The word “Gaucho” was first used in 1790 and describes a very rough person, with many heavy manners that would travel alone, sometimes with a woman, having only his baggage and a knife called a “facon” with him. They are the Cowboys of Argentina and have often been called the wanderers of the Pampas. This I could picture. A gaucho wandering the mountains on his horse. A solo rider. A loner.
They have a long history going back to the 1600´s but unfortunately they did not always have a good reputation and have been seen as troublemakers by the government. More about that a little later.
In the 1600´s cows were roaming the fields and leather was one of the most important goods to trade with. The meat was not that important and once the cow had been slaughtered and the skin removed the dead cow served of little purpose. The gauchos quickly cooked the meat on an open fire before it turned bad. People criticized them for doing this and said that this habit was unwelcome and unhealthy. Interesting today this type of cooking is a national pastime and very popular in Argentina. They call it “asado” or in the other countries it is referred to as a “barbeque”.
The gauchos were familiar with the land and the animals. They belonged to the countryside. They often used to fight other natives or they would gather together in “vaquerias” for hunting purposes. In 1620 the gauchos became very unpopular with the “Cabildo” or government of Buenos Aires. The Cabildo was not worried about the gauchos but the economic consequences of their behaviour. The continues slaughtering of animals without consideration would put the highly valued commodity, leather, at risk. To make matters worse the natives also got involved in the slaughtering of animals for the skin.
In 1715 this practice had reduced the cattle head count to a bare minimum. The government had to do something and started to take action against the gauchos. By 1790 the term “Gaucho” was used in a derogative way in public statements by the government. This added more insult to their already low reputation. Sadly not even fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Criollos against early Spanish domination improved their reputation.
Slowly but surely they gained more respect. This happened when they actively joined the resistance movement against Spain. When one of the provinces Salta needed help the gauchos quickly gathered together and formed an army. This action gained them a lot of respect. Then salt was discovered and this was a huge thing for the gauchos. Now they were able to treat the meat and soon meat became just as important as the leather.
Ranches started to develop and who better to run a ranch than a gaucho? They knew the land and the animals. They passed on their skills to other people. But then something strange happened and gauchos became extinct. I have read in a travel forum that people were saying there are no more gauchos in Argentina. That is not the truth. They are still here. They can be seen in many small villages and they carry themselves with the utmost pride. I visited a celebration on Monday where I was able to see them in action.
I decided to write this introduction first before I tell my story about meeting the gauchos in person. I think it is important to understand the history and why every citizen in Argentina regard them highly.
Part 2….Fiesta de la mula! / Festival of the Gauchos.