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Gauchito Gil: Argentina’s Cowboy Saint

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The Gauchito Gil is a colorful figure revered as a mystical symbol of bravery in his native Argentina, usually depicted as a moustachioed Christ-like figure dressed in red.
Probably born in the 1840s in the area of Pay Ubre, modern Mercedes in the Province of Corrientes, in northeast Argentina, he died on this day, executed for desertion on January 8, 1878.
He is regarded as the most prominent folk hero in Argentina, with smaller areas of veneration reported also in Paraguay, Chile and Brazil.

Popular stories are different but, in short and according to the legend, Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez was born in the 1840s somewhere in rural Argentina, and he joined (or was conscripted) into the army during the Triple Alliance War but soon deserted.
After escaping military service a first time, he was forcibly recruited to fight again in the Argentine Civil War but again managed to evade service and became an outlaw.
In the years following his desertion, he acquired a reputation as a Robin Hood figure.

Corrientes is a steamy, subtropical frontier province which lies between the Pampas and the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay in Argentina’s far north-east.
Historically its capital of the same name served as a stop-over town between Buenos Aires and Asunción for purveyors of both commerce and spirituality.
It was also land of Jesuit missions and powerful “caudillos”, the political strongmen who ruled over the population like feudal kings.
In the 1860s, the area was in political turmoil, suffering the effects of South America’s bloodiest ever conflict, The Paraguayan War, and the fall of the great caudillo, Juan Manuel de Rosas.
It is from these heady times that the Gauchito Gil legend was born.

As story goes, Estrella Díaz de Miraflores was a widow and wealthy rancher from the town of Pay Ubre, who began a salacious love affair with the gaucho, Antonio Gil.
For a woman of wealth and fine breeding to sully herself with a gaucho, the fierce, knife-wielding drifters who roamed the Pampas looking for ranching work, was sure to cause a stir.
And this story certainly riled the local police commissioner, who himself had eyes for the widow. He conspired with Doña Estrella’s brothers to frame Gil for robbery and thus cancel the intruder from all of their lives.
However, Antonio took flight before the local police could nab him, and he sought refuge in the army. He went off to fight bravely for the Triple Alliance forces against the Paraguayans, proving to be a patriotic and inspirational warrior.
He returned to Pay Ubre a hero, but these were troubled times though, and the power vacuum left by the ousted tyrant Rosas fostered the emergence of two factions, the liberal Blues and the federalist Reds.
Civil War broke out and Antonio was recruited again into the Blue forces.
Not only was Blue ideology against all of Antonio’s principles, but he was sick of war altogether, countryman against countryman, brother against brother.
With a couple of companions, he fled the army.
They took to banditry, living off the land by poaching livestock.
They were able to evade capture with the help of local peasants, who saw the man as an honorable thief, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, a rebel standing up to greedy and corrupt authorities.
Eventually, the band was ambushed by police and his companions were gunned down. Antonio Gil was marched to Goya for trial.
Displaying the type of wickedness that one would expect from a cop in stories like this, the police captain who was transporting Gauchito Gil for trial decided he couldn’t be bothered with the long journey, and ordered the prisoner executed on the spot due ‘attempted escape’ charge. As a result he was hung by his feet to a tree and a deputy prepared to slit his throat.
The gaucho implored him to wait, insisting that an official pardon was already on the way.
Although the desperate attempt, the officer continued with his preparations.
Little did he know that the judge in Goya had indeed already pardoned Gil, but the message would arrive moments too late.
Then the prisoner told the policeman that rather than carry out this unjust act, he should go home to care for his son, who had suddenly taken ill.
The policeman was not swayed by such tactics, however, and proceeded with the execution.
Just before he slit the outlaw’s throat, Gil told him that the only way he would save his son would be to invoke the name Gauchito Gil in prayer.
Unmoved, the officer did the gruesome deed, ending his life, while guaranteeing his immortality.
When he arrived home after burying Gil, he did find his son gravely ill.
He prayed to the recently deceased gaucho, and his son was miraculously cured.
The next day he returned to the burial site and planted a wooden cross, and upon hearing the story of the merciful bandit who had saved his executioner’s son from beyond the grave, others also came to visit the site, and the very first Gauchito Gil shrine was born.
Soon, the rich landowner on whose property the Saint lay buried saw the constant pilgrims and had the remains removed to the cemetery in the nearby town of Mercedes. Immediately he fell seriously ill as well, and remained so until he prayed to Gil for forgiveness.

Gauchito Gil is thought to be a folk saint by many people of the Argentine provinces of Formosa, Corrientes, Chaco, the north of Santa Fe and even the province of Buenos Aires.
There are smaller shrines on roadsides throughout Argentina due to the red color and the flags, many of which read “Thanks, Gauchito Gil” if the person’s request is fulfilled.
The Sanctuary of Gauchito Gil, located about 8 km from the city of Mercedes, organizes great pilgrimages, to which more than 200,000 pilgrims annually head to the sanctuary to ask the saint for favors.
The Sanctuary has also a mausoleum which holds his actual tomb, where plaques adorn the walls and state the names of those whose requests were granted by the saint.
Moreover, each January 8 (date of Gil’s death and his feast day), there is a large celebration honoring him.
Many pilgrims arrive and participate in festive activities, such as drinking, dancing, folklorical animal sports, and a procession that begins from the church in Mercedes to the Sanctuary.
Paraphernalia related to the saint, including ribbons, rosaries, flags and statues, are often carried by the pilgrims and sold by vendors.
Gauchito Gil statues are commonly seen next to images of San La Muerte, Our Lady of Luján and other Catholic figures.

He is not recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, however many Argentines, both devotees and church leaders, have been promoting him for canonization.
Local church leaders in Mercedes hold masses on his feast day in the Church of Our Lady of Mercy.
Other church leaders in Argentina have participated and approved of the devotion of Gauchito Gil, while some are divided on whether to embrace or condemn the phenomenon.
The Diocese of Goya and the Mexican Diocese of Celaya have both recognized his veneration.

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