But who was this revered figure? Antonio Gil was essentially a nineteenth-century Robin Hood figure, who spent his life relieving the rich landowners of their goods and chattels and distributing them among the indentured labourers of the region. He reportedly died from stab wounds in the 1870s – possibly in a fight over a woman – along the main highway near Mercedes. A cross, later known as the Curuchú Gil, was erected in keeping with tradition by the roadside and, so the legend goes, became a place of unofficial cult worship.
Around the middle of the twentieth century – as part of the resistance to the reactionary military regime that ruled Argentina – folklore became a vehicle for progressive, even revolutionary ideas. Building on literature that glorified the gaucho – the cowboy of the Pampas – but emphasizing his independence and carefree spirit as opposed to the more romantic yet nationalistic schools of the 1920s and 1930s, this movement adopted Antonio Gil as a hero and he became known as the Gauchito, or Little Gaucho.
The national mega-shrine dedicated to Gauchito Gil stands a few kilometres west of the tradition-steeped Corrientes market town of Mercedes, way up towards the northern border with Paraguay. The mother of all Gauchito memorials is really more of a township, complete with shanty-style shacks, gaudy souvenir stalls, makeshift eateries and a stage used for music gigs. At weekends people flock to the shrine from miles around to pay tribute and leave a gift for their long-departed hero – a signed photograph of their kith and kin, a specially fashioned plaque thanking the Gauchito Gil for saving someone from death or another fate, blood-red candles guttering on a pagan altar. Fortunes are told, dozens of choripanes (local-style hotdogs) are munched and revellers dance to the bloodcurdling sounds of the chamamé, the local answer to the tango.
Over piping-hot empanadas (traditional Latin American patties containing meat, chicken or cheese) and a bottle of meaty Cabernet Sauvignon by a log fire in Mercedes, I listened to one of the town’s leading lights, Cambá Lacour, as he explained the whole backstory to me. At the ripe age of 82, Cambá is a repository of local history and a fascinating storyteller. The original legend – as so often, lost in the mists of time – has been embellished beyond recognition. A new version of his death began to circulate around five decades ago. Gil, about to be executed by the military for an unknown crime, told his executioner that, when he returned home, he would find that his son was sick, but that he would be cured. This turned out to be true, which explains why so many Argentines believe that Gil was a miraculous faith healer.
On 8 January every year some 300,000 believers, mostly from Buenos Aires, converge on the Mercedes shrine, camping along the main road, to celebrate their hero’s memory. With dancing and singing galore, it is quite a sight to behold and solid evidence that superstition, perhaps more than conventional religion, is alive and well in present-day Argentina. The Gauchito even has a female rival now, Difunta Correa, whose principal shrine is in San Juan Province – but I need more empanadas and wine before I can tell her story.