El Cobre, Cuba: Images, Voices, Histories – UC Santa Cruz

The documents displayed in this section contain key accounts, in some cases arguably “foundational” ones, of interrelated events and themes in El Cobre’s history. With the exception of the last text, they all constitute notable examples of manuscript documents representing “voices” from the past, in this case from the late 17th and 18th centuries. For the most part, they allegedly represent "voices" of enslaved and free subjects of African ancestry that, for differing reasons, are among the hardest to find in colonial archives. The documents speak to the central role that those subjects played in El Cobre's early history. Documents displayed in the Images section represented other "voices" as well. The texts in this section also raise some questions regarding subordinate subjects ability to access the writing machine of the Spanish colonial state and the role of the official archive.

These manuscript texts may look indistinguishable from other documents of the time. And they may sound flat, banal or stilted to the unitiated eye and ear. But once their various layers of incrusted protocol are peeled off and the texts are read closely and attentively, fascinating testimonies and stories begin to emerge (now and then alongside seemingly preposterous ones). Although these texts do not allow us to ascertain how various sectors of society actually “spoke," at least they can suggest how they formulated grievances, claims and aspirations, the discourses and categories utilized, and the identities that were conjured throughout different moments in time. Various subtexts may be found in them too.

All these archival texts come from the Archive of the Indies, the main repository of Spain's colonial records, and a veritable prisonhouse of voices from the past, as it sometimes has been called. The displayed documents were produced after the Spanish Crown confiscated the copper mining jurisdiction of El Cobre in the 1670s and a black pueblo of the former mining slaves--then turned royal slaves--began to emerge in the locality.

The first document points precisely to this transitional juncture. It is a petition of one of the slaves, Captain Juan Moreno, on behalf of the rest reacting to a recent official decision to sell them or transfer them to work in Havana. After withdrawing to the mountains in view of the threat of dispersal the royal slaves drew up this petition attempting to negotiate their stay in the jurisdiction. The text displays some unusual claims and requests. The petition, backed up by the royal slaves' act of fleeing to the mountains, was eventually granted. The latter were able to stay in El Cobre with their families and, more significantly, they became a "pueblo," a significant and highly controversial status particularly in the case of enslaved people. They were also incorporated into the Crown's defense system in the Santiago region as militia troops, as sentinels in the Guaycabon port and as laborers in the fortification projects (see Maps).

The second text is more astonishing, even sensational. It constitutes a notarized witness account of the alleged events regarding the "Apparition" of the Virgin, or rather, of the finding of the Image floating in the waters of Nipe Bay, its trajectory to El Cobre, and its trail of miracles. The notarized text was produced only a few years after the previous petition was negotiated, and roughly during the same period of transition in the jurisdiction and it was the same enslaved subject, Captain Juan Moreno. It is, however, a very different kind, or genre, of document. As a deposition it clearly represents a “voice” responding to questions, in this case posed by ecclesiastical authorities. Yet, paradoxically, the "voice" seems more mediated and formal than in the other documents, and the account more fanciful too. Because it is a notarized witness report, it has become the foundational account of the shrine in El Cobre. What aspects of the current tradition presented in other sections of this website are sanctioned by that account? In what ways has the story and the tradition shifted from the "original" account?

The third document is an excerpt of a very long petition drawn up by another generation of royal slaves from El Cobre more than half a century after Juan Moreno’s petition in 1677. In this sense, the text provides a follow-up account or an update on how that community fared during the elapsed time. It was produced in 1734 during yet another critical moment of conflict when the royal slaves once more fled to the mountains revolting against local authorities' policies and making claims of their own. If read attentively, the excerpts here reveal some unusual memories, stories, and claims. The petition of the parish priest drawn up in 1799 and displayed in the "Texts as Images" section should be read alongside the texts in this section. It adds another half century to the community's history and suggests some new turns as well as continuities.

