This 2018 oil painting, Ochun as My Bisabuela Clemencia Falls to Her Death, is a biographical homage to my great-grandmother, Clemencia, who was half Black/half Siboney (indigenous Cuban), and married to a Black Cuban man. She died a casualty of Cuba's War of Independence from Spain. The painting, chronicles the moment of her tragic passing.
The story of my great-grandmother Clemencia’s passing is as follows. Starved, Clemencia escaped a concentration camp in Santiago de Cuba in which she and some of her family members were being detained. In the concentration camps, there prevailed hunger, starvation and disease. Clemencia absconded with her two of her young grandchildren who were also being incarcerated, a boy named Zoilo and his little sister. Zoilo was about nine. He and his sister were my father’s first cousins. With her two young grandchildren in hand, Clemencia set out to locate her son (my father’s father, José Rodriguez Figueroa) and to find nutrition for her starved grandchildren. Had they been caught by the Spaniards, outside of the concentration camp walls, they would have been automatically executed. It was written in the law.
The children accompanied their grandmother into the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where they combed the sweltering jungles in search of their uncle. Her son, my Abuelo José was a Mambi, a soldier in the insurgent Cuban army, who fought guerilla warfare against the Spanish in the jungles ("la manigua”) of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. My Abuelo’s task was war correspondence, recording what he saw in the midst of battle, for publishing in the rebel newspaper ('El Cubano Libre'). Zoilo recounted to my father (his first cousin) that, during their search for my Abuelo, they stopped at La Catedral Del Cobre, which is nestled in the Sierra Maestra foothills. Inside of the cathedral was (and still is) enshrined the statue of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (nicknamed Cachita), Cuba’s patron Saint. In the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, Cachita is syncretized with the Orisha (Yoruba deity) known in Cuba as Ochun (Oshun).
Hanging on to hope, Clemencia, knocked on the doors of the sacred cathedral and begged for sustenance so that she could feed her hungry grandchildren. Offering them no mercy or assistance, the priest turned away the starving trio. Shortly thereafter, weakened by malnutrition, Clemencia stumbled and tumbled down the steep mountainside of the Cobre to her death. Zoilo remembered how his Abuela’s eyes rolled up in her head, as he watched her plummet to her death. He and his sister recovered their Abuela’s tattered, characteristically Siboney sandal which had loosened itself from Clemencia’s foot early in her fall. The children hung the sandal from a tree, so that upon return with an adult, they would be able to identify the site where their grandmother had perished. The sandal was the artifact which was displayed with my great-grandmother’s story in the National Museum of Cuba. I imagine that the tree, from which her grandchildren hung the sandal, was a sacred Ceiba Tree in full bloom."