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7th September 1996 was a rainy day. But it was a Saturday, and Hugo Alejandro Pastorini and his friends were preparing for a night out when his grandmother told him that popular cumbia artist Gilda was on the TV. “We had a combi that night, you see,” he recalls. “We were going to dance. I couldn’t believe what I saw on the news. They said Gilda died in a car accident.”
An Argentine sweetheart, Gilda was coming back from a tour when a truck crashed into the bus she was travelling in, killing her, her mother, her daughter, three musicians, and the bus driver. Many clubs closed in solidarity with the loss that night; Hugo did not feel like dancing anymore anyway.
Many stars have died prematurely, leaving their fans heartbroken. Gilda’s case, though, is somehow different. Almost 20 years after her death at the age of 34, dedicated followers continue to worship her, with some claiming they have experienced miracles caused by the artist.
Silvina Alejandra Soto was watching TV with her mother when the news of the fatal crash came up. Her mother was a fan of Gilda, and Silvina, who was training to be a singer herself, felt jealous about all the attention given to a cumbia artist they didn’t even know.
She stood up to leave the room, but suddenly sat back down. She says she could feel a pressure on her shoulders, as if somebody was pushing her down, and she was unable to stop crying. She wasn’t a big fan of Gilda, and did not even really like her songs, but says she had experienced contact with the departed before and immediately realised it was the singer’s spirit touching her. She felt she was close to passing out so she told her mother to ask Gilda to let go; only then was she finally able to stop crying. Silvina then dreamt of Gilda alive every night for the next five years, and she decided to devote herself to the singer.
As an artist herself, Silvina says she lets Gilda inspire her when she paints her portraits. It is the singer who tells her how she should be painted through her visions, they co-produce the artwork. She calls this process “channelling”. Silvina also claims that the singer’s energy remains in the photos of her, as well as in her own pieces. “You can see her eyes follow you across the room,” she says “her photograph is a window through which she remains present, keeps you company, brings you peace, and helps you as much as she can, year after year.”
It’s hard to say how many people consider themselves devotees of Gilda. Many of her fans only admire her music, or worship their idol in the privacy of their own homes. But some openly follow her as a kind of “popular saint“.
It was already like this when she was still alive, says Alejandro Margulis, author of the book ‘Gilda, la abanderada de la bailanta’. People would follow her after her shows, asking her to touch them as they believed she could cure their diseases. Being superstitious (she would write prayers against evil spirits in her diary) and Christian herself, Gilda didn’t like it when people called her a saint. She didn’t think she had any sort of superpowers, yet said she believed in the miraculous potential of her music.
After her death, the singer’s most dedicated followers sought out a place where they could express their grief and devotion freely. They gathered in two places in Argentina: the 24th gallery of the Chacarita cemetery in Buenos Aires, where the singer and her family are buried, and Gilda’s ‘sanctuary’ at Km 129 on Ruta Nacional 19, where the fatal accident took place.
The shrine to Gilda in Chacarita fills up at least twice a year: on the anniversaries of her birthday, 11th October, and the accident, 7th September. Some devotees come more frequently, and travel from afar. Hugo lives in Entre Ríos, the province where Gilda’s accident took place. His colleagues cover him at work from time to time when he wants to visit Chacarita. “As a matter of fact, they are pretty tired of doing it,” he admits. “They think I should be more serious about my life.” To avoid trouble at work he tends to visit the roadside sanctuary more often, as it’s not that far from where he lives.
Hugo claims he has been blessed with Gilda’s miracles more than once, and attributes them to helping him make important decisions. He recalls the time when he had no idea what to do with his life and Gilda “appeared on his wall”. That day he realised he wanted to quit his previous job and find a new one. He also started going out more in order to find somebody to share his days with. All of that, he says, was guided by Gilda, and that’s the reason he wants to keep visiting her tomb, in spite of the logistical challenges.
Hugo says he also witnessed a miracle at the scene of her death, when a flag with Gilda’s face painted on it started to cry. Other people saw it too, though some of them think it was a trick, a cheap prank. But Hugo knows it was for real. He owns a photograph of Gilda, and says he chats with her every morning, as if she were his flatmate.
Other followers also claim to feel the presence of Gilda under their roof. “Wherever you look, there is a picture of her,” explains Maxi. “I had to hide most of the things in the boxes though. They were taking up so much space, and I have a baby brother now.”
At 15, Maxi is one of the youngest devotees of Gilda, born a few years after her death. He calls himself Maxi Bianchi (Gilda’s actual name was Miriam Alejandra Bianchi), though this is not his family name. “My parents used to have to bring me here,” he says, “but now I can travel on my own.” It takes him more than an hour to get to Chacarita from his home in La Matanza. “I can’t really feel her here,” he says, about the cemetery. “But I still come every Saturday.”
Maxi started listening to Gilda’s music about five years ago, after he heard a special radio programme on the anniversary of her death. He would confuse her with other cumbia singers, yet he liked her music so he started looking for more information about her. He then noticed that her presence was surrounding him – his neighbours were listening to her, and he himself became obsessed with some of her songs, like ‘Paisaje’ or ‘No me arrepiento de este amor’.
