Santas populares: Where piety meets pop cultureBuenos Aires, Spring 2009

I’ve been learning a lot recently about santas populares (popular saints), and I think it’s a good example of how study abroad allows you to combine academics with real-world experience. It all started a few weeks ago when I visited the Difunta Correa, the largest religious shrine in South America. What began in 1940 as a single cross on a hill has swelled into a sizeable town in the desert in San Juan province, complete with a church, hotel, restaurants and dozens of souvenir stands. The shrine draws an estimated 600,000 visitors annually, a testament to the power of its legend.

The story of the Difunta (deceased) Correa is undeniably strange: in 1840, a young mother named Deolinda Correa and her infant were lost in the desert while searching for her husband, who took ill after being forced to fight in a civil war. Deolinda died of thirst, but a group of traveling gauchos found her baby alive a few days later, still nursing from her body. The infant’s survival was deemed the first of the deceased mother’s miracles, and her powers grew along with her popularity. Today the shrine is a series of chapels where visitors can see every imaginable type of symbolic object brought by believers in thanks for answered prayers: miniature wooden houses, license plates from new cars, medicine bottles no longer needed, and much more. My favorite was “Las Camisas de las Novias” (girlfriends’ shirts), where grateful fiancées and newlyweds bring an item of their girlfriends’ clothing to thank the saint. (I wonder what the girlfriends have to say about this tradition.) Above all the chapels crammed with objects, a staircase decorated with license plates and ribbons leads to a statue of the Difunta herself, perpetually nursing her child even in death. A candelabra where visitors can light a candle in prayer is right next to the statue.

The thing that really struck me about the Difunta was its bizarre mix of materialism and faith. The site is a bustling tourist attraction, and everything it sells is emblazoned with a Difunta-themed message: keychains, ribbons to hang in your car that say “Thanks Difunta for protecting my Mercedes,” plastic rosaries, snacks, and piles of other kitschy items. But the statue and the candelabra where people kneel and cross themselves are only a few steps away. I’d never seen so close a connection between reverence and, well, sheer piles of stuff, so when I got back to Buenos Aires I decided to do some research for a class project.

What I found was fascinating. The Catholic Church refuses to recognize the Difunta, although most of her believers identify as Catholics (80% of Argentines do). So she occupies a murky space somewhere in between paganism and Catholicism, as do other popular saints, such as Gauchito Gil, who has his own complex history. It’s clear that these myths borrow many elements from Christian tradition—sacrifice, maternal power, a miraculous child—but anthropologists also believe that they subtly reflect indigenous traditions. For example, one connection is with the Incan goddess Pachamama (also called Earth Mother or Gaia), a fertility symbol who, like the Difunta, gains power even in death. This explanation fits well with Argentina’s ethnic history: indigenous traditions have been almost entirely suppressed or assimilated in this country, which with a 1.6% indigenous population has the fewest native peoples of any South American state. Simply put, the vast majority was killed during colonial wars, and Spanish conquistadors were quick to replace pagan and native traditions with Catholic ideology. But if you look closely, vestiges of native traditions still remain, and the modern devotion to popular saints is one of those. Sure, in the US the Virgin Mary occasionally shows herself on burned toast, and there’s the odd lake with healing waters, but for us these stories always have a hokey sideshow feel—nothing like the weight that popular saints have in Argentina. Every other car sports a red Difunta ribbon, plastic bottle shrines (to quench the Difunta’s eternal thirst) are a common sight along the highways, and Buenos Aires is filled with little shops called santerías that sell religious paraphernalia. My group for the IES documentary class is hoping to focus our project around this theme, so this probably isn't the last you'll hear from me about popular saints.

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  1. Hey Rose- You’ve got a great blog going here. I’m going to be in BA in the fall and am interested in taking the documentary course you’re currently taking. Can you talk a little more about that? I’m just curious what kind of work is involved and how you choose your topic.

  2. Hey Becky, thanks for reading! The documentary class is really unique among the IES offerings, definitely the most rigorous and time-consuming of my classes there. (10 or so people dropped after the first class.) At the beginning of the semester, everyone brainstormed topic ideas and Julian helped us narrow down the ones that were doable. Then, each student said which topic they wanted, and those are the groups. The rest of the semester is spent learning to use the cameras, watching documentaries and writing essays on them, and of course filming. Then we’ll edit them with the help of a professional editor, and they show them in a theater at the end. I’ve seen some of the previous ones and they are really incredible, so I have a lot to live up to! Good luck with your semester, feel free to email me (rcahalan@gmail) if you have any more questions.

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