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Roadside Shrines: Folk Saints of Argentina

At first they seem random. But take a closer look, and you'll discover that the roadside shrines dotted along this high mountain road (and along most rural roads in Argentina) are of two kinds: piles of clear water bottles and mazes of red ribbons. In fact, they are intriguing cultural phenomena worshiped by devoted cults, yet still unrecognized by the Catholic Church. The water bottles honor the Difunta Correa, considered by many to be worthy of sainthood and capable of performing miracles. During the civil wars of the 1840s, SeƱora Deolinda Correa followed her husband's battalion through the desert. Carrying water, food, and their baby son in her arms, she died en route of exhaustion, thirst, and hunger; but her baby survived by nursing on his dead mother's breasts. Believers, in particular truck drivers, leave bottles full of water to quench her thirst and ask for her protection, which she has been known to offer in abundance to those in need. There is an elaborate shrine in her honor in the town of Vallecito, in San Juan province. Meanwhile, the red ribbons pay tribute to one man: El Gaucho Gil, a mythical outlaw cowboy who was said to be a Robin Hood-type character and a conscientious objector to civil wars. In 1878, he was hung for his acts of defiance. Just before his last breath, he pledged that he'd become a miracle worker in the afterlife. Hundreds of thousands of Argentines pray to him for miracles, and he keeps them coming back, always leaving offerings in the color of blood. Just exactly why a Gaucho Gil shrine is located where it is remains a bit of a puzzle to nonfollowers, but many believe they are positioned where miracles have occurred -- including narrowly avoided traffic accidents.

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