Spirits of the Road: The Cult of Animitas

The traveler who exits the Estación Central in Santiago, Chile and walks down San Francisco de Borja street, after less than twenty meters will stumble upon a sort of votive wall, right on the side of the train station on his left, a space choke-full of little engravings, offerings, perpetually lit candles, photographs and holy pictures. A simple sign says: “Romualdito”, the same name present on every thankful ex voto.

If our hypothetical traveler then takes a cab and heads down the Autopista del Sol towards the suburb of Maipù, he will see by the side of the opposite lane an altar quite similar to the first one, dedicated to a young girl called Astrid whose portrait is almost buried under dozens of toys and plush bears.

Should he cross the entirety of Chile’s narrow strip of land, encased between the mountains and the ocean, maybe crossing from time to time the border to the Argentinian pampas, he would notice that the landscape (both urban and rural) is studded with numerous of these strange little temples: places of devotion where veneration is not directed towards canonical saints, but to the spirits of people whose life ended in tragedy. This is the cult of the animitas.

An expression of popular piety, the animitas are votive boxes that are often built by the side of the road (animita de carretera) to remember some victims of the “mala muerte”, an awful death: even if the remains of these persons are buried at the cemetery, they cannot really rest in peace on the account of the violent circumstances of their demise. Their souls still haunt the places where life was taken from them.

 

The Romualdito at the train station, for instance, was a little boy who suffered from tubercolosis, assaulted and killed by some thugs who wanted to steal his poncho and the 15 pesos he had on him. But his story, dating back to the 1930s, is told in countless versions, more or less legendary, and it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what happened: one thing is sure, the popular faith in Romualdito is so widespread in Santiago that when it was time to renew and rebuild the station, his wall was left untouched.

Young Astrid, the girl with the plush toys altar, died in 1998 in a motorcycle accident, when she was just 19-years-old. She is now known as the Niña Hermosa.

But these funeral altars can be found by the hundreds, mostly installed by the roadside, shaped like little houses or small churches with crosses sicking out of their tiny roofs.

At first they are built as an act of mercy and remembrance on the exact spot of the fatal accident (or, in the case of fishermen lost at sea, in specific sectors of the coast); but they become the center of a real cult whenevert the soul of the deceased proves to be miraculous (animita muy milagrosa). When, that is, the spirit starts answering to prayers and offerings with particular favors, by interceding bewteen the believer and the Holy Virgin or Christ himself.

 The cult of the animitas is an original mixture of the indigenous, pre-Hispanic cult of the dead (where the ancestor turned into a benign presence offering protection to his offspring) and the cult of the souls of Purgatory which arrived here with Catholicism.
For this reason it shows surprising analogies with another form of folk religiosity developed in Naples, at the Fontanelle Cemetery, a place to which I devoted my book
De profundis.
The two cults, not officially recognized by the Roman Church, have some fundamental aspects in common.

Animitas, built with recycled material, are folk art objects that closely resemble the carabattoli found in the Fontanelle Cemetery; not only for their shape but also for their function of making a dialectic, a dialogue with the Netherworld possible.
Secondly, the system of intercessions and favors, the offerings and the ex voto, are essentially the same in both cases.

But the crucial element is that the objects of veneration are not religious heroes, those saints who accomplished miraculous feats while they were alive, but rather victims of destiny. This allows for the identification between the believer and the invoked soul, the acknowledging of their reciprocal condition, a sharing of human misery – a feeling which is almost impossible when faced with “supernatural” figures like saints. Who of course have themselves an apotropaic function, but always maintain a higher position in respect to common mortals.
On the other hand the
animitas, just like the anime pezzentelle in Naples, are “democratic” symbols, offering a much easier relationship: they share with the believers the same social milieu, they know firsthand all the daily hardship and difficulties of survival. They are protective spirits which can be bothered even for more modest, trivial miracles, because they once were ordinary people, and they understand.

But while in Italy the cult developed exclusively in one town, in Chile it is quite ubiquitous. To have an idea of the tenacity and pervasiveness of this faith, there is one last, amazing example.
Ghost bikes (white-painted bicycles remembering a cyclist who was run over by a car) can be seen all around the world, and they are meant as a warning against accidents. When these installations began to appear in Chile, they immediately intertwined with popular devotion giving birth to hybrids called
bicianimitas. Boxes for the ritual offerings began to appear beside the white bicycles, and the funeral memorials turned into a bridge for communication between the living and the dead.
Those living and dead that, the
animitas seem to remind us, are never really separated but coexist on the city streets or along the side of dusty highways stretching out into the desert.

