Resplendent bodies

17 05 2010

Cuerpos Resplandecientes: Santos Populares Argentinos by Rosa Lojo

Over the years in Latin America, the idea of the “santo pagano”, “santo popular”, or “santo informal” has been the subject of many studies and literary pursuits. From regional folklore, the figure of the folk saint has often become a figure of class resistance, the assertion of plebian pride, and a national symbol. This is due a great deal to the general secularization of Latin America in the the last fifty years, the subsequent decline of the power of the Catholic Church over cultural affairs, and the feeling of exclusion that large parts of these societies feel towards the general cultural discourse. In the face of the modernization of religion, people feel that they need to carve out a niche for their own saints, their own intercessors, who defend them from the same institutions that the mainstream Church seeks to uphold.

I had encountered folk saints in my own childhood, as I have written in the past. When I lived in Argentina for a couple of years, folk saints inevitably came up even in the unlikely context of a traditionalist seminary. You would hear names such as “Gilda”, “Rodrigo”, and perhaps most commonly, “Gauchito Gil”, and in our circles, it was always with the highest degree of disdain. “Who else are you going to pray to? Gauchito Gil!” “Poor ignorant rabble lighting candles to that cumbia singer!” Like many things Argentine, like who owned the Malvinas Islands or which local team played the best soccer, I felt the matter none of my business. Of course, I knew unofficial saints went with the Catholic territory, at least on the gut level. Since I was interested in other things, I thought nothing of it at the time.

After touching base again with my own “cultural Catholic” roots, the informal religion that served as the context of my religiosity, I became fascinated with this pantheon of unlikely spirits. And as I already knew, Argentina was a veritable Petri dish of folk religiosity. Especially in its northern territories, the cross-currents of the southern continent merge to create a culture that is unbelievably colorful, multiplying the archetypes at the heart of human consciousness into various regional avatars.

The most authoritative book that I have read so far regarding this religious creativity is Felix Coluccio’s Cultos y Canonizaciones Populares de Argentina. Like many good works of this kind, it contained brief descriptions of folk saints along with passages from literature, both informal and official, recording the deeds and cults of these saints. While authoritative, it is still more than two decades old, and a lot has changed in society since then. Maria Rosa Lojo, a fiction writer and investigator in Buenos Aires, attempts to tackle the subject in her recent book, Cuerpos Resplandecientes: Santos Populares Argentinos. While she attempts a more creative engagement with such figures as Gauchito Gil, la Difunta Correa, la Telesita, and Gilda, her prose often approaches overkill, like re-working your mother’s signature dish using French technique learned in the finest restaurants of Paris. In many ways, the stories of these “pagan saints” are strange enough as to not warrant a literary re-working, no matter how respectful it is of the subject matter.

To tell the truth, I could barely stomach the pretentious prose in her retelling of the splendor and death of Gauchito Gil or Santos Guayama. While tempting, the story of the “sacred cowboy”, tossed about by the forces of love, war, and tyranny, are compelling enough to not need the embellishment of literary skill to retell it. I read these very quickly and without much pleasure. Some of her stories take a Borges-esque turn, such as the story, “My crusade against superstition”, which ostensibly is a diary entry of a skeptical government bureaucrat who has an ambivalent relationship with some popular folk healers (Pancho Sierra and Madre Maria), but turns out to be the recorded notes from beyond the grave from a séance held in one of Madre Maria’s old parlors. She writes as well in “The maternal music of the universe” of one Pedro Farias, a young boy killed for touching his boss’ guitar. After writing of the unjust murder, she speaks of his legacy by writing:

Pedro Farias became the white light that helps find stray cattle or the thread of water quenching the thirst of the journey, or the path that is erased in the whirlpools of wind. He becomes as well that which transforms the hearts of men, detaining the hand that pulls the trigger or raises the dagger, that which opens the ears even just one time to hear the maternal music of the universe.

The most successful stories from my point of view are the ones in which she steps back and allows the story of the saint to tell itself. This was the case with her fictionalized account of a telesiada: a rural bacchanalia held to thank the country banshee, la Telesita, for a favor granted. Her account of the cumbia singer, Gilda, who died tragically in an auto accident, shows how she was miraculous in life as well as death. The drag queen protagonist saved by the healing touch of the pop star is a perfect example of the type of people folk saints touch who the official Church cannot.

Overall, I didn’t think the book was worth the money and time to read it. Unless one wants to do a literary survey of more cultured reactions to a grassroots phenomenon, there was little in the book that I didn’t already know or could learn somewhere else. For me at least, the stories of unlikely people who became resplendent bodies in death (a phrase from St. Basil the Great) need no re-working whatsoever.


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