All over Argentina, his small shrines can be found along roadsides. They are often ramshackle, little more than a crate containing a statue. Sometimes they are painted red or festooned with red ribbons and cloth. At the center of many of these shrines stands a statue of a man with a long mustache, long black hair, a red kerchief around his neck, wearing white pants and a blue shirt. At his back is a cross, often red. In his hands he holds bolas, which are throwing weapons made of leather or rope connected to as many balls as there are straps. Bolas were the typical weapons of the Argentinian gauchos, or cowboys, who used them to tangle the legs of steers or capture and kill prey animals.
The statue is of Gaucho Gil (often called Gauchito Gil), a legendary figure who is widely venerated as a saint in Argentinian folklore. Like many folk saints, little is known about the historical Gaucho Gil. But his real name was probably Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, and he was most likely born in the early 1840s. He was executed by the government of Argentina in January 1878, and became an enduring legend.
The character of the gaucho has a wide appeal in Argentinian culture. Some parallels exist between the gaucho and the North American cowboy. Both settled in areas far from organized civilization, and worked herds of cattle in remote areas. The gauchos inhabited Argentina's vast, empty grassy plains, called pampas, which are similar to those American cowboys found in the sparsely settled mid-west and Rocky Mountain States. The cowboy and gaucho became legends in their respective countries for their rough and tumble life and their outsider status. In a world filled with corruption, greed and duplicity, the gauchos represented upright, honest and straightforward men. Their very distance from civilization gave them a measure of purity in much the same way that American cowboys, with their laconic speech and action-oriented manner, contrasted to the easterners' hypocrisy and easy, corrupt life.
But for Argentinians, the outsider status of the gaucho took a magnified form. While corruption certainly existed in the United States, fueling the cowboy's archetypal image of the pure outsider, in Argentina the forces that created this contrast were even stronger. Throughout its long history, Argentina has been haunted by inefficient and corrupt governments that have preyed on the common people. So the figure of the gaucho took on far more epic, mythological, and even religious proportions than the cowboy. And with the model of Catholic veneration of saints, there was little to stop Gaucho Gil from moving past popular hero to venerated folk saint.
Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez is as much an historic blank slate as Robin Hood. And the analogy is appropriate, as both lack reliable documentation of their lives (or even their real existence), and both played a similar role in folk mythology. Like Robin Hood, Gaucho Gil was an outlaw who used his considerable skill at robbery for the benefit of the poor. Nearly every culture has a character like Robin Hood who steals from the rich to give to the poor. The reason for their popularity is obvious: poor people feel encouraged by stories of heroes who steal from the rich and corrupt.
Gaucho Gil is also viewed as "one of us." As a gaucho, he is something unique to Argentina. Gaucho Gil, unlike many canonical Catholic saints, is a native product. He harnesses the impulses and drives of South American Catholicism, and molds them into uniquely local concerns, which eventually allowed Gaucho Gil's story to parallel Jesus Christ's. The story of the humble person who is forced to break the law out of conviction because the law is inherently corrupt, and who is captured through duplicity and then executed in a violent way, has a powerful appeal among people cut off from economic and political power.
As with the lore of most folk saints, the story of Gaucho Gil is told in many versions. Unless devotees set his or her story in writing, there is little to prevent the tale of a folk saint from changing frequently through the years, depending upon location, time and need. One of the most common stories about Gaucho Gil's origins is that during a civil war in 1875, he was forcibly recruited into a gaucho militia. He deserted shortly after, as he did not wish to kill his fellow countrymen. Some tales claim hold an angel came to him and told him to desert; others stories claim that a Native American god appeared to Gil in a dream telling him he must leave the militia. Either way, after desertion, Gil was forced to live outside the bounds of civilization, and so began his career as the Argentinian Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and corrupt and giving to the poor. He developed a wide following. Gil was a charismatic man, handsome and noble, and his gaze was supposedly hypnotic.
The story reports that on the 6th of January, 1878, Gaucho Gil was at a party for the feast of St. Baltasar. He was betrayed by a friend and captured by the authorities. He went peaceably, and was taken on a transport to the town of Goya. On the way, just outside of Mercedes, the sergeant in command executed Gil under the pretext that he was trying to escape. Gil was hung upside down from a tree and his head was cut off with his own knife, which he freely offered up for his own execution. Before he was killed, Gaucho Gil kill told the sergeant that his murder was unjust, and that the sergeant was spilling innocent blood. He also told the sergeant that the man's son was home sick, and that Gaucho Gil would intercede in heaven to spare the boy's life.
When the police arrived in Goya, they found that Gaucho Gil had been pardoned of his crimes and would have been freed had he not been executed. The sergeant went to his house and found that his son was indeed on the brink of death. He prayed to Gaucho Gil for aid, and the miracle was granted. His son fully recovered, and in appreciation, the sergeant went back to the site of the murder and erected a cross in the ground that had been reddened by Gaucho Gil's blood. With the erection of this cross, devotion to Gaucho Gil began.
