“Cabby Altars”: Random Miniethnographies of Daily (Religious) Life

Receipt: February 24, 2021

Acceptance: April 13, 2021


The paper shows and analyzes the assemblages of magic-religious symbols and images that many cab drivers1 of the city of Buenos Aires hang from the mirrors of their cars or hang on their sun visors. He uses the word "altars" with caution to make visible these minimalist traces of the daily religious life of the porteños, objects that at the same time provide protection against the dangers of daily traffic on the street and testify to relationships with specific superhuman beings. In these heterogeneous assemblages appear saints and virgins, popular saints and oriental and/or esoteric symbols -that testify to the rich magical-religious diversity of the city- as well as photos and memories of individuals and social collectives with a high charge of sacredness (children, relatives, soccer clubs). These "altars" are evidence of singular religious and familial journeys, but they also result from random interactions with passengers and evidence more general and little recognized patterns of how porteños relate to superhuman beings.

Keywords: , , , ,

"cabby altars": random miniethnographies of daily (religious) life.

This work shows-and analyzes-the assemblages of magical-religious symbols and images that many cab drivers in the city of Buenos Aires hang from their car mirrors or sun visors. It uses the word "altars" cautiously to make these minimalist traces of daily religious life of the locals-objects which protect against the perils of the daily hustle and bustle and also witness relations established with specific suprahumans- visible. In these heterogenous assemblages, Catholic saints and virgins appear, along with popular saints and Eastern and /or esoteric symbols -which bear witness to the rich magical-religious diversity of the city- as well as photographs and souvenirs of sacrally charged individuals and social collectives (children, relatives, soccer clubs). These "altars" are evidence of religious routes and beloved relatives, but are also result from random interactions with passengers, and bear witness to more general and less well-known patterns of how the city's inhabitants relate to suprahuman beings.

Keywords: religion, lived religion, materiality, altars, Argentina.

In this paper I propose to show and examine the plethora of graphic religious images that many cab drivers in the city of Buenos Aires have in their cars.2 These usually hang from the mirrors or are hooked on the sun visors or are located in other places close to the driver. I'll call them "altars" to emphasize their (magical) function.religious -and because it is common for them to result from the accumulation of two or three or more religious elements, sometimes of very different origins.3 Unlike the domestic altars recently analyzed in this same journal by De la Torre and Salas (2020), the ones in cabs are much more minimalist and generally seem to provide more a sense of security and protection than to function as a material support for devotional practice.. This statement should be taken with a grain of salt, since there are multiple modalities of relationship with these images and symbols, and the type of "functions" they can fulfill is also, as I will show, quite broad.

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Considered individually, many of these images, ribbons or rosaries could be considered "amulets" or "talismans" (poorly defined and little used concepts in the anthropology of western religion). However, the presence of several of them in the same space, as well as the fact that these images mediate and make visible (different types of) relationships with supra-human beings, could make the word "altar" more appropriate than other possible words to suggest that these assemblages fulfill much more than a merely protective or "magical" function.4

On "tachero altars" and "tachero mini-ethnographies".

Buenos Aires is a city characterized by the strong presence of religious images (usually Catholic) in public places. There are Virgins in hospitals, police stations, bus and train stations, and in the subway (subway) and even in courts. There are also crucifixes in hospital rooms, in courtrooms and in various public offices. In all these places they seem to exercise a kind of patronage, of protection, sometimes recognized legally and sometimes informally. In the city, religious images are also common in public squares, generally installed by municipal governments. Among them predominate those of the Virgin -usually that of Luján, for being the national patron saint, but there are other advocations-. There are also small altars and wayside shrines to the Virgin on street corners of neighborhoods, here perhaps with a greater incidence of neighborhood agency. This profuse presence has not been examined or theorized as it deserves. Much less so the growing number of altars that in the last decade (or two?) have begun to be built by neighbors in numerous neighborhoods of Greater Buenos Aires for the Gauchito Gil, a "popular saint" not recognized by the Church, in whose shadow the devotion to his protector, San La Muerte, also spreads (Frigerio, 2016).

In a city where religious images are the order of the day, it should come as no surprise that they also adorn and protect many of the thousands of cabs that circulate in the city. For quite some time now, the presence of religious images inside the cabs of Buenos Aires has caught my attention. Sometime in 2013 I decided to record these assemblages, which I called, somewhat colloquially, "altars tacheros".5 I took photos with cell phones or carrying small cameras, which were far from being the right tools to compensate for the often poor lighting conditions and the movement of the cab. For this reason, the photos illustrating this text may not have the quality of those obtained with more professional cameras. I also decided, when possible, to engage in brief conversations with the drivers about the nature and history of the objects that adorned their cars.

