The Glorious Gaucho

If the melancholy tanguero (tango dancer) is the essence of the porteño (resident of Buenos Aires), then the gaucho represents the pampas: a nomadic cowboy-like figure, pitted against the elements, with only his horse for a friend.

In the early years of the colony, the fringe-dwelling gauchos lived entirely beyond the laws and customs of Buenos Aires, eking out an independent and often violent existence in the countryside. They slaughtered the cattle that roamed free and unsupervised on the fertile grasslands and drank mate, the caffeine-rich herbal tea.

As Argentina grew, cattle became too valuable to leave unprotected. Foreign demand for hides increased and investors moved into the pampas to take control of the market, establishing the estancia (ranch) system in which large landholdings were handed out to a privileged few. Many freewheeling gauchos became exploited farmhands, while those who resisted domestication were threatened with prison or the draft.

Like so many heroes, the gaucho only won love and admiration after his demise. His physical bravery, honor and lust for freedom are celebrated in José Hernández’s 1872 epic poem Martín Fierro and Ricardo Güiraldes’ novel Don Segundo Sombra. His rustic traditions form part of Argentina’s sophisticated folk art, with skilled craftspeople producing intricate silver gaucho knives and woven ponchos, while his image is endlessly reproduced – most amusingly in Florencio Molina Campos’ classic caricatures.

These days, the gaucho-for-export is much easier to spot than the real deal, especially in folkloric shows at many estancias. But the gaucho’s descendants can be found on cattle farms throughout the pampas, riding over the plains in their dusty boinas (a kind of beret) and bombachas (riding pants). And on special occasions, such as the Fiesta de la Tradición, they sport their best horse gear and show off their riding skills.