Nov 102013


Today is Día de la Tradición in Argentina, the day when we celebrate the gaucho.  The gaucho embodies the essence of what it means to be Argentino (somewhat akin to the samurai for Japanese culture). So much of the Argentine spirit and values derive from the history and traditions of the gaucho.  Although the rest of the world believes it, the gaucho is not just an Argentine version of the cowboy. You’ll see. Día de la Tradición is celebrated on this day because it is the birthday (1834) of José Hernández (born José Rafael Hernández y Pueyrredón), Argentine journalist, poet, and politician best known as the author of the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro.


Martín Fierro is a 2,316 line epic poem originally published in two parts, El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879). The poem supplied a historical link to the gauchos’ contribution to the national development of Argentina; the gaucho played a major role in Argentina’s independence from Spain and in the political development of the independent nation. The poem, written in a dialect of Spanish that evokes rural Argentina, is widely seen as the pinnacle of the genre of gauchesque poetry (poems centered on the life of the gaucho, written in a style that evokes the rural Argentine songs known as payadas) and a touchstone of Argentine national identity. The book has appeared in hundreds of editions and has been translated into over 70 languages.

To set the stage let me begin with a little discussion of the payada tradition.  The classic payada is a competitive singing battle between two guitar playing payadores. The payada is a question and answer session with one payador posing a question which the other must answer before posing his own question in return. The battle goes on until one payador fails to answer a question.  Historically these duels could go on for hours. The trick is that they must keep within a ten-line format, using rhyming couplets as much as possible.  Obviously this is all improvised although, like similar improvisatory forms of music, every payador has a large store of stock lines he uses.  Here is a modern example:

In El Gaucho Martín Fierro, the protagonist is an impoverished gaucho who has been drafted to serve at a border fort, defending the Argentine inner frontier against the Indios. His life of poverty on the pampas is somewhat romanticized; his military experiences are not. They are heart rending. He deserts and tries to return to his home, but discovers that his house, farm, and family are gone. He deliberately provokes an affair of honor by insulting a black woman in a bar; in the knife duel that ensues, he kills her male companion.  Fierro becomes an outlaw pursued by the police militia. In battle with them, he acquires a companion, Sergeant Cruz who, inspired by Fierro’s bravery in resistance, defects and joins him mid-battle. The two set out to live among the Indios, hoping to find a better life there.

In La Vuelta de Martín Fierro, we discover that their hope of a better life is promptly and bitterly disappointed. They are taken for spies; the cacique (chieftain) saves their lives, but they are effectively prisoners of the Indios; in this context Hernández presents another, and very raw, version of rural life. The poem narrates an epidemic, the horrible, expiatory attempts at cure, and the fatal wrath upon those, including a young “Christian” (presumably ethnically Spanish) boy suspected of bringing the plague to the Indios. Both Cruz and the cacique die of the disease. Shortly afterward, at Cruz’s grave, Fierro hears the anguished cries of a woman: he follows and encounters a native woman weeping over the body of her dead son. It turns out that she has been accused of witchcraft. Fierro fights and wins a brutal combat with her captor and travels with her away from the Indios.

After Fierro leaves the woman at the first ranch they see, he goes on to encounter his two sons he had taken for dead (one had been a prisoner, the other the ward of the vile and wily Vizcacha). He has a night-long payada with a black payador, who turns out to be the younger brother of the man Fierro murdered in the duel in the first book. At the end, Fierro speaks of changing his name and living in peace, but it is not entirely clear whether or not he has avoided what should have been an inevitable knife fight with the black payador.


For the interested the full versions can be found online here:

Spanish version

English version

The values of the gaucho expressed in Martín Fierro and elsewhere are complex.  Courage comes first. When Fierro is caught by the police after he has killed a man, he draws his gaucho knife (called a facón in Argentine Spanish) and turns to fight even though the odds are five to one, and even though the police are more heavily armed. He never once considers surrender. A gaucho never gives in.  Second is a fierce hatred of corruption and like vices.  The gaucho expects straight dealing and, furthermore, has a willingness to fight and even die for what is right. The legendary downside of this trait is that gauchos will draw knives when they feel their honor is at stake, and when that happens, someone dies. Finally the gaucho is independent and self sufficient. Though Fierro suffers unbelievable cruelties, and dreadful disasters befall him, he never complains, he simply finds a way to live through them on his own abilities.