I cannot say that I conducted a rigorous "investigation", as the "method" was rather excessively random: the possibility of gathering information or establishing a conversation depended on the length of the trip, the mood of the driver, and also on my own desires and urgencies at the time (perhaps an even vagabond version of Hugo José Suárez's "sociologia vagabunda").6 Sometimes I recorded what was said to me, but more often I would later write down the main points of what I remembered from the talks. I didn't have a guide of points to discuss or ask, but would engage, as genuinely as possible, in spontaneous conversation. Often I would just take pictures, other times the act of taking pictures would lead to an explanation of what I was photographing.

I soon discovered that social networks were a suitable environment to share photos of "tachero altars" with colleagues and friends who I knew could appreciate them. The usual format of Facebook (photo with small text) allowed and encouraged "tacheras mini-ethnographies" that transcribed pieces of the interaction or summaries of what they told me about the images. But as time went by, the accumulation of cases -and the encouragement of colleagues, among them mainly Renée de la Torre- allowed the possibility of elaborating a more general interpretation of all the material. What do these "tachero altars" reveal to us about the Buenos Aires religiosity of the xxi?

I admit all the methodological limitations and shortcomings that a study of this type may have, which also suffers from the lack of academic legitimacy that other forms of data collection, whose precariousness we always seem to leave aside, do have. I consider it relevant, however, to examine these religious presences. minimums in a semi-public environment. They are even smaller, quantitatively and qualitatively speaking, than the domestic altars mentioned by De La Torre and Salas (2020). They are small in size: they are rosaries hanging from the rearview mirror, sometimes accompanied by red ribbons, medals of a saint or of the Virgin, perhaps accompanied by one, two or three holy cards. Those who "assemble" them surely do not do so with the intention of setting up an "altar"; they place a religious element to which later, in a more or less random way, others are added. They do not have a clearly "devotional" purpose: they are not made to pray in front of, nor to present offerings (there are no candles or candlesticks, water or any other object), nor for those who get into the cab to pray or make offerings. However, they do reveal very different types of relationships that the drivers establish with superhuman beings.which for me certainly makes them "religious".7 In many cases, they bear witness to the fact that the cab driver is devoted to one of the saints exhibited, and several of the elements that compose them are souvenirs of visits or pilgrimages to shrines. They also often reveal the importance of certain earthly relationships: they may be accompanied by photos of loved ones (usually children) or sentimentally charged objects (baby shoes, favorite soccer club badges). They may be gifts from the wife or mother, clear testimonies of gestures of concern and affection, although sometimes they are also presents from occasional passengers. They are mainly for protection (as clearly indicated by ribbons or a pennant bought specifically in a shrine, with legends such as "protect my trip" or "protect my car"), but they are also - I repeat - a testimony of the relevance of the relationship with that or those superhuman being(s). These cab drivers can seldom be considered parachurch agentsAs Hugo Suárez (2008) would say, although on occasions they may actively try to spread the cult of the saint that protects them or invite them to religious meetings.

They represent, certainly, a dimension that is somewhat low-key of Argentine religiosity, but they are, at the same time, a good example of the ubiquitous of religion in our daily lives and in a wide variety of ways it can take (Frigerio, 2020). They show in a clear way the daily combination of the "devotional" with the "utilitarian", which our usual understandings of "religion" and "magic" fail to satisfactorily account for. In Latin America at least, it is very difficult to distinguish between practices that refer unequivocally to one concept or the other, since the social behaviors that we usually call "religion" are almost always religious-magical, and those that we believe to be "merely" "magical" are often also magical-religious.8 I am talking then about practices at a clearly - and perhaps, excessively - micro level, which, because of the little attention that both those who drive and those who get into the cab seem to pay to them, appear to be banal or trivial, but which a more perceptive and more unprejudiced inquiry reveals as symbolically relevant and representative of the way religion is lived by ordinary people in everyday situations (Ammerman, 2015).

In previous work I have argued that using a definition of "religion" based primarily on the perspective of "lived religion" is necessary to illuminate aspects of our everyday religious lives that "pass under" our usual analytical radars that lead us to see only certain behaviors, groups, and contexts as "religious," thereby providing a very partial and limited view of the phenomenon (Frigerio, 2018 and 2020). The concept of lived religion shifts the analysis "from the experts who decide on official theology and doctrine to ordinary people whose everyday lives may include rituals and spiritual stories and experiences that draw on those traditions, but may extend beyond them" (Ammerman, 2015: 1).

Beyond the need for a perspective from below (from the perspective of ordinary people) and from the outside (of institutions) it is still necessary, however, to clarify what we mean by "religion". Slightly paraphrasing Orsi (2005: 2), I have argued that it is fruitful to conceive of religion as "a network of relationships involving humans with a number of different superhuman beings and powers" (Frigerio, 2018: 76). In this way we have a substantive definition, quite minimalist, but which serves to characterize as "religious" a series of behaviors that do not need to be socially legitimized as such, nor happen within certain groups socially legitimized as "religious", nor in the contexts that these stipulate as correct for "religious" activities, nor be proposed by a certain type of "religious" (socially legitimized) agent. We can then look for religion or religious behaviors in a series of places, moments and contexts that are not those usually analyzed in studies on religion.

