La Liturgia de la Telesita

11 12 2008

Part II – Logos

(above: a song about the folk saint)

From the northern Argentine state of Santiago de Estero comes one of the most interesting folk saints of the Latin American pantheon. Telesfora Castillo, or la Telesita, was a very attractive and eccentric young woman who haunted the paths of the wilderness of that state. She is described to have been a wild woman with ripped clothes and unkempt hair. Only music would draw her back into the company of men. When such fiestas would take place, she would descend from the mountains and dance alone in the midst of the throng, even after the musicians would stop playing. She would then go off into the night, without having spoken or socialized with anyone. Thus she would make her apparitions for a couple of years througout the region.

One day, however, she failed to come to such a gathering. The people of the region, concerned for her safety, went looking for her throughout the countryside. They finally found her burnt remains in an abandoned ranch. She had somehow caught fire and met her tragic end alone. They buried her remains and remembered the half-woman, half-ghost that had enchanted their lives.

Soon, however, they began to ask her for favors, such as finding lost animals or objects. When their petitions were granted, the devotees would have to throw la Telesita a party. The party, however, had its own ritual to it. First, the family would have to make a straw doll and sit it down in a chair or lay it out on a table as if for burial. Then they would have to light four or five candles around the “corpse” and begin a series of dances. The dance that opened the ritual is the northern Argentine dance of the chacarera, and the music for the night was made up of only stringed instruments (guitar, fiddle, etc.) The couple would have to dance alone for the first seven songs, and between the songs they would have to down a shot of aguardiente or other strong drink. If the woman couldn’t down all of the shots, she would take a sip from her cup and give the rest to an honored guest. After the first seven ritual dances, the rest of the guests joined in the merry-making. The feast ended when the last candle had burnt itself out. At that point, they would take the straw doll and light it on fire, representing the tragic end of the young “saint”.

Following these rubrics was crucial to the devotee. While la Telesita never demanded any strange forms of penance, if you were going to throw her a party, you would have to do it correctly or you might turn out worse off than before you asked her for anything.

(source: Cultos y Canonizaciones Populares de Argentina by Felix Coluccio)