Gauchos and Gumption
Gauchos were the residents of the South American pampas or Patagonian grasslands, found in Argentina, Uruguay, Southern Chile and Southern Brazil. Loosely, the word is the South American equivalent of “cowboy,” (vaquero in Spanish), and, like that of his North American counterpart, it’s mostly a 19th century term.
Theories as to origins of the gaucho vary. The term may derive from the Mapuche cauchu (“vagabond”) or the Quecha huachu (“orphan”). The first recorded uses of the term date from the time of Argentine independence in 1816. At one time, gauchos made up most of the rural population in Argentina, herding cattle and practicing hunting in addition to serving as guerrilla fighting forces.
Cattle came to the pampas from Paraguay in 1580. In the 18th century, the gauderios, who lived by hunting wild cattle, were recorded by the travel writer Alonso Carrio de la Vandera when he passed through northern Argentina. Commercial cattle ranching began in the second half of the 18th century.
My grandfather, who ran cattle on the Argentine pampas from 1910 to 1913, told me the gauchos were descendents of the native Indians who escaped over the mountains from Chile during periods of political oppression. The gauchos who worked for my grandfather, Claude Banning, were a tough, scrappy-looking lot; some even looked astonishingly young.
They were hardworking, loyal, good-humored, and, yes, prone to violence (see photo). They were also generous and gentle toward womenfolk (my grandmother, Marie Banning, and her mother-in-law, Lizzie Rice Banning). My grandfather and his brother, Ray, admired them so much they adopted the typical gaucho dress—bombaches and a serape of sorts, plus a gaudy woven sash (see photo).
Gauchos were nomadic, living on the pampas--the plain that extends from Patagonia, bounded on the west by the Andes and extending to the east to Uruguay and the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, which belonged to the Spanish Crown for over two centuries before it became a Portuguese possession in 1750. Most gauchos were of Spanish and/or Portuguese and/or Amerindian (native American) ancestry; they lived by hunting wild cattle, both for meat and for leather.
The gaucho plays an important symbolic role in the nationalistic feelings of the Argentine pampas. As depicted in the poem “Martin Fierro,” by Jose Hernandez, the national epic of Argentina, the gaucho is a symbol of forces against corruption. Pitted against Europeanising forces, Martin Fierro, the hero of the poem, is drafted into the Argentine military for a border war; he deserts and becomes an outlaw and fugitive. The image of the free gaucho is thus often contrasted to the slaves who worked in the northern Brazilian lands.
During the wars of the 19th century against the dominance of the Spanish Crown, the cavalries on all sides were composed almost entirely of gauchos. In Argentina, gaucho armies slowed Spanish advances and many caudillos relied on gaucho armies to control the Argentine provinces.
Gauchos were generally reputed to be strong, honest, silent types but proud and capable of violence when provoked. Their use of the facon (a large knife generally tucked into the rear of the gaucho sash) is legendary, often associated with considerable bloodletting. Historically, the facon was the only eating instrument that a gaucho carried.
Like his North American cowboy counterpart, gauchos were proud and they were also great horsemen. A gaucho’s horse was almost all he owned in the world. The gaucho diet consisted almost entirely of beef while on the range, supplemented by yerba maté, an herbal tea-like drink rich in caffeine and nutrients.
The gaucho dressed quite distinctively, and they used bolas or boleadoras (three leather-bound rocks tied together with leather straps, in addition to the North American lariat or riata. The typical gaucho outfit included a poncho, which doubled as both saddle blanket and sleeping gear, a facon (knife), a rebenque (leather whip) and loose-fitting trousers called bombaches, belted with a woven cloth tirador or a chiripa. In winter gauchos wore heavy wool ponchos.
Just as the disappearance of the “wild west” altered the character and employment of cowboys, so did the nature of gauchos change. But their image still suggests high adventure and romance.
For my grandfather, memories of the gauchos he rode with on the Argentine plains stayed with him all his life. Granddad’s most prized possession was a maté cup given to him by his foreman when the family left Argentina and returned to the States. Until the day he died, this cup hung on Granddad’s bedroom wall, along with his woven striped wool sash, his silver-handled revolver, and a framed ink drawing of the Banning cattle brands.
Source: Gauchos & Gumption: My Argentine Honeymoon, by Lynna Banning (to be published in January 2012 by Turquoise Morning Press). Photos by Marie Banning.