What are the "tachero altars" like?

When taking a cab in Buenos Aires it is very common to find a rosary hanging from the mirror. This could be interpreted as an obvious sign that the driver belongs to the "Catholic majority" of the country, something that is supported by the fact that it is very common for cab drivers to make the sign of the cross when passing by a church (a somewhat automatic sign of respect, but respect nonetheless). It is possible to read these "catholic by nature" behaviors as default"This is even more densely interpreted if we know the meanings that cab drivers themselves assign to the heterogeneous sets of religious images that usually adorn/protect their cars, as well as the multiple associations that many of them make between Catholic symbols and others coming from very different religious traditions.

Along with a rosary hanging from the mirror, the presence of a red ribbon is also very frequent. In the porteño cultural imaginary, for decades, the red ribbon has been used to counteract envy and the evil eye (image 1).

Red ribbons and rosaries (25/2/2015 and 20/7/2017). Photographs: Alejandro Frigerio.

For the same protective reason, you can also find a little red horn (cornicello Neapolitan), which fulfills the same functions. Fruit of our Italic cultural heritage, the cuernito has an ancient presence in the city in kitchens, buses and cars.9 Currently it seems to be somewhat less popular than the ubiquitous red ribbons (image 2).

With a more religious meaning, the red ribbons may bear inscriptions showing that they are souvenirs of visits to shrines of "popular religiosity", which include both spiritual beings recognized by Catholicism -the Virgin of Luján is the most common- and those not recognized by the Church. In the latter category, the Gauchito Gil is undoubtedly the most popular. The ribbons may say "I remember my visit to the Virgin of Luján" or just "Virgin of Luján", or they may carry more specific messages or requests such as "protect my trip" or "bless my car" (images 3 and 4).

Image 4. Cuernitos, red ribbon of Our Lady of Lujan, rosary, two unidentified medals (11/26/2018) and St. George "Protect my way" ribbon (5/2/2013). Photographs: Alejandro Frigerio.

It is very likely that this type of ribbons is marketed mainly or exclusively through the numerous stalls that sell religious images and souvenirs/merchandising religious products of all kinds that can be found in the surroundings of the Basilica of Lujan, and not in the official store of the Sanctuary.10 Similar stalls are set up in the street or on the sidewalk around churches where there are feasts of the most popular saints (San Cayetano, San Expedito, San Jorge) or on the feast days of the Virgin (San Nicolás, Desatanudos, Medalla Milagrosa). These stalls constitute a real commercial and massive circuit of religious articles, which include symbolic elements that are not approved by the Church because they do not belong to the Catholic tradition. Their function in the resignification (and reframing) of the Catholic tradition, reframing) of Catholic symbols and in the transmission of highly heterodox magico-religious meanings has not been sufficiently studied (but see Algranti, 2016, for an exception) (images 5 and 6).

Image 6: Feng-shui pendants with Catholic saints and red ribbons. Stall on the sidewalk of St. George's Church, on his feast day (23/4/2009). Photograph: Alejandro Frigerio.

The popularity of the Virgin of Luján among cab drivers is due to the fact that she is the patron saint of the Argentine nation and her sanctuary is the center of several annual pilgrimages of different kinds. Some drivers also consider her the patron saint of cab drivers. According to what I was told, there would be a day of priestly blessing of cabs in the Basilica, something that I could not verify reliably. According to the stories of others of my interlocutors, the Virgin of Schoenstatt would fulfill a similar function, an assertion that is supported by the information available on the Internet.11 (image 7).

In addition to rosaries and ribbons, hybrid forms of religious images/pendants are quite popular among cab drivers, combining the structure of the Chinese pendants of feng-shui but instead of featuring Chinese coins or symbols such as yin-yang, they come with colorful images of saints and almost three-dimensional visual effects. Considering the aforementioned protective function of the red ribbons, undoubtedly another attraction of these pendants is the red color of the braided thread that holds the images and ends in a long tail of the same color. In this way, the protective effect of the red ribbon is remitted and added to that of the Virgin of Luján, San Expedito, San Jorge or the Gauchito Gil (the most popular in this format), plus a touch of oriental exoticism, or, if this possible origin is ignored, at least a touch of oriental exoticism. plus considerable aesthetic appeal. They are also particularly suitable for hanging on car mirrors. (pictures 5, 6, 8 and 9).

