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Vaqueiros, cowboys, from the Portuguese word vaca (cow). Brazilian cowboys have been important figures in the Northeast, the center-west, and in Rio Grande Do Sul, where they are called Gaúchos. The northeastern Sertão (backlands) is a region of frequent drought and thorny Caatinga (scrub forest). Protectively dressed from head to foot in sturdy leather, including breastplates for their agile horses, vaqueiros of the sertão have been adept at finding water underground. In times of extreme drought, vaqueiros worked as bandits and hired guns or migrated out of the region. The decline of the northeastern ranching industry has made the vaqueiro a rare sight today.

In the open tropical savanna of the central states and Roraima, vaqueiros dress simply in cotton clothing and straw hats, and in the past rode barefoot, using a toe stirrup. Their horses are resilient, although until the 1930s in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso and on Marajó Island in the Amazon delta, disease regularly decimated mounts, frequently forcing vaqueiros to use tame steers as replacements.

From colonial times, vaqueiros were instrumental in expanding the Brazilian state into its interior. Cattle drives to distant markets lasted weeks or months, frequently crossing piranha-infested rivers. Salaries on ranches often included one calf in four, permitting some vaqueiros to become small ranchers. By the mid-twentieth century the availability of unoccupied land had declined, while the expansion of rail systems and local meat-packing plants modified the ranching economy, forcing the cowboy into wage labor. Nevertheless, modern vaqueiro work habits have changed little from the past.

See alsoLivestock; Rio Grande do Sul.


Edward Larocque Tinker, Horsemen of the Americas and the Literature They Inspired, 2nd ed. (1967).

Lú cio De Castro Soares, "Vaqueiro de Marajó," José Veríssimo Da Costa Pereira, "Vaqueiro do Rio Branco," Maria Fagundes De Sousa Doca, "Vaqueiro do Nordeste," and Elza Coelho De Souza, "Boiadeiro," in Tipos e aspectos do Brasil, 10th ed. (1975), pp. 65-66, 68-70, 267-268, 457-458.

Richard W. Slatta, Cowboys of the Americas (1990), p. 199.

Additional Bibliography

Bell, Stephen. Campanha Gaú cha: A Brazilian Ranching System, 1850–1920. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Cascudo, Luís da Câmara. Vaqueiros e cantadores. São Paulo: Global Editora, 2005.

                                               Robert Wilcox