Outside Puerto Iguazu in northern Argentina, we walked past a little red altar set up on the side of a highway. I didn’t want to get close to it because the little red flags tied to it, whipping in the wind, reminding me of a little voodoo shrine. I’m superstitious enough to keep my distance from crude, handmade altars with burned out candles and beer bottles littering the floor. My first thought was that it was a shrine to acknowledge a person who died at that spot. E. wanted to get a closer look.
Instead of Jesus in the center of the red box, a gaucho was standing with a full mustache and flowing hair. He wasn’t the usual suspect for an altar. Beer bottles, candles, and plastic flowers were heaped around him.
After asking around, we gathered the story that Gauchito Gil was a pious man who was enlisted to go to war. He spent much of his day praying and giving praises to God; however, his chief in the military decided to make his life difficult and tried to prevent him from showing this reverence. Gauchito Gil refused, though, and kept praying until finally the chief threatened to kill him.
Gil requested that the chief humble himself in front of God, that he too might find happiness. The chief ignored the pleas; he became so enraged by Gil’s peace and benevolence that he beheaded Gil. Soon thereafter, the chief’s son got deathly ill. Gil’s words came back to him, and he realized his only choice was to pray to God for his son’s life. The chief finally had to humble himself before God. Out of his helplessness and regret, he also submitted prayers to Gil. His son’s life was saved, and he was converted into a believer. Both he and his son dedicated themselves to spreading the word of God and the teachings of Gauchito Gil.
The shrine reads, “Oh Little Gaucho Gil, I humbily request your intervention before God to present the miracle that I request–and I promise that I will grant my promise and before God I will bring my faithful appreciation and demonstration of faith in God and in you, Gaucho Gil.”
As you drive or take a bus through Argentina, look for the roadside shrines to Gauchito Gil. You’ll be able to identify them easily with the read flags decorating the area.
Tango in Her Eyes also offers a similar version of the folk tale.