These pendants feng-shui creatively mix elements of different religious "traditions", as can be seen in the example of photograph 10, in which Chinese elements are added to the more traditionally Catholic images of the Lord of Mailín and the Virgin of Huanchana, little horns similar to the Neapolitan coral ones, with abundant red color in the elaboration. In this case, both were purchased at the festivities of this Christ and this Virgin in the province of Santiago del Estero, which shows the popularity and circulation of these pendants beyond the main urban centers.

Image 10: Virgin of Huanchana and Lord (Christ) of Mailin (8/4/2013). Photographs: Alejandro Frigerio.

Although they sometimes appear as the only element of protection/adornment of the vehicles, these pendants are frequently found in combination with other elements: rosaries, ribbons, necklaces, "pendants feng-shui"Catholic altars and holy cards. These assemblages are also heterogeneous because they mix different saints and invocations of the Virgin, which increases their resemblance to the altars, only that, unlike the domestic altars and those of the churches, here there are almost no images of bulk.12 Most often - and immediately visible to the passenger - the main elements of the assemblies hang from the mirrors, but you can also find stamps glued or inserted in different parts of the car, usually near the driver; some even hidden in the glove compartment, which only come to light after some initial conversation about it (pictures 11, 12 and 13).

The ontology revealed or suggested by the combinations of images shows differences with the one proposed by the Church (Frigerio, 2019a). On the one hand, because of the presence of "popular saints" -such as the Gauchito Gil- not recognized, often in combination with legitimately Catholic saints (Picture 14). As we will see below, it is also frequent the mixture of saints with symbols of different esoteric or oriental religious traditions.

The validity of other ontologies is also revealed by the parity established between spiritual beings that for the Catholic worldview should be differently hierarchized. The image of Jesus, for example, does not appear very often, and when it does it is almost always in the form of a holy card, placed in the same series with other saints -just one more among the superhuman protectors-. One can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I saw him as the main or only figure among the more than one hundred assemblages I recorded.13 On the other hand, and as an example of the diversity of sources that inspire religious behavior and images, it should be noted that a very popular image of Jesus among cab drivers is the one inspired by the hit miniseries Jesus of Nazarethwhich starred Robert Powell in the 1970s (pictures 15, 16 and 17). This evidences a preference for a white Jesus with light blue eyes and a wiry, suffering but serene face. The former is not only a local tendency, since it confirms an ancient and predominant correlation in the West between spiritual purity and "racial whiteness"; the latter seems to be in line with the preferences of the Archbishopric of Buenos Aires, which for a long time used an image of Jesus practically inspired by the paintings of El Greco. Sometimes a holy card of Pope Francis appears mixed among the saints, as if he were a figure of similar power. It is clear that, when asked about it, the drivers would probably deny this parity, but in practice they would appear to be leveled (images 18, 19 and 20).

Although, as we shall see below, for some cab drivers Francis was a very real person, having had some kind of contact with the then Cardinal Bergoglio, for others he seems to have attained some degree of sacredness by virtue of the office he holds. To this is added, of course, the fact that he is Argentinean and thus seems to have a double "sacred" charge: on the side of Catholicism and on the side of nationalism. But Francis is not the only mortal with some charge of sacredness that can be seen in the cabs of Buenos Aires. Magical-religious images and elements frequently appear intermingled with others that we could consider secular, but whose emotional charge also gives them a touch of sacredness. In a similar way to the holy cards, photos of children can be found, and with the rosaries or pendants feng shui may be interspersed with badges from favorite soccer clubs, or perhaps booties or sneakers that belonged to the children when they were young (a custom that was more popular in the past) (pictures 20, 21, 22 and 23).

Image 21. Photograph: Alejandro Frigerio.

Pendants feng shui of the Virgin of Lujan and San Cayetano. Chuspa (little bag) with bills (probably from "alasitas"?) and a little angel hanging from the ceiling. Strollers, images of the children among catholic holy cards (and one of the Gauchito Gil) (5/11/2011)

Migrant devotions

Although being a cab driver is not usually the main profession among foreign immigrants, the tachero altars also show the imprint of the materiality that popular devotions acquire in other countries. Those coming from Peru are particularly notable, perhaps because of the number of immigrants present in the city, but also because of the easy visibility of the way of representing Virgins and Christs in the popular religiosity of that country. Plasticized images are common, on brightly colored backgrounds with golden ornaments embroidered around them. Another recorded case shows another modality: the image drawn on what seems to be a CD and with a "driver's prayer" on the back, which shows its protective specificity. All these ways are similar (homologable) to the pendants. feng-shui of the catholic saints that adorn the cabs of Buenos Aires: they are similarly hanging, attractive, protective.

Somewhat expectedly, I recorded an image of the Lord of Miracles - the main Peruvian devotion, which is also worshipped in the city through an annual procession - but also other more regional images that testified to the drivers' cities of origin. Thus, I photographed, among others, the Lord of Canchapilca (from the city of the same name), the Lord of Luren (city of Ica) and the Virgin of the Gate (city of Otuzco). This Virgin also has an image enthroned in the Cathedral of La Plata (the capital of the province of Buenos Aires), whose photograph the driver had on his cell phone and showed me proudly (images 24, 25 and 26).

