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by Domingo F. Sarmiento


An essay featuring a biography of Argentine historical figure Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1836) as a vantage point from which to explore the social and historical situation of the Rio de la Plata region after its independence from Spain; published in Spanish in 1845, in English in 1868.


The essay portrays Argentina as the scene of a struggle between two opposing forces: civilization and barbarism, the latter exemplified by Juan Facundo Quiroga, a brutal caudillo, or military strongman of the rural plains.

Events in History at the Time of the Essay

The Essay in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Essay Was Written

For More Information

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was a man of extremes. During his lifetime, he would be both an exile from his own country (in the 1840s, when he wrote Facundo) and president of the Argentine Republic (from 1868 to 1874). Beginning life as an impoverished inhabitant of the frontier, Sarmiento went on to become a powerful politician in the cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires. His most famous work, known either as Facundo or by its original title, Civilization and Barbarism: Life of Juan Facundo Quiroga, is likewise an essay of extremes. The essay sets forth a basic opposition—between civilization and barbarism—that has profoundly influenced Latin American thought to the present day. By writing Facundo, Sarmiento took vengeance against a figure who had terrorized his own native community of San Juan, yet the author’s main targets were the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas (during whose reign Facundo was written) and the phenomenon of caudillismo. This phenomenon is one that both Rosas and Facundo represent, in which society submits to the rule of local strongmen (caudillos) rather than to the law.

Events in History at the Time of the Essay

Revolution of independence

In 1808 French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops entered Spain and claimed it as their own, setting up a government under Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte. This precipitated a Spanish civil war between supporters of Bonaparte and supporters of the deposed Spanish monarch, Charles IV. With the leadership of Spain in question, Spain’s South American colonies claimed the right to self-government under Spanish law until a legitimate king should resume the throne. A local government council or cabildo already existed in Buenos Aires, and on May 25, 1810, this council claimed temporary autonomy for the Viceroyalty of La Plata—a region including what would become Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia.

The Viceroyalty came under Spanish dominion again in 1814 when Ferdinand VII assumed the throne. However, Ferdinand proved to be a foolishly autocratic ruler, and the La Plata region, having tasted sovereignty, declared its complete independence from Spain in 1816. Several years of battle with Spanish royalist troops followed, but by 1824 the autonomy of the Rio de la Plata region was uncontested.

Contesting the dominance of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires was and is the name of both the wealthiest of the Argentine provinces and Argentina’s largest and most prosperous city. Because of its coastal and river access, Buenos Aires has proved to be a prime site for trade; accordingly, the city receives goods and capital, as well as immigrants and ideas, from all over the world, making it a place of diversity, activity, and change. In the nineteenth century, much of the influx came from Europe, and Buenos Aires became a city characterized by European culture, dress, and manners—at least among its middle and upper classes. By comparison, other Argentine cities of this era (such as Cordoba, La Rioja, and San Juan) were small, insulated, and impoverished. Thus, a certain antagonism arose between Buenos Aires—which was urban, international, progressive, European, rich, and merchant-oriented—and the rest of Argentina—which was largely rural, parochial, conservative, South American, poor, and rancher-oriented. It is within this context that Sarmiento writes of a struggle between an urban-based “civilization” and a rural-based “barbarism.”

Although the Buenos Aires government had claimed independence from Spain in the name of the entire viceroyalty, porteno (or Buenos Aires) authority was not widely acknowledged. Paraguay and Bolivia soon claimed autonomous nationhood, and even within Argentina, the several fiercely independent provinces resisted consolidation under Buenos Aires in favor of self-government.

Presidency of Rivadavia

In 1826 an assembly gathered in Buenos Aires in an attempt to establish a national government. Despite its lack of legislative authority, the assembly created the office of the President of the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata (the region of modem Argentina and Uruguay) and elected Bernardino Rivadavia, the current Minister of Government and Foreign Affairs under the Governor of Buenos Aires, to the post. This action roused the ire of the provinces, and civil war was the result.

