The Santa Chilenita

March 13th, 2010

Just a few kilometres south of Tumbes, Peru’s northern most region, is a colorful little chapel that grabs the attention of passers-by. It is here that dozens of believers stop off to renew their faith in the Chilenita, a mysterious figure apparently from the country’s opposite border in the south.

By Sengo Pérez for El Comercio

He looked at the stairs that led up to the chapel from the Panamericana highway between Tumbes and Zorritos, he climbed them two by two. He didn’t have a lot of time, but he had promised to make an offering. Though not the most devout believer, and confessing to stretching out his promises once in a while, for the Chilenita it’s different.

“I always pass by, I promise to bring you some candles, but I never do. Today is different, here they are”, he said as if to someone that only he can see, and in a tone of familiarity quite uncommon between devotee and deity.

Lighting the candles, he closed his eyes and murmured something. Finally finishing, he took out some coins and carefully deposited them in the collection box. “She triples what anyone leaves”, he said, before exiting the chapel as quickly as he had entered.

It’s impossible to miss it from the highway. It is painted in a blue and yellow that under the hot northern sun looks even brighter. Inside is found a white cross made of pine, just within a little domed arch in the wall where images of a woman transformed into an angel are painted – the woman carrying a Chilean flag. On the other side, the image is mirrored where she is this time shown with the Peruvian flag.

But who is this young woman? How did she come to be a popular local saint? And how on earth did she arrive this far north to Tumbes?

Mariano and Maria Esperanza come here a few times per week, and have done so since the 1940s. Between prayers and with dedication they clean the cement floor and the spilt wax from the burning candles.

They explain:

“The Chilenita was a young woman that was found dead, floating in bath tub. She had a ring on her hand with the world Chile inscribed. She was pregnant.”

Fausto Valladares, a farmer of 70 years arrives after finishing he chores. He’s been coming regularly and the end of each day for 27 years.

“I know the truth, my grandmother told me”, he said in a low voice, motioning me to leave the chapel, so that the Chilenita wouldn’t hear him speaking about her.

“She came here from Ecuador, but told everyone she was from Chile. She arrived at an store called Santa Rosa, where she ate, conversed and bid everyone farewell. The next day they found her dead, with signs that she had been raped.”

She was apparently buried right there, next to the highway where she was found. With time, first local people, then travellers, would leave flowers and candles. They also asked her to grant them wishes, these apparently being fulfilled. She died between the 11th and 12th of October, 1884 and with her death was born the “Chilenita”.

Some say that the ocean carried her body away when there was an unusual tidal surge, though others suggest it is still there buried. The cross placed on her grave kept being moved away from the sea until reaching a height that the ocean could not reach. Some claim to have seen her, they say she appears every now and then in the chapel.

Each 13th of October, with the support of the faithful, the Chilenita is celebrated. People bring and share food – there is no drinking nor dancing. More than half a thousand people attend from northern Peru and southern Ecuador, occupying an entire beach.

“Because she is not official recognised, she isn’t placed inside or gets to visit any church, but the priest does come to the celebration”, Fausto explains.

Who she really was, what she was doing, and what happened to her will never really be known. Whether she does indeed protect and grant the wishes of those who care for her chapel is a matter of faith.

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