I’m fascinated by indigenous expressions of faith and the extravagant ways in which these diverge from religious orthodoxy. The red shrines on this page are all roadside installations in honor of a home-grown Argentine saint or fetish named Gauchito Gil, or, to be more specific, Gauchito A. Gil, for Gauchito Antonio. As at santería 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. What is important here 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 very persona includes the essence of the Argentine pampas-wandering, cattle-herding identity, further underlining that he is a local representative of the divine. Comparable vernacular pseudo-deities exist throughout most of Latin America, and many other places.

One of the things that appeals to me about these roadside altars is that they become 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, or just a prayer. Over time they become complex authorless installations manifesting the aspirations and desires of countless travelers. Jumbled together in this miniature red world are a crucifix welded out of rebar, thank-you 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.

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