Officially the Republic of Haiti, this small country is a Creole and French-speaking Caribbean country. Along with the Dominican Republic, it occupies the island of Hispaniola, in the Greater Antillean archipelago.
Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean under the protection of Our Lady, landing on the island on October 12, 1492. Columbus was dazzled by the country's beauty and astonished by its resemblance with Spain. He gave the island its Spanish name, which was later Latinized to Hispaniola. When he returned, two years later, he had a first Mass celebrated there on January 6, 1494.
The Island of Hispaniola
Hispaniola was one of the first European colonies in the Americas, and from it evangelization and Marian devotion sprang forth. The primary icon of the New World Christianity, was then and still is to the present day, Our Lady. The Blessed Virgin Mary has been honored for her many roles: she is patronness, protectress, advocate and queen to most Haitians, rich and poor alike. The story of Haiti's epic class struggle can be read in the history of its cult of the Virgin Mary.
Indeed, the sincerity of the Haitians' devotion is unquestionable, and certain Haitian expressions of devotion to Mary are especially beautiful and heart-warming. From the 1882 smallpox epidemic to the consecration of the nation in 1942 during the Second World War, a stronger bond has been forged between the people of Haiti and the Virgin Mary, comma under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Our Lady of Class Struggle
Haiti now boasts five cathedrals, four of which are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and originate more or less directly back to the time of the early European presence on the island. Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent Black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.
Pursuing class struggles could imply that religion may well be its source, with as much or more determining force than the well-known economic and political contentions. Consider this comparison between two Haitians, one impoverished, the other from a family of great wealth, both observed at the same Marian feast. In Haiti during the period of the Cidras coup, poor individuals tended to pray to the Virgin of Perpetual Help for the return of President Aristide. Some of them saw the hand of the Virgin in the visit of Pope John Paul II with his admonishment to Duvalier's government to make changes in favor of the destitute population. They were sure the Virgin of Perpetual Help would intervene again to save them. In barbed contrast, General Cidras, a Protestant, exhorted the people while standing on a balcony over the unfurled banner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Catholics of the elite were sure that the Virgin would save the country from democracy and show the poor how much better off they were under Duvalier. Our Lady would teach the poor "not to hate the bourgeois" and "bring them peace and calm." Moreover, extraordinary apparitions of the Virgin were claimed by a Haitian nun, who stated that the Virgin warned in visions of the possibility of the American (US) intervention to return Aristide, and gave instructions to the elite to fast and pray diligently against this eventuality.
Our Lady takes on the task of making sense of the conditions of the Haitian religious field, which have been complex, subtle, and frequently contradictory throughout Haitian history. The emblematic use of Jesus Christ as a political, economic, and religious figure is part of everyday life. Devotional depictions of the Virgin are invariably coupled with voodoo images. Marian visual images in Haiti are nearly without exception of European Renaissance or late Byzantine inspiration. The Byzantine style of the Madonna and Child, depicted as Our Lady of Class Struggle, by the Haitian artist Ismail, was undoubtedly the result of the artist's developing his signature style. It is intriguing to speculate as to why a people of such great pride and self-awareness, whether poor or elite, have not developed more distinctively "Haitian" visual images of Mary.
The woman who invokes the assistance of Mary to keep a disorderly and unpredictable democracy at bay projects her own sense of caring concern. The woman of Grand Bassin who lifts her hands to shout at Our Lady of Lourdes impels the Mother of Healing to bring a suffering family out of the destitution imposed by the wealthy. Both women are tautly inclined by their own motives toward clemency, yet each expects boundless grace from Mary. Our Lady of Class Struggle broaches a conversational opening about politics, religion, and the uses of imagery in Haiti, all within the crucially important frame of class struggle reality.
May Haitians of various points of view continue the discussion. Our Lady of Class Struggle offers a model for future efforts to study, discover and discuss the social structures, the class struggles and the religious fervor that characterize Haiti.
See: OUR LADY OF CLASS STRUGGLE, By Terry Rey. Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, Inc. 1999.