Feature: Gauchito Gil

Spend time on the road anywhere in Argentina and you’re bound to see roadside shrines surrounded by red flags and votive offerings. These pay homage to Antonio Gil, a Robin Hood–like figure whose burial place 9km west of Mercedes attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims yearly.

Little is certain about ‘El Gauchito,’ as he is affectionately called, but romantic tales have sprung up to fill the gaps. What is known is that he was born in 1847 and joined the army – some versions say to escape the wrath of a local policeman whose fiancée had fallen in love with him – to fight in the War of the Triple Alliance.

Once the war ended, Gil was called up to join the Federalist Army, but went on the run with a couple of other deserters. The trio roamed the countryside, stealing cattle from rich landowners and sharing them with poor villagers, who in turn gave them shelter and protection. The law finally caught up with them, and Gil was hung by the feet from the espinillo tree that still stands near his grave, and beheaded.

So how did this freeloading, cattle-rustling deserter attain saint-like status? Moments before his death, Gil informed his executioner that the executioner’s son was gravely ill. He told the soldier that if he were buried – not the custom with deserters – the man’s son would recover.

After lopping off Gil’s head, the executioner carried it back to the town of Goya where – of course – a judicial pardon awaited Gil. On finding that his son was indeed seriously ill, the soldier returned to the site and buried the body. His son recovered quickly, word spread and a legend was born.

‘Gauchito’ Gil’s last resting place is now the site of numerous chapels and storehouses holding thousands of votive offerings – including T-shirts, bicycles, pistols, knives, license plates, photographs, cigarettes, hair clippings and entire racks of wedding gowns – brought by those who believe in the gaucho’s miracles. January 8, the date of Gil’s death, attracts the most pilgrims.