Tag Archive | "religion"

O Beloved Gauchito Gil: Worshipping a Homegrown Saint

Young pilgrims along the way. (Photo: Pato Guillamón)

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?

Gauchito Gil statues among others. (Photo: Sergio Serrano)

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:

Gauchito Gil memorial up a tree. (Photo: Tito Savary)

“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.

Not alone

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’.”

Looking through an altar. (Photo: Pato Guillamón)

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.

A lone memorial in the campo. (Photo: Tito Savary)

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.”

Festival Blues

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.”

Gauchito Gil Flag memorial (Photo: Alicia Nijdam)

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.

Posted in SocietyComments (1)

Freemasonry in Argentina

Photo by Adrian Royo Caldiz

Have you ever wondered what this centuries-old secret society is all about?  Keep reading and you’ll find out who these men are and what they did for us in the past, that allows us to enjoy our liberties in the present.

A month ago the sequel for ‘The Da Vinci Code’, one of the best-selling novels of all time, was published. And even though its writer, Dan Brown, kept a tight lid on what the plot, it became quickly known that the book would deal with Freemasonry and its little known role in the creation of the United States.

Such coverage has led to a renewed interest in the ancient brotherhood as people wonder what exactly is Freemasonry. Is it a religion? Is it a gentlemen’s club? Is it, as conspiracy theorists believe, a shadow government?

A Little History

Officially established in 1717 in London, Freemasonry has been a topic of interest for people around the world looking for spiritual development. Since its creation, the order has been a philosophical, fraternal and charitable organisation, composed of free thinkers looking to become better men who can make a contribution to society.

For years we’ve heard that many historic figures from different disciplines, people who have had an active role in the shaping of modern western civilisation, have been freemasons. From George Washington to Beethoven, from Napoleon to Voltaire, many scientists, philosophers, writers and politicians have joined the brotherhood in pursue of three basic ideals: liberty, equality and fraternity (in French, “Libertè, egalitè, fraternitè”), the motto of the French Revolution in 1789.

Coincidence? Not really, considering they were involved in the revolution and advocated strongly for its success. And of course, Freemasonry is no stranger to Argentina, as the society has been present here for more than 150 years and has in many ways helped shape its history. Many of the Argentine forefathers, including Jose de San Martín, Manuel Belgrano and Domingo F. Sarmiento were freemasons, as well as many Argentine presidents. There are currently 130 active Masonic lodges in Argentina, 60 of them in the city of Buenos Aires alone, and if you do a little research, you’ll find their symbology present on many buildings, monuments and even in cemeteries.

Orlando Ruben Sconza is an historian, sociologist and professor at the University of Buenos Aires and he explains why freemasons have always been present in this country’s history. “There was an intellectual element that had a strong presence in countries like France, the United States, Spain or the South American region,” he says. “This secular movement helped shape the creation of a national state which was in violent collision with the Catholic Church because it was taking away the Vatican’s power by creating the Public Records or the Equal Education Law.”

According to Sconza, Argentina was a special case for several reasons, mainly because of many Spanish and Italian freemasons who migrated here. Apparently, Italian Freemasonry was extremely democratic, which allowed anyone to become a member, even the poor; something unthinkable in England at the time. The Spanish Civil War was also a reason why many Masons decided to move to Argentina, since General Francisco Franco, much like Hitler or Mussolini, considered Freemasonry illegal and whenever a member was identified, he would be executed without trial.

Photo courtesy of Gran Logia Argentia

The Present

Angel Jorge Clavero is the current Grand Master of the Argentine Lodge, and has been a freemason for 26 years. “Our institution advocates strongly for the values being pursued since the years of the French Revolution. We shape men and teach them how to think for themselves through symbology, in hopes that they will become better members of our society. If they become better citizens, the quality of our country’s political reality improves…something that we may be needing right now,” he says.

“During the 60s and 70s, few people would join us because of the political and social problems the country was going through,” he admits. “But in the 90s the young community started coming back, and since then we have been working strongly to keep admitting younger members.”

In order to do so, they have created special university lodges for college students who want to know about Freemasonry, and they have lowered the admitting age from 21 to 18. “Many young men study a liberal career for six years, and when they graduate, only a few of them know what Freemasonry really is. They don’t teach that in their class, even though it was instrumental in the shaping of Argentina.”

And he’s right, especially when it comes to education. In 1884, Ley 1420, which promoted secular and mandatory schooling, was promoted by freemasons and passed by Argentina’s Congress. They were also behind the university reform of 1918, through which they achieved a modernisation of Argentine universities and allowed all citizens to pursue a higher level of education.

In the last couple of decades, the Argentine Grand Lodge has regularly held a series of meetings called ‘Tenidas Blancas’ with the purpose of making an approach on the community and allowing non-masons to catch a glimpse of how they work. “Because of our discreet nature we cannot just go into the street and start recruiting members, or advertise lodges on the classified ads, so the Tenidas are a great way to attract new brothers,” Clavero says.

They have also opened up to the media, appearing regularly on talk shows, documentaries and the news, which, according to Clavero, has improved public opinion and attracted new people – even foreigners living in Argentina have decided to become masons here. “We have nothing to hide,” he says. “On the contrary, we’ve got much to teach. We are always working for progress so there’s no reason to avoid the media.”


Ever since its creation, Freemasonry has had strong opposition from various organisations, extreme religious factions and fascist governments who accuse it of conspiracy, Satanism, being anti-religion or secretly serving a bigger purpose, such as controlling world events, politics or global economy. And even though there is not an official anti-masonic movement, throughout history the brotherhood has had to face serious accusations and persecution from people around the world who have tried to bring it down. Like the short-lived American Anti-Masonic Party, which in the 1830s ran presidential candidates and opposed US president Andrew Jackson for being a notorious mason.