Christ of the Miracles of Lima and Lord of Canchapilca (28/11/2014). Photograph: Alejandro Frigerio.

Given the size of the Bolivian community in Buenos Aires, it could not be missing some presence of "alasitas" among the elements of the altars of the "tacheros", although the cab drivers are not their characteristic labor niche. In the "alasitas" party, which takes place every January in Buenos Aires -as in Bolivian towns and others around the world with Bolivian migrants-, people buy miniatures of what they wish for the year (cars, houses, businesses, money, titles) and images of certain "animals of power", and have them blessed by a yatiri or shaman. In the case of the cab in image 27, the most visible elements were the Catholic ones: a red ribbon of the Virgin of Luján, a pendant feng-shui of the same Virgin, and one of the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging from the ceiling. However, when I asked about the little elephant that in the photo is seen covering the Virgin of Lujan, the driver told me that "it is to attract customers", and that it came from the "alasitas" fair in La Paz. He was surprised when I told him that I went to some of the ones in Buenos Aires (usually only attended by the Bolivian community). Then he opened the drawer, took out a aguayo -the multicolored cloth on which the purchased items are carried so that the yatiri the challe and showed me a kind of large oyster all adorned with banknotes with a picture of the Ekeko inside (Picture 27).

Then he went on to tell me:

The elephant is to attract customers... The little bull decorated with banknotes that is also sold a lot in "alasitas" is for abundance. On June 24 you burn everything... it is the Aymara New Year. Everything you took to challar (bless) when you buy it, you burn it to bring more abundance. On that day of the fair, when you buy, you have to buy at 12 noon sharp! Guys who want a woman have to buy a hen, girls who want a partner have to buy a cockerel. So, noon, and you get what you ask for. In Bolivia, five of us friends bought cars in the "alasitas". Mine was white, with little stripes on the bottom. A few months later I had bought a car (used) that was also white and had stripes on the bottom! And so on with my friends: one was red, the other green, and they all had their little car... but you have to have faith! Just as I tell you... But you have to do it! challar for a yatiri.... You can also acquire a title, there are titles right there; everything becomes reality....

Although, as expected, among the elements that make up the "tachero altars" predominate those belonging to the Catholic world (in its ecclesiastical version, or, as in the case of the Gauchito Gil, in its popular version), one can also notice, however, the presence of symbols of various esoteric or religious traditions. I have found, as we shall see below, Turkish eyes against the evil eye (nazar), dream catchers, symbols of Yin and Yang, the Chinese goddess Kuan Yi, Ganesha, small Buddhas of Abundance, etc.

Other religions

a) Esotericism and Orientalism

Several of the esoteric or oriental pendants and symbols that adorn the cabs of Buenos Aires can be bought in the "Chinatown" of the Belgrano area, which in the last decade has become a popular place for weekend strolls. Along its approximately five blocks of extension (and two or three blocks wide) there are countless stores selling a wide variety of Chinese products, supermarkets and restaurants, as well as a Buddhist temple. The cultural consumption experience made possible by the neighborhood also includes a series of magic-religious products (related to the feng-shui and with a magical-popular Buddhism) visible in little stalls on the sidewalks, in stores selling clothes and all kinds of household items of Chinese origin, and in a very popular specialized store. The growing popularity of these products means that they are also available outside the neighborhood, in Chinese "gift shops" (businesses selling objects for inexpensive gifts). Even in the "santerias" in Buenos Aires, where products of the Catholic or popular-Catholic tradition are sold, there is already a section dedicated to the pendants. feng-shuiThe presence of the "tacheros", the statues of fat Buddhas "for abundance" (rather than to achieve "enlightenment"), incense burners, glass and metal pendants that produce auditory effects, etc., is not surprising. As their presence is more and more visible and widespread in the city, it is not surprising that they can also be found in the "tachero altars".

A good example is the cab of the Picture 28. When asked about the objects, his driver told me:

It is an Indian dream catcher. I bought it directly from some Indians who were making a music... reiki ... with quenas and everything, at a fair in San Antonio de Padua. You listen to that music when you're nervous and you're all relaxed... The other one I bought in Chinatown, it's for bad vibes, that's what they explained to me. That way those who get on with bad vibes, don't leave it.... I buy everything I buy every time I go there....

Image 28. Dreamcatcher, St. Expeditus Ribbon, Turkish eye against the evil eye (19/7/2013). Photograph: Alejandro Frigerio.

