In a world now dominated by technology, the Gauchos of South America stand practically alone in their success in keeping their traditions alive, despite frenetic globalization.
The Gauchos flourished from the mid-18th to the mid 19th centuries in the region known as the Pampas, a vast portion of grassland that stretches from southern Brazil to Argentina and Uruguay. Gauchos can be white, black, mestizos (persons of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry) or mulattos (of mixed black and white ancestry), and – like the cowboys of North America – have remained folk heroes.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian hero who lived for a while among rebel Gaucho groups in South America – before returning to Italy to unify his country in 1861 – used to say that the Gauchos were the bravest and most daring horsemen he had seen in his life. He even took their traditions – and a wife – to Europe, dressing like a Gaucho until he died in Italy, in 1882.
The Gauchos major occupation was hunting large herds of escaped horses and cattle, that at the time roamed free in the Pampas. A no-man’s land for centuries, the Pampas were the stage of bloody warfare between Portugal and Spain, South America’s rival colonial powers. Either independent or working for the cattle ranches of the region, the Gauchos shared a strong sense of identity and a love of freedom, and in their code of conduct courage and masculinity were considered major values. Their world was not limited by the borders of the three countries, but by geography: whether from Southern Brazil, from Uruguay or from Argentina, they spoke a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, dressed the same way and used the same tools in their trade. The word Gaucho is now also applied to anyone born in the Brazilian southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul.
The Gaucho weapons were the facão (big knife) and the boleaderas, a device made of leather cords and three iron balls that they used (and still do) to immobilize animals on the run. They dressed in costumes that included the chiripá, girding the waist, a woolen poncho, and long and large bombachas, accordion-pleated trousers that gather at the ankles and cover the top of high leather boots.
Gauchos were never in the same place for long, but those working on the estâncias (cattle ranches) lived in small mud huts roofed with grass mats. Being nomads, their marriages were seldom official, and they called their women ‘chinas.’ Not very religious, their beliefs consisted mainly of local superstitions mixed with Catholicism. As pastimes, they had horse races, played the sanfona (a type of accordion), and sang trovas, spontaneous verses telling of their prowess in hunting, fighting – and with women.
Gauchos subsisted largely on meat, and perhaps their most popular contribution to modern culture – one that has spread worldwide, as rodizio restaurants are now in every country – is the churrasco. A boneless piece of meat (or sausage, pork or chicken) prominent in their cuisine, it’s cooked on a special kind of grill called a churrasqueira. The meat is stuck on metal or wooden skewers that rest on a support, or stuck in the ground to roast over burning charcoal. As in most things in Gaucho culture, the churrasco is, above all, a celebration of their lifestyle, and in many estâncias it is still cooked today in the old-fashioned way: the animal is killed in the early hours of the day, the meat is cooked slowly in the churrasqueira and later is served to family and friends.
A major Gaucho tradition still alive today is the chimarrão, or mate, a type of tea made with crushed leaves of an herb called erva. First used by the Guarani Indians of the region – who believe the hot water infusion cleanses and heals the spirit – the chimarrão is more a social ritual than anything else. It’s prepared in a cuia (gourd) filled three quarters-full with the erva; hot water is then poured on the mixture that is left to brew for 10 to 15 minutes, before being served.
But what makes the chimarrão experience unique is the way it is served: friends and family gather in a circle as the host prepares the infusion and drinks it first, using a type of filtered metal straw called a bomba. The cuia is then refilled and passed to each guest, everyone sharing the same bomba, in a bond of trust and friendship. While sharing the chimarrão, people talk and tell stories, and many Gaucho traditions were passed on this way. The chimarrão cannot be bought anywhere – it remains to this day a daily celebration shared by families and close friends in Gaucholand. To offer a chimarrão to a newcomer is considered a gesture of acceptance, and the highest welcome a stranger can receive.
Martin Fierro and the Gauchos of today
Considered the pinnacle of the Gaucho genre in literature, the epic poem Martin Fierro, by the Argentine writer José Hernandez, is a historical account of the role the Gauchos played in the country’s independence from Spain, in 1818. Translated into over 70 languages, this instant public success was first published in 1872, and is now considered a classic: it tells the adventures of an impoverished gaucho fighting for his life and honor. Martin Fierro is considered the greatest book ever published in Argentina, and is the source of many movies and literary studies.
However, until a few decades ago, all these Gaucho stories and traditions were slowly disappearing, confined to the estâncias of the region and practically gone from its urban centers. It all began to change a few decades ago, when a Gaucho revival started to take hold, as part of the concentrated effort of traditionalists in southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. The movement has been so successful, that chimarrão and churrasco are again everywhere in the land, and pride in the Gaucho lifestyle is at an all time high.
Perhaps the biggest proof of this revival is an annual parade in the Brazilian state Rio Grande do Sul, which shares dry borders and traditions with Uruguay and Argentina. Every year, on September 20th, Rio Grande de Sul commemorates the end of the bloody Farrapos revolution, fought from 1835 to 1845 for independence from the Portuguese monarchic power of central Brazil (Brazil was a colony of Portugal until 1822 and after its independence the royal powers of Lisbon still ruled the country). Their battle was lost, and Rio Grande do Sul is still part of Brazil, but an honorary peace was celebrated, and the rebels’ requests were all granted.
A growing number of Gauchos now marks that historic date dressed in typical attire, proudly parading their thoroughbred horses and carrying colorful Farrapos flags on the streets. Preparations for the big day start weeks before, with temporary tents put up around towns, where the chimarrão and the churrasco are shared with the public. Gaucho music, poetry and dances are part of the celebration, and the event is getting bigger every year.
Events like that are now common in Uruguay and Argentina as well, each country showing its particular Gaucho character. No matter where they gather to show pride in their culture, the Gauchos main accomplishment seems to be surviving globalization. And that is not a small accomplishment, in a world where regional identities are fast disappearing.