- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

MERCEDES, Corrientes, Argentina — Luis Adelardo Dominguez looks uncomfortable. Smartly dressed in tan corduroy slacks and a plaid shirt, a cell phone neatly holstered at his hip, he kneels awkwardly to pray beside a dusty roadside in Corrientes, an agricultural province near Argentina’s border with Paraguay.

After a four-year job search, Mr. Dominguez, a well-educated corporate manager from Buenos Aires, finally has found new employment. He has come to Corrientes to light a candle to mark his good fortune, pray and thank Antonio “Gauchito” Gil, his favorite saint.

Gauchito Gil is no saint recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. An itinerant Argentine cowboy and outlaw born in obscurity in the late 1840s, Gil nevertheless is revered as a kind of South American Robin Hood and is widely credited by Argentina’s rural poor to have performed a miracle with his last breath.

“I wanted to work because I still felt useful,” says Mr. Dominguez, 60, tears of emotion welling in his eyes. “I would have done anything — except kill, rob or lose my dignity. I planned to come and visit Gauchito Gil’s shrine to ask his help. The following day, I got an interview.

“After four long years of searching, I start work on Monday. It’s a question of faith, I suppose, but I consider this a miracle.”

Mr. Dominguez is far from alone in attributing his good fortune to Argentine farmhand Antonio Gil, who lived and died near the town of Mercedes, Corrientes. Millions of Argentines have incorporated Gil alongside the pantheon of Roman Catholic saints, seeing no contradiction with their Christian faith in invoking Gil to protect them from calamity and ill health.

Travel even a short distance on rural Argentine roads, and you’ll see many shrines devoted to Gil, with their tiny, red-painted altars marked by giveaway clusters of fluttering red flags.

Throughout the country, devotees place gaudily painted statues of El Gauchito in their homes or hang blood-red ribbons, symbolizing Gil’s violent death, in their cars.

Indeed, interest in the Gauchito Gil phenomenon has spread so rapidly through Argentina in recent years that even fashionable Buenos Aires galleries run art shows related to the folk hero.

Much of Antonio Gil’s birth or early life remains obscure, but he was conscripted into the army and deserted. Living as an outlaw, he robbed the rich but shared his spoils with the poor, who sheltered him in return.

It is thought that Antonio Mamerto Nunez Gil reached adulthood in the 1860s, when northern Argentina was a war-torn, lawless place.

Having overthrown Spanish colonial rule in 1816, Argentines soon succumbed to bitter internecine fighting that verged on civil war. Life in Corrientes became more violent still in 1864 when the War of the Triple Alliance, which pitted Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against neighboring Paraguay turned it into a frontline province.

Even after the war ground to a halt in 1870, power remained in the hands of caudillos, regional strongmen and warlords.

By the early 1870s, Antonio Gil was working as a farmhand on a ranch in Corrientes owned by Col. Juan de la Cruz. Some say Gil angered de la Cruz by falling in love with the colonel’s daughter. Whatever provoked his rage, de la Cruz pulled some strings and in 1876 arranged for Gil to be conscripted into the Argentine army.

Aghast at the atrocities of the recent war, however, Gil chose to desert.

Having committed a capital offense, he was forced to live on his wits, surviving by stealing food and sharing it with those in the Corrientes countryside who gave him shelter.

The army caught up with Gil in January 1878, and a military court sentenced him summarily to death. On Jan. 8, soldiers marched him toward the town of Goya, the place set for his execution.

Knowing that the soldiers were likely to carry out the execution order before reaching Goya, Gil handed his own knife to the troop sergeant, saying he would rather be killed with his own blade than stabbed in the back.

Gil declared to the sergeant, “By the time you get home, brother, you will find that your youngest son is dying. Do not worry, for he is innocent, and I will ask the Lord to resurrect him this same night.”

Ignoring his words, the trooper gave the order. Gil was hanged by his feet from a nandubay tree and beheaded with his own knife at an isolated spot six miles west of Mercedes.

The following morning, oral history tells us, Gil’s predictions came to pass. The sergeant arrived home to find his son dying of fever. Desperate and distraught, he invoked Gil to intercede with God on his son’s behalf.Within a day, the boy’s sickness had gone.

Penitent and sorrowful, the sergeant constructed a cross from nandubay wood and erected it at Gil’s place of execution. The tree still stands by the side of a lonely road in Corrientes.

The apparent miracle of the boy’s recovery is the foundation of a thriving cult. “Gauchito Gil was a rebel,” says Maria, a local hairdresser who believes in the profane saint’s power to intercede with God. “He stood up against authority and took the side of the poor and humble.”