Another driver was more specific in pointing out the different values he assigned to the objects that adorned/protected his car. When asked about the eye hanging from the mirror, he replied (Picture 29):

-It is an eye, an eye of an Egyptian god.
-Oh yes, that's nice....
-It is a question of beliefs, where an object that is aesthetically beautiful is taken and a series of meanings and expectations are added to it that do not necessarily correspond to reality.
-What about the one on the right?
-It's a yin and yang," he says, somewhat parsimoniously.
-He also has a Madonna..." I say, looking at a holy card sticking out of the pocket of the car's visor.
-Yes, but that's something else... the Virgin is something else... and even more so the Virgin of Luján....

It is not exactly an "Egyptian eye" (that of Horus) but an Arabic one, almost a combination of the Turkish eye (nazar) with the hand of Fatima. In this case, the clarity with which the host differentiated "magical" objects ("to which expectations are added that do not necessarily correspond to reality") from religious objects" ("the Virgin, especially the Virgin of Luján, is something else") was particularly notable.

Other symbols found included: a hexagram, another symbol of Yin and Yang, a Buddha of abundance, the Chinese deity Kuan Yi and the Hindu god Ganesha (pictures 30 to 33).

In the case of the Chinese goddess Kuan Yi (image 34), the cab driver's knowledge of the image suggested a more intense relationship than mere protection. When I told him it was the "Chinese goddess of abundance", he corrected me and said: "no, of compassion". He showed familiarity with the symbolism of the image: "she has a willow branch which is the tree of wisdom, and a bottle with the water of life". He had downloaded the image from the internet, and wanted to laminate it before it deteriorated: the Catholic modality of the "estampita" but with an oriental deity. I didn't get to talk about the symbol above the goddess, nor could I identify it. The general crudeness of the pendant (and the image print) suggests that it is of his own manufacture.

Another testimony was particularly clear about the protective purposes of the Turkish Eye (imagen 35):

-What a nice eye!
-Yes... and it's real, huh? they brought it to me from there, it has the stamp (he shows me a stamp on the back).
-Where did you bring it from?
-From Egypt... And those who know say that the eye captures all the bad energy in the environment, that it sucks it, until it finally breaks....
-Ah, look, how nice... and who told you?
-A passenger... you saw that people who know a lot of things get on... I've had it for a year and a half....
-It is well protected then.
-And, you always have to be covered... there are a lot of bad vibes, you see, you have to try to get as little as possible. ....

b) Evangelicals

According to the quantitative studies available to us, evangelicals constitute the first religious minority, reaching almost 15% of the population (Suárez and Fidanza, 2021). I could not notice this proportionality among cab drivers, perhaps because due to the iconoclasm that characterizes them, they exhibit few external symbols of their religious affiliation. There were two exceptions. The first and most notable was the driver who had made his trade as a cab driver a true "itinerant ministry." StickersThe back of one of the seats was adorned with posters and a large picture of Jesus. Pleased by my interest, he showed me a notebook in which he kept the names of the people who prayed with him, some of whom he then took to see his church. In the same notebook were also listed the less enthusiastic passengers, who only agreed to give him their names so that he could then pray for them and ask them to come (let us come) to the church (image 36).

Image 36. Photographs: Alejandro Frigerio.

Posters referring to Jesus. Notebook with names of those who prayed with him, or for those who are going to pray in the church. Outside the photo, a banner that says "my help comes from Jesus" (27/8/2013).

The second evangelical presence was more discreet: a Peruvian driver who listened on his cell phone to a pastor speaking in English and who had a translator at his side who imitated his movements and gestures (image 37).

c) Religions afro

Although supposedly with a smaller number of followers than evangelicalism in its various forms, religions of Afro-Brazilian origin have an increasingly important presence in the religious life of Argentines.14 In my record of tachero altars they appeared several times, although not always in a direct way. The most common form was in relation to the devotion to St. George, who is one of the most popular saints in the city and the conurbano.15 The syncretism between St. George and orixá Ogún, the warrior of war and iron, causes, whether his devotees know it or not, ribbons and necklaces with the colors green, white and red (the colors of Ogún) to appear on the mirrors of cabs. Some cab drivers were aware of the Umbandista symbolism, others were not.

For example, when I asked a cab driver if the stamp with the red, green and white ribbons represented St. George or Ogún, he replied that the colors corresponded to the saint's own symbolism:

-No, no... I don't understand what you mean....
-Because the colors of the ribbons are the colors of Ogún in Umbanda....
-No, no .... Those are the colors of his sword... Those are the colors of the handle of his sword....

Another example of the incidence of Afroumbandist ideas in the popular devotion to the saint was given to me by the driver who told me that his devotion to St. George was born at the behest of "the mother of a friend", who recommended him to him because he was "the patron saint of roads" (an idea that also comes from the religions of the world). afro) (image 39).