The blog Animitas Chilenas intends to create an archive of all animitas, recording for each one the name of the soul, her history and GPS coordinates.
Besides the links in the article, I highly recommend the essay by Lautaro Ojeda,
Animitas – Una expresión informal y democrática de derecho a la ciudad (in ARQ Santiago n. 81 agosto 2012) and the in-depth post El culto urbano de la muerte: el origen y la trascendencia de las animitas en Chile, by Criss Salazar.
Photographer Patricio Valenzuela Hohmann put up a
wonderful animitas photo gallery.
Lastly, you should check out the
Difunta Correa, Argentina’s most famous animita, dedicated to the legendary figure of a woman who died of thirst and fatigue in the Nineteenth Century while following her husband – who had been forced to enroll in the army; her body was found under a tree, still holding her newborn baby to her breast. The cult of the Difunta Correa is so widespread that it led to the construction of a real sanctuary in Vallecito, visited by one million pilgrims every year.

Special: Claudio Romo

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On April the 4th, inside the Modo Infoshop bookshop in Bologna I have had the pleasure to meet Chilean artist Claudio Andrés Salvador Francisco Romo Torres, to help him present his latest illustrated book A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus in front of a crowd of his fans.

I don’t want to go into much detail about his work, because he himself will talk about it in the next paragraphs. I would only like to add one small personal note. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to know, to various degrees of intimacy, several writers, filmmakers, actors, illustrators: some of them were my personal heroes. And while it’s true that the creator is always a bit poorer than his creation (no one is flawless), I noticed the most visionary and original artists often show unexpected kindness, reserve, gentleness. Claudio is the kind of person who is almost embarassed when he’s the center of attention, and his immense imagination can only be guessed behind his electric, enthusiast, childlike glance. He is the kind of person who, after the presentation of his book, asks the audience permission to take a selfie with them, because “none of my friends or students back home will ever believe all this has really happened“.
I think men like him are more precious than yet another maudit.

What follows is the transcription of our chat.

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We’re here today with Claudio Romo (I can never remember his impossibly long full name), to talk about his latest work A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus, a book I particularly love because it offers a kind of mixture of very different worlds: ingredients like time travel, giant jellyfish, flashes of alchemy, flying telepathic cities and countless creatures and monsters with all-too-human characteristics. And rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this garden is a kind of place within the mind, within the soul… and just like the soul, the mind is a mysterious and complicated place, not infrequently with perverse overtones. A place where literary and artistic references intermix and intertwine.
From an artistic viewpoint, this work certainly brings to mind Roland Topor’s film Fantastic Planet, although filtered by a Latin American sensibility steeped in pre-Columbian iconography. On the other hand, certain illustrations vividly evoke Hieronymus Bosch, with their swarming jumble of tiny physically and anatomically deformed mutant creatures. Then there are the literary references: impossible not to think of Borges and his Book Of Imaginary Beings, but also the end of his Library of Babel; and certain encounters and copulations between mutant bodies evoke the Burroughs of Naked Lunch, whereas this work’s finale evokes ‘real’ alchemical procedures, with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and its famous phrase “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing”. At the end of the book it is revealed that the garden is as infinite as the cosmos, but also that it is connected to an infinite number of other infinities, not only his personal garden but also mine and yours. In a sense, the universe which emerges is an interpenetration of marvels in which it is highly difficult to grasp where reality finishes and imagination begins, because fantasy too can be extremely concrete. It’s as though Claudio was acting as a kind of map-maker of his mental ecosystem, doing so with the zest of a biologist, an ethnologist and an entomologist, studying and describing all the details and behaviour of the fauna inhabiting it. From this point of view, the first question I’d like to ask concerns precisely reality and imagination. How do they interact, for you? For many artists this dichotomy is important, and the way they deal with it helps us to understand more about their art.

First of all, I’d like to thank Ivan, because he has presented a good reading of my book.
I have always thought that no author is autonomous, we all depend on someone, come from someone, we have an inheritance transmitted not through a bloodline but through a spiritual or conceptual bond, an inheritance received from birth through culture. Borges is my point of departure, the alchemical inscription, the science fiction, fantastical literature, popular literature… all these elements contribute to my work. When I construct these stories I am assembling a collage, a structure, in order to create parallel realities.
So, to answer Ivan’s question, I think that reality is something constructed by language, and so the dichotomy between reality and imagination doesn’t exist, because human beings inhabit language and language is a permanent and delirious construction.
I detest it when people talk about the reality of nature, or static nature. For me, reality is a permanent construction and language is the instrument which generates this construction.
This is why I take as models people like Borges, Bioy Casares, Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit alchemist named as maestro of a hundred arts who created the first anatomical theatre and built a wunderkammer)… people who from very different backgrounds have constructed different realities.

ginoide

hornos
In this sense, the interesting thing is that the drawings and stories of Apparitio Albinus remind us of – or have a layer, we might say, that makes them resemble – the travel journals of explorers of long ago. Albinus could almost be a Marco Polo visiting a faraway land, where the image he paints is similar to a mediaeval bestiary, in which animals were not described in a realistic way, but according to their symbolic function… for example the lion was represented as an honest animal who never slept, because he was supposed to echo the figure of Christ… actually, Claudio’s animals frequently assume poses exactly like those seen in mediaeval bestiaries. There is also a gaze, a way of observing, that has something childish about it, a gaze always eager to marvel, to look for magic in the interconnection between different things, and I’d like to ask you if this child exists inside you, and how much freedom you allow him in your creative process.

