ARGENTINA: Defunct Mrs. Correa
Jun 1, 2003
David Rich 1100 Words
ARGENTINA: D e f u n c t M r s. C o r r e a
Argentina is a favorite country, not only for its food and wine but also for its superstitions.
Once upon a time, about one hundred-sixty years ago during Argentina's civil wars, Deolinda Correa followed her husband's battalion through the snarly desert west of San Juan. She trudged on foot carrying their small son, food, and water in her arms, surely more than she could handle while trying to keep up with her poor conscripted husband. The battalion moved on as Deolinda stumbled farther behind, running out of food and then out of water. Nature and the desert exacted their natural demands; miners leading mules found the body of the defunct Mrs. Correa. But miracle of miracles, the infant boy was still nursing at Deolinda's breast and had not expired of thirst. In consequence, Deolinda has been resurrected in spades.
The foremost religious shrine in South America is Difunta Correa, or defunct (Mrs.) Correa. Since the 1940s it's grown like crazy, from a simple hillside cross to the top pilgrimage site on the continent. You've got to see it to believe it, and you still may shake your head in wonder.
I'd seen the little roadside shrines every few dozen miles from Tierra del Fuego north, dozens of them along thousands of miles of highway, and always wondered what the heck they were about. The shrines feature offerings of auto parts, bottles of water, and small bits of paper money haphazardly congregated around a small, whitewashed miniature chapel, the size of a doghouse, with a cross on top, hundreds of them. Before reading about the real thing, these shrines looked to me like an excuse for litter, hundreds of plastic water bottles strewn around a bunch of metal junk and bits of paper. Then I read the legend and simply had to stop by, thirty miles east of San Juan, Argentina, at the original and only authentic Difunta Correa.
The real Difunta Correa has seventeen full-sized chapels, each specializing in a particular type of offering, memorializing the bounty received by supplicants who worship the defunct Mrs. Correa. There's a chapel dedicated to the Argentine armed forces where supplicants have left dress hats and uniforms galore, in the meantime, hopefully, replacing their bounty lest naked soldiers fight Argentina's next war.
There's a chapel for children, sepia-toned pictures and school photos crowding every inch; a chapel for houses obtained through the intercession of Mrs. Correa (with any luck not leaving the former owners bereft); a chapel for vehicles from four-wheel drive to long-distance buses, color pictures of their proud new owners beaming like a full moon; a chapel for speed demons on horses to hotrods, pictures of winners strewing every wall; a chapel for wedding dresses, thousands behind glass, the dresses fading from white to yellow; a chapel of diplomas from hairdressing school to detective reconnoitering; a chapel for kid's toys where children merrily play and toot and make believe while their parents are off doing more serious things with Mrs. Correa. There's a chapel for sports trophies (the losers must have offended Mrs. Correa) and in most chapels there's a reclining Mrs. Correa, nursing away, where thousands of serious pilgrims lay on hands, and appear obviously blessed.
The administration building houses donations, from a new BMW to a vintage Ford, gold and platinum records of rock stars, musical instruments, swords, cameras, and transistor radios among the thousands of items, a more than munificent bounty for defunct Mrs. Correa. Behind the administration building begin the stairs, rising upward between balustrades lined with old Argentinean license plates, flanked by miniature replicas of houses and businesses from Pennzoil to Ready Lube and Nestlé's ice cream. In the seventeen hours I spent on site, I witnessed the arrival of over a hundred tour buses, people streaming and walking on their knees up long trains of steps with infants in their arms.
When I climbed the stairs, a man behind me toiled on his knees, infant in his outstretched arms, progressing upward like a paraplegic, his wife climbing devoutly behind, really slowly. A hundred yards from the top the procession slowed to a crawl, the line to the inner sanctum backing up permanently.
I fingered my camera and checked the settings because the sun was ultra bright. Then I prepared to snatch off my hat as we approached the top chapel at a literal snail's pace. Around an outcropping on the hill, about a hundred people were bent over, lighting candles, plaques and license plates glistening in reflected light off every surface. All chapels, edifices, and buildings are covered with plaques thanking Mrs. Correa for whatever it was she did, and there must be at least a million, tiny cute little things in pewter, gunmetal gray, and ceramic.
The six-abreast line entered the inner sanctum, which surrounded another manikin of Mrs. Correa covered in carnations and confetti, this one dressed in red with prominent up-thrust breasts and a small urchin clinging to an exposed one, the crowd weeping and bowing and tearing the knees out of its pants. I was the only one with a camera, but no one even blinked as the flash exploded and exploded again. Perhaps taking off my hat bought me immunity from censure.
I filed slowly out into the blinding sun, pondering. Mrs. Correa is not a saint (the official Argentine Roman Catholic Church abhors her), but a dead soul who intercedes with gifts for the devout; nonbelievers beware—your house may soon be in foreclosure, granted by Mrs. Correa to someone more devout than you. Leave a gift in barter for a supernatural favor. But don't go at Easter, May 1, or Christmas, when the hordes, 200,000-plus, may outnumber the plaques. You could be trampled and become as defunct as Mrs. Correa.
Difunta Correa is a bustling town in the middle of nowhere, about a hundred miles north of Mendoza. The fast growing site has gas stations, restaurants, gift and souvenir shops (buy something to donate to the Mrs.), two hotels, several thousand free camping spots, an austere modern church, school, post office, gauchos in costume on miniature horses, a police station, and an unending procession of eighteen-wheelers whose patron saint is Mrs. Correa, hence the plethora of auto parts left at the lesser Difunta Correas up and down the main highways. The place is pandemonium twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, especially on weekends, which are, therefore, the best time to watch, see, and marvel.