They have come from all over Argentina. Some have even come from parts of Paraguay and Brazil. Most have come by bus, many by car or motorcycle, and some by good old fashioned hitchhiking. They have come with their spouses and children, aging parents and grandparents. They have come alone, leaving their families behind. They have brought tents, blankets, lawn chairs, guitars, portable barbeques, charcoal, snacks, and foam coolers. They have brought nothing but themselves. Most importantly they bring well-loved statues – whether small or as large as their torsos – of the man whom they have travelled to thank, remember, and ask of; the homegrown saint of Argentina, Antonio ‘Gauchito’ Gil.
On the eighth day of every January, the town of Mercedes in the northeastern province of Corrientes is inundated with more than 200,000 followers of Gauchito Gil. However, it is a along a stretch of road eight kilometres north of the town where the action happens. It is here where Antonio Gil is said to have been brutally murdered, and where a small sanctuary stands in his honor.
Nearing midnight on 7th January, a continual procession of buses, vans, cars, real and wannabe gauchos on horseback make their way to the sanctuary amidst a chorus of crickets. Everyone wants to be there when the clock strikes midnight. When it does, most, like myself, are stuck kilometres away from the sanctuary and ditch their cars to head on foot toward the music and fireworks that light the sky. The day has begun.
The evening is warm and the air is thick with the smell of asado. Parked buses, cars, tents and venders line the road to the festival. Vans sell overpriced beer, soda, and hot water for thermoses. One man’s trunk is piled high with pigs ready for the grill.
About half a kilometre from the festival, the flow of people slows to a stop, as most have joined the ever-growing and motionless line to enter the sanctuary. Following it takes one through rows of stalls selling statues, rosaries, candles, red ribbons, posters and trinkets. There is even a Gauchito Gil brand of yerba. Stacks of meat simmer on grills and clouds of smoke billow from the makeshift restaurants into the faces of those stuck in line. Speakers blare songs dedicated to Gauchito Gil and televisions screen dramatic documentaries that tell the story of his life and legend of his death.
It’s one hell of a party thrown by a saint. And to an outsider, ignorant to the Gauchito Gil mystique and watching the five-hour line and its surrounding spectacle, there really is only one question: Who is Gauchito Gil? Who is this serene-faced man with a bushy mustache and long dark hair, wearing those wide-legged gaucho pants and three red bandanas, one around his waist, neck, and head? And how did so many come to adore him?
Lover, Outlaw, Savior
As one of the various legends goes, somewhere around the 1850s in the province of Corrientes, a beautiful young girl falls in love with the handsome gaucho who works on the ranch to which she is heiress. Her name is Estrella Diaz Miraflores, and his, Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, El Gauchito. Problem is, she’s engaged to the local chief of police, and besides, her family would never accept such a match with a humble, though charming, farm worker. El Gauchito hides in the town of Pay Ubre, what is now Mercedes, and from there enlists in the Triple Alliance war against Paraguay.
Upon his return, he is called yet again to fight, but this time in a civil war, Correntinos against Correntinos. But the Gauchito has a dream that night, in which the native Guaraní god Ñandeyara appears to him and tells him “not to shed the blood of brothers”. In the morning, the Gauchito is gone, and becomes a deserter of the army, living outside the law, and dedicating his life to helping the poor and indigenous by stealing from the rich.
One day, while sleeping under a tree after a party, the police catch up with the Gauchito, arrest him, and head for Mercedes. Eight kilometers from town, his captors decide to take justice into their own hands. They tie him to a tree and begin to fire. But he won’t die. So they string him up by his feet and slit his throat. Before they do however, the Gauchito speaks his last words to the sergeant:
“You are going to kill me now, but you will arrive in Mercedes tonight at the same time as a letter of my pardon. In the letter they will also tell you that your son is dying of a strange illness. Invoke me before God and pray for your son’s life, because the blood of the innocent serves to makes miracles.”To which the sergeant says: “I don’t care,” and kills the Gauchito.
