HAVANA -- Amid the ornate tombs and mausoleums of the Necropolis Cristobal Colon, Havana's city of the dead, lies the grave of La Milagrosa, a turn-of-the-century woman who died in childbirth, was mourned by a heartbroken husband and is revered by Cubans as their unofficial saint.
La Milagrosa, Spanish for "The Miraculous One," was in life Amelia Goyri de Adot, who died May 3, 1901, while giving birth to a son. The infant, who also died, was buried in the same coffin as his mother, lying at her feet.
According to the story often told among those who visit her grave at the massive cemetery just blocks from the Plaza of the Revolution, her husband, Eduardo Adot y Lopez, was so grief-stricken that he would visit the grave as many as three times a day. He would leave flowers and knock against the cement burial vault with one of the four brass rings attached to the lid, as if to let her know he was there.
As he left, he would always back away from her grave, so as to gaze on it 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 Amelia 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 a distant and unapproachable God.
The popularly acclaimed shrine to La Milagrosa is perhaps the most amazing aspect of this necropolis, founded in 1868, that is filled with the interesting and unusual. It is laid out in a grid with the same street and avenue names of the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, where many of the cemetery's present residents once resided in life. The cemetery, named after Christopher Columbus, is notable for its ostentatious graves, with acres of angels, saints, cherubs, urns, crosses and statues of faithful dogs dotting the landscape.
Havana's notables are buried here. Just beyond the entrance is an obelisk marking the tomb of Gen. Maximo Gomez, a hero of the Cuban War for Independence. One of the more popular graves features a stone domino, erected by the guilt-ridden children whose mother got so excited during a game they were playing that she had a stroke and died. On the grave of world chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca sits a large marble pawn.
During the 1951 funeral for Cuba's Orthodox party leader, who shot himself in the stomach during a live radio broadcast, a young University of Havana student named Fidel Castro jumped on the man's grave and delivered an impassioned speech denouncing the corruption of the government. Years later, during the funeral held outside the cemetery gates for seven Cuban airmen killed in an air raid before the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro for the first time proclaimed the socialist nature of the revolution.
Seven days a week, hearses line up at the chapel at the center of the cemetery for a quick five-minute service before departing for burial. Those who want their loved ones interred at the cemetery can buy a crypt for two years. But space is limited and after the allotted time, the bones are removed, put in a box and placed on a shelf in an open-air, multistory cement-block building.
But it is the tomb of La Milagrosa that attracts the tour buses and the ordinary Cubans who travel from nearby neighborhoods and from across the country, fervently believing that Amelia will grant what they ask.
"Everybody comes here, whenever we've got a problem," says Gloria Maria Hernandez, who came from her home in Granma, a province in the eastern end of the island, hundreds of miles from Havana. "There's a belief that she helps us. [To come here] is a custom in our country."
For a pilgrim who visits La Milagrosa, there is a precise ritual that must be rigorously followed. Those approaching the tomb, surrounded with a wrought-iron fence, pass on the right side and rap the brass ring several times against its cement lid, just as Amelia's heartbroken husband did, to summon her.
Gazing at the face of her statue and placing a bouquet of flowers on top of the grave, they circle, stopping to touch the hem of Amelia's skirt and the leg of her infant son. They circle to the other side, pause once more to rap with the brass rings, and walk backward to continue gazing at the statue, as her husband did.
Each person patiently waits a turn while another goes through the ritual.
Many who visit are mothers like Florentina Abrego of Havana, who came to ask that La Milagrosa grant her daughter a safe and healthy pregnancy. "Until now, she's granted me everything I ask," she said. "Look at all the miracles here. Many miracles. Many, many miracles."