Support for a strong, centralized Argentine government was based in Buenos Aires, and gave rise to two opposing groups. On the one hand, there were the Unitarians, those favoring centralized government. They tended to be wealthy, educated porteno elites that looked to Europe for cultural and political models. The rest of the country, perhaps fearing porteno domination, tended to favor a looser federation with more autonomy for the individual provinces. They were the opponents of the Unitarians, known as Federalists, who tended to be rural inhabitants, and rejected porteno imitation of European ways. One of the major leaders of the opposition to centralized government was Juan Facundo Quiroga, caudillo of La Rioja province. Sarmiento saw in Facundo an apt representative of the forces of barbarism, which, broadly speaking, he identified with the Federalist countryside. Civilization came from Europe, and thus, in Sarmiento’s view, had its firmest foothold in Buenos Aires among the frock-coated Unitarians.

The presidency of Rivadavia, though brief, was highly significant for those who, like Sarmiento, saw in it the model for Argentina’s future and even referred to the period of Rivadavia as “The Happy Experience.” It was a happy experience for the supporters of Rivadavia, Unitarians who longed for a more civilized, cultured, Europeanized environment. As Minister of Government and Foreign Affairs, Rivadavia had established the European-staffed University of Buenos Aires as well as a public education program for male rural children. He also supported theater and opera groups, publishing houses, and a museum. Such institutions were hailed as civilizing influences by the porteno Unitarians. Less happy were the common laborers whose wages under Rivadavia were subjected to a government cap to ensure “their dependence on daily labor” (Shumway, The Invention of Argentina, p. 84). Rivadavia’s policies displeased other groups too. More specifically, they upset the provincial military and government employees who were forced to retire on minimal pensions because of Rivadavia’s fear of provincial uprisings. Also upset were the gauchos, landless inhabitants of the pampas who were arrested for vagrancy and forced to work on so-called public projects, usually without pay. Finally, Rivadavia failed to please Catholic conservatives by establishing policies of religious tolerance that appealed to non-Catholic European immigrants.

Dorrego and Lavalle

Beset by Federalist forces (one of the main leaders of which was Facundo Quiroga) and losing a war against Brazil, Rivadavia resigned the presidency in 1827 and the short-lived national government dissolved. Colonel Manuel Dorrego became governor of Buenos Aires province with the help of fellow Federalist Juan Manuel de Rosas, a wealthy and politically powerful local landowner. Dorrego made peace with Brazil by sacrificing a large piece of disputed territory. Argentine troops, having returned from the war zone, proceeded to overthrow and execute Dorrego, installing their leader, the Unitarian general Juan Lavalle, as governor. Meanwhile, in the city of Cordoba, a similar overthrow of Federalist power was carried out by the forces of another returning Unitarian general, Jose Maria Paz.

Lavalle was soon overthrown himself, by a Rosas-led militia composed largely of gauchos. By the end of 1829 the old legislature that Lavalle had disbanded was back in place and had appointed Rosas to the office of governor of Buenos Aires. Paz, however, maintained control over the interior stronghold of Cordoba. Sarmiento saw this as an ironic state of affairs in that the barbaric forces of Federalism were in control of Buenos Aires, the bastion of civilization, while the forces of civilization led by Unitarian General Paz held what had always been the stronghold of barbarism, the Argentine interior.

The Rosas regime

Rosas was granted virtually absolute power over Buenos Aires by the grateful legislature that he had reinstated. The legislators saw in Rosas a bulwark against anarchy, and so condoned his rule as dictator for the next three years. During this time, with the help of Facundo Quiroga and fellow caudillo Estanislao Lopez, he defeated Paz, maintained peace between Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina, and increased the riches of the wealthy while—thanks to his rural roots—maintaining an undeserved image as champion of the rural poor. In this way, Rosas enjoyed general support until he stepped down from office at the end of his three-year term.

Without the strength of Rosas, the nation soon dissolved into chaos. The provinces were demanding a constitution that would give them a more equitable relationship with Buenos Aires, whose government appeared threatened by Unitarian forces. The assassination of Juan Facundo Quiroga in 1835 promised anarchy; to avert this, the Buenos Aires legislature begged Rosas to resume the governorship on his own terms. His terms were absolute power. Of course, rumors spread that Facundo’s assassination had been orchestrated by Rosas, who had so obviously benefited from the death. The charge was never proved, however, and Rosas ruled as dictator for the next 17 years.

