It was only when we left the big city of Buenos Aires and embarked on a road trip through Southern Argentina that we learned of the legend of this famous man. Alongside many of the roads, we saw memorial after memorial, adorned with red flags and small shrines, and we wondered to whom they belonged. Often, we drove by so quickly that we couldn’t exactly tell what we were seeing. We learned to look for waving red flags in the distance so that we could slow down and take a better look. A few days later, we saw a shrine with a huge metal sign, slightly rusted and hand painted with a picture of a young man with flowing dark hair, a drooping black mustache, and a shirt the color of the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak. He wore the tools of a Gaucho, a leather apron to protect his legs, boleadores to capture the cattle or game, and a red bandana to protect himself from dust and dirt. He stood directly in front of a bright red Christian cross. And we no longer wondered who he was because there was his name, Gauchito Antonio Gil, painted on that very sign.
We wanted to stop at one of these shrines and take more pictures but the places were always along dangerous stretches of highway where we were afraid to stop for fear of being hit by speeding traffic. However, we got lucky. In the mountains near San Martin de los Andes we actually parked our car and walked among multiple shrines. Close inspection made us wonder even more about this curious practice. There were bottles of red wine or coca cola, rocks presumably brought from a pilgrim’s home, silk flowers faded by the sun or real ones dried by the wind and weather. Always the waxy remains of candles served as a reminder that people stayed to worship and to pray. The burnt matches told us that they came many times.
We asked a few questions and people told us that El Gauchito was the Robin Hood of the 1870’s. He stole from the rich, gave to the poor, then died for his crimes. Today, he is worshipped like a saint although the Catholic Church has not sanctified him, thus his appearance in numerous outside venues rather than inside a church or cathedral. The shrines attest that he holds a special place in the hearts of Argentines and that after more than a century people pray to him and leave offerings in hopes that Gauchito Gil will answer their prayers or intercede with God on their behalf.
I felt that there was so much more to Gauchito Gil so when I got home I did what all good bloggers do… I conducted an internet search which led me to a wonderful article written by Francesca Fiorentini for the Argentina Indepedent. She writes:
As one of the various legends goes, somewhere around the 1850s in the province of Corrientes, a beautiful young girl falls in love with the handsome gaucho who works on the ranch to which she is heiress. Her name is Estrella Diaz Miraflores, and his, Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, El Gauchito. Problem is, she’s engaged to the local chief of police, and besides, her family would never accept such a match with a humble, though charming, farm worker. El Gauchito hides in the town of Pay Ubre, what is now Mercedes, and from there enlists in the Triple Alliance war against Paraguay.
Upon his return, he is called yet again to fight, but this time in a civil war, Correntinos against Correntinos. But the Gauchito has a dream that night, in which the native Guaraní god Ñandeyara appears to him and tells him “not to shed the blood of brothers”. In the morning, the Gauchito is gone, and becomes a deserter of the army, living outside the law, and dedicating his life to helping the poor and indigenous by stealing from the rich.
One day, while sleeping under a tree after a party, the police catch up with the Gauchito, arrest him, and head for Mercedes. Eight kilometers from town, his captors decide to take justice into their own hands. They tie him to a tree and begin to fire. But he won’t die. So they string him up by his feet and slit his throat. Before they do however, the Gauchito speaks his last words to the sergeant:
“You are going to kill me now, but you will arrive in Mercedes tonight at the same time as a letter of my pardon. In the letter they will also tell you that your son is dying of a strange illness. Invoke me before God and pray for your son’s life, because the blood of the innocent serves to makes miracles.”To which the sergeant says: “I don’t care,” and kills the Gauchito.
But much to the sergeant’s dismay, the letter does arrive as the Gauchito said it would, and his son is indeed, terribly and mysteriously ill. Remembering the Gauchito’s words, the sergeant takes his son from bed and to the now-buried Gaucho, eight kilometers north of town. There, before God, the sergeant prays to Gauchito Gil for the life of his son. The next morning, as promised, all is well. And thus, Gauchito Gil’s murderer becomes his first devotee.
The story as told by Fiorentini is haunting. In fact, I think it is worthy of film. I could see Johnny Depp as El Gauchito but who do you think should play his lover, the young, widowed heiress? Or the policeman who might be the unrequited lover, then the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, and finally a true believer only after it is too late and he has killed our hero. Suggestions, anyone?
The story is also a lovely blend of Guaraní and Catholic mythology, partly why Gauchito Gil will never be more than a folk saint. No need for the Catholic Church to encourage the belief in indigenous gods. But, no matter, in the hearts and minds of Argentines, El Gauchito lives on. In fact, his memory grows and is making inroads in other cultures as well. Don’t believe me? Check out this song, in English. I don’t believe it was made for an Argentine audience. I think we all love to imagine a savior of some kind coming to help the poor and improve the inequities of an unfair society. Maybe that’s why the story of Gauchito Gil resonates so readily in our culture as well. We are still searching for a more fair society and to this day we still can’t agree how to accomplish it.