Photo by Adrian Royo Caldiz

Totalitarian regimes have also tried to eliminate freemasons. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy treated masons as a source of opposition since their liberal ideology was in direct collision with their fascist governments. In Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he stated that masons had “succumbed to the Jews” and their “Jewish conspiracy” was one of the reasons Germany had lost the First World War. In 1935, he went on to dismember all German Masonic lodges, accusing them of conspiring to create a “World Republic”. As a result, Freemasonic concentration camps were created and inmates were considered political prisoners. And even though the exact amount of victims is unknown, it is estimated that thousands of members died during World War II. After that, the Soviet Union and Communist nations also persecuted the organization during the Cold War years for being liberal.

Some very conservative religious groups also tend to go against masons because of their discreet character, although most of them express their opinions in anonymity through weblogs or online forums. They like to accuse the fraternity of being a satanic organisation that brainwashes their members into becoming atheists.

In Argentina, a local blog named ‘Ciudadanos Alerta’, features an article signed by a conservative man named Juan Pampero who accuses famed historian Felipe Pigna of basing some of his research on freemasonry books, but at the same time downplaying that fact so that no one will think of it as “Satan’s synagogue or a cursed, dark sect”. Of course all these accusations are completely based on speculation and not a single one of them is based on fact.

Even some Islamic factions argue that masons promote the interests of the Jewish people around the world and one of their purposes is to rebuild the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. In 1980, Saddam Hussein changed the Iraqi laws and declared freemasonry a felony, since “it promoted Zionist principles” and also the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas has accused the organisation of being part of a “Zionist plot to control the world”.

Currently the most outspoken opponents to freemasonry are also conspiracy theorists, who, due to its discreet nature, accuse the organisation of trying to create a New World Order in which nations disappear and all humans become slaves of a totalitarian regime. There’s even a Facebook group called the “Anti-Masonic League”, which accuses freemasonry of “spreading communist ideals” ever since the French Revolution, a movement the group creator calls “the single most infamous event in modern history”, while claiming the society must be stopped “before it chokes the life out of all the world’s cultural traditions”.


Photo by Adrian Royo Caldiz

However, Freemasonry is not without its controversies, particularly when it comes to its relationship with the Church. The Vatican and freemasons have a complicated history. Since the organisation accepted members from any religion (they were only expected to believe in a supreme being), in 1738, Pope Clement XII declared Freemasonry teachings to be “in direct conflict with the Church doctrine” and warned that whoever joined them would be excommunicated. However that didn’t stop many individuals from becoming members, and even though nowadays the Vatican’s official position remains the same, there really is no intention of persecution from their side.

“I am a Catholic man, baptised and married by the Catholic Church and that has never been a problem for me,” Clavero says. “So if the Vatican still upholds their excommunication it’s an issue they have to deal with by themselves. It’s not something on our conscience. Still, even though in the past there have been serious problems between the two of us (mostly because of personal grudges), our relations have improved significantly.”

Sconza’s point of view is that it’s also a matter of tradition. “It’s very hard for a religious organisation largely based on ancient customs to change the way it thinks, but the truth is that both sides clash only when there’s political interests at stake. Aside from that, if you’re a Catholic and a mason and you mention that to a priest, I’m certain he won’t mind at all.”

And even though today relations have certainly improved, this struggle is still part of a popular urban legend in Buenos Aires: if you were to enter the metropolitan cathedral, located on Plaza de Mayo, inside you would find Jose de San Martín’s tomb, open for tourists and visitors who want to enter the room and pay their respects. Now, if you look closely, you’ll realise that the vault has been built as an annex on the side of the building’s nave and outside the limits of the church, which has led to think by many that since San Martín was a mason, he was not allowed to be buried on holy ground. Of course the true explanation is that this was an architectural issue since the cathedral had been built many years before, but people always prefer the most attractive version and stick to the idea that the Vatican denied him a proper burial.

Another strange coincidence is the fact that Washington D.C., a city designed and built by Freemasons and full of Masonic symbology, and Buenos Aires, share so many architectural similarities, such as a white obelisk (that happens to be in plain sight from both the White House and the Casa Rosada), or two diagonal streets coming out of both houses (the diagonals being the representation of the Masonic symbols, the square or the compass).

The official story says the city grid was designed after the city of Paris and has no relation with the designing of Washington. So if there really is a hidden symbology, that’s for the conspiracy theorists to decide.

Aside from any architectural coincidence, the fact is that Freemasonry has had a starring role in Argentine history and has pushed for equality and freedom in many ways, most of them very little known by the general population.

If all these elements, essential to the shaping of the country, were to be taken by Dan Brown and translated into a mystery novel, it is safe to say that he’d have a bestseller on his hands, and before you know it, Tom Hanks would be seen in movie theatres running around Recoleta Cemetery, looking for clues to unravel some centuries-old conspiracy.



If you want more information on Freemasonry in Argentina, please contact:


(English) dglsad@uolsinectis.com.ar

Posted in Feature, Urban LifeComments (4)

The African Gods of the Río de la Plata

Photo courtesy Arte Brujo
Pomba Gira da Praia

The melancholic tango melodies and pounding candombe rhythms heard along the Río de la Plata emerged from an historical encounter of cultures: of European immigrants and African slaves. But while many would see the African influence in the region as something from the past, an exhibition at Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas reveals that a new voodoo-like religion is freshly adapting its Afro derived mythology to the European-style cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

With its mysterious, often sexualised imagery and animated ceremonies, the Umbanda religion arrived in cellars and homes of poorer barrios in the region from Brazil in the 1960s. An offshoot of Brazilian Candomblé, it also shares roots with Voodoo in Haiti and Santaría in Cuba, religions created by African slaves who synthesised different forms of worship from their homelands on arriving in the Americas.