The Essay in Focus

Contents summary

The English translation by Mrs. Horace Mann of the third edition of Facundo is called neither by this title nor by the full Civilization and Barbarism: Life of Juan Facundo Quiroga. Instead it is renamed Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants. The translation can be divided into two main parts: the initial part comprises the first four chapters and provides a geographical, sociological, and historical background for the second part, which tells the life story of Juan Facundo Quiroga. Spanish-language editions of Facundo include an introduction and a conclusion that the Mann translation omits. In the introduction, the ghost of Facundo is invoked and commanded to reveal the secret disease (barbarism) that eats away at the Argentine Republic. The conclusion constitutes a direct attack against the Rosas regime and predicts a brighter, more “civilized” future for Argentina.


Gauchos were cattle-wrangling horsemen of the pampas, the vast flat grasslands of Argentina. In the seventeenth century gauchos conducted a brisk contraband trade in the hides of wild pampean cattle (technically owned by the Spanish Crown), which they sold to European traders. Later, when the plains were converted into private property for a few wealthy landowners, gauchos were hired as cowboys to maintain the now privately owned herds on unfenced land. In the nineteenth century, with land being fenced and ranches converted into farms, gauchos lost their place in society. Rivadavia introduced vagrancy laws that criminalized the landless gaucho if he happened to be unemployed; those who were arrested were forced to work, often without pay, on “public” projects that generally served the interests of the land-owning elite.

“Physical contents of the republic.” Sarmiento begins by describing the geography of Argentina as vast and empty, dominated by the pampas—immense grassy plains stretching from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean, unbroken but for the many rivers that join forces finally in the eastern Rio de la Plata region. The only part of Argentina to truly benefit from the river system is Buenos Aires, the coastal metropolis where the many waterways meet to empty into the sea—but even Buenos Aires cannot realize the full potential of its geographical situation, for the sluggish “spirit of the Pampa” has infected her (Sarmiento, Facundo, p. 5). As “the only city in the vast Argentine territory which is in communication with European nations,” Buenos Aires is Argentina’s best hope for civilization, yet she has failed to civilize the rest of the country (Facundo, p. 5). Consequently, the barbarism of the provinces has produced Rosas, who in turn has taken control of Buenos Aires.

Why has Buenos Aires, and hence Argentina, failed to achieve civilization? The flatness of the Argentine terrain makes tyrannical domination easy. There is no place to hide, and no defensible place from which to resist. The essay adds that the plains give Argentina “a certain Asiatic coloring” (Facundo, p. 8), and for Sarmiento this means “the reign of brute force, the supremacy of the strongest, the absolute and irresponsible authority of rulers, the administration of justice without formalities or discussion”—in a word, barbarism (Facundo, p. 9).

Sarmiento next discusses the people of Argentina, who are comprised of three groups: the Spanish, the Indian, and the black African. The first two Sarmiento characterizes as lazy. The black African race possesses “the finest instincts of progress,” but, despite its presence, idleness has won out over industry as the defining feature of the Argentine people (Facundo, p. 10).

In this land, cities are like islands that harbor the features of civilization, including factories, shops, and schools, as well as “elegance of style, articles of luxury, dress-coats, and frock-coats” (Facundo, p. 13). Such dress is emblematic of civilization, and as such exposes its wearer to ridicule and abuse in the barbaric world of the countryside, whose residents hate civilization. Meanwhile the country dwellers of Argentina live in isolation from one another many miles apart in what Sarmiento likens to feudal strongholds. Schools and churches are nonexistent. In summary, Sarmiento asserts that there is no res publica, no sense of commonwealth or community to unite the people and inspire them to acts of citizenship for the common good.

In this first chapter the essay sets forth a fundamental opposition: barbarism, it says, comes from two basic sources, Spain and Latin America, while civilization is a northern European import.

