MERCEDES, Argentina (AP) — Watching his savings being eaten away by Argentina’s rampant inflation, Jorge Zabala turned to what some might consider an unexpected place for financial help: Argentina’s folk cowboy saint Gauchito Gil.
Zabala is among thousands of faithful Argentines that flock every year between Jan. 6 to Jan. 8 to the northern city of Mercedes to ask for the pagan saint’s protection and thank him for past favors.
But this year, a deepening economic crisis and drastic political shifts in the South American nation seemed to dominate the celebration. Zabala, a bricklayer, said soaring prices added an extra level of hardship to their yearly pilgrimage.
Zabala cradled his young son in his arms, bare-chested with a tattoo of the saint winding down his back and wearing a rosary around his neck.
“This (year) was quite complicated because of the economic problems. But we made the sacrifices we had to so we could participate,” he said. “We had to borrow money. It’s barbaric how much prices have gone up.”
Gauchito Gil depicts a traditional Argentine cowboy known as the gaucho, a long-haired man with a mustache, red handkerchief around his neck and belt. He is revered as a sort of Robin Hood figure, joining the army and deserting in favor of stealing and distributing wealth amongst the country’s poor.
He was later captured and hung from a tree on January 8, 1878, and is now widely worshiped by many faithful Argentines. The tale is believed to be based on the life of the gaucho Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, though little is known about his life.
On Monday, nearly a century and a half later, thousands congregated 680 kilometers northeast of Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires. Cloaked in red, lighting candles and leaving cigars and wine in front of statues of the saint, many begged Gauchito Gil for solutions to their economic woes.
Financial crisis is nothing new to Argentina, but this year the need is even more pressing due to lack of jobs and galloping price hikes squeezing the pocketbooks of many.
While official data is set to be released on Thursday, private economists estimate that Argentina ended 2023 with an inflation rate of over 200%, a rate the country has not seen since a period of hyperinflation in the 1990s. The crisis is so drastic that prices of food and other products are often written in chalk, changing day-to-day with the currency.
“Today you buy a kilo of bread at 1,000 pesos ($1.19) and tomorrow at 1,200 ($1.43); it is very difficult, but we are going to get ahead; with the help of God and the gaucho we are going to get ahead,” said one worshiper, Carlos Maiana.
The 49-year-old Argentine dressed in a red vest and a black hat stood next to a colorful mural of the saint. He was among those who said they were asking for good health and more income with which to weather the skyrocketing cost of living.
But he said, responsibility lies not just in the hands of Gauchito Gil, but also in the government, which he said needs to “put on their pants and do something.”
Meanwhile, around the sanctuary, a long line of people wait to place their hands on the glass walls erected around one of the venerated statues of the cowboy saint. Other areas were speckled with offerings, bronze plaques with messages of gratitude and other statues of the saint.
People driving by his sanctuary honk their car horns, shouting “¡Viva el gaucho!” (Long live the gaucho!) Throughout the countryside, from north to south, humble altars built by followers dot the sides of the road for people to stop by whenever they need.
Others including bricklayer Zabala asked Gauchito Gil to give strength to Argentina’s new right-wing president, Javier Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist” who has promised to tackle triple-digit inflation.
As part of his plan to combat the ongoing economic crisis, Milei has proposed drastic changes and scarcity measures to reduce Argentina’s fiscal deficit, which he blames for the soaring prices that have thrust many into poverty. Currently more than 40% of the 46 million inhabitants of the South American country live in poverty.
Milei’s “shock measures” include layoffs in the public sector and a reduction of subsidies for public transport and the energy sector, among others. Such changes will likely lead to increases in bus and train fares, along with electricity and gas rates, only further stoking inflation.
Still, Zabala, gathered with family on Saturday, the first day of the celebration, and looked to the future with a note of optimism.
“We ask him to try to put Milei on the right track, to give him all the strength he needs, to help him as much as possible, because honestly things are very difficult for everyone,” Zabala said.
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