I started my research on cattle in Argentina’s culture at the town of San Antonio de Areco, a historic “gaucho town”, an hour-and-a-half ride from Buenos Aires on the bus. I came to San Antonio de Areco to learn how Argentina’s cattle industry began by learning about Argentina’s first “cowboy”: the gaucho. In San Antonio de Areco, I stayed at the Estancia la Cinacina. Estancias are a cross between a dude ranch and a bed and breakfast. La Cinacina also operates as a gaucho theme park of sorts. Several times a week they put on a “gaucha fiesta” – an afternoon of traditional Argentine arts: asado (barbeque), dancing, and games on horseback.
At one time San Antonio de Areco was a frontier town in the middle of the vast sea of grass that is called the pampas. This immense grassland covered one-third of the country and was called the “desert” by European explorers who found, there was nothing but grass for several hundred miles in all directions. For Argentinia’s pioneers, it was difficult to start a new life without access to many natural resources like lumber and fresh water was difficult to access in many places until windmills were invented. The Indians that inhabited the pampas were also extremely hostile. It was very dangerous for settlers to live on the pampas until the late 1800s when the Indians were permanently subdued. Between 1522, when the first cows were introduced to Argentina (mainly as draft animals – many of which went feral and bred in the wild) and the late 1800’s, the pampas was the domain of Indians, wild cattle, and the nomadic “half-breed” known as the gaucho. It is unclear exactly which ethnic population gauchos originated from, but theories include, Spanish emigrants, deserters from the troops that were deployed to Spanish outposts, and Moorish refugees fleeing from the inquisition. The origin of the word gaucho is also unknown. Writer Martiniano Leguizamon speculates the word gaucho may have originated from the Quechua word hauchu – which means orphan, the Chilean word huaso – a man of the country, the word gatchu – which means “companion” in the language of the Araucanian Indian, chaoch – which means trooper in Arabic, or gauderio – the name given to the nomadic vagabond living along the Rio de la Plata by 18th century Spanish writers.
San Antonio de Areco would have been an outpost for gauchos, the mixed-raced nomads of the pampas who traveled the plains on horseback, hunting wild cows for their hides, gambling at rural meeting places called pulperias (where they could drink and gamble) and living with the kind of freedom that has made them the folk heroes of Argentina – though they were not popular during their own time, viewed as lazy half-breeds. But gauchos weren’t really lazy, they just made their own schedule and answered to no one. Known for having almost supernatural powers when tracking animals, hunting them from horseback with their bolas or boleadoras (stones attached to ropes that were thrown at the cows and horses legs to trip them or flung around the long neck of Argentina’s “ostrich” the rhea), and navigating the vast pampas, gauchos were also skilled musicians, poets, dancers, and masters at the art of cooking meat – especially steak, over an open fire. Gauchos were expert horsemen. They could catch and tame wild horses, and make their own saddles, bridles, lassos and bull whips – all made from leather. Gauchos were also known for their chivalry, honesty, integrity, and hospitality. Most modern day gauchos strive to personify these qualities and are still expert cattle and horsemen.
I learned many of these facts at La Cinacina’s “gaucha fiesta” where I ate an asado, heard traditional music performed live, watched and participated in traditional dancing and witnessed a sampling of gaucho equestrian arts. While being served empanadas filled with seasoned beef, my guide and interpreter for the day, Juan Manuel Hernandez, gave me insight into the life of gauchos, then and now. For most of the gaucho’s history, they lived as nomads, hunting wild cows for their leather hides, which at that time were the only thing of value that they could take from the cow, and one of Argentina’s few exports to Europe. The gaucho would often eat the cow’s tongue, take what meat they could carry, and leave the rest of the carcass to rot in the field. The history of the gaucho is much longer than that of the United States’ cowboy. Gauchos roamed the Pampa from the late 1500’s until the end of the 18th Century. This is different than the 20-30 year period that cowboys enjoyed before the Great Plains was fenced in by homesteaders.
Juan Manuel pointed out the beautiful wide leather belts studded with silver decorations and coins that many of the gauchos were wearing. Historically, gauchos lived as nomads and carried all of their wealth with them. The decorations on their bridles, stirrups, belts, and knives, would have been their portable bank account. That day several of the gauchos were wearing belts that had been passed down to them from their fathers or grandfathers, and many of the gauchos had one or two knives, called facóns, in leather sheaths tucked into the back of their belts. Juan Manuel told me that the gauchos at La Cinacina had recently killed a bull that had been harassing horses in the pasture. They killed the bull, skinned his hide, butchered the meat and had a couple pieces of bull meat on the grill for their lunch. Those knives they had tucked into the back of their belts weren’t just for show, but are still used for day-to-day chores just at their fathers and grandfathers used them.
