The ways in which people differ are not nearly as important as the qualities they share in common; for it is these similarities that bind together men, as well as nations, and act as a spiritual cement.

No groups could be more alike than the horsemen of the New World. The huasos of Chile, the gaúchos of Brazil, the vaqueros of Mexico, the morochucos of Bolivia, the chalanes of Peru, the llaneros of Venezuela and Colombia, and the cowboys of the United States, are brothers under the skin. This is not surprising for, not only did they all get their original horses and cattle from Spain, but they learned their superlative horsemanship from the same source, as well as their methods of branding and handling large herds. The American cowboy, who received these skills second hand from Mexico, adopted the entire equipment of the vaquero—the ring bit the Spaniards copied from the Arabs, the stock saddle, which is merely a slightly modified form of the one the Conquistadores got from the Moors, with a horn added for roping. Even the cowboy’s work-a-day language is generously peppered with Hispanic words. He wears a sombrero, and chaps (chaparreros), his stirrups are covered by tapaderos, and his lariat (from la reata) has a hondo on the end; he rides a bronco when he works a rodeo, and he disciplines his horse with a quirt (from cuarta). His saddle has cinchas, látigos, and alforjas; he calls his string of ponies a remuda, and the equine stock of a ranch a caballada, which he often shortens to cavvy. He has twisted mesteño into mustang, which he uses as the generic term for the descendants of the first horses that came over from Spain. Indeed, about one in every fifteen of the working terms of the cowboy of the Southwest is of Spanish origin.

The Hispanic American cattle-rider, however, antedated the American cowboy by some hundreds of years, because the former began his work in early Spanish colonial days, while the latter only came into being in the 1840s, after the United States acquired the great plains of the Southwest with their thundering herds of wild cattle.

Nevertheless, all these cattle-riders from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle had much the same habits. They lived on horseback and would climb into the saddle if only to cross the street. That the gauchos ranked their horses above women might be inferred from a pampas ballad that began:

“Mi caballo era mi vida,
mi bien, mi único tesoro.”

while the Venezuelan llanero states unequivocally that:

“Mi caballo y mi zamba
se me murieron a un tiempo.
Al diablo la mujer!
Mi caballo es lo que siento.”

in one of his songs.

But their similarities were even more fundamental, for they were all molded, North and South, by the same conditions the frontier and the cattle business imposed on them; and, naturally developed the same characteristics of pride, daring, and fierce independence. Like a fly in amber, folk songs generally preserve the ideas of the people who make and sing them, and this one:

“Argentines don’t wear breeches,
but instead a good chiripá,
bearing an inscription that reads:

gives quaint proof how fanatically the gaucho treasured freedom.

The qualities possessed by these men were necessary to their survival, for the broncos they had to master could, in the picturesque words of an American cowboy, “buck like three epileptic fits roaring inside the skin of one horse”; while the cattle were not the gentle kind Ogden Nash described in his jingle:

“The cow is of the bovine ilk,
one end is moo, the other milk.”

nor did she answer the description in a Department of Agriculture’s bulletin that defined a cow as “a female bovine that has relatively prominent hips, a large middle, and other physical characteristics of mature females.”

Oh, no! These animals were lean, fierce, feral beasts that could run like deer and, in defence of their young, kill a cougar with their long sharp horns.

As an illustration of what the gaucho’s work entailed, in early colonial days great expeditions were organized in Argentina to hunt wild cattle for their hides and tallow. Some had a caballada of a thousand head, and mile-long convoys of oxcarts, lumbering on two huge wooden wheels whose axles screeched for want of grease. For weeks they struggled across the pampas through flood and storms, fighting off Indian attacks, until they came in sight of a wild herd. Then, on their swiftest pingos, the gauchos galloped after it, hamstringing as many cattle as they could with their facones, or medialunas—long reed spears shod with crescents of razor-sharp steel.

When they tired of this cruel business, they stopped for a smoke and a chance to squat on their heels in a circle and pass the maté from hand to hand. Rested, they attacked the bloody task of slitting their victims’ throats and skinning them. This done, fires were lighted of thistles and dried dung over which the fat was melted in great iron pots and then poured into rawhide bags.

At last the tired, blood-soaked men were able to sprawl around their fires, over which whole carcasses were cooking, and gorge themselves with as much meat as they could hold; for meat and maté were their only fare. Finally, weary and lethargic as snakes that had swallowed rabbits, they rolled themselves in their ponchos and went to sleep on the open pampas with their saddles for pillows and their saddle cloths for mattresses.

The only amusements that occasionally broke the monotony were horse-racing, gambling with the taba, the knee bone of a cow, which was used instead of dice, and hunting rheas with the boleadoras—a weapon inherited from pre-Colombian Indians.

When, after six months or a year of this rugged existence, the oxcarts were stuffed full of hides and tallow, the long and arduous trek back to civilization began with all its attendant dangers.

Even the games the gauchos played helped to make them super-horsemen. One favorite sport was for a rider to permit a friend to boleador his horse as he went by at a full gallop; and when the animal turned turtle, its master had to light on his feet like a eat or lose his reputation.

Another game was called “El Pato.” A large number of gauchos gathered at some pulpería and shouted, “Pato! Pato!” until the publican brought out a live duck sewn up in a stout rawhide bag with four strong handles. Each of four riders grabbed a handle and, at a signal, strove to pull the pato away from the others. When one succeeded, he galloped away with the full pack in pursuit, trying desperately to snatch the pato from him. Eventually one hardy horseman would arrive at some rancho agreed upon, with the pato under his arm, and the day would end with a great asado and dancing that lasted the whole night through.

