Difunta Correa Shrine
Until very recently, Roman Catholicism was Argentina’s official faith, and it still permeates daily life. When the shepherd fails the flock, though, the people seek help from popular saints like the Difunta Correa—whose shrine draws upwards of 100,000 Semana Santa pilgrims to the desert hamlet of Vallecito, about 60 kilometers east of San Juan.
More than a religious experience, it’s an economic force, and even nonbelievers will find plenty to contemplate in the contradictions between the sacred and the profane.
According to legend, María Antonia Deolinda Correa died of thirst in the desert while following her conscript husband—a small landowner—during the mid-19th-century civil wars. When passing muleteers found her body, though, her baby son was still at her breast. While it seems far-fetched that any infant could survive on milk from a lifeless body, the legend had such resonance that the waterless site became a spontaneous shrine. The Difunta (“Defunct,” as dead people are known in the countryside) became a popular “saint,” despite uncertainty that she even existed.
In the 150-plus years since the Difunta first colonized the consciousness of poor Sanjuaninos, millions of other Argentines have come to regard her as a miracle worker. She is not a saint, though—the official church regards her as a superstition (at best) or contrary to dogma (at worst). It has even installed its own priest and built its own church to combat the heresy.
Church efforts have been futile. From negligible origins as a solitary cross atop a knoll, the shrine has grown into a complex that includes a hotel, a campground, restaurants, a police station, a post office, a school, souvenir shops, and even its own tourist office. There is also the Fundación Vallecito, the nonprofit bureaucracy that administers the site.
For queues of pilgrims, though, the goal is the grotto with a prostrate image of the Difunta and her baby. To fulfill pledges they have made and to thank her for favors granted, some crawl the concrete steps backwards like crabs. They leave an astonishing assortment of license plates, model cars and houses, photographs, and other personal items that signify their gratitude; the foundation, for its part, “recycles” many items to finance its activities (which include delivery of 2,000 liters of water daily from the town of Caucete).
Pilgrims visit the shrine all year. It’s most impressive at Easter, May Day, and Christmas, but events like mid-April’s gauchesco Cabalgata de la Fe (Ride of Faith) from San Juan and December’s Festival del Camionero (Trucker’s Festival) are increasingly important.
Believers, for their part, see no contradiction between their formal faith and devotion to the Difunta. That devotion has spread throughout the republic, as shown in roadside shrines—some astonishingly elaborate—from the Bolivian border to Tierra del Fuego. Their marker is the water-filled bottles left to slake her thirst, but there are also banknotes (from the hyperinflationary past), low-value coins, and miscellaneous vehicle parts (truckers are among her most committed adherents).
The Difunta may be the most widespread of popular religious figures, as measured by roadside shrines, but she’s not the only one. Sites devoted to the Gaucho Antonio Gil, an unjustly executed “Robin Hood” figure from Corrientes Province, are proliferating alongside the Difunta since Argentina’s 2001 economic and political implosion.
The shrine has its own branch of the provincial tourist office; there is also an ostensibly official website (www.visitedifuntacorrea.com.ar).
Informally, pilgrims camp almost anywhere they like, but the shrine’s own Hotel Difunta Correa (tel. 0264/496-1018 in Caucete, US$37 d) has Spartan rooms with private baths (electric showers) and breakfast; it’s presumably undergoing an upgrade, which may amount to little more than fresh paint. There’s plenty of parrillada plus empanadas and similar snacks at any of several street-side comedores.
From San Juan, Empresa Vallecito (tel. 0264/422-1181) has direct service to the shrine (1 hour, US$4 round-trip) at 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., returning at 11:15 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. Other eastbound buses, toward cities like La Rioja or Córdoba, will stop at the shrine on request.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition