The Gaucho Martín Fierro

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The Gaucho Martín Fierro

by José Hernández

THE LITERARY WORK

The first of two poems set in rural Argentina in the latter half of the nineteenth century; published in Spanish (as El gaucho Martín Fierro) in 1872, in English in 1935.

SYNOPSIS

The gaucho Martín Fierro is conscripted into the military and treated unjustly He deserts, becomes an outlaw, and teams up with a man named Cruz. Together they seek refuge among the Indians.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

José Hernández published only two poems: The Gaucho Martín Fierro and The Return of Martín Fierro. The Gaucho Martín Fierro, popularly known as La ida (The Departure), protested the unjust laws and social conditions that forced the gaucho to become an outlaw and led to the demise of his rural way of life. Hernández, who grew up among gauchos on the cattle ranches of Argentina where his father worked as an overseer, committed himself to righting the wrongs they suffered. In addition to producing this poem, perhaps the most widely read piece of Argentinian literature, Hernández supported the gauchos’ cause as a political activist, a soldier, a government official, and a journalist.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The rise of the gaucho

The Gaucho Martín Fierro takes place in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when gauchos as a recognizable social group were on the decline. In a few short years, the gaucho would be a semi-mythical figure of the past. But who was the gaucho and how did he live before his world began to disintegrate?

Spanish explorers and settlers who arrived in what is now Argentina, beginning in the sixteenth century, brought with them cattle and horses. Some of these animals either escaped from or abandoned the herd, then found their way onto the pampas, the vast, flat grasslands of central Argentina that extend from the Andean foothills to the Atlantic Coast. The European animals thrived and reproduced rapidly, multiplying into huge wild herds that roamed the pampas, where they fed on ample grasses. Gauchos were the men of the pampas who exploited these herds, taming and riding the wild horses and slaughtering the cattle. In contrast to the vaqueros, or legitimate cowboys, the gauchos were illegal hunters who met the demand for contraband trade to circumvent what colonists felt were unreasonable restrictions placed on them by Spain. Popularly, the gauchos gained a reputation for being cunning as well as passionate and highly independent.

Selling hides and tallow to European traders in the eighteenth century, the gauchos survived on an almost exclusive diet of beef. They typically lived in huts roofed with straw, using cattle skulls as chairs and hides on the floor as beds. Gaucho clothing consisted of a poncho over a chiripá, coarse cloth that reached to the knees and was tied at the waist with a sash. The headgear included a headband covered by a narrow-brimmed hat with a strap that fell under the chin. A neckerchief and a long knife, worn in a leather sheath, completed the outfit. Ethnically, most gauchos were probably mestizos (descendents of unions between Europeans and natives), but some were black, some white, and some mulatto (of black and white unions). Hernandez’s poem refers to Martín Fierro not as a mestizo, but as a criollo. The term for a white child born in the Americas of European parents, cnollo also had a looser meaning—it referred to a person who deserves admiration. People credited the criollos with having won independence for Argentina from Spain and for taming the pampas.

Gauchos spent so much time on horseback that others spoke of them as half-man, half-horse, and they were rumored to be permanently bow-legged when out of the saddle. Free of possessions, they owned neither the animals nor the land that they used. They grew into a sizeable group, comprising about one quarter of the Argentinean population prior to the 1870s. But their heyday was short-lived. As a separate class, the gauchos existed for only about 100 years, from 1775-1875.

THE PAMPAS

“The vastness of the horizon, which always looks the same as we advance, as if the whole plain moved along with us, gives one the impression of something illusory in this rudereality of the open country.…It is the pampa, the land where man is alone, like an abstract being that will begin anew the story of the species—or conclude it.”

(Martinez Estrada, pp. 6-7)

There were gaucho families on the pampas, with women who worked not on horseback, but at domestic tasks: raising children, cooking, cleaning, sewing, and weaving. Because of the lack of clergy on the pampas and the expense and trouble of obtaining a civil ceremony, legal gaucho marriages were rare. Instead, rural men and women performed rituals to establish common-law marriages in the eyes of the community. These rituals failed to satisfy the Church or State, however; children of these unions were regarded as illegitimate, which may explain one in-terpretation of “gaucho” as being “without a known father” (Carrino, Carlos, and Mangouni in Hernández, p. 93).

The rise of the estancia

By the end of the eighteenth century, the fertile pampas countryside surrounding Buenos Aires and the free herds that roamed it had become private property. The eastern pampas were now divided into estancias, huge ranches that each covered hundreds of square miles. These large tracts of land were the currency with which politicians bought support, so that a few powerful families owned virtually everything—a situation known as latifundismo.

Gauchos, who were no longer free to use the herds as they wished, were hired by the estancieros, owners of the vast estancias, as legitimate ranch hands, to tend the animals they knew so well. On the surface, the life of the gaucho changed little. The estancias were not fenced until 1845, and until then gauchos, for the most part, went where they pleased and picked up work only when they wanted it. Although technically illegal, use by a gaucho of ranchers’ cattle was common, so that he never lacked meat or hides.

In this period, gauchos lived in mud huts or lean-tos on or near estancia land, and frequented pulperias, all-purpose inns that served as general store, bank, bar, restaurant, and all-around social center. European visitors to the pampas commented on the wretched nature of gaucho dwellings, which were overrun by vermin and, on the wood-poor pampas, furnished with items made from the bones of cattle, a touch that Europeans found macabre. Gauchos were reputed to be lazy and shiftless because they seemingly put so little effort into the betterment and upkeep of their homes, yet they had little incentive to improve their land or dwellings since they did not own them and could be evicted at any time.

In his leisure hours the gaucho was said to be fond of gambling, drinking, and playing the guitar. He was never without his facón, his sheathed knife up to 27 inches long that served as a work tool, eating utensil, and weapon. Such a fearsome implement could not have softened his image in the popular imagination of the day, and the representation of the gaucho that comes down to us in literature is that of a wild ruffian living on the fringes of civilization. It is difficult to say to what extent this stereotype is accurate, or what position the gaucho held in the estimation of the peasant populace: gauchos, and the peasant population in general, were largely illiterate, and did not leave a written record of themselves or their point of view. But some evidence can be gleaned from other sources; we do know, for example, that knife-fighting was so common among gauchos that the carrying of façons was repeatedly outlawed.

The estancia was primarily a male world. Ranch hands were discouraged from bringing women and children onto the estancias; many estancieros hired only single men or required workers to leave their families elsewhere. Some women did find employment in estancia homes in traditionally female jobs—working as cook, maid, or wet nurse—and these women received wages that equalled or surpassed those earned by ranch hands. At times women even worked alongside men shearing sheep. Generally, however, the gauchos themselves held sexist views regarding women. A horse ridden by a woman, for example, was considered unfit for a man to ride because a woman’s leniency would make the animal unmanageable—and no “real” man would even consider riding a mare.

Buenos Aires and Argentina

For most of the nineteenth century Argentina was a land of separate, self-governing provinces, sometimes united but more often disunited. The first government of the Río de la Plata region to claim independence from Spain was established in Buenos Aires in 1810, and claimed authority over a vast territory, including what is now Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia. The outlying areas soon broke away to form their own republics, leaving present-day Argentina unto itself. But disunity persisted, with the provinces in Argentina resisting the hegemony of Buenos Aires. In fact, Argentine history can be roughly understood as a struggle between the wealthy city of Buenos Aires—with its pretensions to European culture—and the rural rest of Argentina.

Buenos Aires is the name of both a city and of the province that contains it. The province contains some of the most productive farmland in the world. Located just off the Atlantic Coast, the city of Buenos Aires has always been Argentina’s largest and most prosperous. In the nineteenth century its citizens, known as porteños, received an influx of immigration, capital, and culture from Europe that boosted the great pride they took in their European heritage.

The conflict between the city and the countryside is reflected in the two major political factions of nineteenth-century Argentina: the Federalists and the Unitarians. In general, Unitarians can be identified with Buenos Aires; Federalists, with the rural provinces. The Unitarians were the educated elite of Buenos Aires who favored bringing the provinces together under a strong centralized government that they themselves would control. They thought of themselves as the arbiters of “civilization,” that is, of society based on current European models and directed by people of European descent. Unitarians were notoriously racist elitists who looked down on anything that came out of Argentina as inferior to the products and people of Europe. On the other hand, the Federalists supported autonomy for the provinces. This could mean championing the rights of the countryside and its largely impoverished population against domination by Buenos Aires, which was the brand of federalism to which the author of The Gaucho Martín Fierro, José Hernández, subscribed. It could also mean autonomy for Buenos Aires from the surrounding provinces, a position to which a strong faction of the city subscribed. This vigorous federalist movement flourished in Buenos Aires among those who wanted to maintain their exclusive grip on the lucrative commercial trade flowing in and out of the city’s port and who did not want to be taxed to support the less economically viable provinces.

One such porteño Federalist was Juan Manuel de Rosas, governor of Buenos Aires from 1829 to 1852. Rosas was a wealthy landowner of Buenos Aires province and a federalist caudillo, a local strongman who attracted the support of gauchos and Indians and who was portrayed by Unitarians as a barbaric warlord. Despite his Federalist political stance, Rosas effectively dominated what was then known as the Argentine Confederation by controlling the nation’s trade and foreign affairs. He maintained his power through a combination of popular support, from wealthy landowners as well as the rural poor, and repressive measures carried out by the military, which was a constant presence in the streets of Buenos Aires during his rule. The Gaucho Martín Fierro is set sometime after the Rosas dictatorship, and the titular character likens the brutal treatment he receives at a frontier garrison to the injustices dealt out at Palermo, Rosas’s headquarters, where Rosas’s enemies were tortured and executed. Although he was a Federalist, José Hernández did not support Rosas’s authoritarian porteño Federalism.

General Justo José de Urquiza, Federalist caudillo of Entre Ríos province and provincial military commander under Rosas, rebelled and defeated Rosas’s troops at Buenos Aires in 1852. In 1854 Urquiza became President of the Argentine Confederation and installed a puppet governor to lead Buenos Aires province. Buenos Aires overthrew this governor and declared itself independent of the Confederation, after which the two governments fought against each other until the Confederation disintegrated in 1861. Buenos Aires assumed dominance over Argentina once again, this time as the seat of a constitutional national government with Bartolomé Mitre as President.

Opposition to the national government flared in the provinces, and federalist caudillos rose to challenge the dominance of Buenos Aires. José Hernández, who had fought under Urquiza, wrote an exalting biography of federalist caudillo General Angel V. Peñaloza, the leader of a remote and impoverished province who resisted unification under Buenos Aires and was defeated and killed in 1863. Hernández also fought under Ricardo López Jordán, the last of the great caudillo rebels, and after defeat, followed Jordán into exile in Brazil in 1871. It was in Brazil that Hernández began work on The Gaucho Martín Fierro; he would finish the poem in Buenos Aires when Mitre’s successor decreed a general amnesty.

Sarmiento

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento succeeded Mitre as President in 1868 and held the office until 1874. Sarmiento had gained public attention with his 1848 critique of federalism, Civilization and Barbarism: Life of Juan Facundo Quiroga, in which he sets forth his diagnosis of the ills plaguing Argentina (“barbarism”) and his prescription for a cure (“civilization”) (see Facundo , also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times). In this work the categories of civilization and barbarism are never completely clear, but broadly, barbarism is located in the wild countryside among the gauchos, the native peoples, and the caudillos whose power came from their support. Civilization is centered in the metropolis Buenos Aires, with its strong European heritage and its elite citizens of European descent. Indeed, Sarmiento believed that the only way to civilize the pampas was to import European settlers who would transform the land into an expanse of small farms, displacing the supposedly racially inferior gauchos and Indians. José Hernández was responding to Civilization and Barbarism when, during Sarmiento’s presidency, he wrote The Gaucho Martín Fierro, which locates the source of barbarism not in the gaucho or the countryside, but rather in a corrupt political system benefiting only the Buenos Aires elite.

A massive wave of change swept Argentina in the nineteenth century, transforming it from a backwater colony into a prosperous nation. By mid-century, much had changed, but much remained the same: mule and ox-cart were still the main modes of travel, caudillos still held sway in the rural provinces, bands of indigenous peoples still raided the settlements, and gauchos still roamed the pampas. Fifty years later, at the end of the century, caudillos, the native Indian peoples, and gauchos would all be gone—defeated, pushed aside, or transformed into something more “civilized.” Some of the developments that led to the demise of these groups began long before Rosas’s fall, but it was expressly the campaign of the post-Rosas Unitarian Buenos Aires government to rid Argentina of these last pockets of “barbarism.”

Modernization of the estancia

Back on the pampas, as Europe began to demand more beef and mutton, Argentine estancieros marshalled their forces to meet that demand. In the 1820s ranch owners began importing sheep and English cattle to replace the comparatively scrawny pampas cattle. These new herds could not live on the tough pampas grass, however, and necessitated the growing of feed crops. The gaucho, who always worked on horseback, shunned agricultural labor or “foot work” as demeaning. Indeed, such labor might well have seemed back-breaking and tedious compared to the gaucho’s traditional task of riding the range and taming wild beasts, work that held an element of danger and required a special skill. Thus the estanciero found few gauchos willing to work in the fields; he had to look elsewhere for peasant laborers.

In addition to livestock, estancieros began to import farmworkers from Europe. European immigrants, primarily from Italy and Spain, came to Argentina seeking a better life. They were valued by the Argentine landowning elite because they had no qualms about farmwork, and also because of racist beliefs that their supposedly superior European blood would “purify” Argentina of its American Indian taint. Like the pampean herds, gauchos found themselves replaced by European imports.

In order to keep the new herds pure, estancieros began to fence their lands in 1845. The arrival of fencing meant the disappearance of the vast unbroken landscape in which the gaucho might freely roam. Fewer gauchos were needed to tend tamer herds on fenced land. In short, the gaucho’s traditional work vanished. He found it more difficult to hunt with the fences in place, and estancieros kept a much tighter reign on their profitable European animals than they had on the domestic ones. Yet the gaucho still refused to take up agricultural work. Estancieros had to find other means.

Criminalization of the gaucho

A series of nineteenth-century laws, many of which dealt with the issue of vagrancy, made the terms “gaucho” and “outlaw” synonymous. Gauchos did not own land, so if they were not employed they were considered vagrants. If a rural male could not produce a signed document attesting to his employment, he could be arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to labor without pay on “public works.” In 1822 a law went into effect requiring passports for all those traveling between partidos (counties) or leaving the province of Buenos Aires. Gauchos, who were mostly illiterate, were now subject to penalties if they lacked documentation they couldn’t even read.

The vagrancy laws punished gauchos for maintaining their traditional lifestyle, in which free movement and loose employment relations were important factors. To a certain extent, these same laws benefited the estanciero, who gained the upper hand with gauchos who became his employees. However, the laws also had a coun-tereffect, discussed in the next section, that actually reduced the labor pool on the pampas.

Conscription of the gaucho

From 1806, when its struggles for independence from Spain began, until the publication of The Gaucho Martín Fierro in 1872, Argentina was engaged in continuous warfare. It fought against other nations, but mostly the warfare of this period was internal, constituted by civil strife and conflicts with the country’s indigenous peoples.

The Argentine government had two main sources of soldiers on which to draw. Foreigners who came to Argentina for a better life joined the armies willingly for pay. The other source stemmed from the rural vagrancy laws of the 1800s, which provided the armed forces with a steady flow of gaucho recruits. Several years of service in the army, often without pay, was the most common sentence for gaucho “crimes” of all sorts, and, with the vagrancy laws in place, there was no shortage of gaucho “criminals.” On the frontier, the garrisons, or military outposts from which the government sought to subdue marauding Argentine Indians, were particularly notorious for poor living conditions, lack of pay or even adequate rations for the troops, and brutal punishments for infractions. Corrupt commanders would use the troops for private service, to work their own fields or tend their herds. Conditions for the gauchos were so poor that they often deserted. Some of them even fled to the native peoples they were supposed to combat, joining their raiding parties and engaging in skirmishes against former allies.

Demise of the gaucho

The widespread conscription of gauchos depopulated the countryside, making ranch labor harder to find. Males became scarce in pampean settlements because men were shipped out to the frontier to fight or because they fled such a fate and became outlaws. Long condemned for their “nomadic” ways, gauchos like Martín Fierro were now truly homeless. As outlaw deserters and draft evaders, they were constantly on the run from the law or the recruiter. The only alternatives were to become a farm worker or to move to the city. The gaucho way of life, which centered on freedom and the use of free-roaming herds, was no longer possible; by the end of the nineteenth century the gaucho as independent cattleman of the pampas had disappeared.

The Poem in Focus

The contents

The Gaucho Martín Fierro is a long poem in three voices. It begins as a song sung by the titular character, Martín Fierro. In the course of his adventures, Fierro meets up with Cruz, who tells his own story. The author, José Hernández, finishes the poem.

The poem’s first voice, Martín Fierro, identifies himself as a payador. Payadores were gaucho singers who would improvise lyrics and accompany themselves on guitar. Often they competed with each other in singing contests called payadas. In the initial canto of the poem, Martin Fierro issues a challenge to other singers. Thus his song can be understood as a payada performance, an entry in a contest of competing voices, just as the poem, one among several gaucho-themed poems to appear in nineteenth-century Argentina, was a challenge to other literary “voices” of the time.

Indeed, the issue of voice—that is, whose voice is heard and who speaks for whom—is central to the poem, and, in the first canto, Martin Fierro makes it clear that his voice will not be silenced. “Once I set myself to singin’,/there’s no stopping me,” he warns (Hernández, The Gaucho Martín Fierro, 12.50-51). The subject of his song is sorrow, a product of the “raw deals” he has received (Martín Fierro, 14.108). This is the theme of the poem: the plight of the gaucho in the face of injustice.

After bemoaning his many sufferings and suggesting that through them he has grown wise, Martín Fierro waxes nostalgic for a time when gauchos were “always happy and on good horses and ready to work” (Martín Fierro, 18.207-08). In this golden past, “the gaucho was on his land and safe as he could be” (Martín Fierro, 19.253-54). Martín Fierro is describing the life of a gaucho working on an estancia, or large ranch, where semi-wild herds of cattle and horses were the responsibility of gaucho keepers. But in this situation, while the gaucho might have considered the land his own, he would not have technically owned it.

The present that Martín Fierro bemoans is a time when the gaucho “spends his life/running away from the law” (Martín Fierro, 19.257-58) and “like it or not,/you’ll be sent to the frontier or get tossed in a regiment” (Martín Fierro, 20.280-82). The landless rural population is subject to harsh laws and a corrupt legal system that in effect make poor men outlaws. For slight infractions, or even nothing at all, one can be arrested and made to serve in the armed forces, a common sentence in the world of Martín Fierro.

After the first two introductory cantos, Martin Fierro begins his own story. In the midst of a peaceful life, he is arrested for getting drunk and singing at a party—for using his voice. Martin Fierro realizes the true cause of his misfortune, however: he failed to vote for the judge in the last election, not because he favored the opposition, but because gauchos “don’t give a damn about those things” (Martín Fierro, 23.354). The vindictive judge sends Fierro and several others to serve in the army, but promises them that in six months they will be free. Fierro leaves for a frontier garrison, an outpost from which outlying farms are protected from marauding bands of Indians. He takes one of his horses and all his equipment, leaving behind his woman and his children.

Fierro describes the fort as a “rathole” (Martín Fierro, 24.384) from which release is improbable. Anyone who dares complain or tries to leave is punished severely. Instead of performing military service, the recruits must work the colonel’s fields, a task particularly onerous to the gaucho since he shuns work done on foot (rather than horseback) as demeaning.

When the natives do attack, the gaucho forces are unable to do much with their inadequate equipment—old swords and spears instead of guns—and the substandard mounts the army has issued them. Fierro characterizes the Argentine Indian as a merciless savage who “settles everything/with a spear and a whoop” (Martín Fierro, 27.485-86) and tortures women prisoners. In a pitched battle between the ragtag band of recruits and a fierce Argentine Indian posse, Fierro kills a native in self-defense, referring to this act as a “holy deed” (Martín Fierro, 31.611).

After two years, Fierro has yet to be released or paid for his service. Moreover, the commandant has taken Fierro’s horse for himself, and, on account of a misunderstanding, Fierro is cruelly punished by “staking,” a method of torture in which each of the victim’s limbs is tied with wet leather strips to stakes in the ground and left in the sun. As the leather dries, it shrinks, and the victim’s limbs are pulled tighter and tighter. The incident that brings Fierro to this fate is an encounter with a gringo—in Argentine usage an immigrant who speaks poor Spanish. This particular gringo is an Italian immigrant serving in “the regular troops” (Martín Fierro, 40.844), made up of soldiers under contract who were privileged above recruits like Fierro. Fierro ridicules the gringo’s broken Spanish, then describes his contempt for gringo soldiers as a group:

I don’t know why the government
sends to the frontier
a bunch of gringos that don’t even
know how to come up to a horse.

(Martin Fierro, 41.889-92)

Fierro decides to desert. He slips out one night on a stolen horse and returns to his home, where he finds nothing but ruins. He learns that his land and cattle have been confiscated and his sons have been hired out. His wife, Fierro speculates, has taken up with another man who can support her. Fierro determines to become what he has been treated as, an outlaw, swearing to be “as mean as they come” from that day forward (Martín Fierro, 45.1014).

He soon gets a chance to act the outlaw. A homeless drifter, Fierro happens upon a dance where he meets up with old friends and gets drunk. A black couple arrives and, for no reason, Fierro insults the woman and then sings a little song about how “the devil made the blacks/as coal for hell’s fires” (Martín Fierro, 51.1169-70). The black man attacks Fierro with a knife, and the two begin dueling. Fierro kills the black man. The woman starts to cry, and Fierro considers beating her to make her stop, but decides to flee instead. Fierro soon gets into another knife fight, this time with a bullying gaucho in a bar. After severely wounding this opponent, Fierro flees.

Fearing capture, Fierro takes to sleeping out on the pampas, far from human habitation. One night, he is beset by a band of police. He fights them bravely and thus wins the esteem of one of their number, a man named Cruz, who decides to betray his fellow police and join Fierro instead. Cruz and Fierro fend off the rest of the band and then ride off together.

Now Cruz tells his story, which is remarkably similar to Fierro’s. Cruz once had a beautiful wife, whom he adored. The commandant admired her too, and that’s where Cruz’s troubles began. One day he found the commandant and his wife in an amorous embrace. Cruz insulted the commandant, who drew his sword, and, in the ensuing scuffle, Cruz killed one of the commandant’s flunkies who tried to interfere. Thus, Cruz became an outlaw and fled to the pampas. Like Fierro, he got into a knife fight at a dance, seriously wounded a man, and ran away before the law arrived. Eventually he was saved from outlaw status by a friend who knew a judge. The judge made Cruz a police sergeant, a post Cruz is now eager to abandon.

ACCUSTOMED TO VIOLENCE

According to one historian, “having busied themselves from childhood in cutting the throats of cattle, [many gauchos] did not hesitate to do the same with men, and this coldly and dispassionately. They set little value on life, and still less did death disturb them. No one ever interfered in another’s disputes or quarrels…. Gauchos even considered it dishonorable to expose their fellow criminals and not to hide and help them” (Nichols, p, 15).

Cruz suggests to Fierro that the two of them join forces and live as outlaws together. Martin Fierro replies to Cruz that he will head out for Indian territory and live with the heathens rather than continue to skulk around the perimeters of pampa settlements. He would rather live in the wilderness than cling to civilization’s edge. “I know that out there the Indian chiefs/take care of Christians,” Fierro announces optimistically, “and that they treat them like ‘brothers’/when they go there on their own” (Martin Fierro, 87.2191-94). Thus, Fierro will join the “savages” for whom he once felt such contempt.

The author then narrates how Martín Fierro at this point finishes his song by smashing his guitar against the ground, saying of his instrument:

No one else is gonna play it,
you can be damn sure of that;
since no one else is gonna sing,
after this gaucho has sung.

(Martín Fierro, 90.2277-80)

Martín Fierro has lost his voice, smashing it to pieces rather than let it be used by another—yet boldly he asserts that he has had the last word. With this act, he surrenders his voice to the author, who is now left to speak for the gaucho, just as sympathetic elites such as the poet José Hernández must now plead the gaucho’s cause.

Although Fierro has ended his tale, the author lets us know that Cruz and Fierro indeed headed out for the wilds, and that tears streamed down Fierro’s face as he took his last look back at civilization. Maybe the two have been killed in a raid, the author writes, or maybe they are still alive. Society has driven the gaucho away, pushing him into a life of outlawry, wildness, and brutality beyond the pale of civilization. The poem ends on a note of condemnation, having spoken of “wrongs everybody knows about/but no one ever told before” (Martín Fierro, 91.2315-16).

Racism and xenophobia

In the course of the poem, Martín Fierro denigrates and exhibits hostility toward three groups: European immigrants, Indians of the pampas, and people of African descent. This hostility raises a question about racism and the fear of foreigners in nineteenth-century Argentina—how did these forces contribute to the gaucho’s extinction?

by the middle of the nineteenth century, 4,000 immigrants were arriving in Argentina each year from Europe, mostly from Italy and Spain. Buenos Aires elites encouraged European immigration as a means to “purify” the Argentine population of the taint of Indian blood, which many considered racially inferior. Also, to the Unitarians, as exemplified by Sarmiento, Europe represented the source of “civilization”; only through the importation of European ways and ideas would the wild pampas be brought up to the standards of a modern capitalist society. European immigration, in this view, went hand in hand with the modernization of the pampas—with fencing, with farming, with the demise of the gaucho. Gaucho resentment of European settlers is well-documented. This ill will was brutally displayed in the Tandil massacre of 1872, when a band of gaucho zealots swept the pampean countryside before dawn, slaying all the Europeans they could find.

In the military, gaucho resentment of Europeans was based on the fact that, while Europeans joined the army willingly for pay, gauchos were forcibly recruited and often made to serve for years without compensation. In addition to this unjust situation, the Europeans’ lack of frontier experience inspired the gauchos’ contempt. Horses were the privilege of the wealthy in Europe at this time, so the European poor who immigrated to Argentina tended to have little or no experience on horseback. Gauchos, who equated equestrian skill with manliness, thought the Europeans effeminate and weak, “only fit/to live with sissies” (Martín Fierro, 42.915-16), as Fierro judges them.

On the other hand, when Martín Fierro first speaks of the American Indians of the pampas, he characterizes them as “savages,” but he also speaks admiringly of their horsemanship and skill with weapons. The native peoples of the pampas were semi-nomadic hunters who conducted frequent raids against settlements, taking livestock and sometimes abducting women and children. Government policy of the nineteenth century sought to push the natives back further and further, claiming their lands for pasturage and farms for wealthy Argentines. By the early 1880s General Julio Roca had virtually cleared the pampas of its original inhabitants.

This racism prevailed, with few exceptions, among nineteenth-century Argentine intellectuals. Indians were widely viewed as brutal savages, a source, if not the source, of Argentine “barbarism.” Mestizo gauchos (having some Indian blood) were likewise tarnished in the eyes of urban elites, Both gaucho and native were marginalized, dwelling at the edges of “civilization,” of which Buenos Aires was the physical and ideal center. Yet gauchos were forced to fight against the indigenous peoples at frontier outposts.

Another dilemma that beset many gauchos stemmed from their mestizo heritage; they were internally divided between the European and Indian, inhabitants of both worlds and of neither. The ambiguity of this situation is reflected in The Gaucho Martín Fierro, as Fierro both praises and curses the Indians.

The racism displayed toward blacks is only slightly less than that shown toward Indians in the poem. Africans were abducted and brought to Argentina as slaves beginning officially in 1534 and ending in 1813, when the revolutionary government discontinued the slave trade. The institution of slavery, however, persisted until 1861. Dictator Rosas actively sought the support of Afro-Argentines, the so-called “freed slaves,” during his governorship. He managed to gain some support, and the racist Unitarians opposing Rosas exaggerated the role Afro-Argentines played in Rosas’s regime. Blacks were seen by Unitarians as another source of “barbarism,” to be eliminated along with the native peoples and the gauchos, pushed aside by those of European ancestry. In the case of Afro-Argentines, as in the case of Argentina’s Indians and gauchos, this tactic arguably succeeded. Although blacks constituted about 10 percent of Argentina’s population in 1810, by 1887 their numbers had dropped to less than 2 percent, and have continued to drop down to the present day.

Fierro, a wandering outcast stripped of his humanity, lashes out at Indians and blacks in the poem. It is well-documented in history that marginalized groups often turn against rather than aid one another in their common plight. Gauchos, Argentine Indians, and Afro-Argentines were all marginalized groups in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As indicated, there was even internal friction among whites. The European immigrants so wooed by Unitarian elites encountered disdain from cnollos, those born in Argentina, who had to compete with the newcomers for jobs and resources.

The return

In 1879 Hernández published a sequel to The Gaucho Martín Fierro, entitled The Return of Martín Fierro, popularly known as La vuelta. This poem, which is twice the length of its predecessor, describes:

  • Tortures inflicted by the Indians on Fierro and Cruz;
  • Cruz’s death and Fierro’s escape from the cruelty of the Indians;
  • Fierro’s rescue of a white woman and subsequent reunion with his sons;
  • The family’s encounter with Picardia, the son of Cruz;
  • Fierro’s verbal duel with a black man, whose brother Fierro killed;
  • The peaceful denouement in which Fierro imparts sage advice to his sons and Picardia before everyone goes his separate way.

While The Gaucho Martín Fierro was aimed at an urban audience to arouse sympathy for the gaucho’s plight, Hernández addressed The Return of Martín Fierro to the rural population who had actually claimed The Gaucho Martín Fierro as their own. The sequel has a more didactic and condescending tone, and in it Fierro is transformed

ASCASUBI VS. HERNÁNDEZ

In writing The Gaucho Martín Fierro, Hernández responded to critics of his day, like Lucio V. Mansilla, who faulted Argentina’s poets for treating the gaucho only as a laughable character Hernandez set out instead to portray the ups and downs of gaucho life in eloquent language One of his predecessors was Hilario Ascasubi, who in 1851 had published Sento Vega o Los Mellizos de la Flor, a gaucho poem about the payador, or gaucho singer. The poem relates a story that includes dramatic features of gaucho life on the plains. Compare two excerpts by the poets on a common subject of such verse, the Indian attack:

From Santo Vega From Martín Fierro
They charge utter yells
In half-moon formation
Like echoes of hell
Resound, hoarse and confused
Rude trumpets of hide.
And beating their palms on their mouths
Their line charge upon us
What yelling! what a din!
How they spurred in mad career!
The whole tribe united
Charged with wild yells
The devils!… had us already rushed
Like a wild horse troop

(Ascasubi and Hernández in Holmes, pp. 44-45)

from unrepentant outlaw to law-abiding citizen. Between the two publications, Hernández himself had transformed from an outlaw living on the run to a wealthy businessman, landowner, and politician. Accordingly, this later poem called for assimilation and hard work on the part of the gaucho, advising him to “not forget to pay proper respect to superiors and magistrates” (Hernández in Shumway, p. 285). In 1879 Hernández purchased La Plata bookstore, through which he published The Return of Martin Fierro in style rather than as a simple pamphlet, the original format for The Gaucho Martín Fierro.

Literary context

The Gaucho Martín Fierro belongs to a genre of literature known as “gauch-esque poetry,” poetry written in the gaucho’s voice though never written by a gaucho. This genre arose in the Río de la Plata region in the nineteenth century, just as the actual gaucho began to disappear. Gauchesque poets include Bartolomé Hidalgo, Hilario Ascasubi, and Estanislao del Campo.

The genre can be divided into two main branches: poetry that parodies the gaucho as a crude country bumpkin for the amusement of city-dwellers, and populist poetry that champions the gaucho’s cause. The Gaucho Martín Fierro clearly falls into the latter category, and this sympathetic view of the gaucho as symbol of Argentine identity has prevailed. Over time, the gaucho has come to represent Argentinidad, the essence of Argentine character, in much the same way that the cowboy has become a symbol of American identity: both are understood to represent a spirit of independence and tough self-reliance forged in the vast open spaces of the frontier. In Argentina today, to say that someone is muy gaucho is a compliment, tantamount to saying that he or she is the most admirable of persons.

Reviews

The day after The Gaucho Martín Fierro was released, a review appeared in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa describing the poem as a “palpitating story” (Martín Fierro, Introduction, p. 2). The poem was praised by local critics for its accurate use of gaucho dialect and its unsentimental depiction of the gaucho’s plight, but The Gaucho Martín Fierro found its most receptive audience in the countryside. Copies of the hugely popular poem were stocked in the country stores of the pampas, and those who could not read the poem themselves gathered to hear it read. Rumors spread that Martín Fierro was a real person who someday would come riding into town, returned from the Indians. Many Argentine peasants memorized passages, and some made the tale their own, passing it along to listeners as a sung ballad. A century after the poem’s publication, singers in remote areas of Argentina, unaware of any literary source for the song, were still performing versions of The Gaucho Martín Fierro.

It has been argued that The Gaucho Martín Fierro was shunned by the intellectuals of its day, but, in fact, Argentine and other South American intellectuals showed divided reactions to the poem. Renowned Uruguayan critic Juan Maria Torres told Argentinians that “Martín Fierro is a true creation, of which the literature of your country should be proud” (Martín Fierro, Introduction, p. 5). Alberto Navarro Viola, on the other hand, judged the poem to be “an epoch of crimes carefully passed as heroic deeds” (Navarro Viola in Pages Larraya, p. 236).

Martín Fierro gained wider acclaim in the late nineteenth century when Spanish scholars Miguel de Unamuno and Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo took notice of it. In 1913 Argentine writer Leopoldo Lugones likened The Gaucho Martín Fierro ο the Iliad and the Odyssey, commending it as the national Argentine epic. Today, critics disagree as to whether the poem has its primary (or sole) importance as literary art or as political protest, but scholarly attention to The Gaucho Martín Fierro is intense.

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Andrews, George Reid. The Afro-Argentines of BuenosAires, 1800-1900. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.

Hernández, José. The Gaucho Martín Fierro. Trans. Frank G. Carrino, Alberto J. Carlos, and NormanMangouni. Delmar, N. Y.: Scholars’ Facsimilesand Reprints, 1974.

Holmes, Henry A. Martín Fierro: An Fpic of theArgentine. New York: Instituto de las Espanas, 1923.

Mansilla, Lucio V. A Visit to the Ranquel Indians. Trans. Eva Gillies. Lincoln: University ofNebraska Press, 1997.

Martinez Estrada, Ezequiel. X-Ray of the Pampa. Trans. Alain Swietlicki. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Nichols, Madaline Wallis. The Gaucho: CattleHunter, Cavalryman, Ideal of Romance. Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1942.

Pagés Larraya, Antonio. “José Hernández.” In LatinAmerican Writers. Vol. 1. New York: CharlesScribner’s Sons, 1989.

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

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

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

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The Gaucho Martín Fierro

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