“Umbanda is a religion that is very much in movement,” says show curator Juan Batalla. “It’s still growing and there is a lot of creativity.” Along with fellow artist Dany Barreto, he brought together this exhibition of deities, religious inspired installation art and compelling photos of shrines, called ‘Dueños de la Encrucijada’ (‘Owners of the Crossroads’), which they also made into a book.

Exú and Pomba Gira

The project focuses on the imagery of Kimbanda, the specific type of Umbanda practised here in the Río de la Plata region that revolves around two gods, male ‘Exús’ and female ‘Pomba Giras’. These have many forms, appearing in the exhibition as caped figures that look like Mexican wrestlers, gipsy women, a red snake-headed man and a goddess based on Botticelli’s Venus. They are commonly said to be spirits of people who have had very colourful lives, tells Batalla. “Exús are often thieves, and the Pomba Giras are usually courtesans or prostitutes.”

These spirits are invoked in rituals by initiated followers, who offer them gifts of perfume, alcohol and cigars. “The ceremonies appeal to the senses,” describes Batalla. “There is drumming and singing throughout. People dance and those that are initiated fall into a trance. When the spirits are received by mediums they usually tell something of their story.”

Angela Lopez Ruiz’s video installation shows her partner receiving the spirit of an Exú, with his face contorted and hands making strange grasping gestures, while photos by Guillermo Srodek-Hart capture women in trances spinning in a whirl of opulent red skirts and scarves. Testimonies in the book give an insight into the powerful first experience of receiving a spirit, explaining how the presences are later invited to be compadres or friends, who they consult regarding problems.

Photo by Guillermo Srodek-Hart
Shrine of Pomba Gira

The devil?

Umbanda’s embrace of physical pleasure, including plentiful consumption of alcohol and cigarettes during ceremonies, and sexualised imagery like naked Pomba Giras and Exús with large phalluses, appears to clash with Catholic sensibilities. However there is something more obviously startling to the imagination of the region’s dominant faith: the appearance of many Exú figures as red bearded creatures with tails, hooves and tridents, identical to their devil.

Batalla explains that, rather than pointing to devil worship, the imagery comes as a result of the incorporation of Catholic imagery into the mythology, a process known as syncretism. “The gods of Africa took the shells of Christian saints. Some correspond with the Virgin Mary, and Exú corresponded with the devil,” he continues. “In Africa the figure of Exú was originally a phallic symbol with horns. When the Christian missionaries found this they identified it as the devil.”

In the book, anthropologist Alejandro Frigerio explains that the spirits’ association to the Catholic devil also has much to do with their corporality, sensuousness and closeness to the material world. He tells how the Kimbanda followers are divided among those who accept these identifications at face value and the majority who reject them or think of them as purely an ‘inherited folkloric reality’.

Some Afro-Brazilian cults are carrying out a process of ‘re-africanisation’, returning to the original imagery and leaving behind the figures that are currently used for the spirits of Kimbanda. “A decisive argument behind this motion is the necessity to separate from the devilish imagery derived from the syncretism with the Catholic faith,” says Batalla.

Visual Offerings

Photo courtesy Arte Brujo
Ironwork for Exú

Photos in the book cover the wide range of interpretations, from the Africanist shrines, with simplified, abstract objects decorated with cowrie shells, to the distinctly Argentine and Uruguayan ones in Srodek-Hart’s extensive series, which even include folklore figures of the region such as Gauchito Gil and San la Muerte.

Common to all the shrines is a meticulous attention to detail. “They must be carefully arranged to the extent that the very success of the whole affair may depend on both the intention and the visual production,” says Batalla. But in each temple, people are guided by what they feel more than a set of hard and fast rules. “There is no body of diffusion saying what is correct or incorrect in their religious vision,” he says. “The religion is not vertical. There is no leader. There are just initiated people that initiate others.”

While the unregulated, creative element of the religion inspired Batalla to study the subject, he also considers that it has attracted criticism. “If I want to start my own space and convince people that I’m going to initiate them, no one’s going to stop me,” he says. “There are those that are not so serious. But on the other hand there are many that practice with much care for those that follow them.” Indeed, despite the controversy, there are more temples all the time in the region, and they are working in a way that is increasingly visible and accepted.

The exhibition brings to the art gallery an intriguing glimpse into a coded world. “The idea of the show is that round the corner from your house there might be something like this that you don’t know about, and perhaps you are badly informed,” considers Batalla. To him, the religion’s unique imagery provides an entry point through which someone who has never experienced Umbanda might begin to relate to it: “More than anything I want to show the beauty,” he says. “There are lots of these altars that are very beautiful, and they have a force.”

The ‘Dueños de la Encrucijada’ exhibition runs from 6th to 30th August, Monday to Saturday from 10am to 8pm, and Sundays from 4pm to 8pm at Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas, Corrientes 2038, 4954 5521/4954 5523, www.rojas.uba.ar. Free entry. For more information about the book of the same name, look at coleccionartebrujo.blogspot.com

Posted in ArtComments (2)

Tierra Santa: Picking Holes in this Holy Land

Photo by Kate Stanworth

“There is no other place like this on earth” said Judas Iscariot, chatting to me intermittently between gurgling communications on his walkie talkie. This, however, was not Judas the disciple everybody loves to hate, but merely a park official masquerading as him. Betrayal he may have committed some 1,967 years ago, but Judas was not betraying the truth that day: if there is another theme park like Tierra Santa, it’s probably not on earth.

