The Little Gaucho
Driving through the Argentine pampas it is not uncommon to come upon a collection of tattered red flags flapping beside a grove of shrubs on a remote stretch of road. Heralding a miniature building, like a brick doghouse painted bright red, I imagined the first one I saw to be a roadside memorial of the sort commonly found throughout latin america wherever a loved one has perished in an automobile accident. After I saw two or three, however, all flying flags and crimson red in every particular, I knew greater forces must be at work. I'm a sucker for all that voodoo business, so I pulled the car over, a reluctant churchgoer looking over my shoulder up the highway to see who might be driving up behind.
The red shrines are in honor of a home-grown deity or fetish named Gauchito Gil, or, to be more specific, Gauchito A. Gil, for Gauchito Antonio. As at santeria shrines and many catholic holy sites, the faithful post their thank-yous for the joys, successes and worldly goods bestowed upon them. "Thanks for protecting us, and for completing our wishes," reads one. "Thank you, Gauchito!," reads another "since it is because you went before God as an intermediary that I have my son."
Gauchito is typically represented by a small ceramic figurine, not on a crucifix, but standing in front of one. He is moustached, and his long black hair is held in place by a red headband. Wikipedia has one version with the specifics of his legend but the important thing is that Gauchito is a guy we can all talk to, have a drink with and get down to business with in the here and now. God is so very far away, so remote and so abstract, whereas Gauchito is right there, beside the very road we are travelling on. Gauchito means "little gaucho," so his persona includes the very essence of Argentine beef-herding identity, further underlining that he is a local representative of the divine.
What appeals to me about these roadside altars is that they are a collaborative folk art project, each visitor adding to the aura and mystery with a dollop of candle wax, a hubcap or a stretch of ribbon, a disused coke-bottle filled with perfume. Over time they become complex authorless installations representing the aspirations and desires of countless travellers. Jumbled together in this miniature red world are a crucifix welded out of rebar, plaques engraved by village snake-oil salesman, a hasty graffiti-like thank you scrawled on a shard of tile, a pot full of flowers and countless other windblown artifacts signifying secret personal promises and covenants. Despite its dangers, faith is a beautiful thing to see.