On the woman caught in adultery

29 03 2010

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About a hundred years ago, on March 21st, 1903, a man killed his wife in the place where the current bus station now stands. This episode, which barely occupied three columns of the police record, created, in some bizarre twist of fate, the supreme myth of the city of Salta [Argentina]. It concerns Juana Figueroa, an almost anonymous woman in life, who after her death achieved an almost legendary status.

Before continuing, it is necessary to clarify a few things to avoid misunderstandings. We are not trying to come up with some sort of anthropological analysis of the situation, but are rather trying view it through our particular journalistic lens. We are not trying to bring forth conjectures, but are sticking purely to the facts. In this sense, even though it is possible that we are highlighting important questions to understand the motives behind this woman’s popular canonization, these escape the scope of journalistic inquiry. They should thus be studied from other points of view and through the prism of some sort of scientific discipline.

The records published in the newspapers of that time, according to our manner of understanding the sensationalist press – have many metaphorical flourishes and suppositions without foundation in reality. Translated into contemporary journalistic usage, the news of that crime would be read in the following way:

Yesterday afternoon, two children playing in the bushes of the Estado Canal near the cemetery found the corpse of a woman who had died as a result of a severe blow to the head. The police investigation established that the victim was a woman named Juana Figueroa de Heredia, 22 years old, and a housewife. Her husband, Isidoro Heredia, carpenter, 42 years of age, was later taken into custody, where he confessed that he had killed his wife with an iron implement after a heated discussion. Unofficial versions of the story lead one to believe that the events on that day arose due to continuing severe marital discord.

That would be the story in a nutshell. Everything else, the river of ink that flowed after the crime, is pure literature. Perhaps a flourish destined to increase the sales volume of publications, since in the Salta of those days, there was a dearth of things to peak the interest of the readership. The news published in relation to this death, having in some cases novelistic turns, was plagued by contradictions, lacunae, and absurd conjectures. These stories seemed more appropriate to dark detective novels than a basic police report.

The only thing of which we are certain is that Isidoro Heredia, possibly out of jealousy, fractured the skull of Juana and abandoned the body at the scene of the crime. And the lack of macabre detail, aside from being unable to justify the birth of a myth, strangely demonstrates that contemporary journalism cooks up its facts with far more discretion than it did back in those days.

The most believable parts of those versions of the story state that Juana was unfaithful to Isidoro on numerous occasions and with different men to boot. That conduct clearly demonstrates that Juana had no intention of saving her marriage and, for that reason, her infidelities had become more and more indiscreet. It seems proven that Juana abandoned her marital home many times and on one occasion lived for months with one Ibañez in Cerillos.

After ending that relationship, Juana began to frequent the bars next to the train station every night, and these served as the epicenter of her nocturnal diversions. Someone mentioned this to Isidoro, who went looking for her, and upon encountering her, convinced her either by promises or by force to come back home. According to the speculations of the police, later corroborated by Isidoro himself, the argument began on the road and culminated in Isidoro picking up a piece of iron he found in the weeds and mortally striking Juana on the head.

A little after the homicide, while the culprit was serving the 17 years given to him by the judges, candles were lit at the scene of the crime that transformed the dead woman into a miraculous soul. No one knows how this cult started. No one has stepped forward since then to explain the motives of that popular reaction. It is known, however, that the dramatic episode began to grow and meld with a myriad of new versions. The only common thread between all of them is the sinful behavior of the victim.

According to general opinion, Juana Figueroa had been an unfaithful woman, frivolous with a marked inclination for partying and drinking. Because of this, according to our Latin mentality that forgives everything except infidelity, Isidoro had rightly killed his wife. He was guilty, but he was right. Thus, he could be considered the real victim of this event, but this idea was manifested few times amongst the general public. There are two old stanzas that explicitly express such a sentiment. These are attributed to the journalist and poet Edelmiro Avallaneda, who is also attributed with a three act drama of the story of the gangster Pelayo Alarcón. These stanzas state:

“I was born of honorable but poor parents, my cradle was not noble but my heart was.

And cruel fate, this black luck of mine, wished that I was to know Juana, by whom I would be dishonored.”

Nevertheless, that “black luck” and “tragic fate” didn’t awake compassion in anyone. No one lifted a finger to help Isidoro Heredia. Violent emotion was not felt in his favor. He served his whole sentence, and then passed into absolute anonymity. On the other hand, the adulteress, the flirtatious driving force behind the tragedy, became a sympathetic and miraculous spirit who supposedly helped the same people who had disapproved of her conduct in life.

Juan Carlos Dávalos, for example, in his book, “Local Tales”, says that Juana Figueroa, “was an ungrateful and fickle woman”, while describing Isidoro Heredia as a “gentle and tolerant man, good like the fragrant cedar tables that he carved in his workshop.” Don Juan Carlos, always attentive to the scruples of his social class, surely did nothing more than formulate the general opinions of those circles.

And from here we see a strange paradox. Even though the region has that class of martyrs, they have generally arisen out of an unjust death. La Sibila, in Jujuy, was a poor mentally handicapped girl who was killed and hacked to pieces by a madman. La Difunta Correa suffered her Calvary fleeing from the arbitrary persecutions of Facundo Quiroga. Pedrito Sangeüso, also in Salta, was a seven year old raped and killed by his uncle with the complicity of his own mother. In Tucuman, Bazan Frías, an anarchist accused of homicide, was shot dead by the police in a cemetery. And according to popular belief, you should not kill on holy ground, which turns the death into an unjust act.

With Juana Figueroa, this was not the case. She was canonized, made a martyr and elevated to the category of miraculous soul, even though her life and death did not merit such treatment. Nonetheless, there always exist explanations for the attitudes of the people. If we dig deeply enough, we might be able to see that Juana Figueroa is nothing more than a vehicle; the latest name for a belief that comes down to us from the distant past. For it seems that people need the help of a miraculous soul, and if they don’t have one, they invent one. When pressed, believers can reply, in defense of their religious faith, that Christ also forgave the sinful woman.

-Francisco Zamora, Nexo Magazine, December 30th, 2003. My translation



2 responses

12 02 2014
argentina death record

Having read this I thought it was rather enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and energy to
put this content together. I once again find myself
personally spending a lot of time both reading and posting comments.
But so what, it was still worthwhile!

29 03 2010

Here’s the Orthodox equivalent. 8) — See, Arthur? Yours isn’t the only interesting religion out there!

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