I was driving in a rented car below the Andes in western Argentina. I was wandering. In hills and gullies where only occasional thorny clumps of sticks and bunches of wiry grass endure. I was a moving target of the calm fury of the sun. I sometimes had to drive a couple of hours before coming upon a village with a small shop and water. But every five or ten kilometers I saw on the side of the road a small shrine with piles of plastic water bottles in front and sometimes old tires or car parts. I stopped to look and saw the shrines were dedicated to “Difunta Correa”—the Deceased Correa.
In the evening I came upon a town with a simple hotel, and after a plate of rice and beans for dinner I asked the owner who is Difunta Correa. He said that there was in San Juan a young woman named María Antonia Deolinda Correa. The police chief in San Juan had been courting her and began to pressure her and her family to give in to him. Instead Deolinda married Baudilio Bustos and the couple had a son. But around 1854 Deolinda’s husband and father were forcibly recruited into the troops of Juan Facundo Quiroga. Left behind, Deolinda was again vulnerable to unwanted attentions. She learned that Bustos was ill with pneumonia; she then left San Juan with her infant son, traveling toward La Rioja by an indirect route to elude the policemen pursuing her. She lost her way and died of thirst and exposure in the desert. A few days later some mule drivers came upon her and found her infant alive, nursing at her breast. They buried her body at the site, in Vallecito, and took her baby to be cared for.
I resolved to go visit the place of her death. I crossed harsh, forbidding hills of dust and empty gorges. I came upon a cluster of 17 small chapels, simple sheds. Their outer walls are covered with plaques attesting to favors received through the Deceased Correa’s intercession.
Inside, around naïve statues and paintings of the dead Deolinda Correa with her infant at her breast, there are letters praying for a favor and letters and objects given in thanks for favors received. People ask for release from prison, admission to the university, safe passage across the border, success in business, cancellation of debts, return of a wayward husband, normal pregnancy, medical cures, and simply the strength to go on.
Ex-votos, thanking for favors received are massed in the chapels. I see models of airplanes and buses testifying safe journeys, models of trucks and cars either successfully acquired or from which drivers emerged safely in accidents, vehicle license plates, the uniforms of soldiers who completed their terms of duty alive and unharmed, caps of policemen who survived perilous situations, wedding gowns of women who found husbands, small metal images representing arms and legs healed. A grotto with a life-size statue of Deolinda Correa is on top of a hill, accessed by two covered stairways on which thousands of truck and automobile license plates are attached. Such favors, I could see, could logically be asked from Deolinda Correa, who undertook a perilous journey to rejoin her sick husband. As could models of homes acquired; the hillside beneath the grotto is covered with thousands of them.
But the most diverse favors granted are testified: school texts and notebooks, diplomas, acceptance letters from USA universities, certificates of successful passage of law boards. The chapels are an encyclopedia in words and objects of all the events, needs, and accouterments of life in Argentina, all touched or received with thanks. Real automobiles, motorcycles, kitchen appliances, record players, and jewelry had been put here. There are also photographs of luxury automobiles acquired. There is a chapel devoted to sports-team trophies, boxing gloves. Photographs of prize-winning purebred cattle and dogs and racehorses.
I spoke with a few visitors and with two caretakers of the shrine. The shrine is in the desert and has no well. The bottles of water left at the shrine are poured into a cistern to provide drinking water for visitors. In addition more than 500 gallons of water are trucked in daily.
A caretaker tells me that the wedding gowns that have been given to the shrine are loaned for weddings of poor brides. Money is also left at the shrine; from it donations are given in turn to schools, community centers, sports organizations, and hospitals. Cash loans are given to the needy.
I purchased three booklets. I learned that the mule drivers who had found Deolinda Correa dead had buried her and placed a cross on the site. Passing cattle drivers would pause at her grave and utter a prayer. In 1898 a prosperous cattleman named Pedro Flavio Zebollos was caught in a sudden violent storm and his herd of 500 cattle stampeded and dispersed in all directions. He found himself at the place where Deolinda Correa had been buried and implored her to help. The next morning he found all his herd congregated together and intact. In gratitude he built a small shrine over her burial place. Livestock drivers began to stop at the shrine, pray for her protection, and leave a small coin.
Truck drivers took up the practice of making such shrines and leaving bottles of water, and also tires and truck parts that had been replaced. I was told that now there are small roadside shrines to la Difunta Correa with piles of water bottles for her along the whole length of Argentina.
Visitors told me that many pilgrims make Deolinda’s walk, the 62 kilometers from San Juan to her grave at the shrine overnight on foot and even barefoot. Others join the pilgrimage at Caucete, 33 kilometers to the shrine. Some enter the shrine crawling prone on their backs; I did see people approach the chapels on their knees. Tens of thousands of pilgrims come to the shrine of la Difunta Correa for Holy Week.
