El muro, the wall, is Miami's place of reflection. A site of constant rituals. Many people come here to cast off the thing that's bringing them down: a boyfriend's promise ring, a cane after an injury, the keys to a lost dream house. The seawall's salving energy is what drew Carmen Penalva when she left a Miami-Dade courtroom recently and headed straight to la Ermita. Then she sat at the wall, head in hand, praying for her 15-year-old son. ''He was arrested for stealing, but he'll probably only get community service,'' says Penalva, a manager for an export company. ``I wanted the judge to be tougher. My son is cutting himself. He's depressed. He gets violent. And I'm a single parent who can't really handle him anymore.'' Penalva prayed to la Caridad and tossed seven pennies into the bay in the name of Cuba's Virgin of Regla. ''She is a mother. I asked for help with my son,'' she says. Penalva had scattered her father's ashes here 16 years ago. ``We did it when nobody was looking. This is the closest place to Cuba. This place represents a little bit of all of us.''
At the northern end of the seawall, where historic Vizcaya serves as a foreground to the glossy towers of Brickell Avenue, a stone Eleggua (the Santeria god known as the opener of paths) with cowrie-shell eyes gazes up toward the water's surface. At the southern end, near Mercy Hospital, someone's Santeria necklaces cling to a rock, a school of little silver fish brushing by the yellow and amber beads for Ochun, the blue and white ones for Yemaya. Why would a believer part with his protective Eleggua or his sacred necklaces? Perhaps he died, and a loved one cast the artifacts away. Or did the believer fling them in some rage against the gods? And those white rose petals floating toward you -- were they plucked one by one and tossed into the bay by someone immersed in grief? Or moved by gratitude?
A `WALL OF LAMENT'
Cuban exiles have been drawn to this spot for decades. They stand here, straining to see beyond the horizon to the lost homeland. Some give thanks. Others come in desperation to implore la Caridad to deliver loved ones lost at sea. The shrine is the first place that many come to after they arrive from the island, in fulfillment of their promise to la Virgen when they begged her to let them reach freedom. The seawall, a few steps away, is their second stop. Sometimes, as with Penalva's father, it also becomes their last. Many exiles want this to be their final resting place, often because they cannot be buried in Cuba and have to settle for the next best thing. Or because their families don't have the money for a Catholic burial, and taking the ashes to the place that represents so much Cuban spirituality and patriotism seems like the most dignified alternative, no matter what the church says.
''It is Miami's wall of lament,'' says Monsignor Agustin Roman, Cuban Miami's longtime spiritual leader, who ran a fundraising campaign in the 1960s to build la Ermita. ``We know people throw ashes back there. But it is not respectful to the departed. If you throw them to the sea, they become fish food. We have a cemetery niche where we will take someone's ashes if the family cannot afford proper burial.'' There are signs posted along the water's edge: "No swimming, fishing, alcoholic beverages, animals, feeding of the pigeons, scattering of human ashes before first seeing a priest for orientation.'' Mostly, people follow the rules. Except. . . .
''I'm Catholic. And I know the Catholic church forbids the scattering of ashes. But what better place is there to rest than right here outside the Ermita? My daughter and I have agreed that whoever goes first, the other will bring her ashes here,'' Alejandra Alvarez, 77, says on one of her regular visits. "I have been coming here to pray since I came from Cuba 40 years ago. It is the most peaceful place I know.'' Lee Gavilla, a home-healthcare nurse who lives in Pembroke Pines, scattered her mother's ashes here in 2001. ''We knew we weren't supposed to, but it's what my mother wanted. It was always her safe haven,'' Gavilla says. ``We went in the middle of the week, not on the weekend, so that there weren't a lot of people around to see us. There were about six of us. We said a few words, shed a few tears. I know several people who have done the same thing. There is no other place that is more authentically Cuban. And no matter how stressed you are, if you go sit there in that breeze, everything feels a little better.''
As Catholic as the shrine is, many of the devoted who come here are also followers of Santeria. In the religious syncretism of Cuba, la Caridad, an apparition of the Virgin Mary, is also called Ochun, one of the orishas, the Santeria gods. ''A sanctuary is precisely a place where the Catholic religion makes contact with el pueblo,'' Roman says. ``We know there are people who perform rituals out there by the seawall. But they do it very respectfully. They don't let us see it.'' Shrine priests and nuns also perhaps have looked the other way when folks have scribbled their prayers for a rafter's safe arrival on the concrete. And when they have written out makeshift epitaphs. The words eventually wash away, or they're erased by staff. But some messages survive:
"EPD (RIP) Mami. We miss you. Your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.''
"Alexis Ramirez, 1-20-67, 2-20-08. Your memory will reside permanently in our hearts. . . . Your wife and children.''