But much to the sergeant’s dismay, the letter does arrive as the Gauchito said it would, and his son is indeed, terribly and mysteriously ill. Remembering the Gauchito’s words, the sergeant takes his son from bed and to the now-buried Gaucho, eight kilometers north of town. There, before God, the sergeant prays to Gauchito Gil for the life of his son. The next morning, as promised, all is well. And thus, Gauchito Gil’s murderer becomes his first devotee.
At least, that’s what they say.
For the people waiting in line, some for the first and most for the second, seventh, or thirtieth time, Gauchito Gil is not so mystical, but a saint with whom one can be intimate and talk to every day.
“To me, he is a friend who fulfills promises,” says Juan Carlos, a middle-aged man from Misiones dressed in gaucho-wear, a large red flag with an image of the Gauchito draped on his back.
“He is a reference of support for me,” says Rita who has come by bus from Esquina, Buenos Aires. “Because we all need some support and some kind of faith.”
Some could not share their thoughts on the Gaucho, as even the thought of describing what he has meant to their lives made them choke up.
A tall elderly man with a weathered face and a wide-brimmed gaucho hat tells me he does not come to ask the Gauchito for anything, “but to thank him for what he has already given me.” He eagerly launches into the story of his niece’s operation on a malignant tumor. Moments into it he stops and raises his hands to his face, pushing back tears. “She called me the next day,” he continues, his voice feeble. “And told me ‘Uncle! I got the results. Everything is okay!’ I told her it would be.”
“I work in a factory but I go out to the campo often,” he tells me. “And when I go, I don’t go alone. I say to myself, ‘Okay Gaucho, we have to do this and that’.”
Many had similar experiences with terminal illnesses or family members with health problems, and curiously, they have remained healthy enough to make the trek every year to ask for continual protection. One woman holds her daughter, less than one month old. She tells me that the birth was hard on the baby, who will need six months of physical therapy for a dropped shoulder.
“It’s my first time here,” she says, perhaps looking at four more hours of waiting, “but everything I have ever asked of the Gauchito he has fulfilled. I don’t care how long I have to wait.”
For almost everyone, the main reason for coming is the same: To fulfill a promise. Because everyone knows that if the Gauchito answers your prayers today, you must come back.
Wait not in vain
By night, the festival is a dark unintelligible jungle of faces and sounds, music and laughter. But by day, in 40 degrees of heat and not a cloud in sight, with the line to enter the sanctuary twice as long, the event reveals itself for what is truly is: an act of faith.
Alongside a steady stream of cars and buses that kick up dust and cough out exhaust, devotee Antonio Aguirre makes his way to the end of the line not on foot, but on his knees. Carrying a couple of plastic bags with water and items for the sanctuary, he hobbles carefully along the graveled shoulder of the road.
“My promise begins at the bridge,” he says signaling to a small bridge about half a kilometre behind him, “It’s about three kilometres in total.”
Though he used to live in the province and would come to the sanctuary with his Correntino parents, Antonio had since moved to Buenos Aires and had stopped coming. That is until some years ago when his son was ill and would not sleep for days. A friend asked him if he had made a promise to someone. He remembered that he had, and knew what he needed to do.
“I brought my son to the sanctuary and he slept like a king.”
If the Gauchito answers Antonio’s prayers today, next year he will travel from Buenos Aires to the sanctuary by bicycle.
The sanctuary itself is a tin roofed, three by five metre space enclosed by a metal fence. Inside is a statue of the Gauchito, a large cross and a looming cement tomb, both covered with metal placards of thanks and praise from devotees. Ten or so police officers “administer” the viewing of the sanctuary, one of which directs the entire process with a piercingly loud whistle. Followers enter in groups of 15 or 20, carrying flowers, red ribbons, bottles of whisky, and other offerings for the Gaucho. Upon entering they immediately rush to the statue, whose paint has been worn away under hundreds of thousands of hands. They touch it, close their eyes, and despite the chaos, find a private moment with their Gauchito to say thanks and to pray.
No more than a minute later and it’s all whistles and “Bueno, Bueno,” as the police brusquely escort the devotees out. A day-long wait in the heat for one minute inside the sanctuary. A small price to pay for prayers answered, most would agree.