Tierra Santa was proud to become the world’s first religious theme park in 2000. Contrary to the images that suddenly flow to ones brain when the term ‘theme park’ is mentioned, Tierra Santa has no roller-coasters or slippery slides, no candy floss or slush puppies, no Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. Rather, it is divided into 37 simulations of the most important events in the bible, amongst them the creation, the birth, the crucifixion and the resurrection. All sounds a bit boring? I can assure you it is anything but.

Approaching Tierra Santa, huddled models of religious icons, sheep and palm trees leave only an infinitesimal indication of the confusion that is to ensue. Once you have passed the disgruntled ticket vendors dressed as Mary and Joseph, you start to get a better idea. But it is not until you have entered the main concourse of the park that you truly know what a surreal treat you have stumbled upon.

Photo by Kate Stanworth

While Tierra Santa largely comprises of faux streets modelled on Jerusalem, its focus is a large recreation of the Holy Mount where, true to biblical history, a life-size effigy of a crucified Jesus sits. Perhaps more open to historical debate is Tierra Santa’s interpretation of the resurrection: every half an hour a 25m high statue of The Good Shepard himself gloriously rises out of The Holy Mount, towering above the park to the rapturous glee of all in attendance.

The resurrection is best experienced from the top of the Holy Mount at sunset, not just because the pre-recorded backing track of Latin choral singers is most audible there and then but also thanks to the great spectacle on offer: festoon lights switching on as the twilight envelops mini-Jerusalem, children playing in the streets, evening festivities beginning, Jesus rising splendidly against the backdrop of the ebbing sun and the delayed 4.30 LAN flight from Santiago landing softly on the adjacent Jorge Newbery airport landing strip.

Like we so often hear preached in church, true beauty is on the inside. Tierra Santa is one exponent of that ideology. Within the artificial confines of the Holy mount lies, for me, the jewel in the crown: the creation show!

Photo by Kate Stanworth

Introduced by Hollywood-esque tones and a green laser show, suddenly the creation is alive with the sights and sounds of Eden: electronic gorillas, robotic lions, motorized giraffes and all the other animals under the sun co-existing in mechanical harmony. In a hung-over daze, this journalist was subconsciously transported to another fertile, idyllic world. Darwinism aside, there were times when I thought to myself: “this is truly brilliant”. And that was all before the show’s ‘piece de la résistance’. The dramatic dénouement takes the shape of two mannequins (Adam and Eve) craning themselves from a dry ice haze at the front of Eden as the music crescendos and the beauty of the creation has been given full justice.

After all this excitement, a voracious appetite was worked up.No miraculous feeding of the 5,000 or turning water into wine was necessary as restaurants are aplenty. Skipping the ‘baptism buffet’, ‘sacramental smorgasbord’ and ‘gentile goulash’, my friends and I decided on having a kebab. The ‘St John Shawerma’ went down a treat with some ‘Adam’s apple juice’ as we watched an authentic Middle Eastern dance show.

Leaving the park, glowing in dark night sky, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgia for mini-Jerusalem and I wanted to stay there with its merry songs, low crime rate and happy people. It is all too easy to be sardonic about an idea that engenders such a paradox: staunch Catholicism and theme park frivolity combining to bring in the tourist dollar. However, the kindness on the tour guides’ faces, the modesty of many attractions and the aura of the place indicate that Tierra Santa just is not about that.

Photo by Kate Stanworth

Another paradox that initially confused me was the presence of a Synagogue and a Mosque in this Catholic theme park. But it has since clicked. In an age of intolerance and terror, it is so refreshing to be somewhere where ethos and eagerness outweigh sheer adherence to detail. Plus, it’s bloody funny. I thoroughly recommend visiting the world’s first religious theme park – there really is no altar-native.

Tierra Santa is open Friday-Sunday and public holidays. For more information including opening hours and prices, visit www.tierrasanta-bsas.com.ar

Posted in The City, The Tourist, Underground BAComments (5)

Don’t Mess With the Virgin, Barbieri

Alfonso Barbieri was hunkered down in a storage closet that served as an ad hoc bunker.

It was 6th June 2007, the evening of an inauguration and book release of his drawings at an art gallery in Córdoba, but instead of mingling in the gallery below, Barbieri was wedged into a small, second-floor room with boxes of his books and three of the framed drawings.

Alfonso Barbieri (photo: Emily Anne Epstein)

At his disposal was a desktop computer with an Internet connection, a pack of cigarettes and a demijohn of wine. Nerves, and consequently vice, had gotten the better of him.

“I sat there drinking wine and chain smoking. I had a very high level of stress,” he says, adding that news of what was happening on the floor below had already begun to spring up on websites and live television feeds.

Barbieri’s problems began earlier that day when he received a call from Daniel Salzano, the curator of the gallery at Córdoba’s Spanish Cultural Centre (CCEC) where the exhibit was set to take place.

Salzano asked Barbieri to have a cup of coffee with him in a bar around the corner from CCEC, explaining there was a problem with the exhibit. Salzano told of an angry call he had received from a local priest, Julian Espina, who had seen pictures of the drawings in a local newspaper. Espina demanded Salzano take down a drawing the priest deemed ‘blasphemous’, threatening to intervene if his demand wasn’t met. Salzano, in turn, pleaded with Barbieri to take down the drawing in question, but Barbieri politely declined, saying the exhibit would go over as planned or not happen at all.

Salzano undoubtedly took Espina seriously because of the priest’s reputation.