To the side of the shrine area there is a small Catholic church. An inscription gives 1966 as the date of its construction. Inside it is barren save for a small statue of the Virgin of Carmen, patroness of the dead. An extreme contrast with the masses of figurines, ex-votos and photos that fill the chapels of Difunta Correa. I saw that most people visiting the shrine do not also visit the church. Later I read that in 1976 the bishops of Argentina had declared that devotion to Deolinda Correa was “illegitimate and reprehensible.”
The Catholic authorities, I later learned, have also denounced San La Muerte, depicted as a small skeletal figure, as a residue of pagan Guarani cult of ancestors. They also disapprove of Gauchito Gil, army deserter, outlaw, cattle rustler, revered in shrines throughout Argentina, as well as folk saints Gaucho Lega, Gaucho Cubillas, Bazán Frías, Bairoletto, and Isidoro Velásquez—outlaws, deserters, murderers, killed in shootouts with police. And of folk saints Almita Visitación Sivila who was raped, murdered, mutilated, and partially eaten by a man; María Soledad who at seventeen was raped, murdered, and disfigured by two young men; and Juana Figueroa, murdered by her husband who suspected her of being unfaithful. The Catholic bishops also disapprove of devotion to Enrique Gomez, hit by a car or a train and killed when 14 years old; Pedrito Sangüeso, raped and murdered at the age of six; Miguel Ángel Gaitán who died of meningitis just before his first birthday; and Pedrito Hallado, a newborn infant abandoned in a cemetery who died of exposure. And prayers to Eva Perón and Che Guevara.
In San Juan in the library I hunted down what I could find written about La Difunta Correa. There were several accounts of her journey into the desert. Some say she learned that her husband was sick, with pneumonia. Others that he had been captured by enemy troops and was imprisoned. Still others say that she fled into the desert to flee the lustful designs of a police chief. In a text from 1946, she had become pregnant by a police chief and was forced to leave home. A boy was born during her wandering. She tried to dig for water, but failed—although in fact water was a few feet further down. But in many versions there is no child. Reports in 1921 sometimes mention a child at the breast or protected by the breasts. In at least one version mother and child die together. Between 1920 and 1940, about a century after her death, the story tells of her child being found alive, feeding at her breast.
In Mendoza I took a bus to the shrine of Difunta Correa. There seemed to be more roadside shrines with piles of water bottles and tires and car parts than I had remembered. At the shrine I saw that model trucks and houses, wedding gowns and policemen’s’ caps had continued to accumulate.
The tens of thousands of ex-votos give thanks for milagros—miracles. But perhaps “miracles” is not the right term in English. They are not miracles like Jesus resurrecting Lazarus who was four days dead, or instantly curing a leper, or giving sight to a blind man with a word and a touch. Philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as a violation of natural or scientific laws, and the Catholic Church, in determining if a saint in the process of canonization has indeed performed the two requisite miracles, understands a miracle as an exception to scientific laws. When a cure is alleged to be miraculous, a panel of five Catholic doctors examine the medical records; at least three of the five must agree that there is no scientific explanation for the cure. The milagro attested in thousands of ex-votos in the Difunta Correa shrine give thanks of long trips safely completed, car and truck accidents from which they emerged unharmed or little harmed, broken arms and legs healed, a woman who has found a good husband, acceptance into law school, success on examinations. Shall we call them in English “favors” rather than “miracles”?
I was taken aback to see given to Difunta Correa the blue ribbons won by purebred bulls, race horses, and pedigree dogs, but they perhaps give an essential insight. They reveal a conception of life where along with determinism and choice there is chance.
The story of la Difunta Correa is not that of a heroic or exemplary person. There is virtually nothing in her biography—only that she was married to a man she cared for and had a child; she got lost in the desert and perished. But the story tells this wonder: her infant survived, nursing at the breast of a dead mother. The odds were infinitesimal. It is what turns those who hear the story to the realm of chance.
A trucker making a long haul to Ushuaia in Patagonia inspects his vehicle to ensure all is in working order, drives prudently on dangerous roads, and when he arrives without mishap he thinks he has had good luck. A woman had the good luck to get pregnant and to give birth to a child without defects. A man had the good luck that his fall from the ladder did not break his back. A woman had the good luck to find a good husband. Life in a world where there is only the determinism of scientific laws would only give rise to a certain satisfaction at being able to understand them and foresee what will happen. Life in a world where there is also choice would give rise to self-congratulation when events show one has made the right choice and self-criticisms when they do not. But life in a world where there is also chance gives rise not only to jubilation but also to gratitude over good luck.