ONE by one they filed past the plaster image of the saint, shuffling in an endless line, muttering prayers under their breath. In the course of just one day last week, more than a million pilgrims filled the streets around a nondescript Roman Catholic church in a Buenos Aires suburb to pay homage to San Cayetano, the patron saint of bread and work, on his feast day.
They came in unprecedented numbers, offering an eloquent illustration of the depth to which the crisis-stricken Argentine economy has sunk. Bread and work are two commodities in increasingly short supply in Argentina, and the pilgrims came either to pray for a job, or to give thanks if they still have one.
``There are more people this year than I have ever seen,'' says the church's priest, Father Rub'en Frassia. ``The economic situation has created enormous insecurity in the people.''
Many of the faithful carried stalks of wheat, symbolizing bread. This year, however, they also seemed to symbolize a tragic irony: In a country whose vast pampas were once known as the breadbasket of the world, and which still exports hundreds of millions of tons of grain, millions of people are going hungry.
Over the past six months, Argentina has plunged into its worst- ever economic crisis, ravaged by hyperinflation that reached a monthly rate of 196.6 percent in July, according to government figures. And although the new President, Carlos Sa'ul Menem, is confident that he has inflation under control, his way of tackling it through harsh austerity measures offers no immediate relief to the growing ranks of the poor.
However, fearful of a repetition of last May's outbreak of hunger riots, in which 19 people died, the government is scrambling to find palliatives to try to ensure social peace.
On Tuesday, an emergency system of food stamps went into operation, giving 1 million families $30 worth of food and clothing tokens per month. But they will reach only half the number of needy families and they will cost $30 million a month, which the cash-strapped government will be hardpressed to find.
Social Welfare Minister Julio Corzo has pledged to keep the program running for two months, but as he announced it last week he did not hide his exasperation at private-sector leaders who had promised to help fund the scheme but who pulled out at the last moment.
``It is time that those who have most, understand that their responsibility and commitment to the poor is greater, and that they should assume it fully,'' he said.
With the help of a $90 million donation from the Italian government - the only one to offer any assistance so far - the authorities are mounting a series of fire-fighting operations to try to blunt the edge of suffering for those worst hit by the crisis.
Old people are being offered cheap medicines, workers are being given half-price train tickets to get to work, electricity and water bills can be paid in two installments, schools are offering their pupils a glass of milk and a sandwich on weekends as well as on school days, and municipal authorities are offering food to soup kitchens throughout the country.
The crisis has pushed millions of Argentines to the brink. Social Welfare Secretary Rub'en Cardozo estimates that the number of people living below the poverty line has more than doubled over the past six months to 9 million - nearly one-third of the country's population. Trade union leaders say the recession has pushed unemployment to a record 21 percent of the work force.
In the drab industrial suburb of Quilmes, 35-year-old Benito Romero knows firsthand what that means. He has been laid off for six months, ever since the factory where he worked as a welder won its last order, and has been reduced to coming in each day to sweep the floor just to hang onto his job in the hope of better days ahead.
For that token work, Mr. Romero earns $6.15 a week - all he has with which to look after his wife and seven children.
``The money lasts about two days,'' he explains, ``then I have to go to try to scrounge some spaghetti or rice from city hall, and see if the union can spare me powdered milk for my kids, and try to beg some vegetables from the market.''
Not far from Romero's silenced factory, a dark low-roofed shack in a muddy squatters' settlement is noisy with hungry kids waiting for their lunch. Each noontime 250 children come to this barrio soup kitchen for a bowl of rice or noodles or cornmeal polenta - the only square meal they can look forward to, for their parents cannot afford to feed them. Of the 15 women cooking lunch there one day last week only six have husbands that work, and five of them are living off income from odd jobs, when they are lucky enough to find them.
One of the mothers, Cristina, uses her nurse's training to check children's nutrition levels in the barrio. Last year, she says, she found one child in six suffering from malnutrition. Now more than half of them are malnourished.
Life has never been easy for the squatter families of El Tabla barrio, but it is growing increasingly desperate and fueling increasing anger.
``When a mother sends her child off to school without breakfast, then he comes home and there's nothing for lunch, and then she can't give him anything more than plain noodles for supper, how do you think she feels?'' asks Virginia, a pugnacious mother of three, her voice rising with frustration.
``If this crisis lasts much longer people are going to start looting supermarkets again, that's for sure.''
Social Welfare Minister Corzo acknowledges that the government's charitable gestures are ``not the definitive solution,'' which he argues will come only with the economic revival that President Menem's policies are aimed at.
But that revival may take several months to develop, and in case the handouts are not enough to keep the lid on bubbling discontent, the government is preparing for the worst.
Only two of the country's recession-hit weapons factories are working to full capacity at the moment - one produces tear gas, and the other makes rubber bullets.