Photo by Alfonso Barbieri

In 1996, Espina made news with an audacious yet unsuccessful attempt to block a screening of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ at a local university. Eight years later, the self-proclaimed ‘slave to the Virgin Mary’ had more luck. He and his group used physical force to block the entrance to an exhibit in Córdoba’s city hall that included a painting he considered blasphemous and, with later judicial backing, shut the exhibit down.

Nonetheless, Salzano couldn’t convince Barbieri to succumb to Espina’s demand. Having reached a stalemate, the two finished off their coffee and walked over to the gallery.

Shortly thereafter they arrived, an entourage of around 40 fundamentalist Catholics from Lefebrvite (see box) sect arrived. Leading the group was Espina, a large, aggressive man in black clerical attire that Barbieri would later liken to Darth Vader. To Barbieri’s surprise, Salzano caved to Espina’s demands to preview the exhibit.

The imposing priest entered the gallery and immediately identified two more drawings he found offensive, declaring that a total of three had to come off the gallery walls. Witness accounts say Salzano sympathised with Espina, calling Barbieri and his work ‘immature’ before again urging Barbieri to take down the drawings in question. Despite Salzano’s cloying diplomacy, Espina along with his brother, lawyer Carlos Espina, became increasingly agitated and threatening.

Barbieri sensed the situation was getting out of hand. He grabbed the three ‘blasphemous’ drawings, a jug of wine, and headed upstairs to take cover in the storage closet.

As negotiations continued inside the gallery, the situation outside was quickly ballooning into a debacle of staggering magnitude. People began to show up for the exhibit to find Espina’s followers blocking the entrance. Children thumbing rosaries and chanting prayers stood in front of church elders and police separated the fundamentalists from those who wanted to enter the gallery. Television cameramen elbowed their way through the throng to film members of the two groups trading vitriolic insults. The invective along with the security operation attracted a swelling horde of gawkers that had brought local traffic to a standstill in perennially sedate Córdoba.

Back in the storage room, Barbieri got on line to stream local television coverage and saw shoving matches breaking out, his father and then-girlfriend in the middle of the fray. He saw his band’s manager thrown to the ground and one man destroying a copy of his book.

CCEC officials got Espina and his brother out of the gallery, locked the doors and turned the lights off, hoping people would disperse. But soon after the fundamentalists, presumably Espina, his brother and one other collaborator, kicked in the old wooden door opening to the street, barged through the foyer and shattered the gallery’s large glass door, cutting themselves and at least two CCEC employees in the process. They entered the gallery and proceeded to destroy the drawings.

This is when a truly ominous chorus drifted into the storage closet. 

“I insist, the sounds were horrifying. Breaking glass, them yelling atrocious things, like ‘this is the blood of Christ and the Virgin Mary’. They sang the national anthem. They prayed,” Barbieri says.

Photo courtesy of Alfonso Barbieri

Police stood by outside apparently waiting for permission from city hall to take action. Espina and his brother were eventually arrested, but not until the damage was done. While being escorted out of the cultural centre, a defiant Espina thrust his fist into the air and yelled, “Long live Christ the King!” Authorities took all three to the police station where they were released later that evening. 

With the Espina brothers gone, authorities escorted Barbieri out of his grotto. He had been holed up for nearly three hours and was greeted by a macabre scene in the gallery.

“I just started crying, seeing all the pieces of the drawings and blood everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. It was a battlefield,” Barbieri remembers.

Shards of glass and pieces of shredded paper covered much of the gallery floor. The aggressors had dragged their bloody hands along the white walls and columns, leaving the scarlet trails of what they called the blood of Christ. The only drawings that survived the onslaught were the three Espina demanded be taken down.

Buzzed, teary and frightened, Barbieri was escorted through a line of policeman to a waiting car while a crowd of around 500 supporters yelled in his favour. He says he felt like Mick Jagger at the end of a strange day, but the strangeness was just beginning.

The next morning, he appeared on the front page of most local newspapers and was all over the television. Most of the immediate coverage was sympathetic to Barbieri, but there were exceptions, the most glaring of which was a local commentator who, head down, read off the news from CCEC and then cast a menacing glare into the camera and said, “Don’t mess with the Virgin, Barbieri.”

Even some journalists who slammed the zealots’ behaviour as a violent affront to free speech seemed a bit confused, if not vaguely suspicious, of Barbieri’s drawings. He was continually asked to explain them, as if to justify their existence, which he reluctantly did.

“People in Córdoba started to see me as a bother. They didn’t see any sense in what I was doing, not even as a humorous illustrator,” Barbieri reflects.

The media fray eventually seeped into Buenos Aires, where Barbieri and his distressing story popped up in major newspapers and magazines. He did interviews alongside esteemed artist Leon Ferrari, a legendary figure whose 2004 retrospective at Buenos Aires’ Centro Cultural Recoleta was attacked and eventually shut down by members of the Opus Dei sect. And although Barbieri is endlessly thankful for all the support he received from the media and individuals, especially Ferrari, he can’t help but to see some of it as lip service by people who are ultimately immune to any real consequences.

Back in Córdoba, things were becoming increasingly uncomfortable. He was scared to go out on the street or take taxis. On five or six different occasions in the months following the run-in with Espina, taxi drivers made comments to him. One, for example, fixed his stare on Barbieri through a rearview mirror festooned with a dangling crucifix and said, “You’re the blasphemer.” Websites popped up decrying Barbieri as a sort of demon and cutting, personal insults and threats of violence appeared on Internet chat forums.

Salzano abandoned him, refusing his proposal to run the exhibit again. His book publisher was of no help either, accusing Barbieri of rustling up scandal for self-promotion and refusing to distribute the books. To make matters worse, legal action against Espina was going nowhere and Barbieri felt he was getting no useful support from city authorities.

