Saturday, September 15, 2012

Gaucho: The Man Behind The Myth

Anthropology: Special Studies in Latin American Cultures

Tracking down a folk hero is not an easy task, particularly when sources are limited or in a foreign language.  In spite of limited sources, I have tried to present the scope of the gaucho character and a synopsis of the events that lead to his creation and evolution, for that is truly what happened to his character. I have necessarily abbreviated the historical information and limited my focus to the gaucho in the Banda Oriental area.

When I began this search I had a preconceived idea of the gaucho from a childhood song. He was a romantic figure much like our American cowboy, a free spirit, a man of strength and high ideals, a man content with what he could carry on horseback, and who yearned to return to his sweetheart.  However, as the search ends I find the gaucho of my childhood song is very different from the actual man.

In the beginning the gaucho was called changador, gauderio, gauso, or gaucho.  The origin of these names is unknown and only the latter term stuck. [Nichols 1942:3] However, the term gaucho appeared around the middle of the 18th century in what is now present day Uruguay. It usually referred to a man without fixed employment. To some a gaucho was a "shiftless person, given to cattle rustling, drunkenness and disorder." [Encyclopedia Americana 1985:345]

Regardless of which definition you choose, the gaucho was considered the lowest rung on the social ladder, the '"scum of society"'; and yet, as his numbers grew, so too did the fear and admiration by society as a whole. Eventually, he will be portrayed as "dashing calveryman, successful lover, singing minstrel of the plains, and noble defender of the unfortunate. [Nichols 1942:4 7]  While the gaucho was in fact and in fiction all of the above, my search leads me to believe he was the result of a combination of time, events, place, and necessity.  Although time has changed much about the gaucho from his manner of dress to his character, he was unique. 

The clothes of the gaucho of the past differs greatly from that of the modern gaucho. Decoration seems to have been an aspect acquired over time.  A wide silver belt, baggy trousers, bright scarf, shirt, vest, jacket, and poncho over one shoulder recall the romantic gaucho of story and song. [World Book 1988:68 Encyclopedia Americana 1985:345]]  Gauchos wore headbands topped by small, narrow brimmed hats, held in place by a chin strap.  The silk neck scarf they usually wore could be used to keep dust out of their nose and mouth or as a strainer for water. [1942:13]   The modern gaucho has retained these particular items of dress.  However, Nichols' account of gaucho dress is not nearly so charming.

"Gauchos usually had neither shirts nor trousers, . . . never lacked a poncho, which was a piece of coarse cloth coming down to their knees and tied at their waists by a broad sash. . .adorned with . . . silver coins if our gaucho were wealthy. They . . .wore boots . . .coming halfway up their legs, and made of the skin stripped from the legs of horses or cows." [Nichols 1942:13]

Probably the most important item of dress still utilized by the gaucho is the facón.  This is a 14 inch razor sharp knife worn behind and sheathed in leather and used for protection, killing, eating, as a tool in handling hides, and for shaving.  It is forbidden to ever touch a gaucho's facón. [Nichols 1942:13 Laxalt 1980:490]  Proper use of this instrument appears to be an art.  Skill was required in duels and marking one's opponent by slashing the nose or eyes was preferred to murder, not a pleasant thought to be confronted with if one valued one's looks. [Nichols 1942:14]  Laxalt cites an old gaucho on the use of the facón in fighting.

"'When there is surely to be a fight, you cannot hesitate.  In the same movement, you must draw you facón and slash your enemy's face to show that you mean business.  If it does not end there, you must fight to kill.  Then your knife must wave in your hand like a snake.  And when you strike, it must be like a snake    once, and mortal." [1980:491]

Nichols states that meat was put in the mouth and a bite sliced off.  After a meal it served as a toothpick. [1942:12] One is left wondering how quickly the gaucho learns to handle the facón deftly and exactly what their noses look like.

