The Gaucho

Gaucho y sus armas - Juan Carlos Morel lithograph

My wife and I spent some time last winter at an estancia in the center of Argentina, a most enjoyable experience. A large estancia is a village unto itself, except that it is usually family-owned, and has a permanent manager. He seems to me to have a profoundly satisfying situation.

Today’s cowhands are called gauchos, but that is a somewhat misleading term. The real gauchos dwelt on the pampas in Argentina in past centuries and while gentle and courteous may have been the wildest and freest men who ever existed. To this day, to do a favor is often called hacer una gauchada – a generous, i.e., gaucho-like gesture. They carried their possessions with them, starting with a huge knife, the faucon, stuck in the back of a broad belt, or tirador. It also contained a lasso and boleadores, or bolas – three balls of hide-covered wood or stone or other hard material. Two balls are connected to the third by a leather strap. Holding that one the user swings the other two around his head and hurls them at the legs of the ostrich, cow or horse he wants to catch. The target trips and falls.

I was for years puzzled by the sight in pictures of the naked toes of a gaucho sticking out of his boots. The reason is that the traditional boot consisted of the hide of the hind leg of a mare cut off above the fetlock. Stripped off and softened, it could be pulled on easily, leaving the toes to protrude.

The rest of a gaucho’s clothing was practical but strange. It started with pajama-like loose trousers. Above these came a wool shirt, and the chirpo, a large square of cloth looped between the legs and tied around the waist, almost a huge diaper. Over everything a handsome patterned poncho with a slit for the head. There were no pockets: Small possessions were carried in the belt.

The gaucho was nomadic, roaming the pampas as he wished, and living off beef and water. He slept in the open and, in later times, was based in his hut, which contained virtually nothing and which he often did not bother to keep in repair.

You eat beef today at an asado the way the gaucho did then. He roasted it with the the hide still on. Holding a chunk with your teeth, you cut off a bite with your knife.

The old-time gaucho wore several kinds of headgear, sometimes a miniature top hat, often with a bright scarf protecting his neck.

Gaucho's clothes and kit

If he made some money, he might replace his kit, notably his faucon, his bit and his stirrups, with pieces mounted in silver. Indians, who were wonderful trackers, also roamed the pampas, hoping for booty, and the silver-rich gaucho had to be wary, like his counterpart, the American cowboy. Today, the cowboy’s equivalent is the yaquero or peon, who works on a ranch. This was the destiny that befell many gauchos as estancias sprang up in the pampas and then needed men to handle the work at busy times, notably branding. The domestication of the gaucho was completed when they were feverishly recruited into the army in the revolutionary wars of the 19th century.

The gaucho’s tavern was called the pulperia. There he could drink, sing, dance and play cards.

Taba was an extremely ancient game, in which the contestants tossed an irregular-shaped bone.

In the payada they accompanied themselves in a quieter way, improvising songs about life and work and love.

A very popular game was and is the carrera de sortija: riders gallop up and try to spear a ring hanging from a beam.

They might engage in an old-fashioned Argentinian horse race, just a few hundred yards in length. Two gauchos rode bareback, with no bit, only a bridle.

In a variation, two men rode head on toward each other at full speed until they crashed into each other. Then they sorted themselves out, separated, and tried again. The loser was the first to fall off, unconscious or dead. Some fun! ■