At the Festival in February 2012 I had the pleasure of once again meeting up with Hirochi Robaina at his family’s tobacco plantation in Pinar del Rio. Hirochi took time out to show us around his facilities, which includes what appeares to be a religious shrine. Religious shrines are a common thing in Ireland, but not so much in a socialist state, so I asked about it. The plantation tour was organized by a good friend, and his story about the shrine was intriguing, so much so that I asked if he would document it so that I could share it online. He was delighted to oblige.
Nuestra Señora de las Nieves: The Patron Saint of the tobacco growers
by Punchinello February 2012
I remember the day in 2008 when I was presented with a small religious stamp, unique due in most part to the two big tobacco plants standing at both sides of the image of a Saint. I was also given a pamphlet with information about the Patron Saint Nuestra Señora de las Nieves: The Patron Saint of the tobacco growers. I had never heard of her before.
The story began over 70 years ago in the city of Mantua, located northwest of the Pinar del Rio province. As of today, Mantua is only a mere 914 square km area with a population of 26 060 inhabitants. The village of Mantua, which was originally known by the name of Guane del Norte as far back as the beginning of the XVII Century, was founded by the riverbanks of the Mantua river.
According to Cuban researcher Enrique Pertierra Sierra, the village of Mantua was founded north of the river between 1610 and 1615. His investigations were based on information collected from old books and also from verbal stories passed down from generation to generation all of which were linked back to the wreckage of the Italian ship Mantova. Commanded by Captain Antonello Fiorenzano, it had been exploring the north coast of Surgidero de los Arroyos, was trying to reach the shore in Punta del Rio, before becoming ship wrecked. The Mantova was named after her the city where she was built, Mantova in Italy. Furthermore, in this city the Patron Saint Nuestra Señora de las Nieves is worshiped by many devotees. In fact, the sailors brought a statue of the saint on board that was taken to the shore once all of them were safe from the irate sea. They found a few inhabitants there so they decided to establish a village and they carried the statue and celebrated a rite to pay reverence and respect to the Saint who saved their life during the wreckage. The village took its name from the city of Mantova. Mantua is the corrupted form of the Italian word Mantova.
A few months later they were committed to building a rustic Parish for the village and all those Italians were settled there. The Parish we know today was erected in 1765 and still exist as the home to the Patron Saint. The Old Italian motifs of the façade also lend weight to the story told by our forerunners. The Patron Saint is also revered in the Church of All Saints in the city of Mantova, Italy. At the end of the XIX Century, the city of Mantua was known for hosting one of the last great battles during the Independence War against the Spaniards. That occurred in January 22nd, 1896 and the Cuban forces were led by General Antonio Maceo, who made history on the battlefields along the Island.
During the 1940’s, tobacco dealers representing big companies in charge of leaf processing had kept tobacco prices low for over a decade. Growers were afraid, as prices continued to fall. The situation became a major crisis in April 1947 when the Mantua growers refused to sell their harvest and instead gathered at the Parish to pray to the Patron Saint Nuestra Señora de las Nieves for her support of their actions. In August 5th, they again gathered in front of the Parish to pray the Saint. Fortunately, at the end of the month prices went higher and the whole crop was sold. Growers believed their prayers had been answered by the Saint and the word spread quickly of the miraculous events.
That then led the growers to organize a Tedeum in Thanksgiving Day to pay tribute to the Saint. In 1948, a plea was sent to the National Catholic Church to bestow the saint as Patron Saint of Mantua. That plea was not fulfilled but that didn’t matter that much, as she was already known as the Saint of Tobacco growers to those that mattered. As the years went by, growers paid repeated visits to the Parish to plea for a better harvest, and pray for keeping them away from hurricanes, lightning strikes, pests and droughts.
In April 10th 1947 a medal was made to commemorate the plea sent to Father Evelio Diaz, Bishop of Pinar del Rio. The fame gained after this event spread the legend of the Saint to other cities in Pinar del Rio (Las Cuevas, San Juan y Martinez) and to Havana (Arroyo Arenas). Devotees now flock to Mantua every year and there’s a statue of such Patron Saint Nuestra Sra. de las Nieves in the Parish San Francis de Paula in La Vibora district in Havana due to the devotion of the Priest Alfredo Llaguno Canals, born in Mantua who usually offered his service in Havana.
Renowned grower Don Alejandro Robaina was a fervent admirer of the Saint. He used to make repeated visits to Mantua to greet the minister who became one of his best friends. Very often he presented offerings at the beginning of every harvest and prayed for calm weather and health. The Patron Saint is still worshiped in Mantua and other cities and villages in Pinar del Rio.
All the information gathered here is mostly based on the research done in 2007 by recently late Sr. Luis Fuentes Dominguez and Sr. Ramon Iglesias Centeno, photographer.
Only 50 copies were printed containing original pictures of the medal and the Patron Saint and the Parish in the municipality of Mantua.
Also collaborated in this research the following individuals:
- Sr. Valerio Cornale, collector of tobacco memorabilia
- Sr. Fidel Valdes Roca, collector
- Sr. Enrique Pertierra, researcher and writer.
- Sra. Laura Gonzalez Otero, Secretary of the Parish San Francis de Paula
- Sr. Jesus Lopez Lopez, Priest. Parish Jesus Nazareno in Arroyo Arenas.
- Sr. Miguel Cabrera Torres, Collector and Owner of the Medal of the Patron Saint.