Along roadsides throughout Argentina you’ll see mysterious shrines of varying sizes, smothered in red flags, red candles, empty bottles and other miscellaneous bits and pieces. These are erected in homage to the semi-mythical Gauchito Gil, a kind of nineteenth-century gaucho Robin Hood – one of those folkloric figures whose story has some basis in reality yet has undoubtedly been embellished over the years.
Born – perhaps – in 1847 in Corrientes, Antonio Gil refused to fight in that province’s civil war and fled to the mountains, robbing from the rich, helping the poor and healing with his hands. Captured by the police, he claimed that he had deserted from the army as he had been told in a dream by a Guaraní god that brothers shouldn’t fight each other. An unimpressed sergeant took him out to a spot near Mercedes to execute him. Gil told the sergeant that when he returned to town he would find that his son was seriously ill, but as Gil’s blood was innocent it could perform miracles, so the sergeant must pray for his intervention. Unmoved, the sergeant cut Gil’s throat. When he returned to town, he found that the situation was indeed as the gaucho had described, but – after fervent prayer – his son made a miraculous recovery.
The sergeant put up the first shrine to thank him, and Gauchito Gil has since been credited with numerous miracles and honoured with many shrines, all bedecked in the distinctive red flags – which may represent his neck scarf soaked in blood – making the shrine look like the aftermath of a left-wing political demonstration after all the protesters have gone home. The shrine erected near Mercedes, on the place where he was killed, presumably began life as a simple affair, but such is the popularity of Gauchito Gil that the site has mushroomed over time into a vast villa of humble restaurants, makeshift sleeping areas and souvenir stalls; there is even a kind of museum exhibiting the offerings made to the Gauchito, such as football shirts, wedding dresses and children’s bicycles, along with more conventional rosaries. Simpler offerings, often made by passing motorists to ensure a safe journey, include ribbons and candles. January 8 sees Gauchito Gil pilgrims flock to the main shrine from the whole country. There is a close parallel with the folk-saint shrines to the Difunta Correa, whose main pilgrimage site lies near San Juan but is also honoured by smaller versions nationwide.