Then there was the question of his band, Los Cocineros. Largely under his direction, Los Cocineros became the most successful band to come out of Córdoba in years, cutting five albums and breaking onto the large festival scene. But while Barbieri began negotiations with the cultural director at the University of Córdoba to run a show promoting free speech, even some in the intimate circle of his band began to insinuate he should leave the contentious issue alone. Los Cocineros’ manager, at first a staunch supporter, changed his tune when contacts began to drop the band and shows in more conservative areas fell through.

Photo courtesy of Alfonso Barbieri

Feeling more and more isolated, Barbieri trudged on and the exhibit at the university was set to open 17th October 2007, with the participation of other local artists who had suffered censorship as well as the screening of a video of Ferrari’s 2004 incident. A day before the inauguration, Barbieri’s dog woke him, uncharacteristically barking at the door. Barbieri smelled smoke and swung the door open to find it burning. Dragging a hose from his patio, he was able to put the fire out before it spread.

A police investigation found kerosene had been sloshed onto and around the door, confirming it as an act of arson. A stick broken from a tree outside his house had been stuck through the mail slot to facilitate the entrance of flames to the interior of the apartment. Shaken, he decided to go to the exhibit at the university despite the violent message.

Espina did not show up that evening, but sent a letter to the university denouncing the exhibit as ‘blasphemous and pornographic’ and urging officials to cancel their plans. In his stead was an unlikely troop of taxi drivers lined up outside the university, insulting people entering the exhibit, something profoundly disturbing for Barbieri. The taxi drivers went on their own volition, swept up in the storm of indignation touched off by Espina.

“They admitted on video-taped interviews that they were Catholics, not Lefebrvites,” Barbieri said. These were essentially concerned Catholic citizens who felt Barbieri had overstepped the limits of freedom of expression.

Barbieri says he has no problem with people who have faith in God, no problem with taxi drivers who draw daily strength from a dashboard icon of the Virgin Mary. For him, presence of the cabbies was an example of the dangerous way fundamentalism spills out of cloistered circles like Espina’s, outside and into mainstream society.

It should be noted that Córdoba is hardly a far-flung hinterland cut off from the modern world. Although shrouded by overarching Buenos Aires, it’s a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, an industrial powerhouse and a ‘university town’.Hostels and hotels dot the streets of the downtown historical district where backpackers and other tourists mix with local students hustling to classes. Signs of the city’s roots in religion are everywhere, but on the surface it seems to be a cosmopolitan, if a bit sleepy, town.

However, the sequence of events exposed Córdoba in an irreconcilable way for Barbieri, prompting him to leave his home of 20 years for Buenos Aires.He quit Los Cocineros and, from the relative anonymity of the big city, picked up the pieces. The move, he says, was difficult, but his situation is improving. He got to work on a solo album, due out in November, and began playing shows around the city.

Alfonso Barbieri (photo: Emily Anne Epstein)

In retrospect, he says his encounter with the religious right poked a hole in Córdoba’s façade, revealing a surprising reservoir of intolerance. He maintainsthat provincial officials are still overwhelmingly conservative and calls it a breeding ground for fundamentalism.

He is also largely disappointed by the reactions of many people around him: Salzano, his publisher, band mates. But while he regrets the experience as personally frightening and even tragic, he says the intense media coverage the event received marked something of a watershed for many in Córdoba.

Although Espina did manage to win over some, he suspects others who are far closer ideologically to Espina than to Barbieri could not side with the priest’s tactics. 

He is also encouraged by recent news that some kind of trial, although it’s unclear when and exactly against whom, is pending for the vandalism at CCEC.A conviction in a court of law, he says, would solidify public opinion against Espina as well as prove that Cordoba’s justice system is willing to stand up against fundamentalism and protect basic rights like freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, Barbieri will be exercising his rights at Centro Cultural Rojas with a retrospective that includes fragments of the destroyed drawings. The exhibit opens on Wednesday 17th October at 7pm. To see more of his work, check out his blog, alfonsobarbieri8.blogspot.com, and for preview of his new album go to www.myspace.com/alfonsobarbieri

Posted in ArtComments (0)

La Virgen del Cerro

Photo by Kate Granville-Jones

On a green hill above the city of Salta, the murmuring of cicadas blends with the susurrant prayers of thousands of pilgrims. Yellow butterflies tumble over the heads of the faithful, who sit on plastic chairs and steps among the trees, waiting to feel the presence of the Virgin.

Every weekend, busloads of porteños leave the big city and endure the 18-hour trip from the capital to Salta. Together with devotees from all over the country, they come to the sanctuary at Tres Cerritos to see and be touched by one woman they hope will be able to convince the Virgin to answer their prayers.

In 1990, María Livia Galliano de Obeid, a housewife with three children, began to hear the voice of the Mother of God. Soon after, the Virgin appeared to her as a beautiful 14-year-old girl, surrounded by a brilliant star.

Fortunately, she had enough presence of mind to grab her camera and photograph the apparition – and the Virgin didn’t seem to mind.

Over the following years, the Virgin continued to appear to Maria Livia, communicating messages: to love and adore Jesus, to prepare for his second coming, and to know that the path of hope leads to God. In 1997, the Archbishop of Salta, Moisés Julio Blanchoud, gave his authorisation for publication of these messages in a best-selling book.

In 2000, the Virgen asked Maria Livia for an ‘elevated sanctuary’ at Tres Cerritos.

The sanctuary was built at all haste in just seven months, and since it was completed in late 2001, Maria Livia has received the faithful, the curious, and the desperate, in a lush green clearing on the top of the hill.

