BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — In his humble neighborhood of tin shacks, dirt roads and a towering garbage dump, Carlos Marquez has found a reason to give thanks on the 8th of every month.
On that date, the ex-convict opens the door to a sanctuary he built from recycled garbage that holds shrines to two of his favorite folk saints: Argentina's death saint, San La Muerte, and a legendary outlaw revered by the poor, Gauchito Gil, who had his throat slit by police on Jan. 8, 1878.
Gauchito Gil and San La Muerte are just two of many folk saints not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church but which are flourishing in Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis. The phenomenon is not new, but experts say it surged after the South American country's 2001 financial crisis that caused poverty rates to soar and people to seek out popular religiosity.
"He is the saint of the poor," Marquez said of Gauchito Gil. Shrines to the long-haired, mustachioed gaucho thief dot Argentina's slums and roadsides, especially in poor neighborhoods.
Marquez, who spent 18 years in prison for armed robbery, said that upon his release he built the sanctuary in La Carcova, a slum that grew around a garbage dump north of Buenos Aires. Its shrines are surrounded by red ribbons, cigarettes, flowers, candles and even knives left by the devout asking favors of or repaying debts to their saints.
"Common people are very expressive and search for the palpable. This is the case with a saint whose way of living is very close to theirs. This is the case with Gauchito Gil," said the Rev. Toto De Vedia, a priest who leads the parish in Villa 21 in southern Buenos Aires.
One of Argentina's most popular folk saints is La Difunta Correa, or Deolinda Correa, who according to legend set out into the desert with her baby in arms to look for her husband when he fell ill after being forcibly recruited to fight in Argentina's civil war in the 19th century. She died of thirst. When passing gauchos found her body under a tree, they discovered her baby was still alive, nourished by her breasts that had "miraculously" remained filled with milk.
Two million people a year visit her sanctuary 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of the Argentine capital. Statues of the dead woman dressed in red, a baby clutched to her breast, are common and devotees leave bottled water to quench her "eternal thirst."
Devotees of San La Muerte, which is depicted as a male skeletal figure holding a scythe, make offerings in hopes of favors ranging from health, fortune and protection to revenge.
"As a church, we must accompany and heal the distortions that such devotions can bring. We don't just accept them as is, but try to channel this devotion toward the good," said De Vedia.
The most recent case of popular adoration is that of cumbia singer Miriam Alejandra Bianchi, known as Gilda, who died in a bus accident in 1996 along with her family and band members.
Her fans started attributing miracles to her and giving her a holy status. They meet in front of her tomb in a Buenos Aires cemetery each Oct. 11 to celebrate her birthday. Devotees bring violets, balloons and even birthday cakes.
"One holds on to her and she is an intermediary to God, without a doubt," said Gaston Alarcon, president of her fan club. "I thank her for my job, my health and my house."