It is believed that the “animitas” can also be found in Greece or Bolivia showing the same characteristics our animitas show. However, being that way, good and described with a diminutive word, as are many Chilean terms, the word has curiously been accepted among us; our animitas are modest popular sanctuaries. They are little house-like altars of about half a meter high, clumsily built with bricks. The animitas can sometimes be seen on the side of roads, almost as if they were on the edge of forgetfulness. Burning candles are put around them during night time, and, during the day, flowers wither in old containers placed on a black smoke-tainted spot and wax. The nightly wind blows shaking, and putting out the candles that a merciful hand will light again the next night if there is still some wick. The sun will char the flowers that the rain will sweep up. Nevertheless, the rained-over and charred animita stands there because it is tied to its place waiting for new religious devotees, a new day, or maybe a new year.
These sanctuaries, which evoke the holy souls of purgatory, which stayed roaming around our lives -as Shakespeare states in The Tempest, “...our little life is rounded with a sleep”- are erected on places where a tragic and violent death happened due to an accident or murder. However, even when animitas are a reminder of violence and tragedy, they do not inspire fear. They are good, and they guard people’s lives. They intercede with God for the solicitants, who are relatives of the dead or just people who believe in the animita´s power, if it is very prestigious. The solicitants request their favours by going to the place where the death happened and they pray, or light a candle. It is just a place, a name, or even a forgotten story, but the blurry and strong people’s memory keeps the place and makes it legendary and powerful.
Our animitas are simple and plain sanctuaries of memory that barely light a small sparkle of thought on the go, a humble begging to eternity which will not reveal their secret. However, the stern people hold to their memory and keep their faith on the fact that those who fell as victims of violence, died for a specific purpose. This way, they keep their own right and authority. Miraculous animitas can be seen at the entrance of a city, spaced by a short distance, and as soon as the night falls, they shine with a dim light but more eloquent than the metropolis’s glow in the horizon.
As Christmas and New Year’s Eve get closer, while the disgraceful city lights their commercial Christmas trees, I get the strange feeling that the number of animitas has started to grow. Raids on roads, settlements, and neighbourhoods have made unknown hands to build animitas everywhere for the stranger who died escaping through a dark street that failed in hiding him or the one who fell gun-fired by the road. Each of these deaths, which were not announced on newspapers, will have its fragile little sanctuary whose light will last as long as the memory of a friend or relative does, until its partners move or pass away or until the years, or the fear of a stray bullet in the dark, or misery, split the family.
Animitas are not a phenomenon of our roads or neighbourhoods alone. They can also be found in the city, for example the ones that look onto the Pacific Ocean from the overpopulated hills of Valparaiso, or the ones in the town’s squares. In Santiago city centre, among the most crowded and popular streets surrounding Estación Central, is the famous Romualdito. During the end-of-the-year festivities, these streets are occupied by eager street hawkers who almost beg the crowd to buy a pair of socks from Taiwan, and ugly plastic toys, a bundle of matico herbs to cure toothache or grief. Once in a while there is a police roundup of the winding crowd who move around like in a fair, trying to disperse the illegal vendors – even buyers were said to be fined if they were caught buying. However, shortly after that, the mournful, anxious, and persistent vendors come back like a cloud of flies to keep offering their poor-quality products.
In one of these streets there is an old wall covered with ex-votos and wax-slippery pavement where, despite the car honks and sudden breaks and the urban hustle and buzzle, some people stop to say a prayer, or to light a candle for Romualdito, the Chilean most famous animita: “Thank you Romualdito for favours granted...,” “In memory of Romualdito...” People who are identified just by their initials, sometimes names of football clubs, or the staff from some institution who thank Romualdito by placing a small plaque or sign on the wall. Time creates an infinite number of mutations of Romualdito’s surname: Ibáñez, Ivaniz, Evans, Ibane...Nonetheless, the whole neighbourhood has a clear idea of Romualdito’s identity: “he makes miracles,” “he grants favours,” they say. This saint, canonized by nothing more than the violence that killed him, intercedes for others. He has been placed there as one of the most powerful and prestigious neighbours, even when who he was, what happened to him, when and why it happened, is unknown.
The number of versions grows, they are enwoven and they contradict one another. The name is the only thing that keeps unchanged, Romualdito, in a loving diminutive word. The candle smoke-blackened wall covered with metallic ex-votos plaques. Popular devotion lives among a disappointed and polluted city. In every human being there is a need of having some kind of protection and a wishing hope of not to forget or be forgotten. Romualdito is said to have been an 18 year-old boy who was murdered on that sidewalk almost half a century ago. “Who killed him?” I ask. “The others...,” they answer.
“The others” have always existed, now and then. Some say Romualdito was stubbed; while others say he was gunned down by “the others” from across the street. Some people say it was in a drunk fight, probably over politics, because in Chile, politics has always been fought over, for better or worse. Loyalties have been aired on the streets.
In any case, not much is known. Only a name lingers: Romualdito. This is more of what is left of many others! Now, during the sad festivities of the clean and dignified Chilean poverty of 1984, the eloquence of these animitas which bring to mind a violent act – so distant to our natural sweetness and to the memories brightened at night by a hundred candles, in the case of Romualdito, or by a single candle in the night-darkened roads of the southern countryside – seems to become a metaphor of our forced silence.