“Originality and peculiarities of the people.” Sarmiento now asserts that although the landscape of Argentina has rendered its inhabitants largely barbarous, it has also made them poetic by nature because of the dramatic natural environment in which they dwell. The literature of the Americas should reflect the peculiar situation of these lands, Sarmiento believes; it should describe “the mighty scenes of nature” (Facundo, p. 24), and above all should illustrate “the struggle between European civilization and native barbarism, between mind and matter” (Facundo, p. 24).

Before proceeding, the essay describes four different types of gaucho: the rastreador (tracker);Baqueano (path-finder); the outlaw; and the minstrel. According to Sarmiento, an understanding of these different types will elucidate the characters of various Argentine leaders, and the “bloody strife” in which they involve their nation (Facundo, p. 45). The leaders to whom Sarmiento refers are the Federalist caudillos, Rosas chief among them, whom Sarmiento sees as brutal, ignorant gauchos elevated to positions of power.

“Association.” Sarmiento sums up the character of the Argentine rustic as “independent of every want, under no control, with no notion of government” (Facundo, p. 46). Because pastoral existence requires so little labor, and so little cooperation, rural men lead lives of independent idleness. They must find ways to occupy their time, and excuses for socializing, so they turn to the pulperia, a combination of country store and saloon, where men pass the greater part of the day drinking and gambling. Here valor is esteemed above all else, and men prove themselves through feats of horsemanship and knife fighting, which can break out at any time. Since the object is only to scar one’s opponent, killing happens rarely, but when it does occur, the murderer gains sympathy and renown. He must flee the law, but has become something of a hero of the people. Sarmiento here points out that Rosas’s home was once an asylum for murderers like these. Under such conditions are formed the characters of the provincial caudillos. It is therefore understandable that they are barbaric despots.

In order to gain some measure of control over such a lawless populace, repressive tactics are employed. The rural judge must be a brutal tyrant to inspire fear in hardened outlaws, and the military commander can keep order only through tyranny. In any case, the rural leader answers to no law because he is the law. It is true that his official power must be conferred by urban elites, but this makes little difference since power tends to be granted to those most feared. Nothing, then, mitigates the power of the strongest.

Sarmiento now tells his reader that all that has gone before has been a necessary prelude to understand the revolution in which Argentina gained independence from Spain. Before this, according to Sarmiento, Argentina was divided into two opposing societies: “one being Spanish, European, and cultivated, the other barbarous, American, and almost wholly of native growth” (Facundo, p. 54). After the revolution, provincial military bands, called montoneras, propelled their leaders to political power and this led to “the final triumph, in Facundo Quiroga, of the country over the cities throughout the land” (Facundo, p. 55). Facundo paved the way for the government of Rosas, the man who “applied the knife of the gaucho to the culture of Buenos Ayres, and destroyed the work of centuries—of civilization, law, and liberty” (Facundo, p. 55).

“The Revolution of 1810.” The Argentine Revolution of Independence, like similar revolutions in the United States, France, and Spain, stemmed from European ideas. For this reason, the revolution was incomprehensible to the inhabitants of rural Argentina, who could embrace it only as a throwing-off of authority, which they despised in itself. Only in the cities, which are “a continuation of European civilization,” could the ideas shaping the revolution be grasped (Facundo, pp. 61-62). The provinces embraced revolution largely because war offered a fitting outlet for the aggressive, brutal nature they had been developing. Unfortunately, in the revolution’s aftermath, the rural forces would rise up against the cities, despoiling them of what they could not understand—civilization. Sarmiento is optimistic, however, that European culture will win out in the end, educating Rosas and his ilk and thus civilizing them.


Rosas has been viewed by some historians as the champion of the people, supporting their interests against those of the elitist Unitarians. Others view him as a bloody tyrant who nevertheless was the only figure strong enough to maintain the fledgling Argentine sovereignty amid constant threats of civil war. This latter view is expressed by British poet John Mase-field in his poem Rosas:

So Rosas came to power. Soon his hold
Gripped the whole land as though it were a horse.