Hanging around the barbeque I was fed different cuts of meat, sliced on the wooden table in front of the grill. Matambre is a cut of meat that runs along the cow’s belly. Juan Manuel told me that its literal translation means “death to hunger”, but no one really thinks of it that way. It is often served as an appetizer. The piece I was served was two thirds meat, one-third fat. It was not what I would describe as a tender cut, but certainly hearty enough to curb a hard working hombre’s hunger pains. Chorizo, blood sausage, beef, and chicken, were all being grilled on a wide barbeque using coals that were placed under the grill with a shovel. These hot coals came from a smoldering pile of embers in a large fire pit where the whole carcasses of sheep and goats are grilled on a spit. Wood or coal are the only materials used for a barbeque in Argentina, they don’t grill over an open flame or use gas which are both common at backyard barbeques in the United States. Cuts of beef are also different than in the United States and it is normal for there to be intestines, glands, or organs of the cow served at an asado along with chicken, pork, lamb, or goat. (At this asado they served blood sausage, which tasted so rich it made my taste buds sting). I also read in one book that you are never ever supposed to give advice to the man cooking the asado. This asado also included lettuce and tomato salad, shredded carrots, fried potatoes and bread rolls.
While we were being served lunch by the gauchos, other gauchos took to the stage to perform traditional music, song, and dance. The music was up-beat and lively, a mix of Spanish folk music and what I would describe as polka. A happy sound. A husband and wife in traditional costume took to the stage and performed several different dances. The most complex dance was the malambo, a kind of nimble tap dance, performed only by men, often twirling boleadoras at high speed at their sides and over their head. I was not surprised that the most famous gaucho dance was performed sola by a man. Almost all of the literature, history, paintings, illustrations, and personal anecdotes I read or saw about the history of gauchos were about men. At times it seemed that gauchos were a breed of men that could live and reproduce on the Pampa for centuries without the comfort or support of any woman. Of course this wasn’t true. Women were found on the Pampa running “pulperias” – bars and dried good stores, or as one book describes it: “ The puperia was the pampa saloon, genral store and social club of the gauchos, for these horsemen scorned all work except roundup and branding, bronco breaking and cattle care. It was the women who did everything else – the cooking, washing, weaving, and clothes making.” In the slack seasons, gauchos spent most of their time in pulperias, drinking, gossiping, gambling and inevitably fighting. The pulperias would also be the place to play and bet on a handful of games, many of them played on horseback. After the asado we all wandered to the grandstands to see a display of some of these games on horseback.
Gauchos loved to gamble and at pulperias there were no end of games to bet on. Cock fighting, was common as well as horse racing, but other games were serious tests of a gaucho’s horsemanship, skill, and coordination. Riding at the sortija (ring) was one of the favorite gaucho games. To perform sortija a gaucho rides at full speed at a ring suspended from a wire above the track. He must spear the ring with a small wooden spear in order to win. If he spears the ring, he brings it back to the audience and presents the ring to a woman in the audience. The woman can either kiss the gaucho or kiss the horse. I was watching the gaucha fiesta with a large group of fifth graders, and when the gauchos rode back to the audience with a ring, I might as well have been in the audience at a Beetles concert. The little girls were hanging over the rail, waving their arms, and screaming. When I was presented with a ring, I chose to kiss the gaucho – they aren’t bad looking and are more than a little flirty. I am sure they are merely upholding their centuries old tradition as charming rascals. After all – gauchos do take great pride in their traditions.
Modern day gauchos do have a rich cultural heritage, but they no longer live as the true nomads they once were. After the government subdued the Indians in the late 1800’s it sold off large tracts of land which became the first cattle ranches, called estancias, and the pampas became fenced. Gauchos could no longer live their nomadic lives, and they began to work as cattle laborers for the estancias. This gave them a way to preserve their social and cultural identity and allowed them to continue their work with cattle and horses that they took so much pride in. Today gauchos look after 55 million cattle, 25 million sheep, and 2 million horses and continue to make leather goods, decorative silver items, and wear barrettes while galloping at top speed.