Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A little more on the History of the Gaucho

The Day of the Gaucho on 10 November is celebrated every year in San Antonio de Areco and across Las Pampas. Horse displays and polo tournaments, silverwork, ceramics and colonial carpentry and a (tourist)-glimpse of the humble gaucho lifestyle.

Argentina's gaucho is its "native" cowboy and has long been a national cultural symbol.
During the 19th century when the first European settlers arrived in Argentina they brought their horses and cattle with them.  Some animals escaped domestication and quickly populated the fertile pampas, and from these free resources emerged the gaucho, relying on the cattle for food and clothing and the horses for transportation.  It is said that the real gaucho is recognized by his bandy legs as he is seldom out of the saddle!

The name gaucho, history has it, is derived from the Quechua language and means, 'orphan' or 'vagabond'.  Quechua is the indigenous language of the Andean region of South America and is spoken by approximately 13 million people today in Bolivia, Peru, northern Chile, southern Colombia and Argentina.  It was also the official language of the Inca Empire. The first recorded use of the term gaucho dates from around the time of Argentine independence in 1816 although gauchos, as such, were known to have wandered the countryside as early as the 1600s. The gaucho was nomadic and did not need to reside in a formal settlement to have a code of conduct of his own.

Gauchos shunned social interaction and were hardy and uncompromising, but famously kind to weary travellers, always sharing their food or what little shelter they had.  If the mood took them they would work on the massive cattle estancias (estates) for a season, before moving on.  Their wandering existence meant those who might have had homes, with a common law wife and even offspring, spent little time there.Sons of gauchos invariably became gauchos too.  Early account of the gauchos describe them as uncouth, with plenty of time on their hands, much of which was spent drinking mate (a mildly narcotic herbal concoction drunk from a gourd), and gambling.

In the 18th century, leather was a more prized commodity than meat and became the major trading item between the old world and the colonies. Thus, once the cattle had been slaughtered for their skin, the rest was discarded to be purloined by the gauchos. The meat was quickly cooked on an open fire before it went bad and today this means of cooking meat - asado, has become a national dish. Not only were the gauchos independent and tough; they knew the terrain of the interior intimately and were consummately skilled horse handlers and so became ideal conscripts into the army for the wars of independence and subsequent civil wars.

The gaucho's flamboyant dress is as much a part of their culture as their distinctive character, and despite a few modern additions the costume is much the same as it was a few hundred years ago. The typical gaucho outfit would include a poncho which doubled as a saddle blanket and sleeping bag, loose fitting trousers called bombachas, belted with a tirador (sash), or a chiripa which was a piece of cloth tied to resemble a diaper!  

The gaucho also typically carried a facon-a long bladed knife, always worn at the back of the waist, a rebenque (whip) and a lasso-a rope made of plaited hide.  His most unusual accessory would be the boleodoras-basically three leather bound rocks tied together with approximately three feet long leather straps -these were used to catch wild horses, ostriches or deer - by throwing the boleadoras at the legs of the escaping creature the balls swing round and round until the poor animal's legs are tied together.

Through their fighting ability and loyalty they gained a new respect and a certain amount of political force in the early years of the Argentine republic. Today they still enjoy the former, but not the latter.  Laws restricting freedom of movement coupled with mass immigration from Europe at the end of the 19th century led to the demise of the 'real' gaucho, who passed into the realms of myth and became a symbol of Argentine identity.

Much more though, it's the industrial farming that ruins the traditional gaucho lifestyle - a system of animal treatment that even a vast country like Argentina chose to adopt. 

1 comment:

  1. The gaucho is this mystical character that represents the country side kind of Argentinean from the colonial times. They really idolize it. They even have celebrations for Gauchos in little town in the provinces. Last year I was looking to rent some of the buenos aires apartments in the neighborhoods that are more related to the Gaucho figure.
    It was pretty fun actually!