Church, Money, Law all yielded. . . .
And if the city, terrified to awe,
Loathed him, as slaves their masters, he was still
The Gaucho’s darling captain; he could draw
Their hearts at pleasure with his horseman’s skill,
None ever rode like Rosas; none but he
Could speak their slang or knew their mystery.

(Masefield in Lynch, p. 10)

“Life of Juan Facundo Quiroga.” “The man of nature who has not yet learned to restrain or disguise his passions, displays them in all their energy, and gives himself up to their impetuosity” (History of the Ottoman Empire in Facundo, p. 73). With this quotation, Sarmiento begins his biography of Facundo, a man ruled by his passions and unrestrained by the civilizing force of reason. Juan Facundo Quiroga was the son of a wealthy rural man. He received a minimal education in which he learned to read and write. His youth was marked by rebellion and antisocial behavior; by the age of 15 he was an avid gambler. Despite the prestige of his family, Facundo worked as a common laborer. He gambled away any money or goods with which he was entrusted and soon broke off familial relations entirely—according to one account, by burning down the house in which his parents slept, after taking care to fasten the doors from the outside. This is perhaps the ugliest of the many incidents Sarmiento relates to illustrate Facundo’s brutality.

An outlaw drifting between gambling parties and casual slayings, Facundo resolves to join the montonera, or military band, of Francisco “Pancho” Ramirez, caudillo of Entre Rios province. En route to join the band, Facundo is captured and sent to prison for one of his many crimes. A group of imprisoned Spanish officers instigates an escape. They open the cells of the common criminals, but when Facundo is released, he kills the Spaniards with an iron bar wrenched from his fetters. For this act, Facundo becomes a hero, and, cleansed in blood, is allowed to reenter society’s fold.

Facundo makes his way to the province of La Rioja, where his reputation has preceded him. Whether from fear or esteem, others award him with the post of Sergeant Major of the Militia of the Llanos. He proves himself courageous and fierce in battle, but ultimately betrays his post, and, with the aid of a rebel band he is supposed to subdue, imprisons the government officers and takes over La Rioja. He puts down all opposition instantly by killing his opponents. By intimidation, Facundo increases his wealth, inviting anyone with money to his gambling table, which no one leaves without surrendering everything to him.

Now Facundo has power and wealth, but he hates whatever he cannot attain—“polish, learning, true respectability”—persecuting those who possess them (Facundo, p. 105). Facundo displays his contempt for civilization one night by singling out La Rioja’s “well-to-do householders and the young men who still had some appearance of culture” (Facundo, p. 106). He keeps these men marching all night long, beating them frequently with his sergeant’s stick. The result of his depredations on the town of La Rioja is complete devastation. Where once a prosperous town existed, there are now but a few families of beggars huddled amid the ruins.

“Buenos Aires and Cordova.” The essay describes two cities of Argentina that illustrate the basic dichotomy of civilization and barbarism: Buenos Aires and Cordova (Sarmiento’s spelling for the city of Cordoba). Cordova is essentially a city of the Middle Ages, dominated by the Catholic Church and a university run by Jesuits. Cordova sits cloistered away from the modern world, remaining as stagnant as the artificial lake in its central square. It is, says the essay, the true descendant of Spain, which was considered less civilized than countries in northern Europe. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, is a modem city with strong ties to the more northern country of France and to North America.

“Life of Facundo resumed.” In 1825 Rivada via, then governor of Buenos Aires, summons representatives from the provinces to unite in a congressional body. Facundo arrives as representative of La Rioja and soon receives an assignment to put down a military leader who is overstepping the bounds of his power. Facundo is successful, and at the scene of his victory he raises what will become his trademark flag, a skull and crossbones on a black background.

Sarmiento now contemplates what Facundo’s chosen flag represents—“terror, death, hell” (Facundo, p. 137)—and contrasts this with the symbolism of the flag of Argentina, the colors of which are blue and white—“the clear sky of a fair day, and the bright light of the disk of the sun: ‘peace and justice for all’” (Facundo, p. 137).