Not only was skill necessary in using the facón but as horsemen they were expected to be unsurpassed.  Most of the gaucho's life is spent on horseback.  He must be able to ride any horse and if it falls, he must land on his feet with the reins in his hand.  [Nichols 1942:14]

The gaucho lived mostly on beef roasted over an open pit and washed down with mate, a bitter herb tea.  He would spend many leisure hours playing cards and was also a heavy drinker.  The favored drink was aguardiente, a sugar brandy.  [Laxalt 1980:501 Encyclopedia Americana 1985:345]

Most gauchos were mestizos of Spanish or Portuguese and Indian, or Indian and Negro descent; however, anyone of any race could be a gaucho. It was not his race but his life style which set him apart. Gaucho was not a race; it was a class.  According to Nichols, this class "existed as a separate entity in society" during the hundred year period between 1775 1875. While there had been gauchos before this period it was only with the advent of large shipments of hides that this group begin to grow and become a class. The creation of this class was dependent on the horse, the cow, and the development of a contraband trade in hides.  [Nichols 1942;4,7,17,26 35]

With the Spanish arrival in Latin America came the horse and cow.  While Spain was busy exploiting the natural resources of Latin America, namely gold and silver, the horse and cow did what came naturally.  I might add they did it very well. On the pampas of Buenos Aires in Entre Ríos and the Banda Oriental or present day Uruguay things were booming.  The Banda Oriental had been designed by the Spanish as a hunting ground for cattle and they had discouraged settlement in the area.  [Nichols 1942:32]  It didn't take long for people to notice this untapped resource. The events which lead to the emergence of the gaucho class can be better understood if one first understands the extent of this dependence of society on the horse and cow.

Just as the American cowboy needed his horse, so too did the gaucho and some of the ways the gaucho used the horse says much about his character.  Horses were used to convey coffins to the cemetery by lashing the box crosswise to the saddle. Drawing water from the well was done by tying a rope to the pommel and bucket and dropping it down the well; the horse would then pull it up. Those who committed crimes against society were sewn up in a green hide and left in the sun.  Death was slow and certain as the hide dried and shrank. Making butter was also done on horseback and was quite simple.  One began by placing the milk in a hide bag and attaching it to the saddle girth with a long rope.  The gaucho mounted and rode at a hard pace while the bag bounced on the ground.  After a suitable time you had butter.  Bathing was perhaps, to my mind at least, the most significant indicator of gaucho character.  He would ride into the water, swim around his horse, remount, and ride out.  [Nichols 1942:19]  The gaucho never exerted himself needlessly.

Obviously the horse was more important alive but the most important part of the cow was the hide and it was necessary to kill the cow to get it.  Saddles and bridles were of hide. The reins, traces, and lasso were twisted thongs.  Bolas were stones wrapped in hide and connected by hide strips.  Ropes and cords were strips of hide.  Bags were hide sewn with hide strips.  Grain was preserved in hide cribs protected by hide shelters.  Boats were of hide.  Corrals were stakes bound with hide thongs.  Carriages were strengthened with long wet strips which when dry would be nearly as hard as steel.  All wooden parts of a carriage were covered in soaked hide for the same reason and the springs were twisted hides. [Nichols 1942:18 19]

Clearly it isn't difficult to grasp the importance of these animals after discovering the number of uses they were put to.  The only source of commodities were cattle, mules, and stock products and the source of all that could be exchanged for any manufactured articles or luxuries from Spain. [Nichols 1942:19]

In 1543 Spain established her fleet system but before 1600 exportation of hides was hardly over 27,000 because of trade restrictions, poor transportation facilities, and Indians.  In the beginning, Buenos Aires had little in the way of exports but by 1618 she had a limited export in hides.  [Nichols:1942:27]

Any rancher who dealt in hides formed cattle hunts, called vaquería, for lost cattle for hides to export and to increase his stock with strays.  After obtaining the required permit, he would hire a band of men who specialized in hunting down cattle.  The band was usually composed of criminals and outlaws. While the vaquería did exist earlier, it reached its peak in the 18th century when the hide market was booming.  [Nichols 1942:22 25]

Of course when it was noticed that one could receive European manufactured goods in exchange for hides it was only a matter of time before everyone was attempting to catch the same boat.  Indians began to hunt as well.  The army always has to have a cut of the pie of course and they were sending armed troops into the heart of Indian lands to hunt. [Nichols 1942:25]