No one knows when people started tossing coins into the bay here. For years, every penny the exile community could scrape together went to the shrine's building fund. ''Every day, I dragged sacks of coins to the bank,'' says Roman, who, at 80, is still active but retired from official duties and still lives in archdiocesan housing near the shrine. "The community began working to build a house for the Virgin before they had houses themselves. They began pledging their first hour of work -- in the factories, picking tomatoes, washing dishes. Maybe it was $1.25. Or $1.50. That's why you won't see any plaques here. There was no one family that wrote a big check. This sanctuary was paid for penny by penny. Which is why you can truly say that it belongs to el pueblo.'' Costing almost $500,000 and dedicated in 1973, the shrine was situated so that a priest celebrating Mass would have his back to Cuba while the worshipers faced the island.
Legend says that in the early 1600s, the Virgin appeared before three storm-tossed fisherman in the Bay of Nipe on Cuba's northeast coast -- and so in 1966, when Miami's Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll decided to give some land to the surging Cuban community for a shrine, he knew it had to be on the water. ''It was important for the shrine to be on the same sea that bathes the island of Cuba,'' says Roman, one of 131 priests ousted from the island in 1961 aboard a ship that sailed to Spain. Roman was forced off the island just a few days after the exile community participated in Miami's first Mass for Our Lady of Charity. Archbishop Carroll had expected 5,000, maybe even 10,000 people, to show up at Bobby Maduro Stadium that Sept. 8, the day of Our Lady of Charity. But 30,000 turned out. Just hours before the Mass, the statue that now stands at la Ermita's altar in a bejeweled cape had been smuggled to Miami from Cuba by Luis Gutierrez Areces. Gutierrez Areces had been with the revolution, but he turned against it when the direction in which Fidel Castro was taking the island became clear. His life in jeopardy, Gutierrez Areces asked for asylum at the Panamanian Embassy. He had been there for a month, and had received word from Castro's government "that I would rot in the embassy because they would never let me leave the island alive.'' Then, on Sept. 7, Gutierrez Areces was suddenly told he would be allowed to leave Cuba the following day. "A woman at the embassy asked me if I would do her a favor and carry a suitcase to Miami. She told me what was in it. I had always been devoted to la Caridad. I said, `It's not a favor.' I will never know how I received that permit at the last minute to leave Cuba. It had to be la Virgencita de la Caridad,'' says the 71-year-old Medley businessman.
Gutierrez Areces says no one inspected the suitcase at the airport in Cuba. He never looked inside, either. When he touched down at Opa-locka Airport, he expected to give the suitcase to a couple of waiting nuns. They never showed up. So he took the suitcase to Miami Beach's St. Patrick Church, where he was headed anyway for the baptism of his daughter, born a month earlier in Miami. He handed off the suitcase at the church, and the statue was rushed to the stadium, just in time for that first Mass. ''She got me out of Cuba. And she has always watched over me,'' says Gutierrez Areces, who visits la Ermita every Saturday. ``They might have killed me if they knew I was smuggling the Virgin out of Cuba. But anyone would have done it. She is the mother of all Cubans.''
She is an exile, too, many devotees say of the statue, which had resided at a church in Guanabo and is a replica of the Caridad that still stands in the famous sanctuary in El Cobre. Which is why the homeless man who agreed to steal the Miami statue for a case of beer in 1994 had no chance. He managed to grab the Virgin, 15 inches tall, but was chased and wrestled to the ground by a shrine regular whose prayers he had interrupted. ''We never knew who was behind that attempted theft,'' Roman says. "But there are always people inside and outside this shrine. They took the Virgin out of that man's hands. I visited him in jail. He was a poor homeless man who had no idea what he was doing.''
SERVING THE MASSES
The Ermita falls under the Archdiocese of Miami's auspices but is not an official church with a parish. No weddings are held there, but there are regular Masses. The sanctuary seats 500.
''Everybody was in a hurry to build it because they expected that they were all going back to Cuba soon, and they wanted to leave the shrine to la Caridad behind as a symbol of the time they were here,'' Roman says. "I wanted to wait, raise more money and build something bigger. But I couldn't convince anyone. To suggest that we might be here longer was to offend.'' Today, half a million people -- many of them not Cuban -- visit the shrine each year. But to the exile community, the sanctuary and its seawall stand as a testament to all those who never went back, who continue to live in a Cuba of the mind. ''I come here almost every day,'' says a frail Jose Luis Barcells, 79, who is accompanied by Beatrice Mills, his nurse. ``The seawall is a very peaceful place.'' When did he leave Cuba? ''I never left. I have an apartment here. But I still live in Cuba,'' he says. Mills shrugs. Actually, he lives in a house. And he hasn't seen Cuba in ages. His memory fails sometimes, she says. But anyone at the seawall would understand.