Cuban says paying debt of gratitude to Virgin Mary has been life-changing

By Raquel Martori

Havana, Mar 22 (EFE).- Omar Quintero, a Cuban man who walked nearly the entire length of the Caribbean island to pay a debt of gratitude to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, that nation’s patron saint, says he has arrived home with renewed faith, more love in his heart and a newfound sense of responsibility.

The 56-year-old said in an interview with Efe at his small residence in the Havana borough of Marianao that he was initially fueled only by the force of his own will and a desire to make good on a promise he made when his son was gravely ill.

But he said the widespread public support he received thanks to the power of social media is what gave him the strength to push onward and not succumb to fatigue.

“I’ve arrived with more faith, pride, love and blessings,” Quintero, an employee of a fruit and vegetable shop, said in the company of family members and other residents of Marianao’s Los Pocitos neighborhood.

The man’s life was turned upside down 11 years ago when his then-presumably healthy son, Lazaro Damel Quintero Bermudez, was diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness: Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes.

The cancer affected the 25-year-old’s lungs and the prognosis was bleak, with doctors giving the young man just months to live.

“It was a critical moment in my life,” Quintero recalled with sadness in his voice. “I was afraid of losing my son, since that’s what was expected.”

He recalled that Lazaro Damel was hospitalized in very serious condition and that the doctors offered him little hope.

In search of a miracle, Quintero said he promised “God and Our Lady of Charity that if they saved him he’d go to El Cobre on foot,” referring to the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, located nearly 900 kilometers (560 miles) away in the far-eastern province of Santiago de Cuba.

“The doctors gave everything they had. They saved him, and he came out of his coma,” the man said, adding that his son is not like before but that he’s alive.

Quintero said he started strong and covered 51 kilometers (32 miles) from Havana to the nearby city of San Jose de las Lajas on the first day without even realizing how far he had gone.

He then slowed to a pace of around 30 km a day on the Carretera Central, all the while pushing a cart in which he transported an image showing Our Lady of Charity clad in her traditional yellow.

The pilgrim said he initially slept in bus stations and outside homes and shops, ate little and lived off of coffee and cigarettes.

He freely acknowledges harboring doubts about whether he would reach his destination – the basilica in the village of El Cobre that houses the image of Our Lady of Charity, known as “La Cachita.”

But upon finishing the first stage of his journey in the central province of Sancti Spiritus, he received an outpouring of support from ordinary Cubans, state entities and the Red Cross, which put an ambulance at his disposal.

“I wasn’t expecting for people to receive me like that. They asked for autographs, to take photos, for me to touch their hands or take offerings to the Virgin for them,” Quintero recalled.

His promise to the Virgin went viral on social media, where users started reporting on his daily progress. Local media began interviewing him and tracking his steady approach to El Cobre.

Fellow pilgrims even came on board: Maria Carla in Camaguey and an Italian tourist named Davide Cuttica, who crossed paths with Quintero in Ciego de Avila, accompanied him to El Cobre and the entire return journey to Havana and documented their experience in his online blog.

Hundreds of people greeted Quintero upon his arrival in El Cobre, among them singer Israel Rojas (of Cuban pop band Buena Fe), who at the pilgrim’s request sang the track “Valientes” (Courageous).

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