Under the pressure of heavy opposition from the provinces, Rivadavia resigns the office of governor of Buenos Aires, an act the essay regards as cowardly. He is replaced by Dorrego, a Federalist, but essentially a Buenos Airean who cares little for what becomes of the other provinces. Because of this lack of concern, the essay argues, Buenos Aires fails to bestow its wealth and its civilizing influence on the rest of Argentina. As a result barbarism continues to flourish in the provinces, and eventually takes its vengeance against the port city in the person of Rosas.

The Unitarians revolt, and Dorrego is killed in battle. Moving on to the subsequent battle of Cordova, the essay contrasts Facundo with his opponent, the one-armed General Paz, “a true son of the city, and representative of the power of civilization” (Facundo, p. 162). Paz defeats Facundo at Cordova, and Facundo escapes to Buenos Aires, now the stronghold of barbarism since Rosas has seized control of the city. Facundo offers his services to the new governor.

Soon, in a campaign to reclaim the provinces, Facundo, Lopez (caudillo of Santa Fe), and Rosas begin attacking various towns. In quick succession, Facundo conquers Rio Quinto, San Luis, and Mendoza. Finally, Cordova falls, and the Unitarians are driven beyond the boundaries of Argentina. Facundo disbands his army and returns to San Juan, from which he exerts his authority over several other neighboring towns where “Liberty had ceased, and Quiroga’s name took the place of law” (Facundo, p. 216). But his power is unofficial; Facundo has not been rewarded for his service to Rosas with a governorship.

Facundo eventually returns to Buenos Aires to confront Rosas, towards whom he feels some resentment, and to live amid the luxuries of civilization. In Buenos Aires Facundo seems to assume a new character. He proclaims himself a Unitarian, and speaks of his support for a national constitution. He puts his sons in the best schools and provides them with the European clothing he himself still shuns. But Facundo is all talk; he does not actively support the Unitarians and neither they nor the Federalists embrace him. After a brief chaotic interlude during which Rosas does all he can to undermine the administration of the interim governors, Rosas himself resumes the governorship, this time with the unlimited powers of a despot. He sends Facundo to settle a dispute in the provinces north of Buenos Aires. Despite many warnings, Facundo proceeds on his predetermined route to Cordova without a retinue. His carriage is stopped by armed men, and Facundo is shot dead. The assassins are duly executed, but in Sarmiento’s view this is only to hide the true perpetrator of the crime, and Facundo ends with Sarmiento’s insistence that “the impartial historian will one day expose the real instigator of the assassination,” whom Sarmiento clearly believes to be Rosas (Facundo, p. 236).

Racist dichotomies—societies

Facundo is a meandering, sometimes confusing essay united by Sarmiento’s underlying theme of a single dichotomy: the conflict between civilization and barbarism. This basic dichotomy is manifested in several pairs of opposing entities. Civilization is identified with northern Europe, North America, cities, Unitarians, Paz, and Rivadavia; barbarism is identified with Latin America, Spain, Asia, the Middle East, the countryside, Federalists, Facundo, and Rosas. In general, civilization is the hard-won victory of man over a nature that is both geographical wilderness and human passion. Facundo, whom Sarmiento describes as “only a barbarian, who did not know how to restrain his passions,” embodies Argentina, where the forces of law and order have little power over wayward caudillos (Facundo, p. 198).

The tendency to divide the world into two opposing categories goes at least as far back as the philosophy of Plato (427?-347? b.c.e.), who posited a radical mind/body dualism. This notion of the separation of mind and matter reached its peak in the Enlightenment or “Age of Reason” of the eighteenth century. Reason, it was said, set the human being above nature and was the force that would save humankind from the ignorance and depravity of superstition.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, a major Enlightenment thinker, spoke of the “noble savage,” the primitive man who is pure and vital because un-corrupted by the taint of civilization. This view, known as “primitivism,” was countered, however, by another strain of Enlightenment thought that placed the so-called savage on the lowest rung on the ladder of human development, just above animals, while Europeans saw themselves as the pinnacle of mankind. In their view the European had science, while the savage had superstition—a pathetic attempt to gain magical knowledge of and control over a nature that, without science, was mysterious and uncontrollable. Facundo is strongly influenced by Enlightenment thought, and in it the gaucho is Sarmiento’s savage, who “will lead you into a world of … superstitious and vulgar traditions” (Facundo, p. 28).