I have believed in St. George for several years now. He is the saint of policemen. I had a friend who was a major commissioner, and his mother always had a big picture of the saint in her house, with a picture of her son underneath. Look, this commissioner was in several shootouts, even with dead colleagues of his, and he never had even a scratch. The saint protected him. My mother told me: "you who travel a lot on the roads, you should be devoted to him, because he is the patron saint of the roads, too". I was a truck driver before, and then I started going to his church, which is on Scalabrini Ortiz Street, a little before Cordoba. That's where I bought these tapes. Every time I go there I buy some. A passenger told me one day that those colors are those of Ogún, a saint. afroBut I don't know anything about that... I just started to believe in him and he always delivered. After the truck I took a cab, and look at this car, it's from 2006 and not a single dent. And look, sometimes I thought that maybe something would happen to me, but always at the last minute, as my friend's mother used to say "you see, St. George's hand protects you", and nothing happened to me. It's believe or bust.

A more complete idea of the relationship of the colors with the orixá afro I got it from a cab driver who had a necklace "cured" by a "religious" friend of his. The place where the necklace was currently placed was due to a magical effect it had had after a damage. Originally the necklace hung from the mirror, along with some rosaries that until recently had been around my neck. The same day of my trip, he told me that the car "seemed to have buckled" and so he placed the "cured" necklace on the dashboard and as the fault seemed to be solved then "there it was" and "there it is fine" (see the following article).image 40).

I had two encounters with drivers who admitted to practicing religions. afro. The first one was quite exceptional, since the cab was driven by a woman (something not so common) and, in addition, because she was the only one who had a very visible pendant of San La Muerte.16 On the sides, between both doors and the windshield, she had little stamps of Afro-Brazilian orixás. She told me that she was the daughter of Oiá, and that she lived in a temple of Afro-Brazilian religion in the city, something also uncommon, since most of the temples are in the conurbation area (image 42).

Image 42: Pendant of San La Muerte, necklaces of Exú. Stamps of Exú (2), Pomba Gira, Sacred Heart of Jesus (2), Oiá and Ogún (1/11/2011). Photographs: Alejandro Frigerio.

The second driver had only Catholic images in his car: a variety of holy cards placed on the sun visors above the windshield. He was also exceptional because he said he practiced mayombe sticka variety of Afro-Cuban religion present, but not very widespread, in Argentina. In a somewhat cryptic manner (perhaps because I was accompanied by my daughter), he made me understand that he performed works in the cemetery that were very powerful, and that "I can cure you as well as you can leave". Beyond boasting about his power and that of his godfather, he did not seem to have the detailed knowledge that is usually shown by the initiates who participate in that local religious community (image 43).

Pope Francis: sacred and earthly

For a culture based on the admiration of extraordinary beings whose legendary lives make even those who are not connected to the religious to hold a certain charge of sacredness (think of Che Guevara, Evita Perón, Maradona, Carlos Gardel) it is not surprising that the figure of Pope Francis integrates this pantheon of "sacred" icons of Argentina. The paradoxical or interesting thing is that in the same way that his holy cards are confused with those of saints and Virgins, several cab drivers had real and daily stories to tell about him, since they had met him personally when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

One of them said he had spent thirteen years working with Bergoglio in the Pastoral de Villas (slums). He told me that he missed that close contact, and that he dreamed of being able to talk to Francis on the phone. In the meantime, however, he stopped going to church because he has too much work. The lonely holy card of his old friend that adorned his car was, perhaps, a way of missing him less (image 44).

Another driver told me that he is a friend of another cab driver (let's call him Pedro) who won Bergoglio's favors by driving him home free of charge when the Cardinal only wanted to get to the station at the end of the day. subway (it is well known that he used public transport on a daily basis when he was archbishop of the city). Pedro (my driver's cab driver friend) frequented a parish whose priest is himself a personal friend of Francis. Visiting the priest in the parish house, Pedro happened to take a direct call from the Pope, who, upon learning who he was talking to, remembered him perfectly, and even asked him about his children. Pedro also witnessed a second call in which the Pope, upon learning that they were about to have a barbecue in the parish, called them back later - on his own initiative - only to bless the food. The driver told me about these experiences of his friend Pedro and acknowledged that he was moved by these signs of simplicity and affection from the one who is now the Supreme Pontiff of the Church.

A third cab driver, whose car has several holy cards even though he does not recognize himself as "religious", told me that he felt "very proud" when he was elected Pope; perhaps that is why he has his holy card among several others (image 45). He also told me that he always wonders if the priest ("a monsignor") he had to see to be allowed to marry in church without being baptized would not have been the future Pope.

Image 45. Photographs: Alejandro Frigerio.

San Expedito in pendant version feng-shuiThe picture, holy card of Pope Francis and St. Mark of Leon. Outside the photo, others of St. George, St. Mark and a Madonna (15/8/2013).