Times of need
Second to asking for their health, everyone told me that they had and continue to ask the Gauchito for work. As Gauchito Gil was from the North-East, so are many of his followers, coming from the notoriously impoverished northern provinces of Misiones, Chaco, Formosa, and Corrientes itself. Facing a shortage of work due in part to the consolidation of land and expansion of agribusiness, a large number I spoke with had moved away to urban areas, but continue to keep up the custom.
“Most people don’t have work or education,” says Carina of Corrientes, who sold hot water for mate during the festival. “There is education but there are no work opportunities. Although they [people of the area] might be prepared, they look for work outside, in Buenos Aires or Cordoba.”
Gustavo from the city of Avellaneda in Greater Buenos Aires became a follower when he saw a small red altar of the Gauchito while leaving a soccer stadium after a game one day.
“My job situation was bad and I looked to the sky and said ‘The only thing I ask for is work.’” He says he is now working with a healthcare company, and this is his first time at the sanctuary.
“I came here without a dime,” he says, “but with tremendous peace.”
Next to Gustavo are Fabian and Hector, strewn out on two mattresses placed in the open cargo space of a large bus, a shady and breezy refuge from the heat. They are bus drivers and have been making the eight-hour trip from Buenos Aires to Mercedes for seven and five years respectively.
Fabian says that coming to the procession fills him with a sense of protection “in a country where justice takes a long time.”
“We have to confront many problems – a lot of insecurity, the lack of social equality, things for which the Gauchito fought as well. His saying was ‘not to spill the blood of your countrymen, but fight for the well-being of all’. Today if we really understood that saying, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
The festival for a saint had quite a handful of not-so-saintly characteristics. Despite the number of vendors selling food and beverages, one could not count a single trashcan and there were maybe five bathrooms in total, all of which cost between 50 cents and 2 pesos to use. Therefore, unsurprisingly, the flat green pastures surrounding the sanctuary were converted into one big repository – with bottles and papers scattered everywhere and the pervasive stench of urine.
Nearly every room in every hotel in Mercedes was booked, charging between $150 and 300 per night, and campground space was also limited and expensive. Despite the lack of accommodations, there seemed to be no qualms with charging ten pesos for a “choripan” and 15 for a litre of beer – more than double the normal price at any kiosk in Buenos Aires.
Fabian says that the authorities of Mercedes should do more in the way of accommodations.
“It’s not justified. When one sees the social level of the people who follow the gaucho, it’s like, there’s a lot of profiting going on. Let’s hope the Gaucho doesn’t turn into a business.”
“We aren’t in Punta del Este or Pinamar,” he says, “We’re in Mercedes in 50 degrees of heat. The iguana has to cross the road with gloves.”
Who’s to saint?
Gauchito Gil is what many would call a “pagan saint,” as the Catholic Church has not canonized him as a “proper” one. And chances are that the Congregations of the Causes of Saints that oversees the canonization process aren’t making any recommendations to the Pope anytime soon.Yet despite being devoutly Catholic, most everyone I spoke with did not worry too much about the state of the Gauchito’s sainthood, and the response was indignantly unanimous: “Take a look around.”
“It doesn’t matter that they don’t recognise him,” the elderly man tells me. “What we show him is something magnificent,” he says. “We show him that, maybe he can’t be sanctified, but with this demonstration, there is no need. This is sufficient, this act alone. There are no words.”
Fabian says: “The Gauchito wasn’t looking for fame,” and reminds me that the Church “is always late” when it comes to a lot of issues.
“I prefer the humility, the modesty, the loyalty of humble people, to the grand luxuries. You don’t have to be rich to be a saint. And you don’t have to be rich to be devoted,” he says.
Caina of Corrientes says the Gauchito is a tradition of the area, “a saint of the people even though he was a worker and robbed and did what he did.” Or perhaps it is because he was a worker, a deserter, an Argentine Robin Hood, that Antonio ‘Gauchito’ Gil gains more and more followers each year.
Exhausted and sun-baked, the masses pack up their tents, gather their families and friends, and climb onto the buses and into cars to head home. Leaving their prayers behind they take with them one very important promise: To return.