2006 - 'The colourful crowd are pinned to the earth by the blistering summer
sun. They are expectant, excited, chattering. The constant
breeze seems to have arrested just at this moment. A cheer.
All eyes turn to the edge of the corral. In swaggers the gaucho -
tall, lean, mean, creases etched into his tanned, leathery face.
Dusty boots, sharply polished knife. He acknowledges the adulation
with merely a nod and turns, slowly, to the bucking, frightened potros
(colt) tied tightly to a single pole in the middle of the arena.
Silence. Let the entertainment begin.' It wasn't always so.
The breaking of the colts was no entertainment; that and the herding of
cattle was hard work and a tough way of life. The gaucho, a romantic image
of the past, he represented freedom from colonial control.
a heroic image of the present, he represents freedom from social constraints.
In reality, life for the horsemen of the pampas (grasslands), then and
now, is harsher than myth relates.
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.
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
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.
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.
The modern day gaucho commands a
degree of celebrity status, and can often be seen galloping on his horse
alongside the road, long hair streaming in the wind, looking majestic and
somewhat godlike. He may still travel from town to town performing
valuable seasonal work on the estancias, especially to the west of Buenos
Aires, and exhibit their skills at the country bordilleros (horse shows).
'The poltros is quiet, frightened, its head low to the pole, his forelegs
hobbled. A brief struggle as the recador (small saddle) is placed
on his back. The gaucho stands silent as the horse is prepared, feeling
his character, weighing him up. He swaps his wide brimmed hat for a beret
and takes a few deep breaths - the crowd breathe with him. The excitement
grows as the gaucho mounts. The potros is momentarily subdued, but on being
released from the stake he goes wild. The cheering crowd almost disappears
behind a film of hot dust kicked up by the hooves. The gaucho holds
thereigns short and tight, his body arching back, his knees gripping the
sweating flank of the awesome creature beneath him. Man and beast
in a desperate struggle for supremacy. That's entertainment!'