Throughout this work I have shown numerous examples of what I have called "tachero altars", assemblages with religious images and symbols with which cab drivers in Buenos Aires decorate and protect their cars and testify to the relations of gift and contradiction that they have established with superhuman beings. Although they present mostly Catholic symbols and images, these are re-signified or reframed and share the space of protection/veneration with popular saints such as the Gauchito Gil, with oriental deities or esoteric symbols, and above all with popular amulets against bad luck, envy and the evil eye, such as the red ribbons and the Neapolitan cuernitos (little Neapolitan horns).

Based on the intensity and type of relationship established with the superhuman beings represented therein, I suggest that these assemblages (which for lack of a better name I have called "tachero altars") can be located along a continuum that goes from a pole magic-talismanic to one more religious-devotional. In the former, the relationship they denote would be more protective, and in the latter, more devotional. The assemblages would be "more religious" (according to our usual definitions of religion) when they evidence a sustained, intense and committed relationship with a suprahuman being. This relationship of exchange and devotion is sustained over time, is expressed through more or less regular visits to sanctuaries and in more intense cases may manifest itself through personal, social and collective identifications (as "promesero" in the case of the Gauchito Gil and San la Muerte, or "devoto" in the case of saints). On the contrary, the assemblage would be closer to the "magical-talismanic" pole when the object or objects that integrate it become more important than what they symbolize: when what is relevant is the mere presence of the mediating object and no significant, long-term relationships are established with the symbolized suprahuman being.17

As the profession of "tachero" (cab driver) always involves the possibility of multiple dangers -crashes, robberies, "bad vibes" left by the many passengers getting on and off- it is not surprising the need for protection is expressed through carrying objects of power or establishing relationships with powerful beings. The vast majority of cab drivers have at least red ribbons and/or a rosary hanging from the mirror, but many also carry magical-religious assemblages of varying size and visibility, as shown in the photos accompanying the text. These "tachero altars" are composed of a great variety of images of superhuman beings (mostly Catholic, but not only) as well as symbols of very diverse cultural and religious origin. Surely, if asked about their religious identity, most of these cab drivers would answer "Catholic", which again leads us to doubt the excessive importance that we continue to give from the academy to religious identifications, thus occluding a rich ontology very different from the one proposed by the institution with which they identify themselves.

Unlike other forms of religious materiality, these images and symbols are not placed as payment for promises, unlike votive offerings (De la Torre, 2021), tattoos, and street or home altars that devotees often show as forms of payment for promises in facebook groups. In the several testimonies I collected, no cab driver told me that they had images as payment for promises. Perhaps they had indeed visited a shrine as part of a promise, and had purchased a ribbon or image as a testimony or souvenir of that visit and relationship. The "tachero altars" are another example of the relevance of material supports not only to establish relationships with superhuman beings, but sometimes to begin them; there are multiple testimonies that indicate that a devotion begins after receiving a holy card.

Beyond the exploratory and almost essayistic character of this text, if there is something that the interpretative sketches on these "tachero altars" suggest with certain clarity is the artificiality of our (too naturalized) categories of analysis. They evidence, first, the (omni)presence and relevance of "magic" and "religion" -even in certainly minimalist versions and expressions- in contexts that we would consider absolutely "secular" or "profane", as well as the difficulty of distinguishing between the two, a common but not always duly recognized problem. The continuity and the difficult separation between the "sacred" and the "profane" is also shown in the frequent juxtaposition of images of saints and virgins with those of Pope Francis, those of sons and daughters and even soccer club emblems. The mixture may seem random, but it is not; the regularity of these elements (and no others) shows the importance of affective and emotional ties, both with respect to the human and the superhuman, in the constitution of what we could consider as different degrees of sacredness. Finally, and without fear of repeating myself for what is necessary, they show the irrelevance of religious identifications, which homogenize and occlude a rich and dense magical-religious world where, on a daily basis, not only do the following coexist but are equally necessary rosaries, red ribbons against envy and Neapolitan fortune horns, saints and virgins, oriental deities and symbols and orixás Afro-Brazilians.


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Alejandro Frigerio D. in Anthropology from the University of California at Los Angeles. He previously received a B.A. in Sociology from the Universidad Católica Argentina (1980). He is currently a Senior Researcher at the conicet (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas) based at the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales of the Universidad Católica Argentina and as a professor in the Master's program in Social and Political Anthropology of the Universidad Católica Argentina. flaccid. Coordinates the network diverse (Religious Diversity in Argentina). He was president of the Association of Social Scientists of Religions in Mercosur and organizer of the first three Conferences on Religious Alternatives in Latin America. He was Paul Hanly Furfey Lecturer of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (USA).


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EncartesVol. 7, No. 13, March 2024-September 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: encartesantropologicos@ciesas.edu.mx. Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at https://encartes.mx. Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: March 25, 2024.