On an average Saturday, 30,000 pilgrims make the trip, says Teresa Victoria Gallo, one of the army of blue-necktied ‘servant volunteers’ that swarm over the site. The day I am here is a quiet one – as it is the Saturday between Christmas and New Year, Gallo estimates a turn out of only 15,000 people.

After hours of rosary recital and soft music, relaxing though it is, I am hankering for the main event. In the early afternoon, Señora Maria Livia finally appears. In a pleated beige skirt, modest white blouse and sneakers, she looks nondescript, like anyone’s auntie. Her expression alternates between one of serious piety and a beatific smile.

People continue to arrive – two young handicapped girls in wheelchairs, old people with sticks and walking frames, young couples, families.

A wizened old man, attached to a mobile drip, limps out in front of the crowd. Señor Luis Jorge Clemente is the beneficiary of the Blessed Virgin’s latest miracle. His granddaughter reads his testimony: after 55 years of smoking, Señor Clemente, not particularly surprisingly, came down with pulmonary emphysema five years ago. With his life in danger, his desperate daughter brought his image to Maria Livia, who prayed for him.

Photo by Kate Granville-Jones

The very same day, Señor Clemente developed a sudden intense disgust for cigarettes, and refused to touch them ever again. “It’s a tremendous miracle,” he says, emotionally. Although to a cynic like me, it would seem that Clemente’s miracle had perhaps come a little too late, his story draws heartfelt applause from the appreciative audience.

The climax of the day’s events occurs later in the afternoon, when pilgrims line up to receive the blessing of the Virgin from Maria Livia. The line is enormous, snaking back and forth through the clearing. I take my place in the queue, shunted into position by the ever-helpful volunteers.

Some people in are wheelchairs, others hold babies in their arms. All wait in silence as the Señora approaches.

She touches each pilgrim firmly on the shoulder, and closes her eyes. Five people away from me, a grown man faints at her touch, dropping limply into the arms of waiting volunteers. They lay him gently on the ground until he recovers.

People all along the line are fainting. Some sob with silent tears after she touches them. The woman next to me gives a sharp intake of breath, her eyes flutter, and she loses consciousness.

Now it’s my turn. The Señora is in front of me. She is calm, gentle, plump – and very much in control. I feel a strange thrill of anticipation.

She holds my left hand in hers, and places the other on my shoulder, closes her eyes…

…and nothing happens. She moves on to the next person, and suddenly, it’s over.

I guess it only works if you believe.

I sneak away from the prostrate bodies and the intense atmosphere of heightened emotion, and sit on a bench by the carpark. A trio of elderly pilgrims pass me on the way to the bus. “Muy hermosa, muy linda” one old woman tells me. “It was very beautiful, very personal with the Virgin.”

I have to leave. It all just feels a little too wholesome, a little too peaceful, a little too ‘nice’ – but then, I am a heathen unbeliever.

As I leave, Maria Livia is still making her way slowly along the line of pilgrims, healing arm outstretched. One by one, they drop to the ground. Buses wait to collect worn-out pilgirms. Cicadas buzz.

And next Saturday, she will do it all over again.

Posted in Travel FeatureComments (0)

Locally Miraculous: Argentina’s Unofficial Saints

A fleeting glimpse of red flags out a bus window; a tiny shrine littered with car parts and water bottles on the road towards Chile; a queue of pilgrims passing through a remote town.

Hundreds of small shrines dot the deserted highways of outback northern Argentina. As you travel around the country, you may notice these subtle, but deeply significant physical representations of Argentines’ devotion to a form of popular spirituality that is largely ignored by the Catholic Church.

Today, many Catholic Argentines pray to figures such as Difunta Correa, and the 19thcentury bandit Gauchito Gil, to solve their problems and grant their prayers, despite the fact that the Church does not officially recognise them as saints.

There are thousands of different folk saints in Argentina. Many town cemeteries in the northern provinces will have at least one miraculous shrine – the grave of some local figure who is believed especially efficacious in the provision of everyday miracles.

Statue of Difunta Correa (Photo: Kate Stanworth)

Difunta Correa is perhaps the most well-known Argentine folk saint. Deolinda Correa (difunta means ‘deceased’) died around 1835 in San Juan. According to the most popular version of the story, she became lost in the desert while pursuing her husband. He had been forcibly conscripted to fight in the Argentine civil wars, fallen sick, and been abandoned – but tragically, Deolinda never found him. Carrying her infant son in her arms, she succumbed to thirst and exhaustion. Passing gauchos found her body days later, and found the child alive, having survived by nursing at her miraculously ever-full breast.

Gauchos and truck drivers became her first devotees, creating small altars, and leaving bottles of water to quench her eternal thirst. Devotion began in the 1890s, and strengthened through the 20th century.She became recognised as the patron of travellers, and her shrines are now found on even some of the most remote roads in the country.

If you’re travelling in Corrientes, look out for a flash of bright red flags draped from a tree or fence – it’s likely to be a shrine to the handsome, Robin Hood-type cowboy Gaucho Gil. Little is known for certain about Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, the gaucho on whom the legend is based, except that he died in around 1878, and there are many different versions of his story.

Shrine to Gauchito Gil (Photo: Kate Granville-Jones)

Generally, though, Gil is held to be a kind of noble bandit, robbing from the rich but giving to the poor. According to one version, he was recruited from his home in Corrientes to fight in the War of the Triple Alliance in Paraguay. He deserted, and was hunted down by the local police. They captured him in the forest, tortured, and hung him from an algarrobo tree. As a policeman prepared to kill him, Gil told him: “Your son is very ill, if you pray to him, the child will live. If not, he will die.” The policeman ignored him, and cut Gaucho Gil’s throat.