The details of Gaucho Gil's story tell a great deal about the desires and dreams of the people. Guacho Gil was a man forcibly conscripted by a rebel government to perform immoral deeds he was unwilling to carry out; when he escaped, he used his outlaw status to help people. He was betrayed by a friend at a religious function, and was illegally killed by the police. Just before his beheading, he revealed a prophetic gift to his murderer. The sergeant returned home to find the prophecy true, appealed for Gaucho Gil's intercession, and it was granted. In gratitude, Guacho Gil's former enemy became his first devotee. There are obvious parallels between Gaucho Gil and Christ. Gaucho Gil selflessly went to his own death neither fighting nor abusing those who killed him. In fact, he came to their aid after death. His tragic and unjust death purged him of all sin, and he went immediately to heaven. And through the blood of his sacrifice, he helped save people in desperate need.
The cross at the location of his death signifies a telling marker of folk devotion. In European Medieval folk custom, crosses often marked areas of great religious importance. In the early spread of the Church in northern Europe, crosses were placed on former native pagan shrines, in order to keep the power of the location while eliminating the pagan iconography. Crosses were also erected at important junctures deemed to have great power. They were placed on property lines, near important rocks and trees, placed on top of hills, and near prominent roads to protect travelers. Many medieval legends recount spirits residing near these crosses, and prayers and sacrifices offered to placate them. Crosses were said to possess great power: they could ward off the devil and protect a community from human and natural disasters. Tellingly, most of these early crosses were without the image of Christ, and were venerated in themselves for their special or magical power --- not in memory of Christ's crucifixion.
Crosses in early Christianity marked the nexus where Christianity and native beliefs mingled. Early Argentine crosses served the same purpose. They were usually placed at the location of a person's death, and became a visible symbol of the boundary between the living and the dead. These crosses, often near roads, became natural stopping places for travelers, who would light candles for the dead person, and leave a sacrifice or offering of some sort in order to petition the dead to appeal to God for their safe journey. Crosses came to mark places where people left offerings for the safe passage of the dead to heaven. Gaucho Gil's cross may have originated with just such a function. Someone (whether it is Gaucho Gil himself can never be known) died on the site and the cross became a focal point of devotion. Reports from the 1940s indicate that people left cash, food and other valuables at the cross, and so it became a location to give money and food to the poor of the region.
This connection of the cross and devotion to Gaucho Gil is further confirmed by early references to the site of his death as "la Cruz de Gil," and " la Cruz Gil," or Gil's Cross. At some point, the cross as a memorial to a death, and the specific death of Gaucho Gil, became fused. It was no longer the cross that had the power to answer people's prayers and petitions, but the spotless soul of Gaucho Gil.
The iconography of Gaucho Gil's veneration eventually became fixed. The statue of Gil is usually placed in front of a cross, or even affixed to it, as if Gaucho Gil is being crucified. Here local tradition is combined with the Catholic universal tradition. Gaucho Gil, in his cowboy attire and with bolas in his hands, is a stand-in for Jesus: he died as a sacrifice to free his devotees from sin. Over the years, the veneration of Gaucho Gil would become even more formalized, especially at his principal shrine in Mercedes. But there would remain a great deal of fluidity in the devotion of Gaucho Gil. And this is one of the hallmarks of the folk saint.
A Cowboy Shrine
Folk saints (like their officially recognized counterparts) are intimately tied to shrines. Often, a saint has a primary shrine, and then other shrines of lesser importance spring up in various places. This is the case with Gaucho Gil.
Gaucho Gil's main shrine, in the province of Corrientes in northeastern Argentina, is frequented throughout the year, but most pilgrims arrive during the festival commemorating his death on January 8th. The shrine is then converted into a festival site with music, devotees dressed as gauchos, food vendors, and souvenir sellers. People arrive by all manner of conveyance --- on foot and by donkey, horse, or bus. In 2004, nearly 600,000 people attended the festival --- an enormous number that is witness to the popularity of the folk saint's devotion.
Gaucho Gil's traditional color is red, and it becomes conspicuous on his festival day. Red flags and banners festoon buildings and trees. The red is associated with Gaucho Gil's blood, which was spilled as a sacrifice, but it is too a color traditionally employed to bring luck and ward off evil. Gaucho Gil is also commemorated in numerous Argentinean roadside shrines, which usually feature a cross and strips of red cloth. Sometimes, people create domestic shrines to Gaucho Gil in houses, in order to return favors granted by the saint. If a miracle Gaucho Gil wrought is particularly splendid, such a domestic shrine may become a local shrine, with its keeper allowing people to enter and beg Gaucho Gil for help. Following World War II, these local shrines, especially in Buenos Aires, became even more prominent with the large scale movement of rural people to big cities. Often, local folk saints like Gaucho Gil are carried along with internal migrations, and new centers of devotion are created in different parts of the country.