With so many now hunting cattle it became more difficult to find them in the usual places.  This forced the vaquería to range farther and farther to get the necessary hides and this usually meant into distant hostile lands.  It was in these hostile lands that vaquería members began to settle to be near their source of income.  It was here the contraband trade would begin and here the gaucho would evolve.  [Nichols 1942:25]

It must be said here that the vaquería served as a school for the gaucho.  It was with the vaquería that the gaucho practiced the use of bolas and lasso.  He would learn ways of handling cattle, such as how to hamstring them, how to strip off hides, and prepare them for shipment. With the vaquería he would hear of markets where he could dispose of illegal wares in the future.  [Nichols 1942:23]

If it were not for the hands of fate or of governments interfering in the lives of men, things might march along at a nice even clip.  Unfortunately, someone always interferes.

The small size of the settlement in the Plata meant that few Spanish ships came to the region.  Also, Spain was at war, as usual, and could not afford the necessary warship guard to establish and maintain a new route.  She stuck to her northern route through the Antilles, Mexico, and Peru.  So what could not be shipped directly from ships at Buenos Aires could be sent through Peru and on to Spain.  This would have allowed Buenos Aires to compete with merchants in Peru if a glitch had not occurred in 1622.  It was at this time a Royal Custom House was established in Córdoba which required transit duties of 50%. [Nichols 1942:27]  Any profit the hide hunters may have realized was now cut in half.  It doesn't take much imagination to figure out the solution to this problem.  Smuggling is the obvious way to cut out the middleman, in this case the Royal Custom House.      As a result of the transit duties the contraband trade became necessary and with it the men skilled in the handling of cattle and schooled by the vaquería. Thus time, events, place and necessity now converged to create the gaucho and these will continue to alter his character for centuries.

The actions of the gaucho might be illegal but over all they were sanctioned by the Spanish settlers unless one were personally affected by those actions.  They might not be the ideal neighbor but they were of value to "local society". [Nichols 1942:33] Nichols description suggest a gaucho of all trades.

"He collected Uruguayan livestock and drove it to purchasers on the Brazilian frontier; . . .hunted cattle for hides to be similarly sold; or. . . he smuggled European goods to their local market. . . . He might work for some impresario from Santa Fe or Buenos Aires; or . . . a Brazilian of similar interests, or the captain of some passing French, English, or Dutch boat. (He). . . was the means whereby the community received the goods it needed, and at pleasantly advantageous prices. [Nichols 1942:33]

In the beginning my impression of the gaucho was that of a chivalrous cowboy.  I learned he most definitely was not that.  Nichols says that "a hearty dislike of walking . . .led to an . . . inclination to steal horses.  She goes further by saying that the cruelty of their everyday occupations had its general effect on their characters.  They could cut the throat of a man as coldly and dispassionately as that of a cow. They placed no value on life and equally death did not bother them.  [1942:15]

This is not the picture of a man one would want to bring home to mother, and yet, the gaucho did have some redeeming qualities.  They were hospitable, willing to give food and lodging to any traveler, even though they didn't know who he was or where he was going or why.  They were personally courageous and stoic in endurance of hardship or pain. They were highly independent men as well, working when they chose and leaving their employer when they chose. " It was possible to survive on the pampa without work and with relative comfort."  [Nichols 1942:15]  He was a true vagabond.

Another aspect to his character was his competitiveness.  Possessing special skills was not enough; one must also test them and prove himself superior to all others. Nichols says this quality made the gaucho apt at war. [Nichols 1942:16]  And it was war which caused the first real change in attitude toward the gaucho.

In 1809 Viceroy Cisneros "made direct and open trade with Europe" legal by decree.  The gaucho suddenly found he had no way to make a "dishonest living" and he was no longer useful to society. [Nichols 1942:53]  Fortunately, fate again intervened.