Folk heroes are common in rural parts of Argentina, where illiteracy and poverty have remained ingrained for centuries. Many inhabitants of Argentina’s western provinces follow La Difunta Correa, a popular saint from San Juan who also is believed to have performed a miracle in the mid-19th century.

However, devotion to Gauchito Gil has spread far from his native Corrientes.

Millions of believers pray to him daily, and pilgrims from as far away as Paraguay, Brazil and Chile regularly visit the place of his execution.

Every Jan. 8, the anniversary of Gil’s death, about 150,000 pilgrims gather at his sanctuary to honor their saint. The crowds swell so large that town authorities have to cut the power supply to Mercedes in order to provide basic services in hastily built encampments set up for the pilgrims.

A livestock settlement of 35,000 inhabitants about 460 miles north of Buenos Aires, Mercedes has changed little since the 1870s. Even today, gauchos decked out in broad-brimmed hats and neckerchiefs, facon daggers ready at hand, ride their horses through town. Brick houses and shops are faded and weather-beaten, stained by moss that thrives in the hot, humid climate.

Just a trickle of foreign visitors passes through town en route to the Esteros del Ibera, a wildlife-rich wetland 70 miles farther north.

The road from town to Gil’s sanctuary crosses a desolate landscape of flat, featureless fields. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the sanctuary sits by the roadside, at first glance little more than a desultory camp of cinder-block sheds roofed with corrugated metal, reminiscent of the slums that mar cities throughout South America.

Step within, however, and you enter a maelstrom of popular worship. Clusters of crosses are garlanded with red carnations and ribbons, flickering candlelight illuminates hundreds of fluttering red flags. Hundreds of stalls offering an incomprehensible array of souvenirs compete with shoeless children who beg or thrust knickknacks into the faces of every new arrival.

The odor of fried food wafts among the stands, vying with the blaring rhythms of cumbia villera, an aggressive dance music popular in Argentine slums. The site is so trash-strewn that even the beggars complain about the filth.

Large sheds — Gauchito “churches” — decorated with life-size statues of the saint sit between the cluttered stalls, their walls covered by plaques inscribed with pious messages. Full of spelling errors, the plaques thank Gil for his protection against infirmity, loss or catastrophe.

“Protect us from all evil,” reads one plaque.

“Thank you for saving me from the eye operation,” says another.

Another reads, “Thank you for saving me from military service.”

Some are more prosaic. An expensively produced silver plaque, resplendent with the shield of Boca Juniors, Argentina’s most fanatically supported soccer team, reads: “These Boca Juniors fans thank you for helping us win the Copa Libertadores in 2000.”

Two sheds contain thousands of vehicle license plates left by drivers seeking protection against road accidents or simply thanking Gil for the good fortune of being able to buy a new car.

Each day, hundreds of pilgrims come to ask El Gauchito’s help in arranging anything from a new job or success in business to a happy marriage.

“People offer the Gauchito a penance if he intercedes on their behalf,” says Jorge, a teenage vendor of flags and ribbons. “They promise to respect him or to return to the sanctuary on foot, even if they live many hundreds of kilometers away.”

A museumlike centerpiece of the sanctuary is a cavernous shed crammed with myriad items left by visitors as tokens of gratitude. Rows of bicycles hang from the roof, while guns, daggers, bayonets and sabers line the walls. From a 20-foot rack hang hundreds of salmon- and peach-colored wedding dresses, left to give thanks for a good marriage.

Musical instruments, some presented by rock or dance-music stars, are stacked beside numbered soccer jerseys left by professional players to bring them success on the field.

Extraordinarily, several families live in the camp, having rigged up a water supply from nearby streams, improvised a primitive sewage system and perilously connected electric appliances to passing high-voltage cables.

“My father was one of the pioneers,” says Ruben Duran, a 40-year-old carpenter who fashions Gil-related handicrafts from wood — and charges visitors to use his bathroom. “Dad won the lottery in 1972 and came here to give thanks. He didn’t need to work again, so he just stayed.” The younger Mr. Duran stayed along with his father and now has four children of his own, all born at the place of Gauchito Gil’s execution.

“When I first came here over three decades ago, the visitors were all country people from the provinces,” Mr. Duran says. “Now we get all sorts of people, from the most humble category to the highest.

“We get the crippled, paralyzed and burned, and we also get professionals up from the city. The power of El Gauchito and the way it moves all kinds of people is truly incredible.”

The steady stream of visitors to Gil’s sanctuary certainly shows no signs of slowing. “It’s understandable that people pray to El Gauchito,” Mr. Duran says. “They want to believe in something; they need someone to help. And the harder the times, the more they come.”

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