The story is one of love and loss, as many good stories are. In the mid-1800s, a local man named Baudilio Bustos from the mountainous San Juan province near the Argentine border with Chile, was forced to join the army to participate in the nation’s civil wars. His wife, Maria Antonia Deolinda Correa, was devastated at his departure, and upon hearing that he had been taken ill and abandoned by his comrades, set off on a perilous journey across the sierras to find him.
But she was not alone. With her she took their child, who was still a baby, and they followed the path the military men had taken, but the journey proved to be too much, and she died atop a hill outside of the city.
A legend is born
A few days later some gauchos who were herding cattle across the desert landscape came across Correa’s body, and to their amazement, her baby was still alive and suckling at her breast. And so began the legend of La Difunta, or ‘the deceased’, Correa.
The men buried Deolinda in Vallecito, and brought the tale back with them to their town. The story of the legend spread by word of mouth, and many ranchers who passed by the grave said prayers to La Difunta Correa, and many were deemed to have been heard.
One particular gaucho, Pedro Flavio Zeballos, passed the tomb and prayed for all his lost cows to be found, and when he eventually came upon a full herd of his cows, he resolved to build a chapel on the site. After selling the cattle in Chile and presumably spreading the word about the miracle, he returned to Vallecito and built a humble structure above her grave. This became the deal from then on: ask La Difunta Correa to grant you something in exchange for a promise.
A veritable shrine has grown up around the chapel of La Difunta Correa where pilgrims to go visit her grave, and even a small village that sells souvenirs and trinkets related to the folkloric saint. Although Correa is not officially recognised by the Catholic church, she has become something of a saint of the people, especially among lower, rural classes who flock to the shrine to bring gifts in return for her protection.
In fact, so varied and many are the gifts that other chapels for particular requests have sprung up around the site, adorned with unusual items such as plastic bottles or car licence plates, depending on the request. Easter is a particularly busy time, when people arrive in droves to celebrate the National Truck Driver Festival. Now there are more than 30 chapels in the vicinity, a testament to how much La Difunta Correa is adored by the people in Argentina.