“This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you’re on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable…Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you’re entering the wondrous dimension of imagination. . .
Next stop The Twilight Zone.”
― Rod Serling
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, a drunk, a buxom brunette and a mustachioed, bola wielding cowboy walk into a bar …
Ever since we left Houston, we have encountered roadside shrines in one form or another. In the USA it is usually a small cross sometimes accompanied by plastic or desiccated flowers. The marker usually indicates that someone has died in an automobile accident.
Since entering Mexico and continuing on our journey south, some of the memorials have become very elaborate, the size of large doll houses while others are simply a star painted on the pavement. In addition, shrines to “The Virgin of X” where X is usually the nearest town name have become common. Alledgedly, the Virgin Mary appeared and performed a miracle of some sort. Occasionally, we would see a roadside shrine to a saint.
In the past several months, a new variety of shrine has appeared, but not to a dead loved one, saint or the local Virgin.
We first encountered this new type of monument and mistook it for a trash dump, strangely surrounded with two and three liter bottles refilled with water. We encounter all kinds of things that don’t make sense to us and have started to accept it as “it’s just how it’s done here.”
It wasn’t until they became more frequent that we decided to investigate.
One type of frequent shrine is to Difunta Correa, a sort of patron saint to truck drivers and travelers in general. Difunta Correa isn’t an official saint but rather a soul, a dead person that intercedes for people and who performs miracles.
Difunta means “defunct” and Correa is this poor soul’s surname. As one story goes, during the civil wars of the 1840s, Deolinda Correa attempted to reach her sick, conscripted husband whose battalion had abandoned him in the deserts near San Juan.
She carried food, water and their baby son in her arms.
Unfortunately, her supplies ran out and she succumbed to exhaustion, thirst and hunger.
Days later, her body was found by gauchos that were driving cattle through the area. They were surprised to find the child still nursing at the deceased woman’s miraculously ever-full breast.
This miracle was commemorated with a shrine at the site believed to be where she was found. Since then, numerous shrines to her have appeared along the road where devotees leave gifts and bottles of water left to quench her thirst.
In addition to Difunta Correa shrines we began to notice roadside shrines surrounded by red flags, banners and objects hung from trees. These are left for Gauchito Gil.
The Legend of Gaucho Gil
This storied persona was somewhat of a ladies’ man in addition to being a Robin Hood-like figure. He was a farmworker on a ranch owned by a wealthy widow who either fell in love with Gaucho Gil or had an affair with him. Apparently her snooty brothers were not okay with this relationship as well as the local police captain. The captain was either in love with the widow or engaged to her depending on the story. The brothers accused Gil of robbery and tried to kill him, with the local fuzz suddenly forgetting due process.
To escape, Gil joined the army, fought in a war and returned home only to be called up to join the army again for another conflict. He decided he had enough of the fighting. He was, after all, a lover and not a fighter. He went AWOL and roamed the countryside stealing cattle from wealthy ranchers and sharing it with poor villagers who in turn, protected him.
In 1878, the Law caught up with Gil and he was promptly strung up in a tree, hung from his feet and depending on the story, was either decapitated or had his throat slit. Before he died Gil allegedly told the knife/ax/guillotine wielding head po-po that after he killed Gil he would return to town and discover his son was gravely ill.
In one version of the legend Gill tells his executioner that if he buries his body (not a common practice for army deserters) his son would recover. In the other version of the story Gil tells his headsman that if the policeman prays to him for his son’s recovery after he dies, the boy will make a swift recovery.
The policeman returned to his village, discovered his son was sick and either prayed to Gaucho Gil, buried his body, or did both for good measure. Subsequently the boy recovered and the legend grew.
Like Difunta Correa, Gaucho Gil is a People’s saint, a holy figure not recognized by the church. If legends are true, he was a regular guy who drank wine, danced and who now acts as a go-between with his petitioners and God.
While we’re on the topic of wine, one final introduction is in order to complete the trifecta of heavenly middle-men.
The legend of Borracho Bill
Borracho Bill is the unofficial patron saint of hangovers, who is very popular after market days. During market, men typically get very sleepy in the early afternoon and decide to nap wherever looks comfortable, such as in the middle of the street, in a bush, or on the back of their horse.
Borracho Bill (“borracho” is “drunk” in Spanish) liked to drink wine, hang out with his dude-bros and make sweet time with the ladies. Like Gaucho Gil, he was born into a poor family and worked for a wealthy owner of vineyards and a winery. He was popular among the local poor villagers because he would share wine he borrowed from the winery.
Legend has it he was in love with the only daughter of the wealthy owner. The daughter was apparently amenable to his advances, often “forgetting” to bar her window at night.
It didn’t take long for Pops to figure out what was going on and for Borracho Bill to disappear. Years after the wealthy owner died, a barrel was discovered on the property that contained a skeleton and an empty bottle of wine.
It is said that the heartbroken daughter identified the hat as belonging to Bill. A shrine was erected near the winery for Borracho Bill, who has been credited with helping petitioners with everything from divine hangover cures (he is said to have inspired Clamato, the tomato based drink with a touch of clam broth) to a perfect game of beer-pong.
Borracho Bill is also the patron saint of tall-boys and tall-tales.