When I first began creating books, I concentrated solely on the engravings, and technically engraving was extremely powerful for me. I was orthodox in my practice, but the great thing about the graphic novel is that its public is adult but also infantile, and the thing that interests me above all is showing and helping children understand that reality is soft.
The first book I made on this subject is called The Album Of Imprudent Flora, a kind of bestiary conceived and created to attract children and lead them towards science, botany, the marvel of nature… not as something static, but as something mobile. For example I described trees which held Portuguese populations that had got lost searching for the Antarctic: then they had become tiny through having eaten Lilliputian strawberries, and when they died they returned to a special place called Portugal… and then there were also plants which fed on fear and which induced the spirits on Saturn to commit suicide and the spirits on Mars to kill… and then die. I created a series of characters and plants whose purpose was to fascinate children. There was a flower that had a piece of ectoplasm inside its pistil, and if you put a mouse in front of that flower the pistil turned into a piece of cheese, and when the mouse ate the cheese the plant ate the mouse… after which, if a cat came by, the pistil turned into a mouse, and so on. The idea was to create a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers.
There was another plant which I named after an aunt of mine, extremely ugly, and in honour of her I gave this plant the ability to transform itself constantly: by day it was transfigured, and in certain moments it had a colloidal materiality, while in others it had a geometric structure… an absolutely mutant flower. This is all rather monstrous, but also fascinating, which is why I called the book “the imprudent flora”, because it went beyond the bounds of nature. Basically I think that when I draw I do it for children, in order to build up a way of interpreting reality in a broad and rich kind of way.

maquina_crononautica

automata_jerizaro
This corporal fluidity is also visible in this latest book, but there’s another aspect that I also find interesting, and this is the inversions that Claudio likes to create. For example, Lazarus is not resurrected, he ends up transformed into ghost by the phantasmagorical machine; we get warrior automatons which reject violence and turn into pacifists and deserters, and then again, in one of my favourite chapters, there is a time machine, built to transport us into the future, which actually does the opposite, because it transports the future into our present – a future we’d never have wanted to see, because what appears in the present is the corpses we will become. It seems that irony is clearly important in your universe, and I’d like to you tell us about that.

That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked me, there are two wonderful themes involved.
One is the theme of the ghost, because for the phantasmagorical machine I based the idea on an Argentinian author called Bioy Casares and his The Invention of Morel. In that story, Morel is a scientist who falls in love with Faustina, and since she doesn’t love him, he invents a machine which will absorb her spirit, record it, and later, in a phantasmagorical island, reproduce it eternally… but the machine turns out to kill the people it has filmed, and so Morel commits suicide by filming himself together with Faustine, thus ending up on this island where every day the same scene is repeated, featuring these two ghosts. But the story really begins when another man arrives on the island, falls in love with the ghost of Faustine, learns to work the machine and then films himself while Faustine is gazing at the sea. So he too commits suicide in order to remain in the paradise of Faustine’s consciousness.
This is a hallucinatory theme, and I was fascinated by the desire of a man who kills himself in order to inhabit the consciousness of the woman he loves, even though the woman in question is actually a ghost!
And the other question… on irony. Most of the machines I construct in the book are fatuous failures and mistakes: those who want to change time end up meeting themselves as corpses, those who want to invent a machine for becoming immortal drop dead instantly and end up in an eternal limbo… I like talking about ghosts but also about failed adventures, as metaphors for life, because in real life every adventure is a failure… except for this journey to Italy, which has turned out to absolutely wonderful!

demiurdo_y_humunculos

jardin_final
A few days ago, on Facebook, I saw a fragment of a conversation in which you, Claudio, argued that the drawing and the word are not really so different, that the apparent distance between logos and image is fictional, which is why you use both things to express your meaning. You use them like two parallel rail tracks, in the same way, and this is also evident through the way that in your books the texts too have a painterly visual shape, and if it weren’t for the pristine paper of this edition, we might think we were looking at a fantastical encyclopedia from two or three centuries ago.
So, I wanted to ask a last question on this subject, perhaps the most banal question, which resembles the one always asked of songwriter-singers (which comes first, the words or the music?)… but do your visions emerge firstly from the drawing paper and only later do you form a kind of explicative text? Or do they emerge as stories from the beginning?

If I had to define myself, I’d say I was a drawing animal. All the books I have created were planned and drawn firstly, and the conceptual idea was generated by the image. Because I’m not really a writer, I never have been. I didn’t want to write this book either, only to draw it, but Lina [the editor] forced me to write it! I said to her, Lina, I have a friend who is fantastic with words, and she replied in a dictatorial tone: I’m not interested. I want you to write it. And today I’m grateful to her for that.
I always start from the drawing, always, always…

cover_apparitio_uk alta

The English version of Claudio Romo’s new book can be purchased here.