Racist dichotomies—individuals

Although mind and matter were understood to stand in opposition, Enlightenment thinkers, with their emphasis on an orderly and harmonious universe, believed in a correspondence between mind and body. A people who shared physical characteristics were also believed to share mental characteristics. Eighteenth-century German philosopher and poet Johann von Herder developed the concept of Volksgeist—the essential spirit of a people. Although Herder wrote of a cultural rather than a racial link between individuals, this notion of essential character could easily be connected to theories of race distinctions. In this vein, it was believed that the character of an individual could be read in the features of his or her head and face—a notion endorsed in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, all of which Sarmiento once claimed to have read. Sarmiento’s essay cites the pseudo-sciences of phrenology (study of the skull to determine character traits) and physiognomy (study of the face and its relation to character) to give evidence for the character of Facundo: “There are, in fact, as is proved by phrenology and comparative anatomy, relations between external forms and moral qualities, between the countenance of a man and that of some animal whose disposition resembles his own” (Facundo, p. 76). Facundo resembles a tiger, in both countenance and character, and since his physical characteristics are certainly beyond his control, one must consider whether Facundo has any choice, in Sarmiento’s view, as to his character. In any case, Enlightenment thinkers did not believe that nature must change, but that it must be controlled by the civilizing force of reason, and it is this control over his natural tendencies that Facundo lacks.

The racism inherent in Facundo and its links to phrenology are more fully expressed in the author’s last, unfinished work, Conflict and Harmony in the Races. In this writing, which was intended as a further elaboration of the theories formulated in Facundo, Sarmiento asserts that primitive peoples “all tend to have the same size cranium and all think the same way; that is, they don’t think, they feel” (Sarmiento in Earle, p. 166). Sarmiento’s presidential policies of encouraging European immigration to supplant the mestizo, or mixed-race, population further attest to his racist beliefs.

Literary context

Sarmiento is associated with the “Generation of 37,” a Buenos Aires literary society founded by poet and essayist Esteban Echeverria and including such writers as Juan Bautista Alberdi, Juan Maria Gutierrez, Miguel Cane, Vicente Fidel Lopez, and Jose Marmol. Inspired by European revolutionary groups, these young men sought to depose Rosas and to instigate a new era for Argentina through literary and political endeavors. They were influenced by the writings of Enlightenment thinkers George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jeremy Bentham, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill, as well as by the Romantic poets. (While Facundo’s connections to Enlightenment ideas have already been noted, its Romantic tendencies can be seen in its fascination with the figure of the gaucho as a man closer to wild nature and hence innately poetic.) With the notable exception of Alberdi, who was Sarmiento’s literary nemesis, the Generation held largely the same views as those presented in Facundo. Sarmiento is the most widely read member of the Generation, and Facundo is generally considered to be his most important work.

It has been suggested that Sarmiento’s writings were self-serving promotions meant to pave the way to political power, yet Sarmiento never abandoned the ideals expressed in Facundo to further his career. As President, he undertook nothing less than the civilization of Argentina, instituting schools, museums, libraries, a national bank, and a civil legal code. He also favored the interests of European immigrants, whom he believed to be arbiters of civilization, over those of the native-born mestizo population.

Events in History at the Time the Essay Was Written

The Rosas regime, part II

In the years between the death of Juan Facundo Quiroga and the publication of Facundo, Governor Rosas embraced totalitarianism. Every citizen of Buenos Aires was compelled on pain of death to wear a red ribbon, emblematic of support for Federalism and the Rosas regime. All documents, including personal correspondence, had to commence with the phrase, “Long live the Federation and death to the unitarist savages” (Rock, p. 106). The press was censored and the mazorca, Rosas’s vigilante squad, patrolled the streets on the lookout for the slightest infraction. At any time, Rosas could have anyone arrested and subjected to execution, torture, imprisonment, or exile.

