Gaucho, the cowboy of Argentina and Uruguay. Gauchos played an important historical role in the Río de la Plata and remain important cultural and political symbols. Gauchos, first called gauderios, emerged as a distinct social group of wild-cattle hunters during the early eighteenth century.
Gauchos believed in common access to the pampa's resources: land, water, and livestock. During the colonial era the vast herds of wild cattle and horses on the plains seemed inexhaustible. Gauchos scorned or were ignorant of remote government officials who tried to monopolize the killing of cattle. They fled from or resisted official attempts to dominate, direct, and draft them.
The gaucho adopted much of his equestrian subculture from Indians of the pampas. He customarily wore a poncho, a Chiripá (baggy, diaperlike pants) held up by a stout leather belt (tirador), and on his feet homemade boots (Botas De Potro) and iron spurs. He armed himself with the Boleadoras and a swordlike knife (Facón).
Colonial and early-national-period officials viewed the gaucho as an unlettered, uncivilized barbarian, not significantly superior to the Indians of the pampas. Only a shallow, superstitious acquaintance with the symbols of Catholicism separated the gaucho, in the official eye, from the "savages" of the plains. Gauchos became the targets of vagrancy and military conscription laws designed to end their free-riding lifestyle.
Conscripted gauchos fought against Indians on the frontier, the British who invaded Buenos Aires and Montevideo in 1806 and 1807, and the Spanish royalist forces during the independence wars. José Gervasio Artigas ably led his gaucho army in Uruguay. His military service somewhat improved the gaucho's image and gave him a reputation for valor and patriotism. The word "gaucho" became less an epithet than a description of the ranch worker who rode horses and tended cattle.
Gauchos worked seasonally on ranches (Estancias), rounding up and branding cattle. Some gauchos, such as the Domador (broncobuster) or Baquiano (scout), earned higher wages because of their special skills.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the landed elite and Europeanized politicians gradually subdued the gaucho and radically changed his life. More restrictive laws, new technology, and a diversified rural economy marginalized the gaucho.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the gaucho began a transition from the realm of history into folklore and literature. Many important writers of Argentina and Uruguay made the gaucho the focus of their work. Following the pioneering poetry of Bartolomé Hidalgo and Hilario Ascasubi, writers including José Hernández, Benito Lynch, Leopoldo Lugones, Ricardo Güiraldes, and Jorge Luis Borges honored the gaucho in poetry and prose. Today calling someone or something "very gaucho" remains a compliment.
Fernando Assunção, El gaucho (1963).
Ricardo Rodríguez Molas, Historia social del gaucho (1968).
Madaline Wallis Nichols, The Gaucho (1968).
Domingo F. Sarmiento, Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants, translated by Mary Mann (1971).
Richard W. Slatta, Gauchos and the Vanishing Frontier (1983).
Richard W. Slatta, Cowboys of the Americas (1990).
Assunção, Fernando O. Historia del gaucho: El gaucho, ser y quehacer. Buenos Aires: Editorial Claridad, 1999.
De la Fuente, Ariel. Children of Facundo: Caudillo and Gaucho Insurgency During the Argentine State-Formation Process (La Rioja, 1853–1870). Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
Goldman, Noemí, and Ricardo Donato Salvatore. Caudillismos rioplatenses: Nuevas miradas a un viejo problema. Buenos Aires: Eudeba, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad de Buenos Aires, 1998.
Richard W. Slatta
gau·cho / ˈgouchō/ • n. (pl. -chos) a cowboy of the South American pampas.