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folk heroes and history lessons

ARGENTINA: ON THE HIGHWAY

Roadside shrines are a ubiquitous sight in many parts of Latin America but in Argentina they are particularly elaborate and colourful affairs. While they range considerably in size and complexity – some are simple structures, nestled under the puny branches of a scrubby bush, containing only a single icon, while others are palatial edifices in shady groves, complete with seating, picnic tables and even facilities for asado* – they all show signs of frequent visits and regular care.

The two most popular cults are those of Difunta Correa and Guachito Gil. These two folk saints are definitely local heroes even if they have no part in the traditional Catholic pantheon. Santo Expedito, the patron saint of urgent and desperate causes, who does enjoy the official blessings of the Catholic Church, is also popular.

The apocryphal figures of Gauchito Gil and Difunta Correa both have their origins in stories about the Argentine Civil Wars that took place in the 19th century.

Gauchito Gil started out life as a simple farmer. Tales vary – incorporating various dramatic elements such as forbidden love and corrupt officialdom – but the crux of the matter involves a forced enlistment and later desertion from one of the warring armed forces in the internecine struggles of the times. As a deserter, Gauchito Gil became a Robin Hood type outlaw who robbed from rich and gave to the poor but eventually he was captured, tortured and murdered.

Gauchito Gil’s first miracle involved the fate of the his murder’s son. Apparently Gauchito Gil told the policeman who captured him that unless he prayed to him the policeman’s son would sicken and die. The policeman cut Gil’s throat anyway but on returning to his village discovered that his son was, in fact, dying. Repenting, he prayed to Gauchito Gil and, miraculously, the child recovered so the policeman gave Gil a proper burial and built the first shrine in his honour.

Difunta Correa’s story also revolves around the Argentine Civil Wars. Her husband, like Gauchito Gil, was a peasant farmer who was forcibly enlisted into one of the armies of the times. He fell sick and was abandoned to die. His devoted wife, with a child in arms, set out into the desert to find her spouse but soon succumbed to the elements and died of thirst. Days later, when guachos discovered her body, her baby was still alive and suckling at her breast.

Shrines to Gauchito Gil are always decked out in red.

Saintly Guachito Gil.

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Gauchito Gil protects travellers and is particularly beloved by truck drivers. It is a good idea to honk your horn when you pass a shrine to Gauchito Gil - if you neglect to you may later crash or suffer a mechanical breakdown.

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People ask Guachito Gil for all sorts of favours and leave offerings and messages at his shrines in thanks.

The figures are often damaged - either by the elements or vandalism - but seem to retain their power nonetheless.

Difunta Correa also watches over the traveller's way and her shrines are often decorated with tyres. People leave bottles full of water to calm her eternal thirst - a habit which can come in handy if you happen to be a dehydrated cycle tourist out in the desert.

Images of Difunta depict her lying peacefully with her infant at her breast. She is generally watched over by other saints.

Difunta clearly has an interest in the welfare of cyclists...

... and probably doesn't mind them pilfering her water. She has enough of it.

People leave messages for Difunta, too.

An example of a more elaborate shrine...

... and an utterly minimalist one - can't get much simpler than an image placed on a shady rock ledge.

I'm not sure who these dudes are.

* asado = Argentinian barbeque, the national passion, on an equal footing with football.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Babs | January 18, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    I love that you photograph roadside shrines, a little peek into the minds of the locals.

  2. anna | January 20, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Hey Babs, great to have you drop by! :-)

    I love shrines of all sorts. And I’m quite intrigued by the themes running through the stories of these folk saints.

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