A continental montage of weird and wonderful ‘cults’ exist in Latin America, with many holding historical ties to the Catholic religion and to ancient mythology, as well as modern phenomena. The somewhat strange sites of worship that have emerged offer an interesting spider’s web of tradition to anyone who gets up the ganas to visit.
Argentina has its own national set, some of which have acquired devotees by the tens of thousands. Besides the well-known Luján pilgrimage, Argentine fanatical tendency affords a colourful range of pilgrimages related to religion, folk legend, and myth. This week’s Top 5 brings you a selection of alternative options for you to choose according to your tastes.
Difunta Correa, Vallecito, San Juan
Defined as the ultimate expression of motherly love and fidelity, Difunta Correa, ‘Deceased Correa’, is part of Argentina’s deeply-ingrained folk saint phenomenon. Probably the best known alternative saint, the abandoned Correa died from thirst in the San Juan desert between 1840 and 1850.
Legend has it that her husband was involuntarily recruited by the montoneras to fight in the Argentine civil war, but, after becoming sick, was left for dead by his army. The ever-devoted Correa took to the desert to reach her husband, following the tracks of the montoneras, baby in hand. Having died in her pursuit, her body was discovered by gauchos and, miraculously, her baby was found still alive and feeding on the infinite breast milk of its deceased mother.
Correa’s reputation in the San Juan region slowly grew. Then, in 1898, tragedy struck for the gaucho Don Pedro Flavio Zebollos, who, after a ferocious storm, lost a cattle-herd of 500 to scurrying plight. It is said that he prayed to Difunta Correa, who answered his call and returned his cattle, all in one piece. The story spread like wild-fire, and a sanctuary sprang from her originally simple grave.
Today, in Vallecito, a town of chapels has been developed for her devotees to leave offerings. Some leave wedding dresses, car registration plates and litres upon litres of water, which tradition dictates is to ‘calm her eternal thirst’. Cattle ranchers and truck drivers have created alters along roadsides across the country, decorated with images and sculptures of Difunta Correa.
Though unrecognised by the Catholic Church, her followers are now in the 100,000s. Her shrine is visited year round, peaking during Easter and All-Souls Day on 2nd November.
Difunta Correa in Vallecito is a one-hour bus ride from San Juan.
Gauchito Gil, Mercedes, Corrientes
Gauchito Gil, originally called Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, is another legendary folk saint. A robin-hood type character that became sick of fighting for the Argentine civil war, he instead became a thieving outlaw; despised by the rich and protecting the poor. Though the stories vary, it is said that three police men found him in a forest, then tortured and beheaded him in 1878.
Before he was violently killed, the national icon uttered to his murderer: “Your son is very ill, if you pray and beg me to save your child, I promise you that he will live. If not, he will die.”
Following his murder, the policeman returned to his village and was consequently given the news that his child was in a fatal condition. Desperate, he prayed to Gauchito Gil, who in turn saved his child. Forever grateful, Gauchito’s murderer spread his tradition far and wide.
Today, small red shrines can be found on the roadsides of most northern Argentine motor-routes, and great pilgrimages are organised to his sanctuary on route 123, Mercedes, Corrientes. Drivers believe that if they fail to acknowledge or leave offerings to the saint during their journeys, they may crash or breakdown.
Earlier this month, on the 8th of January, over 400,000 people visited the sanctuary of Gauchito Gil to celebrate the anniversary of his death. His followers meet annually to light fireworks, dance, drink, and play traditional sports. The gaucho saint is said to be as much a part of Argentina’s present as he is its past, his appeal extending to all social classes.
Gauchito Gil’s sanctuary in Mercedes is a 3 to 4 hour bus ride from Corrientes.
D10S, Iglesia Maradoniana, Rosario
Diego Maradona, the present day football manager considered by many to have been one of the greatest football players of all time, has been elevated to a godlike status before he has even died.
A church in Rosario, set up by some 200 fans over ten years ago, now has over 120,000 members. Within its religious scriptures the church states: “Football is a religion and, like all religions, has a God. The God of football is Argentine and his name is Diego Armando Maradona.”
