cuba to the Bay of Nipe for salt.  They were native Indian brothers Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos and their slave, Juan Morena.  History remembers them as “the three Juans.”

Salt was an important part of life in the early seventeenth century, and these three needed to get it for meat preservation at the local slaughter house, which supplied residents and workers at the Spanish copper mines near Santiago.

While they were out on the bay, a storm took them by surprise and terrified them.  Probably inspired by the medal of Mary that Juan Morena was wearing, the three began to pray for her protection in the midst of the waves and lightening.  I wonder if they thought it would work.  It always sounds good, to say that you prayed for Mary to help you, but did they really believe it at the time?

Whether they did or not, Mary must have had a hand in the sudden calm and the disappearance of the storm.  How else can you explain the object mysteriously floating in the water some way from their boat or their discovering that it was a dry statue of Mary?  The statue was attached to a board reading “You Soy la Virgen de la Caridad,” or “I am the Virgin of Charity.”  She was holding Jesus with her right arm and a gold cross in her left hand, dressed in a real cloth gown and robe and with real hair.  Her skin was that of a culturally-mixed woman, either a mestiza or a mulatta.

In the sixteen-inch statue, Mary’s feet are on a moon, with silver clouds and three angels spreading golden wings.  Jesus, resting on Mary’s arm, holds a gold globe and raises his other hand in blessing.  A heavy cloak covers the entire statue.

Many devoted followers have changed the statue’s original white clothing so that Mary is wearing a white robe and a blue veil and Jesus is in red, which are also the colors of the Cuban flag.  She has also been depicted in a heavy white dress with gold threads with a Cuban national shield embroidered on the skirt.

In the centuries since her appearance on the Bay of Nipe, the Virgin of Charity has come to represent the heart of Cuban Catholic devotion.  Wherever refugees have settled, and despite persecution from communists on the island, Cachita’s followers remain loyal.  She’s a uniting factor in a people who are oppressed in their home country and spread around the globe as refugees.

The Child Jesus holds the globe in his hand, even as Mary holds Him.  The statue speaks to me of the love she must have for each one of us.  Maybe our oppression doesn’t involve Communists, but sin can so very easily weigh us down with its promise of an easy answer, a quick recovery, a fast escape.

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