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The Gaucho: Yesterday and Today

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You’re late for work, your train line is on strike and you’re stranded on a busy street corner in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In desperation you phone a friendly neighbour to see if he can give you a lift into town. “Me hacés una gauchada?” (Can you do me a favour?) would be a good way to start the conversation, a sign of how deep the concept of gaucho runs in the Argentine psyche.

The gaucho is a legendary figure of Argentine society, a rebel reminiscent of ‘Che’. His elegance is supposedly inherited from the Spanish conquistadores and his freedom is intrinsically linked to the symbol of the country’s pampa. However in an age of paved roads, digital communication, and fenced properties how does the image of the gaucho survive?

Carlos Raúl Risso in La Plata (Photo: Lucas Radicella)

The “Real” Gaucho

“I believe the gaucho only really existed for a very brief period, about one century, roughly between 1770 and 1870,” explains Carlos Raúl Risso, poet, writer, and president and founder of the National Association of Traditionalist Writers.

The gaucho is exclusively from the Río de La Plata basin, a region that with today’s borders represents the Argentine pampa, Uruguay and the south of Brazil. Many other equestrian peoples exist in the region, the charro in Mexico, llanista in Venezuela, llanero in Colombia, or huaso in Chile, to cite a few of them.

The “real” gaucho however had a number of attributes, both spiritual and material, that distinguished him from his fellow countrymen. The first and most important of these was his freedom. By definition the gaucho goes where he wants, he tames the wild horses that roam the pampas, feeds off his hunting and gathering, and answers to no authority. The gaucho simply ignores the law and if he owes obedience to someone it is only to the caudillo, a man that has proven to be similar to him, but stronger.

The loss of this liberty is what Risso equates to the disappearance of the gaucho. It is illustrated, and therefore roughly dated, by the two most famous literary works on the gaucho; José Hernandez’s ‘Martín Fierro’, and Ricardo Güiraldes’ ‘Don Segundo Sombra’.

In the first, in 1872 after a fight against the army, the gaucho Martin Fierro and his companion flee civilisation as wanted men, they choose a general direction and ride their horses to exhaustion cutting across the pampa, their only obstacle a river too wide to cross or a mount to high to climb. In ‘Don Segundo Sombra’, set only a few decades later, the protagonist’s mentor transports cattle through the marked roads neatly delimited by fences that cross the pampa. He no longer can choose his own path and is forced to follow the one marked by the state, a crippling of the gaucho’s freedom from which he never recovered.

The second most important trait of the gaucho is his mastery of horse-riding skills. If the gaucho were to be compared to any mythological creature it would undoubtedly be the centaur: half human, half horse. The saying goes “the gaucho and his horse are one, the man on foot is half a gaucho”. Anthropologists and historians have found links as early as the 18th century between the gaucho’s riding abilities and those of the Spanish conquistadores. Some historians even link the preference of the gauchos for certain breeds of horses to those ridden by the Moors that controlled part of the Iberian Peninsula until the end of the 15th century.

Gauchos perform in rodeos throughout Argentina to keep the traditions alive. (Photo: Patrico Murphy)

Gaucho vs. Cowboy

So the gaucho is no one without a horse, he respects no authority, prefers to remain solitary, and wanders the countryside. Under this description it may be easy to think that the gaucho is identical to his North American equivalent, the cowboy. Think again.

While the cowboy wouldn’t dream of going anywhere without his revolver, the gaucho’s knife, strapped to his belt, is an extension of his body. The gaucho distinguishes himself among other things by his use of the bombacha, a resistant baggy pant unlike the slimmer dungaree or denim cowboy pants. Often the bombacha is half-covered by a skirt of sorts, called a chiripá.

Although both use lassos to capture cattle, a cowboy’s lasso is made of stiff rope while that of the gaucho is leather. Furthermore there are techniques associated with the gaucho that no other equestrian peoples of the Americas use. For instance he is the only one to capture cattle by binding its “hands” as they call it (the front two legs) with a lasso. They are also the only ones, because of the number of wild horses roaming the pampa, to move in tropillas. A tropilla is a group of at least seven horses (one for each day of the week) that are trained to follow the gaucho’s lead allowing them to rest in turn and the gaucho to have a fresh mount every day.

Because of his noble traits the gaucho was admired far beyond his native region and drew admirers from as far as Europe (see Cunninghame Graham box out) and North America. One of these was none other than the famous cowboy Buffalo Bill. His real name William Frederick Cody, Bill rose to stardom thanks to his feats as a cowboy and later mounted a circus that would travel throughout the United States and Europe demonstrating cowboy abilities. For one of these tours he recruited gauchos to perform alongside their North American counterparts. The tale says that when on tour in the United Kingdom a wild horse escaped from the circus and was bearing down towards the area where the Queen was seated. In the blink of an eye a lasso flew through the air and sent the rebellious horse crashing to the ground, its two “hands” tied in trademark gaucho style.