In the Plata region a period of war existed during the first half of the nineteenth century.  Nothing could have suited the gaucho more and he embraced it wholeheartedly.  It was his element and a game as well.  He could use his skills to their fullest and he had an audience.  There was no need to alter his lifestyle because he already knew how to live off the land.  He could find water and food where others couldn't.  "With the sun for a guide, the ordinary tools of its work for arms, and saddle cloths for a bed, a gaucho army became as independent as any in the world."

It was after the wars for independence in which he fought hard and dedicatedly that the term gaucho came to be respected.  The appearance of hundreds of unkempt gaucho riders in their colorful ponchos, carrying knives lashed to poles and yelling obscenities must have been terrifying to the opposing forces.  Barbaric the gaucho armies might be but with a competent leader they were highly effective.  Then the wars ended and once again the gaucho finds himself without a raison d'être.  [Nichols 1942:53 57]

Rudolph says the "spread of estancias, appropriation of land and wild herds, hunting and slaughter, regulation and control of hides and tallow brought the gaucho life to an end.  Eventually he is recruited to work on estancias." [Rudolph 1986:23]  And yet, the gaucho did not die. He simply changed his place of employment once more.

The Romantic movement which started in Europe in the late sixteenth century had spread to Latin America.  The emphasis was on "individualism and nationalism" and stressed "artistic freedom to pursue new subject matter and fresh literary forms."  [World Book 1988:112]  The gaucho acquired a new position in society and in fact became a whole new man.  It is this movement which gives the gaucho his romantic nature.  He became "a symbol of the national spirit and . . . national achievement".  [Nichols 1942:59]  The stories which result from this period show him as irresistible to women, an excellent singer, a defender of the downtrodden, and a man unjustly persecuted.  [Nichols 1942:59 61]

This image of the gaucho became so popular that in the early part of the twentieth century in Argentina it became popular to "play gaucho".  Nichols mentions there were even clubs where members congregated to play the guitar, sing gaucho songs, read gaucho stories, write gaucho newspapers, and act in gaucho plays.  [Nichols 1942:62]  No longer is the gaucho disreputable, now he is a hero.

The more I read of the gaucho the more I wanted to understand how the forces which created such a man and changed him so often also elevated him to the role of a hero.  I think I found the answer, at least part of it, in these two quotes from Lehman's study of Carlyle's Theory of the Hero.

"A man's course of life is the road his environment forces him to follow; his education is the discipline and enlightenment which his environment affords."

"Thus the pressure   the need   of a world of men diversifies the form which the essential Hero assumes." [Lehman 1966:58 59]

The gaucho was truly molded by his environment but the "world of men" made him a hero.

Each time it seemed the gaucho would die out he has managed to survive.  Even today he still exist in the Pampa region of Argentina.  But civilization may finally do what Spanish conquest and wars could not do. Once large estancias are divided and fenced and roads encroach into the interior.  One gaucho cited by Laxalt said "When the roads are here, the old gaucho way of life will be gone.  No longer can we live untouched by the corruption of outside influences."  [Laxalt 1980:500]  And yet, one must look back at another time when the outside world intruded. The forces which helped create the gaucho then are not so very different from the ones he faces today.  Perhaps he will continue to survive. 


Burns, E. Bradford.  1980.   A History of Brazil. 2nd Ed.  N.Y. Colombia University Press. p. 84.

"Gaucho." 1985.  Encyclopedia Americana.  Grolier Inc.  Conneticut.  12:345.

 -------------. 1988. World Book Encyclopedia.  World Book Inc.  Chicago.  8:68.

"Latin American Literature." 1988. World Book Encyclopedia.  World Book Inc.  Chicago.  12:112.

Laxalt, Robert.  1980.  Gauchos: Last of a Breed.     National Geographic 158:478 500.

Lehman, B. H.   1966.  Carlyle's Theory of the Hero:  It's Sources, Development, History and Influence on Caryle's     Work.  New York.  AMS Press  pp. 58 59.

Nichols, Madaline Wallis.  1942.  The Gaucho. North Carolina.  Duke University Press. pp. vii 63.

Rudolph, James D. 1986.  Argentina: A Country Study. 3rd Ed.      Area Handbook Series. Washington, D.C.  U.S. Government Printing Office.  p. 23.

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