When Carlos Menem decided to jockey for the presidential candidacy in the Peronist party in the late 1980s he was perceived as having very little chance. Menem was an outsider in the party, the governor of a poor, dusty province who had little leverage in the party hierarchy. Yet in July 1988 he trounced the party favorite and went on to win the presidency which he held for a decade. How did he do it? There is no doubt Menem was the consummate politician who traveled the length of the country shaking hands and remembering names. But he also had a secret weapon. With his thick sideburns and a red poncho, Menem harked back to a bygone era of gauchos and caudillos (strongmen). His cowboy getup made an impression and stirred something within the average Argentine´s soul. Let’s call it the Gaucho Effect – pride for the Argentine pampas spirit that honored bravery, honesty and self-reliance.
Such reverence did not always exist. The word ‘gaucho’ was originally extremely derogatory and not something you’d say to a man’s face – especially one who always carries a ten inch blade. It means a very rough, uncouth individual, a loner, a scavenger, a cattle rustler, a drunkard and a fighter. Indeed, a national embarrassment that needed to be suppressed and eradicated much the same as the Indian before him. So it is slightly ironic that nowadays the word has come to mean the opposite of what it originally described. His reputation has become almost mythical, the essence of ‘Argentinidad’. They – the original gauchos, must be chuckling in their graves – no doubt unmarked and forgotten, dotted around the pampas.
It was the pampas where it all began. In the 1530s abandoned Spanish livestock began to flourish on the plains. Herds of wild cattle (called cimarron) multiplied rapidly, reaching an estimated head count of 50 million by the 18th century. There were numerous wild horses too. The cattle were exploited by the Europeans for their leather, but an increasing mestizo population began to salvage the meat, roasting it before it rotted, over large open fires – the asado was born. Those same wandering horsemen used Querandi Indian hunting techniques. Their favoured device was a boleadora, a rope with three heavy balls that would entangle an animal’s feet. They sometimes hunted in posses called vaqueros, but were commonly known to move around alone, sometimes with a woman in tow, but never more than a knife (a facon), a bola and a lasso for baggage. This, along with the cattle and horses, was enough to ensure a hard but embracing life, roaming the pampas, with a little time for gambling and drinking in the occasional saloon (pulperia) on the way.
The gaucho’s strong attachment to his horse was somewhat literal with a reluctance to dismount even when bathing. Life in the saddle gave him an awkward bow-legged walk when his feet were on the ground – those same feet were more used to gripping stirrups by the toes. The gaucho was a forager, not a hunter. He traded hide and tallow for rum, tobacco and mate. When Charles Darwin encountered Argentine cowboys on his travels he was amazed how they survived on a constant diet of meat and little else.
By the 17th century, the gaucho was a thorn in the side of the government. They perceived the gaucho slaughter of cimarron as depleting a valuable resource, threatening the prosperous trade in leather. The government clamped down. Discriminatory laws were passed, treating the gaucho as a virtual outlaw. Those unwilling to work could not travel freely. Failure to comply meant prison or military conscription. Despite their important role in the fight for independence (particularly in the province of Salta) the gaucho remained a second class citizen, marginalised and treated with contempt. The arrival of the saladeros (meat salting plants) compounded further their problems. Meat became an important commodity. Though the gauchos became valued for their expertise handling horses and cattle, the work was seasonal and many gauchos were loath to become a hired hand.
Because of a wool boom, sheep began to replace cattle and large estancias spread across the pampas, fencing the land and forcing the gaucho to the fringes. With the railway came further European immigration. Friction arose between the gaucho natives and the Italian gringos. Some resisted stubbornly, but by the late 19th century the days of the pampa wanderer were over.
Of course it didn’t end there. Just as the gaucho was becoming extinct, literatura gauchesca appeared. Works like Martin Fierro, an epic poem by Jose Hernandez, and Don Segunda Sombra, a novel by Ricardo Guinaldes, awakened a new found interest in the virtues of the gaucho – a doubly ironic development considering most gauchos were illiterate. Such public enthusiasm was not lost on politicians such as Juan Manuel de Rosas who won immense popularity by dressing as a gaucho – a tactic not lost on Menem 100 years later. Like the Tango, the gaucho became respectable and it is no surprise now, when you stand on the sidewalk observing the Harvest Festival parade, that the files of men dressed in bombachos, looking cool and elegant with their coin studded sashes, black sombreros and silk cravats, get the heartiest cheer. That’s the gaucho effect.
By Charlie O’Malley
Where to Go Gaucho in Mendoza
Estancia La Alejandra: Valle Carreras is Mendoza’s best kept secret. It is a sweeping green valley connecting Potrerillos lake to Tupungato in Valle de Uco and home to a rustic ranch known as Estancia La Alejandra where you can saddle up and pretend you have never sat in an office in your life. The ranch runs daily horse riding excursions followed by asados and the occasional jinette (gaucho game tournaments). www.cordondelplata.com
Finca Las Lechuzas: Go here for the gaucho deluxe experience as Finca Las Lechuzas combines life on the saddle with visiting some of Mendoza’s finest wineries. Set in the wide open vineyard land of Agrelo in Lujan de Cuyo, the ranch offers excursions to nearby 5-star bodegas such as Decero and Viña Cobos. Valuable tip: dismount when tasting. www.fincalaslechuzas.com
Estancia San Pablo: Think Little House on the Prairie except the prairie in this case is a lush verdant valley that runs from Uco Valley to Chile and the little house is a three bedroom lodge overlooking a bubbling river that offers ample flyfishing opportunities. Estancia San Pablo is a working farm that offers an authentic slice of rural Andean life. www.estanciasanpablo.com.ar
By Amanda Barnes