What’s Left of the Gaucho Today?

So if the gaucho really ceased to exist towards the end of the 19th century, then how would we qualify those men, wearing bombachas and chiripás, who spend their day on horseback and invariably have a knife strapped to their belt, that can be seen in many of Argentina’s campos and estancias?

“Those are campo workers” says Risso, “you work in an office, they work in the campo, that’s the only difference, they have nothing to do with gauchos.

“Some of them work with jeans and Texan hats, which is their choice, others choose to honour the tradition of their grandfathers and dress like gauchos,” he adds.

The traditions Risso mentions are not only important at their workplaces, costumbristas or tradicionalistas gather regularly to share an asado, demonstrate their riding skills, and talk, breathe, and live everything gaucho.

A young gaucho learns early on. (Photo: Eduardo Rivero)

Risso invites me to a jineteada, the equivalent of a rodeo, taking place in the outskirts of La Plata. Here jinetes (horse riders) dressed as gauchos compete to stay on untamed horses as long as possible in front of a jury, with sometimes up to $100,000 in prizes up for grabs.

“The spectacle has become eminently commercial,” explains Risso, “but the public is still authentic and is here for the same reasons as those who came to see similar events in the early 19th century.”

Risso’s words couldn’t ring truer. The men participating in the jineteada are clearly athletes more than rough living gauchos and it is evident the horses don’t belong to them, representing a precious investment for their owners. The public and everything that surrounds the event, however, breathes of campo and authenticity. From the beaten up pick up trucks they came in to the meat they enjoy off an improvised table consisting of a tree log with no other utensil than the gaucho knife from their belt.

According to Risso there are up to 800 of these events a year, product of a fascination with the gaucho that dates back to the end of the 19th century. Back then, facing an increasingly large influx of immigrants from Europe, those who had been living in Argentina for several generations felt they needed to reinforce their sense of national identity and chose the gaucho as one of its main symbols. There is no doubt today, judging from the tourist spectacles in Mataderos to the fiestas gauchas of the Argentine countryside, that they succeeded.

Famous Gauchos

Martin Fierro

Fierro, the protagonist of José Hernandez’s 1872 literary masterpiece that carries his name, is the most well-known gaucho in Argentina. Taken from his family to serve a master he does not believe in Fierro later returns to find his family gone, in his rage he duels and kills another man, becoming a fugitive. In a battle with policemen his bravery and fighting skill win him a precious ally in Sergeant Cruz and together they flee civilisation and go live in the desert. Fierro became the symbol of the gaucho, a man of noble spirit, against social injustice and embracing nature rather than modernity.

Don Segundo Sombra

Just behind Fierro in terms of recognition and fame is Don Segundo Sombra, a fictional character and protagonist of one of Ricardo Güiraldes’ novels written in 1929. Don Segundo has a mythical aura around him and represents in many ways the ideal gaucho as seen by those in search of symbols of Argentine national identity at the start of the 20th century. He is strong, elegant and honest but as his name indicates he has a sombre, lonesome side to him.

Juan Moreira

Moreira’s character is based on a man that lived in the second half of the 19th century and whose life inspired novelist Eduardo Gutiérrez to write a bestselling book in 1879. Moreira is a somewhat controversial gaucho as he was a bodyguard for general Adolfo Alsina and some consider him more as a thug than a noble gaucho. They would claim Gutiérrez gives an idealistic portrayal of the character. What is undisputed though were his fighting skills, capable of winning fights with all the odds against him, as can be seen in the recommended movie 'Juan Moreira' by Leonardo Favio.

Don Robert Cunninghame Graham

That is one type of name you would probably not expect to show up on a list of famous gauchos. Cunninghame Graham, born 1852, was the eldest son of a rich Scottish family. As a teenager he was sent to one of his father’s properties in Argentina to “become a man”. His father got what he expected, and a whole lot more. Cunninghame Graham went on to become a renowned gaucho for his fighting and equestrian skills and upon returning to Scotland made proud the rebellious gaucho tradition by, against his family’s will, becoming a socialist and later founding the Scottish Labour Party.

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3 Responses to “The Gaucho: Yesterday and Today”

  1. Miles says:

    I still know generations of petiseros (the guys that work with polo ponies) that would consider themselves gauchos due to their affinity with horses. Freedom apart, I don’t think there was any political definition as they were apolitical. A visit to a jineteada gives one a real understanding of how they like to party. And also an insight into the culture. It’s not for everyone though, quite rough on the horses and with a high risk of nasty accidents for the riders. But it is about a real (and often unknown) section of society, celebrating its culture.

    Of course they wouldn’t see it so pompously. It’s just a normal way to get together with their own kind, listen to good music, and watch someone else’s son fall on their head!

    However, as there are rarely more than 10 tourists at an event with a thousand spectators, it is an excellent place to become a curiosity yourself and be warmly welcomed by an interesting section of society.

    For me being Gaucho is in the blood.

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