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Animitas: Roadside shrines across Chile are ubiquitous reminders of tragedy

  • Animita in rural Santo Domingo region, Chile
  • In otherwise very clean highway areas, one occasionally finds animitas surrounded by plastic bottles. These likely honor Difunta Correa, an unofficial saint of all travelers, who died of thirst in the desert.
  • A large animita commemorates four young men, one in each section. All have space for candles in the corner, and personal items. Some are mostly secular; others explicitly Catholic.
  • A grand animita near Andacollo, Chile: Locked inside are a picture of the young man memorialized, a crucifix, Virgin and child statues, a Chilean flag, model cars and two cigarettes in an ashtray.
  • The photo shows an animita on a hilltop near Andacollo, Chile, far from the road. A large cross is visible from miles away.
  • Animita on the road between La Serena and Ovalle, Chile: Among the items inside this church-like building is a tiny silvery Christmas tree.
  • Ronana Andrieta's animita has a number of plaques thanking her for interceding. Like most saints' ex votos, there is no indication of the nature of the intercession.
  • An animita built into the hill off the highway outside of Valpariaso has a bench to sit and pray.
  • Still well-kept 10 years after Ercilia's death, the animita memorializes "a great woman."
  • A pair of animitas in Ovalle, Chile; the left one is secular in themes, while the right one has dozens of ex-voto plaques with thanks for interventions.
  • Some of the many ex-votos express thanks at an animita in Ovalle, Chile.
  • While there are relatively few animitas in Santiago, the shrine to Romualdito, a man with an uncertain story, has a large following and has continued since the 1930s.

Roadside shrines to the dead, called animitas, line the roads from desert north to the rainy south of the country, numbering at least in the tens of thousands, especially along rural highways and in smaller, poor and working class cities and towns.

Small shrines like these are found in other parts of Latin America as well.  Animita is a term used only in Chile, from a diminutive of a word for soul. Though similar roadside shrines appear elsewhere in the world, the term animita is used only in Chile. Markers of small, unofficial saints’ cults, animitas remember tragic deaths. They memorialize people taken suddenly, often as victims of auto accidents, but also in drug violence or political violence. They are not simply memorial markers, but often serve as places where believers can ask for intercession from these people who died suddenly, as if the suddenness of their death gave them special spiritual power. Bodies are not buried there, rather, the animatas mark the spot where body and soul were separated, but where the soul may linger and still be reached by the living.

Animitas are not individually sanctioned by the church, but are part of many Catholics' taken for granted religious world. They are certainly not seen as "non-Catholic," and given their ubiquity it may be that Chileans encounter Catholic symbols at animitas more frequently than anywhere else.  Some animitas are visually secular, but most make use of religious symbols, or combine sacred and secular memorials (a statue of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel might be next to a young man’s football trophies). Typically they are shaped like a house or church, but can also be grottos, monuments or flat walls. Some animitas are in poor repair, but many have fresh flowers and candles burning years after they are set up. A small number have ex-voto plaques just like those at larger Marian and saints’ shrines, thanking the deceased “for favors conceded.”

Read more

Salas Astrain, Ricardo. "Violencia Y Muerte En El Mundo Popular: Reflexiones En Torno Al Simbolismo De Las ‘animitas." Estudios Sobre Las Culturas Contemporáneas 4.13/14 (1992): 181-92. Web.

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