Unofficial saint of the desert
Tour guides, docents, and professional speakers of all sorts love to ask their audiences questions to which the answers are obvious. They do this in order to “encourage participation,” but I always find these exchanges patronizing. “Who can tell me the title of the seminar you’re currently attending? That’s right! Communicating Clearly. Now if we’re not communicating clearly, how are we communicating? Anyone? Yes! Unclearly!” Ugh. So I don’t like to encourage this sort of behavior. If you have facts to relate to someone, then relate the facts. If you can’t ask genuinely useful questions, find some other way of involving your audience.
So there we were in a van in southern Argentina with seven other tourists, a driver, and a chipper guide who was eager to practice both her English and her professional guide skills. We were a captive audience in the only vehicle for many miles on one of the narrow highways that stretch across Patagonia. It was going to be a long ride, and we did pay a lot of money to be there, so we tried to make the best of it. “Who can tell me what meteorological feature this part of Patagonia is best known for?” she asked. Silence. We all knew. She knew we knew. No one wanted to play.
I sighed and decided to throw out the obvious answer just to take the pressure off my fellow tourists, and make the guide feel better about her job. “Wind,” I said. The guide smiled condescendingly with the look that means, in any language or culture, “Not the answer I was looking for.” Dang it. “Well,” she said, trying to reassure me that I hadn’t said something completely boneheaded, “it is indeed very windy here.” And she went on to talk about how many windmills were being installed, what a large portion of the nation’s electrical needs they hoped wind would provide in a few years, and so on. But this was all a diversion. She was looking for a particular answer to her question, and after asking a second time with no response, she filled it in for us. “It’s incredibly dry here.” Well, yes, of course—we knew that. We were confused because it was too obvious. Our guide went on to tell us how very few centimeters of rain the Chubut province received each year, how only the hardiest plants and animals could survive, how heavy pollution in other parts of the world was leading to dramatic climate changes here, and so on. This was all interesting in a vague, academic sense, but not what I really cared to listen to at that time. As I would later discover, however, stories involving thirst figure prominently in this arid region’s popular mythology.
Shrines of the Times
As we drove all over Chubut province—and again in each of the regions we visited—we repeatedly passed small roadside shrines, often in the remotest and unlikeliest locations. We always zipped by too quickly for me to get a good look or take a picture, but something told me there must be a story behind them. Finally someone asked what they were. Our guide said, with a mildly embarrassed tone, “Those are shrines or monuments to Deolinda Correa.” The story she then related is one she clearly did not believe in herself, but equally clearly, a great many other Argentineans did.
As legend has it, in the 1830s, María Antonia Deolinda Correa lived in Argentina’s San Juan province—an area at the foot of the Andes well north of Patagonia. Her husband, Bustos, was taken by force and drafted into the private army of Juan Facundo Quiroga, a regional gaucho warlord. Deolinda was so distraught that she set out on foot, with her newborn son in her arms, to follow her husband. After days of walking through the desert without food or water, she finally collapsed and died. Days later, passing mule drivers found her body; amazingly, her infant son was still alive and nursing at her breast. The men buried her, and having found the name Correa on a pendant she was wearing, labeled her tomb “Difunta Correa,” difunta being a word that literally means “defunct” but is more commonly used to mean “dead.”
Birth of a Saint
Years later, as her story spread, the locals began to think of her as a saint who had given her life for her child. And so, in this predominantly Catholic nation, people in need began to pray to her. When one man’s prayers were miraculously answered, he built a small chapel to honor Deolinda. Shortly thereafter, someone brought an offering of water to this chapel, symbolizing the divine relief from thirst. Soon, small roadside shrines began to appear all over the country, some of them littered with hundreds of bottles of water brought either in supplication or in thanks. Deolinda Correa has become the unofficial regional patron saint of travelers, farmers, and all those whose lives or livelihoods depend on a precarious supply of water. The monument built on the site where Deolinda is said to have died is now a large sanctuary—a hilltop where 17 chapels, and numerous smaller shrines, pay her honor. Over half a million pilgrims visit this site in the small town of Vallecito each year.
Deolinda was never canonized by the Catholic church, which regards the entire tale as nothing more than a superstition. There is little evidence of Deolinda’s existence and even less of the supposed miracle. The legend also does not say what happened to Deolinda’s son. But none of this weakens the beliefs of thousands of people who claim that Difunta Correa’s intervention resulted in miraculously answered prayers.
Travelers do not often cross the deserts and plains of Argentina on foot these days. But I can easily imagine a parched and weary soul, stranded far from food and water, who stumbles upon a shrine to Deolinda Correa and drinks from a water bottle left as an offering. Whether or not this ever happens, I like to think that in death—or even as the figment of someone’s imagination—Difunta Correa now has the power to save countless thirsty travelers.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on January 26, 2005.
Image credit: Piergiorgio Rossi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Author: Joe Kissell