Nonetheless, the Rosas regime continued to enjoy peace and a wide base of support, primarily from ranchers and the rural poor. Then, in 1838, Rosas brought Argentina into conflict with France and Britain over issues of tariffs and the rights of French nationals living in Buenos Aires. European ships blockaded the Buenos Aires harbor, crippling the city’s export-based economy and creating an anti-Rosas sentiment amongst those affected. With European support, Rosas’s opponents plotted to overthrow the powerful governor, but soon the British and French, dismayed by losses in trade revenue, pulled up their anchors and resumed normal relations with Buenos Aires, leaving the dissidents to face Rosas alone. The dictator overcame his weakened opposition, and, instituting a large standing army, extended the authority of his government over most of Argentina. Troops from Buenos Aires, under the leadership of Manuel Oribe, expanded the realm of porteno power up to the borders of Chile and Bolivia, reclaimed the territory that is modern Uruguay, and conducted a siege against Montevideo, the city across the bay from Buenos Aires, its competitor in trade, and a stronghold of anti-Rosas Unitarians.

To finance his military expeditions, Rosas sought to monopolize trade by blockading the Parana River against access by other Argentine provinces as well as by Brazil and Uruguay. Eventually this maneuver earned Rosas the powerful opposition that would one day force him to flee to England, where he died in 1877. In 1845, however, as Facundo was being published in Chile, where Sarmiento had been exiled for his opposition to the porteno dictator, Rosas’s power was at its peak.


Upon its publication, sales of Facundo were sluggish despite a rave review from Rosas, who reportedly pronounced it “the best thing that has been written against me” (Rosas in Jones, p. 86). Another favorable review, perhaps little more to Sarmiento’s liking, appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1846, wherein Facundowas praised by the French paper mainly for its picturesque portrayal of an exotic land.

Written by one of the nation’s founding fathers, Facundo has become a staple of Argentine education, and is considered one of the most important texts for understanding Argentine history. It is not, however, an uncontroversial work. Sarmiento’s racial theories as well as what have been called “his creative ways with fact” have been widely criticized (Shumway, The Invention of Argentina, p. 181). When he wrote Facundo, Sarmiento had never been to the pampas he describes so vividly, and critics protested that he based his biography of Facundo on anecdote and imagination, and that it is therefore largely fictitious.

From a literary perspective, Facundo has been characterized as “uneven and sometimes confusing, but rarely dull, rising to the height of poetry on occasion, and always full of energy, keen perception and imagination” (Jones, p. 86). Such a style is well in keeping with Sarmiento’s philosophy of action, that “things have to be done. Whether they come out well or not, they have to be done” (Shumway, “The Essay in Spanish South America,” p. 584). A number of critics think Facundo came out exceedingly well, considering it a literary masterpiece.

So strong was the impact of the essay at the time of its appearance that it instigated a retort; The Gaucho Martín Fierro (also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), written by Jose Hernandez and published during Sarmiento’s presidential term, can be read as a pointed response to Facundo. A long poem detailing the life of one of the “gaucho outlaws” whom Sarmiento depicted as a type, Martin Fierro demonstrates how unjust laws and social conditions benefiting the wealthy landowners and porteno merchants turned the gaucho into an outlaw and drove him beyond the bounds of “civilization.”

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Criscenti, Joseph T., ed. Sarmiento and His Argentina. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Riener Publishers, 1993.

Earle, Peter G. “Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.” In Latin American Wrìters. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.

Jones, C. A. Critical Guides to Spanish Texts. Vol. 10. Sarmiento: Facundo. London: Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1974.

Lynch, John. Argentine Dictator: Juan Manuel de Rosas, 1829-1852. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Mosse, George L. Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. New York: Howard Fertig, 1978.

Rock, David. Argentina, 1516-1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants.3rd ed. Trans. by Mrs. Horace Mann. New York: Hafner Press, 1868.

Shumway, Nicolas. “The Essay in Spanish South America: 1800 to Modernismo.” In The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

_____. The Invention of Argentina. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Slatta, Richard W. Gauchos and the Vanishing Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.