Between World Cup wins, league titles in Argentina and Italy, and national cups in Spain and Italy, Maradona has also been individually commended as the best player of the 1986 World Cup, awarded FIFA’s goal of the century, as well as player of the century by the same organisation.
A previous teammate, Jorge Valdano, explained the continued idolisation of this sporting hero as a result of the escape he provided from their painful realities during times of economic and military crisis. “[During such times] Maradona offered Argentines a way out of their collective frustration, and that’s why people love him. He is a divine figure,” Valdano said.
A combination of Argentine madness and an astonishing world-wide love of football, has led to the church of Maradona having ten commandments, ten apostles and the reinvention of the football manager as D10S – a combination of his player number and ‘dios’, the Spanish word for God.
Moreover, statues of the football ‘God’ scatter the street corners of Rosario, over-riding the city’s pre-Maradona pride as the birthplace of the infamous Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
The only visiting times to Iglesia Maradoniana are during ‘Christmas’ which has been repositioned over Maradona’s birthday period on the 29th and 30th of October, or ‘Easter,’ which for Maradona’s followers falls on the 22nd of June – the date when Argentina knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup.
Iglesia Maradoniana is situated in the centre of Rosario
El Angelito MIlagroso or ‘Miguelito’, Villa Unión, La Rioja
Baby Miguel Ángel Gaitán died from meningitis in 1967 and was buried in Villa Unión cemetery. A sad contemporary story, the folk legend begins when a ferocious storm hit the village in 1973, destroying the bricks covering his coffin and exposing his remains, which were revealed to be virtually intact.
Shortly afterwards, a second attempt to keep the baby underground mysteriously failed when the tomb shattered again; this time without the aid of strong winds. It was then decided that the coffin must be left unearthed. The lid of the coffin however was continuously found removed despite efforts to keep it in place. “We put rocks and heavy objects on top, but every morning we found it removed,” Miguel’s mother explained.
Now, people from far and wide come to touch the forehead of the decrepit baby from outside the glass that now serves as a coffin lid. And if the pilgrims are lucky, Miguelito’s mother is at the grave and allows the lid to be opened for them to physically touch the baby’s body.
This ‘miracle child’ has become so popular that two new rooms had to be added to the small vault built to store the pilgrims’ offerings. Bicycles, school folders, toy cars and ribbons make up some of the overbearing volume of gifts left for Miguelito, the excess of which are donated to local schools and raffles. Some say that the toys are sometimes found displaced in the morning, scattered around the cemetery, revealing the tiny saint to have been playing at night.
El Angelito MIlagroso is a 2 hour bus ride from La Rioja
La Virgen de Salta, María Inmaculada Madre del Divino Corazon Eucaristico de Jesús, Tres Cerritos, Salta
María Livia Galliano de Obeid, a housewife with three children, has a unique pastime. Every Saturday, she resides at the top of a hill in Tres Cerritos, blessing the thousands of pilgrims that come to visit her. Many people, including the disabled and elderly, couples and families alike, come to receive her Godly blessing.
The story began in 1990, when Obeid began to hear the voice of the Mother of God who appeared to her as a 14-year-old virgin surrounded by a bright star. Flabbergasted, she still managed to catch a photo of her and over the years, the virgin kept reappearing, telling the woman to prepare for Jesus’ return and to love and adore the prophet.
Then, in 2000, the virgin apparently asked Obeid for an ‘elevated sanctuary’. An area was cleared among the greenery on the hill of Tres Cerritos and her wish was granted.
Today, pilgrims flock in numbers that reach tens of thousands to stand in line every Saturday and be physically, and emotionally, touched by the human vessel of the Mother of God. Many faint, quivering at the virgin’s presence: “When I received the embrace of the blessed virgin, a powerful force of energy made me feel dizzy and I could hardly stand on my feet… The blessing made me overcome my back problems, concerns and anxieties,” recalls one visitor.
Tres Cerritos is a 15-minute bus ride from the centre of Salta.