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Poor in Argentina pay homage to saint

A follower of Gauchito Gil holds up an effigy of the popular saint.

TEXT OF STORY

Doug Krizner: Today in Argentina, there'll be celebrations for a folk hero and a miracle worker. It's the anniversary of the death of Gauchito Gil. As the story goes, Gauchito Gil was a thief, put to death for his crimes. He may not have actually existed, but as Rachel Hopkin reports, he's the unofficial saint of the poor.


Rachel Hopkin: At a shrine by the roadside in a rundown neighborhood outside of Buenos Aires, a woman lights a red candle in front of an altar. Red scarves hang from the ceiling, and portraits of a dark, handsome man line the walls.

He's Gauchito Gil, and Valeria Perasso made a documentary about him last year.

Valeria Perasso: Gauchito Gil was a kind of local Robin Hood. He deserted the army back in the mid-19th century, went to live in the middle of the fields in Corrientes, and there he started stealing the property of the rich and distributing whatever he could get amongst the poor.

Eventually, he was caught. Just as an officer was about to kill him, Gauchito Gil predicted that the officer's son would soon become very ill, and if the officer prayed to him, the Gauchito would save the boy.

Later, as a way to show his gratitude, the officer went back to the place where the Gauchito died, and built the first shrine.

Perasso: That's exactly what happened, according to the legends.

In reality, there's no proof Gauchito Gil ever existed. Yet in Argentina, he's venerated posthumously as a miracle worker.

Photographer Sebastian Hacher compiled a book about him:

Sebastian Hacher: First, because he was poor, he was somebody helping to the poor, and because he was a survivor.

When Argentina's economy crashed six years ago, the number of Argentines living in poverty almost doubled. At the same time, there was a notable increase in the number of worshippers of Gauchito Gil.

Valeria Perasso:

Perasso: There is a direct link between the economic explosion that happened in 2001 and the lack of certainty, job losses and all sorts of social issues that make people turn to alternatives for their faith.

Today, thousands of Argentines will go to his main shrine to honor the patron saint of the poor. Sebastian Hacher will be among them.

Hacher: Everybody go to eat asado, drink wine, and dance chamame. It's like a really, really huge party.

In Pacheco, Argentina, I'm Rachel Hopkin for Marketplace.

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