During his summer holidays he decided to visit the sanctuary, where he was given a vignette with Gilda’s photograph. About a month later his pregnant mother suffered from internal bleeding and the family thought she would lose the baby. Maxi decided to ask Gilda for help. “I promised her I would visit her in Chacarita if everything went fine,” he says. The next day his mother was able to return home, and although she needed to rest, she was feeling good. Just as he had promised, Maxi went to Chacarita, where he got in touch with other fans. He started coming every Saturday. “I let them know when I come,” Maxi says “otherwise I have to spend the whole day here alone.” When asked about his peers, Maxi say they admire her as an artist, but are not as devoted to Gilda as he is. His parents don’t join him at Chacarita either. “There is just something about her energy,” he says. “She makes me feel positive. I definitely am a believer.”
Despite their apparent devotion, none of the Gilda fans spoken to to considers their faith in the cumbiera as idolatry. “I’m Catholic, and I actually think it’s God speaking through Gilda,” says Maxi. According to the teenager, you can consider anyone who has proven miracles to be a saint. “It could be Gilda, it could be my grandfather…” he says. “I don’t want to be mixing things. But if you ask for a favour, and it becomes true, I think this person is a saint.”
Silvina also sees a profound connection between her admiration for Gilda and religion. She doesn’t think Gilda is a pagan saint, but an angel, who not only helped her with her art through her visualisations (“She gives me visions I didn’t have before”), but also brought her closer to God. “In my dreams Gilda would tell me many times that the miracles are God’s blessings, not hers. She prays to God for my health on my behalf, and then miracles happen,” Silvina explains. “Gilda also helped me understand the Bible, not through the religion, but through my heart. She made me see the value of Christ’s sacrifice.” Silvina makes it clear that she doesn’t consider herself a fan of Gilda, although she knows many who are. “She’s a kind of an older sister to me, maybe a teacher. She’s strict, but loving, and she makes you feel it.”
But there is also a darker side to the Gilda legend. Humberto Grillo, the guard of the gallery where Gilda’s tomb is placed, explains that some people would get upset about her followers gathering at her grave. Two of them were especially unhappy about it, claiming the devotees were too loud. They both died on the 7th September, same date as Gilda. Now they are buried in the same building as her, forever hearing Gilda receive visits from her followers.
“It’s like they had been trying to take ‘Gil’ down you see,” explains Maxi, “and she ended up taking them down herself.” Isn’t that a cruel thing to do? “It’s weird, right?” says Maxi. “But she used to say her character was pretty complicated. She would say things right into your face. They probably really pissed her off.”
Claudio Milano admits that not all of Gilda’s followers respect the place. They write things for Gilda on other tombs, forgetting she isn’t there alone. He and some others come and clean the place for everybody.
Unlike many of the fans at Chacarita, Claudio actually got to see Gilda sing live, a thing that Maxi can only see in documentaries. He says that when she was singing in clubs, she would really devote herself to her fans, giving them advice. “But she wouldn’t make you feel weird,” he admits “she was just a normal person.” After the shows she would take photos and talk to the people. Claudio started following her shows (“I would ask her where she would be singing next”) and formed her fanclub. He became involved in a conflict with a president of another fanclub of Gilda. “We were young and stupid”, he says “we wanted to be important, and more important than the other. We forgot it was all about Gilda and that she is the only one that matters.”
Claudio even got to know her family, after becoming a father for the first time as an unemployed teenager. Gilda’s brother agreed to be his lawyer and he won the custody over his oldest daughter, something that had seemed to be impossible. This was after Gilda’s death, and for Claudio, it could have been a miracle. He named one of his daughters Gilda, and says his kids are all fans of Gilda’s music.
Part of Gilda’s appeal, according to both Maxi and Claudio, is that she herself didn’t have an easy life. They say she was close to the people because she herself was one of the people. She had to drop out of school after her father’s death and started her own family at a young age. According to Claudio, you can understand her music regardless of where you are from or who you are.
Alejandro Margulis says that Gilda first became popular among the poor, before her fame spread to middle and upper classes. She’s also an idol for the LGBT community in Argentina. Even high-level politicians are believed to be fans.
“I have given President Cristina tonnes of photos of Gilda,” Claudio says. “She’s also a fanatic.”
“And so’s Mauricio Macri,” adds Maxi. The latter uses Gilda’s songs in his political campaigns.
There’s an urban legend about one of Gilda’s songs, ‘No es mi despedida’ (This isn’t goodbye). Many claim she knew she was going to die when she recorded the song. Maxi is not so sure. “I don’t know…” he says. “She was so special. Maybe she really knew something was going to happen.”
Claudio is is more sceptical – “That’s just marketing” – as he believes she sang the song for her Bolivian friend, hoping to see her again soon.
But they both agree though that Gilda is still present and that you can feel it through her music – or her miracles. “You go for it,” Claudio says. “Ask her for something. You’ll see she will help you too.”