The nineteenth century was an incredibly bloody time in Argentina’s history. First there were 15 years of war with Spain for independence which initiated 65 years of civil wars between Unitarians and Federalists.  Add into the mix wars with Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay over territorial rights, and you have a century of conflict.  In all of these wars gaucho cavalry units played key roles.  Gauchos also fought as foot soldiers. In several of these wars the Argentine army was made up entirely of gauchos, such as that of the legendary Martín Miguel de Güemes who fought in both the War of Independence and the Civil Wars. Without Güemes and his gauchos in the War of Independence, Argentina could not have defeated the Spanish royalists.

Martín Miguel de Güemes

Martín Miguel de Güemes

Of course horsemanship plays a vital role in gaucho culture. In the past it was common for a gaucho to own his horse, his clothes (his poncho was his blanket), and his facón, and nothing else. His ability to handle his horse skillfully was what earned him his keep. That way he was free to go where he wanted, when he wanted knowing he could always find work.  In modern times one of the ways gauchos display their skills is at gaucho games which are very plain affairs in comparison with the U.S. rodeo because they are not heavily commercialized.  Yet they still display high levels of ability, often by men who are still working gauchos. The most popular sport is corrida de la sortija, or simply sortija, in which a rider must gallop at full speed standing fully upright in the stirrups and with a small stylus pluck a ring suspended above his head from a frame.  Sometimes two men ride side by side to see who can get the ring first in an elimination competition.


But the game of pato probably shows gaucho horse riding skills more fully.  Pato is a cross between polo and basketball, and accounts of the game go back to 1610 (although the rules have changed considerably since). It is called pato (duck), because the original “ball” was a wicker basket with a live duck inside. Now the ball is a leather ball with six evenly spaced handles. Pato has been banned many times in its history because of knife fights that would break out between gauchos (rather reminds me of watching football fans two years ago at Boca stadium ripping seats up and throwing them on the pitch because they disagreed with the referee’s call).

During the 1930s, pato was regulated through the efforts of ranch owner Alberto del Castillo Posse, who drafted a set of rules inspired by modern polo – up until then the “rules” were a bit sketchy. The game gained legitimacy, to the point that President Juan Perón declared pato to be Argentina’s national game in 1953. Part of Perón’s point was that the gaucho is central to Argentine history and character, so a gaucho game should be the national sport. (Modern football fans tend to disagree! But maybe other nations will agree that Argentinos play football like gauchos.)

In modern pato, two four-member teams riding on horses fight for possession of the ball and score by throwing the ball through a vertically positioned ring. The rings have a 100 cm (3.3 ft) diameter, and are located on top of 2.4 m (7.9 ft) high poles. A closed net, extending for 140 cm (4.6 ft), holds the ball after goals are scored. The winner is the team with most goals scored after regulation time (six 8-minute “periods”).

The player who has control of the pato must ride with his right arm loose and exposed to his right, so rival players have a chance of tugging the pato and stealing it. During the tug (cinchada), both players must stand on the stirrups and avoid sitting on the saddle, while the hand not involved in the tugging must hold the reins.

Here is a clip to give you an idea.  If you do not speak Spanish let me assure you that the commentators are as inane as in any other sport.

Typically the diet of the gaucho was meat supplemented with yerba mate (national drink of Argentina) and nothing else. Many Argentinos are still not awfully far from that mark. They eat prodigious amounts of meat, mostly beef.  In order to eat, all the gaucho needed was his facón.  With it he could kill a steer, butcher it, and when cooked cut off pieces to eat.  In Argentina grilling, or asado, is the usual way to cook beef.  There are two methods of asado, asado al asador (on a spit), and asado a la parrilla (on a grill).  Asado al asador is the traditional gaucho method, so I will focus on it.  This is your recipe of the day, but I wouldn’t try this at home.  You can get the basic idea from this image.


Rather than the more common method of spit roasting in which the meat is held horizontally directly over the fire, the meat is held vertically beside the fire.  You can see too that the fire is rather small (although intense enough if you get close).  The idea is to cook the meat very slowly. It may take 5 hours or more for the meat to be ready.

This clip gives a good sense of the process.

You won’t find asado al asador at home parties for obvious reasons, but it is still very common in restaurants in Buenos Aires.  Some of the fancier ones have gizmos that rotate the spits around the fire to be sure of even cooking, with the spits spinning 180° periodically.

All in all, I hope I have demonstrated several things.  First, a gaucho is not a cowboy, even though they make a living herding cows.  Second, that the Hollywood version of the gaucho has nothing whatsoever to do with the real thing.  Third, that the gaucho represents the lifeblood and soul of Argentina.