Unlike other folk saints in South America, Gaucho Gil enjoys a certain neutral acceptance from the Catholic Church. This is due in part to his festival bringing so much tourist money to the region where his shrine is located, which creates strong political and economic pressure for the church to participate in the festival. Our Lady of Miracles, the parish church, partakes in the annual event by saying a mass for the soul of Gaucho Gil. By doing so, the church does not necessarily endorse Gaucho Gil as a saint, for any deceased Catholic may have a mass said for the benefit of his or her soul. But for devotees of Gaucho Gil, church involvement in the festival is viewed as a tacit endorsement of his sainthood --- if not more.
During the festival, the cross from the Gaucho Gil shrine is brought to the church, mass is said in the morning, and then a procession, known as a caravana, returns the blessed cross to the shrine. As the procession departs, the cross is joined by gauchos on horseback and people on foot and in cars, all displaying red banners. The festival is restrained while at the church, but when it reaches Gaucho Gil's shrine, it becomes a party, with people drinking, dancing, and offering up food and drink to him.
The growth of Gaucho Gil in recent years is due, at least in part, to the efforts of a local priest named Father Julian Zini. Zini is well-trained in the reforming doctrines of Vatican II, and sees the devotion to Gaucho Gil as a legitimate expression of the people's religious needs. He takes into account the forcible conversion of the local Guarani Indians to Roman Catholicism and the relative failure of the church in the region to teach the people its doctrines. According to Zini, it is the failure of the church to guide the people toward more normative Catholic beliefs that has led to Gaucho Gil's popularity. Gaucho Gil fills a need: he is seen by the people of the region as "their" saint. He understands the specific problems of his devotees because in life and death, he is one of them. And he fills the vacuum of a largely indifferent Catholic Church.
But around 1980, the local church was less tolerant of Gaucho Gil's devotion. Hard-line bishops issued statements trying to turn people away from his veneration. Most of the Church arguments against Gaucho Gil focused on his non-official status. He is not a saint, so he cannot be officially appealed to as an intercessor with God. Perhaps because the Church does not control the shrine and can neither control nor derive economic benefit from its activities, pastoral letters and pronouncements in the 1980s denounced the shrine as little more than a front for charlatans to defraud naïve people of money.
But this hard line position ended when a bishop was who was more amendable to Gaucho Gil was assigned to the area. This represented a major recent change in devotion, which has grown tremendously in the last twenty years. The shrine in Mercedes has since developed in a haphazard fashion to meet the increasing needs of pilgrims. A shanty-town has arisen around the shrine, and is the home to merchants who sell food and souvenirs. But as the local government has sought to harness the economic power of Gaucho Gil devotion, the poverty of the shanty has been viewed as an impediment to the growth of the shrine. Residents of Mercedes had often used the shrine as a place for picnics, but with the growing numbers of crowds and merchant residents, they have no longer been able to do so because of a lack of space and the sense that the area around the shrine is not safe.
The shantytown has grown in response to the enormous rise in pilgrimages to the site, as vendors who once stayed only for the annual festival now remain for the whole year. Unlike folk saints in South America, where devoted groups offer religious objects for free, or give them in exchange for voluntary donations, everything at Gaucho Gil's shrine is sold. In recent years, commercial encroachment on the shrine has almost eclipsed the sacred space itself.
A non-profit organization was recently set up to deal with some of these issues at the shrine, but it very quickly disbanded due to misappropriation of funds. The local government intervened, forming a bureau to control the shrine's administration, and one of its first acts was to evict the residents of the shanty. The shanty residents resisted, and the case went to the courts. At this point (2011), there has been no resolution. The current struggle between the local government and the residents of the shrine only mirrors the long term struggle of the church and state against the devotion to Gaucho Gil. From their perspective, people without money or power are being forced by those with money and power to abandon their beliefs and livelihood by illegal means. They maintain that just as the church tried to take Gaucho Gil's veneration from the people, now the government wants to control the shrine and the merchants' small incomes. So once again, a struggle revolving around Gaucho Gil ensues between the haves and have-nots.
What will become of Gaucho Gil? Will he ever be formalized as a Catholic saint? The canonized saints nearly all started as folk saints. In time, the practices at a shrine or grave can become fixed, the images of a saint can become set, and with Church endorsement, they can be officially embraced and controlled. But this course seems unlikely for Gaucho Gil. There is a lack of historically verifiable evidence of his existence (although there are many examples of canonical saints with the same lack of a paper trail), and no "documented" cases of miracles have been ascribed to him after his death. But these seem simply technical points. Probably Gaucho Gil will never become a saint because his devotion is too heavily colored by the local culture. There may be too much kitsch in Gaucho Gil veneration, and to remove or sanitize the commercial elements would transform Gaucho Gil into something else entirely, and no doubt strip him of much of his appeal.
But the fact is, whether Gaucho Gil is an official saint or not seems to matters little. For now, he remains extremely popular in Argentina --- even more so than official Catholic saints. The evolution of devotion around him is evidence of this, and remains cause for fulfillment among the people who believe in his power.
This article is part of a larger work-in-progress Eric Maroney is writing about folk and popular religion called Great Tradition, Little Tradition: Popular Religion in the West and East. Please contact the author for the sources of this article: firstname.lastname@example.org