The last written text displayed in this section leaps ahead two or three centuries and stands apart from the earlier manuscript texts in obvious ways. Yet they all constitute written documents that purport to represent voices, particularly those of subordinate subjects, and as such they may pose analogous questions. What may some of these be? Reyita’s excerpts also illuminate popular beliefs and practices related to the cult to the Virgin of Charity and alternative traditions from the perspective of a practitioner. How does her account speak to issues raised in the “Marian cults and other tradtions” pages in the Images section?

Recorded accounts and interviews, of course, document voices in their oral mode and with cues and meanings that can be encoded in that auditive dimension. These oral texts, however, are also subject to other kinds of constraints, including the more obvious one related to a technology's existence and availability. What kind of voices and accounts would you find particularly useful if they were or could be recorded (or filmed)? Why? Included here, for instance, is an excerpt from a film documentary on Reyita that contains different interviews and voices. How clearly and distinctly is Reyita's voice represented and documented in this medium? What problems of its own may such an audiovisual piece present compared to the book's written account?

Finally, included almost as an afterthought in this section are selections of vocal music that shift the focus to a very different sort of "voice" from the past and the present. What can these various musicalized "voices" and traditions to the Christian Virgin and to the Afro-Cuban Ochun illustrate, document or speak to? They were performed and recorded in the present yet they purport to be of and from the past. Note that they are rendered as performances thereby adding another layer to questions of "voice."






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By Maria de los Reyes Bueno, as told to her daughter Daisy Rubiera Castillo.



Díaz, M.E. in V. Salles-Reese, ed. Rethinking the Past, Retrieving the Future, " Writing Royal Slaves into Colonial Studies (PDF)"

Díaz, M.E. The Virgin, the King and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre

Contents: Chaps. 3, 4, 5, 10.

Iconography and Visual Culture Section:

Print of Our Lady of Charity with Apparition story in medallions, 19th c.

The Sanctuary and Shrine in El Cobre Section:

The modern sanctuary (and its antecedents)

The "original" Image

Ex-votos and miracles


"Los bronces encendidos," Esteban Salas, Santiago de Cuba, late 18th c. Cuban baroque cantata, Exaudi Choir of Cuba (AIFF)

"Rezo a Ochún": Afro-Cuban, Conjunto Folklórico Cubano (AIFF)



Website Sections Related to Reyita's testimony:

Marian Devotions and Related Traditions

Saint Lazarus

Reyita Documentary:

Reyita Trailer (YouTube)


* The following questions apply to all documents: Who "speaks"? Who writes? Are both the same person? Can their voices be distinguished? How is the "speaker" identified? To whom is the text directed? When and where was it produced? What is its purpose? Are there explicit or implicit grievances and claims?

* How would you "re-cast" these texts into a more colloquial language, one closer to that of actual speech or a testimony or an interview? Is meaning changed or lost in the process of changing tone and registers? And in writing?

* What categories does Juan Moreno use to present himself and his fellows in the petition of 1677? What claims and requests are made and to whom? Why would they be considered unusual and which one seems the most unusual to you? Can this text be considered a "foundational" text? Why?

* Who is relating the story about the finding of the Virgin's "miraculous" image (or its apparition) many decades after the alleged event took place? How reliable is this account? What are the main points of this story? What does it try to establish? How has the story changed in subsequent iterations and different media? How much could the story have changed when actually recorded given the time elapsed since the events allegedly took place? Do you know of other similar Virgin “apparition” stories elsewhere? How could the notarized recording of this story be related to Juan Moreno’s previous petition? What other questions come to mind as you read this text?

* Who speaks in the petition to Captain General Horcacitas? What are they requesting now? What are the grievances and aspirations presented at this point in time? Are there any unusual stories in this account? Does anything make you pause? What does a comparison with Moreno's previous petition and the parish priest’s petition of 1799 displayed in the Images section reveal?

* Overall, what can be gleaned from this set of documents about the early history of El Cobre? Are there any traces or memory of this past to be found in El Cobre's present?