You don’t have to move very far down an Argentine road to become aware of the shrines that spread along the way. Some are dedicated to the more conventional Catholic saints, The Virgen de Lujan, San Cayatano, Santa Rita. Encased in glass cupolas on top of a painted nationalist blue pedestal, or imprisoned behind re-bars in a stone grotto, surround by votive candles and withering plastic flowers. Others are announced by a tatter of red flags, that suggest you’ve happened upon the remnants of socialists’ rally.
Each nation has there ne’er do wells, who are elevated to the status of national heroes. Their R. Hoods, N. Kellys, R. R. MacGregors. The ones who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. The ones who fancied a bit of steak for tea, killed the cow, and on being spotted by the old hag in the hovel, bought her silence with a pot of tripes. The Argentine version is G. Gil.
Antonio Gil, later to be remembered as Gauchito Gil or just El Gauchito, born 1847, fought in the War of the Triple Alliance, was conscripted into the Federal army, from where he deserted. Became a freebooting cattle rustler, was captured and strung up by his heels awaiting execution. Before beheading he’s supposed to have told the executing soldier that the soldier’s son was ill and would die, but would recover if he buried the unfortunate Gil’s body. Not the standard practice, the carcass being left as gruesome warning to others. The sentence is carried out, the head taken to Goya, where a posthumous pardon is granted. The soldier’s son is deadly ill, so the executioner returns and buries the body. His son recovers and a phenomenon is born.
By way of a warning, and a request for respect, is this addendum; when passing the killing tree, you sound your horn, failure may result in a delayed arrival, or worse, no arrive at all.
The deed’s site lies just on the outskirts of Mercedes, but it’s a holy heathenish place, a litter of basura and cut up verges that leads to a few gimcrack stalls selling knickknacks. Droopy whiskered gaucho figurines, windscreen stickers, red rear-mirror ribbons. His image branded on leather belts and maté flasks, with votives of car plates and wedding dresses, burnt candles and liquor bottles.
I like this form of rebellion. You can’t imagine the hierarchical authority of the Catholic church taking kindly to a beatification coming out of the plebeian morass. Which might explain the ‘Ermita’ that stands a short distance along the road, dedicated to Santa Rita. It’s a small chapel, immaculate in white and pale blue, set among litter-free clipped grass and tidy trees. Two antithetical religious statements that have a connected history. The Crown and the Church wanted an illiterate transplanted population, an uneducated peasantry serviced by a poorly educated priesthood. For much of the early colonisation, only thee titles were allowed to be imported. A Bible and no Mills and Boon. It can be of no surprise then, that a popular, home-grown hero can be posthumously elevated to the position of an indigenous saint.
Like the old locomotive driver, I’ve pulled the cord on the virtual steam horn at each red-flagged shrine, along with the long-haulers who acknowledge us and the sanctified desperado. It’s benefactions accumulated in a bank of good karma, a line of credit that we might need for when we hit our first major accumulation of people and their attendant traffic. Posadas is on the horizon.