The Catholic Church is concerned about the growing flock of pilgrims who come to the Pampas to worship the 18th century defender of the poor
MERCEDES - Kneeling in front of Gauchito Gil's icon, Elsa suddenly cuts her long red braid and places it on the altar. "It's for my husband, he's very sick," says the young woman as her eyes tear up. Despite the blistering heat, hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to this makeshift sanctuary, just five miles outside of Mercedes, in northeast Argentina.
Two policemen try to bring some order to the never-ending flow of faithful coming to commemorate the death of their secular saint. Gauchito's popularity has exploded in the country in recent years, and is now worrying the Catholic Church, which is trying to control it.
On January 8, about 400,000 faithful made the trip from across the country, from the northern provinces, from Buenos Aires 435 miles away -- and also from neighboring Paraguay and Brazil. With its long black hair held back by a red band and a cross on its back, the statue of Gauchito that the faithful kiss looks a lot like a pagan Jesus. Various odd offerings lay at its feet: lit cigarettes, cash, opened wine and beer bottles, soccer jerseys, license plates.
A religious Robin Hood
We know very little about this Robin Hood of the Pampas region, both cattle thief and defender of the weak. Born in the 1840s in the Corrientes province, Antonio Gil was a rural worker who joined the war against Paraguay (1864-1870). He is said to have fallen in love with a rich landowner and enlisted in the military to escape her family's wrath.
At the end of the war, he refused to fight again, this time in the Argentinean civil war, and deserted. To survive, he stole cattle, which he then shared with the poorest villagers. He was finally arrested and hung from a tree by his feet. He told the officer who was about to cut his throat, that if he prayed for him, his ill son would get better. The officer did as he was told and the miracle happened.
The legend, first transmitted from generation to generation in rural families, eventually reached the cities. You'll meet Buenos Aires cab drivers as well as favelas thugs who have Gauchito tattooed on their back. Many of them made it all the way to Mercedes, creating an odd mix among the gauchos.
"The boom of this spontaneous faith increased with the 2001 crisis and the throngs of middle class suddenly made poor," says Maria Rosa Lojo, a sociologist at the Conicet, the national research center. "When people lack reference points, they cling to miracles."
The Catholic Church tried to regain its influence during the procession by setting a cross just 500 m from Gauchito Gil's sanctuary. "We just want to supervise popular devotion and create a more appropriate space for prayer," says Mercedes priest Luis Maria Adis as he waited, microphone in hand, for hundreds of horse riding men to change their paths. But only a dozen riders came to listen to his sermon, with just a few others who came by foot, before heading for the intended destination, the sanctuary.
Read the original article in French
Photo credit - (Sergio Serrano)