The nearest town is Mercedes but it is a long way from the sleek Germanic precision that the name suggests. It is a very sleepy town well removed from almost everything else, looking out to the same flat landscape that we have seen almost everywhere so far. Our hostel is in the city centre (if you can call it that) a couple of blocks from the main square (Plaza May 25th of course) where there is a church and the municipal building. There are a couple of cafes around, so it beats Fray Bentos for that, but otherwise has little to remark upon. Except that about 7 kilometres away, with nothing else around it, is the shrine of Gauchito Gil (even called that on the bus ticket).
Gauchito Gil’s story has inumerable variations but is basically that in the late 1800s, despite having previously been a soldier, he refused to join the federalist army and went on the run with some other deserters. They became a robin hood type gang, cattle-rustling and robbing from rich landowners while supporting and being sheltered by the poor local people. Eventually the gang were caught and Gil was sentenced to death, hanging upside down from a tree. Just as the execution was about to take place,
Gil told the executioner that his son was very ill but would recover if he buried Gil properly after the event (not the custom for executed deserters). Of course the executioner took no notice and cut off Gil’s head, taking it home with him to nearby Goya. Here he discovered two important things, firstly that Gil had been given a judicial pardon (a bit late for that, I think!) and secondly that his son was indeed gravely ill. This spooked him a bit so he decided to take the head back to where the body had been left (what was he going to do with it anyway?) and give the body a proper burial. The boy’s health quickly recovered, the message spread far and wide and the cult was underway.
Now the site of Gil’s burial is a massive meeting place for followers of the would be saint that is affectionately known as ‘Gauchito’. The Gauchito’s colour is red, everywhere is a sea of red. Around the shrine are rows of stalls selling ribbons, scarves, t-shirts and row upon row of Gauchito Gil statues ranging from the handy pocket sized to the massive, start your own temple size.
Of course much of it is the most amazing tat; Gauchito Gil in a snowdome, Gil in a little wooden hut, pictures of Gil in decorated jam jars and clocks with sparkling illuminated pictures of Gauchito. Much of the stuff originates from China and is clearly just Chinese stuff with a picture of Gill stuck on, hence lucky chinese coins, golden peanuts and even dragons appear! Beyond the stalls are the makeshift cafes with their blaring music and thickly smoking barbecues and beyond that there are wide spaces where, at other times of the year, there is room for thousands of followers to meet, barbecue and picnic.
We thought it was pretty full but it is clearly ready to accommodate several times as many people as we saw!
What cannot be doubted is the devotion that so many local people have for this ersatz saint and his ability to help and cure. The site is adorned everywhere with plaques giving thanks for past support and help.
The ‘museum’ is packed with stuff that has been left to attest to the effectiveness of a carefully aimed prayer at the Gauchito. And still more people come, leaving notes, pictures and prayers for future help in their jobs, for their sick relatives, for their new motos or cars.
Many passengers on our original overnight bus to Mercedes were just going to the shrine. One man was obviously a veteren gauchito follower with his gaucho hat, array of scarves and his statuette wrapped in a red flag.
Opposite us a young girl was travelling with her baby who frequently coughed violently but was so good and so cheerful throughout the uncomfortable journey. Gauchito Gil is frequently pictured in front of a cross (no we don’t know why) and many people are clearly praying to him as they would to one of the bona fide saints in the Catholic pantheon. Perhaps they are tracking progress in the Vatican, looking for the miracle that would allow them to bring him truly into the fold.
But there is also a real and tangible party atmosphere. Followers are frequently dressed in red shirts, hats or wear red scarves and ribbons; many wear traditional gaucho clothes.
A small band of musicians (two accordians, three guitars and close harmony singing) were enthusiastically playing inside the shrine, obviously old folklorico
songs that everyone knew and could sing along with. A crowd were gathered around, like us obviously enchanted. Spontaneous dancing broke out with couples joining together for a few steps while the band played on, drifting seamlessly from one song to another with no signs of flagging.
Although Jen and I both loved the Tango we had heard and seen in BsAs and elsewhere, we both agreed and the music and dancing here had cheerfulness, joy and inclusion that we enjoyed so much more.
Keen and enthusiastic readers of these blogs will have spotted references to Antonio 'Gauchito' Gil in our earlier blog from La Boca in BsAs. We found small shrines to him on a side street, found out more and soon discovered that he was a folk character who has become something of a cult and is frequently worshipped like a saint. We kept seeing references to him and decided that we needed to make a visit to the centre of all this, even though it required some difficult travel (a 12 hours overnight bus ride for a start).