When the policeman returned to his village, he found that his son was indeed ill. Terrified, he prayed to Gaucho Gil to save him – and miraculously, he was cured. Gil had saved his murderer’s son, and in gratitude, the policeman gave him a proper burial, and built a sanctuary. The story spread and devotees have prayed to Gil ever since.

Argentina has a tradition of ‘sanctifying’ popular figures, especially if they died young. Think of the cult-like devotion surrounding Evita, and tango star Carlos Gardel in the years after their deaths. In addition to Gaucho Gil and Difunta Correa, there are thousands of folk saints throughout the country – some restricted to a particular village, some nationally popular. Some of the most well-known include San la Muerte in Corrrientes/Chaco, Jose Dolores in San Juan, Maria Soledad in Catamarca, and Pedro Sangueso in Salta.

Shrine to Gauchito Gil (Photo: Kate Granville-Jones)

The crucial factor in these stories, and in those of contemporary folk saints, is the tragic death of the protagonist. According to Dr Frank Graziano, a US Hispanic Studies scholar whose recent book ‘Cultures of Devotion’ examines folk religion across Latin America, a tragic death brings the soul closer to God. “It provides a kind of instant purgatory-on-earth,” he says. “The death is so horrible that their sins are wiped away, and they go straight to heaven. It’s like a short-cut to God.”

For devotees, praying to folk saints is just a normal part of being Catholic. According to Argentine writer Maria Rosa Lojo, the imagery found in their sanctuaries often symbolically links them to traditional Catholic figures. “We see, for example, the image of Gaucho Gil with the cross on his shoulders. He is linked with the crucified Jesus – a sacrificial lamb – as according to the legend, he died strung up from a tree, his throat cut like a lamb,” she says. Difunta Correa is similarly linked, as a mother, with the Virgin Mary.

However, the Catholic Church does not recognise such figures as part of the official pantheon, requiring at least two proven miracles (verified by doctors and scientists) and a long, bureaucratic process of canonisation. Yet neither can the Church afford to ban them outright, says Rosa Lojo. In fact, many individual bishops and priests sympathise with their flocks. One example is Father Julián Zini, who, Correntino like Gaucho Gil, has dedicated poems and songs to the popular saint.

Other priests see local adoration of folk saints as manifestations of ‘true, deep faith’ but try instead to channel that devotion back to more authorised objects.

However, the growing popularity of saints like Gaucho Gil – he even has a facebook group – suggests that such efforts might be akin to pushing water uphill with a sieve.

Offerings of thanks to Difunta Correa (Photo: Kate Stanworth)

With so many official saints to choose from, why, then, are folk saints like Gaucho Gil and Difunta Correa so popular? Graziano suggests that the personal relationship devotees have with their folk saint is different from the more formal, distant relationships they have with canonised saints. “It’s more intimate, a kind of friendship,” he says.

“Devotees speak about it as though the saint is always with them, inside them. They see the saint as lo nuestro, ‘ours’, as a member of their own community. For example, because Gaucho Gil didn’t steal out of greed, but out of necessity, he understands when his devotees steal to feed their families. You can’t ask St Catherine or St Francis for help with stealing – but you can ask Gaucho Gil,” says Graziano.

Folk saints, like official saints, help their supplicants through the provision of miracles. But, says Graziano, what constitutes a miracle in Latin America compared with, say, the US, is very different. “In Argentina, miracles are daily occurrences,” he says. “If you ask Difunta Correa for protection when you are travelling, and you don’t get a flat tire, and no one robs you on the way, then that’s a miracle.”

Folk saints are widely held to be much more miraculous than the canonised saints, he adds. The explanation devotees have for this is that the local saint has a lighter workload. “Gaucho Gil is mainly for the people of Corrientes, but the Virgin Mary is for everyone around the globe; with her, you have a longer wait. If you’re from Corrientes, and you pray to Gaucho Gil, it’s a shorter waiting list, and you get the miracle right away.”

Lighting candles for Difunta Correa (Photo: Kate Stanworth)

According to Rosa Lojo, folk saints’ popularity lies in their local, grassroots appeal – devotees can identify themselves in these figures who lived on the same soil as they do. Neither does devotion require submitting to the kind of authority embodied by the official Church. “It’s a free movement, unregulated, spontaneous. No one exercises control or enforces an ‘authorised interpretation’ of the faith,” she says.

“And of course, like any sanctified figures, the popular saints are true symbols of the great human drama: their lives symbolise, on the one hand, pain, conflict and suffering; on the other, the possibility of transcending this fragility and precariousness…It’s a real form of ‘empowerment’, of passing from dispossession to knowledge of one’s own power.”

Devotion to folk saints surged after Argentina’s economic crash in 2001-2, as people searched for answers to new problems. Says Graziano: “Folk devotion is based on a need for miracles, and the more screwed up the economy and the social situation, the more people need miracles.”

As folk saints are unconstrained by Vatican orthodoxy, their identities are highly malleable, and can be altered to fit the changing needs of their supplicants. Difunta Correa was traditionally seen as a healer, and a protector of travellers. Yet after the crash, she developed a new ability to help with economic problems – finding work and feeding families.

Even now, folk saints have a special place in the hearts of many Argentines, from all social groups, and from all parts of the country. An Argentine friend I travelled through the northwest with, a young, educated porteño, insisted we leave a bottle of water for Difunta Correa at every shrine we stopped at. “I know it’s silly,” he confided, “but you never know.”

For more information, see ‘Cuerpos Resplandecientes: Santos Populares Argentinos’ by Maria Rosa Lojo, or ‘Cultures of Devotion’ by Frank Graziano. Graziano also has website, www.culturesofdevotion.com, with photos and extra info.

Posted in SocietyComments (1)

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