But so many facón fights were sparked as the riders thundered across the pampas in a cloud of dust, and so many hapless sheep and pedestrians were run over and left a bloody pulp on the pampas that a law was finally enacted to stop the game.

Another stunt, La Maroma, has, as far as I know, never been practiced anywhere else. In this the gaucho sat on the maroma, the crossbar that connects the tops of the gateposts of a corral; and, when a dozen or so broncos were driven through the gates at a wild gallop, he would drop on one and ride it to a finish.

The same conditions as existed in Argentina produced like men and methods in Mexico as well as the great cattle countries of South America with, of course, slight regional differences. Along the Río de la Plata, for instance, the gaucho anchored the end of his reata to the cinch-ring of his saddle because it had no horn, while in Venezuela the llanero sometimes braided the end of his lariat into the hair of his horse’s tail as his saddle gear was too flimsy to stand the strain of snubbing a steer. In Mexico and the United States, on the other hand, vaquero and cowboy take a few quick turns with lassos around their saddle horns after they have thrown their noose.

The tough-fibered, indestructible horsemen of the New World produced by these experiences made incalculable contributions to their respective countries. They battled the Indians, pushed forward the frontiers, and made possible great cattle empires. But, even more, they made superb guerrilla cavalry that fought for freedom with fanatic ferocity.

In Argentina and Uruguay they helped repulse the Portuguese invaders in 1771 and to retake Buenos Aires from the British in 1807, and they were the backbone of the armies that liberated their countries from Spanish rule. In like manner, the huasos of Chile shed their blood for freedom, and so did the llaneros of Venezuela and Colombia. Indeed, one wonders whether Bolívar could have been victorious without the help of General Páez and his intrepid llanero lancers.

These patriotic exploits transformed the lowly, illiterate horsemen into romantic folk heroes, whose fame and achievements were spread by payadores of the Río de la Plata, the cancioneros of Mexico, and the cantadores of the llanos of Venezuela and Colombia, who chanted their praises. The completeness with which these riders captured the imaginations of their peoples and stamped their virile virtues on their fellow citizens was indicated by Ricardo Güiraldes when he dedicated his bewitching little classic, Don Segundo Sombra,

“To the gaucho I bear within me,
sacredly, as the monstrance bears the Holy Wafer,”

He further emphasized this point when he made one of his characters say to another:

“You’ve become a man—more than a man, a gaucho!”

The cowboy of the United States found an equally warm niche in the hearts of his countrymen; and his fame has been spread throughout the world by the movies, derisively known as “horse operas,” which are so popular with the young that the manufacture of cowboy suits and toy pistols has become “big business.” Any sunny morning, one may walk New York’s Park Avenue and meet some tot, decked out in full cowpoke regalia, who will draw a shiny gun half as big as he is and, pointing it at you, shout: “Bang! Bang! You’re dead!”—a poor way, I admit, for children to behave.

It was inevitable that, having become folk heroes, these horsemen of the New World should inspire poems, novels, and indeed whole literatures so vital and picturesque that it is unfortunate that space permits only the most inadequate mention. That of Argentina was typical. In colonial days, her authors considered the life around them beneath their pens, and their few novels were, for the most part, vapid, inferior copies of French and Spanish models treating of lords and ladies living in castles; but, after the wars of liberation, the popularity of the songs of the payadores that celebrated gaucho exploits soon taught the urban poets the value of their own people and their ways as literary material. So they forsook European imitation for pampas themes, and some even used the gaucho dialect. Thus was born the first truly indigenous literature of the region, and, for more than a century, many of her best authors wrote of the pampas horsemen. Finally, this school produced its masterpiece in the great epic poem, Martín Fierro, by José Hernández—the most beloved of Argentine classics.

A rich treasury of pampas speech and folklore, it is also an important sociological study, for it portrays accurately, and in detail, the gaucho’s psychology and mores and exposes his wrongs.

When Hernández wrote:

“Lo llaman gaucho ‘mamao’
Si lo pillan divertido
Yque es mal entredtenido,
Si en un baile lo surprenden.
Hace mal si se defiende,
Ysi no, se ve . . . fundido.”

and continued in the same vein

“Es el pobre en su orfandá,
De la fortuna el desecho,
Porque naides toma a pecho
El defender a su raza,
Debe el gaucho tener casa,
Esquela, iglesia y derechos.”

he was fighting the injustices society visited on the pampas’ horsemen, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, aroused the conscience of Americans on the question of slavery, or John Steinbeck, in Grapes of Wrath, angrily exposed the unfair treatment of the itinerant farm workers called “Okies.”

In Venezuela it was the wandering singer of coplas errantes who first aroused an interest in llanero themes—an interest that bore its finest fruit in the great novel, Doña Bárbara, by Rómulo Gallegos. He, like Hernández, was deeply concerned with the condition of his country’s cattle riders and gave masterly portraits of them in his book. The two authors, however, differed in that Hernández focussed his attention only on the gaucho, while Gallegos’ vision was broader, and his concern included the entire gamut of the diseased social and political conditions that afflicted all classes. He tried to arouse public opinion to action by attributing to his amoral heroine, Doña Bárbara, many of the crimes committed by the ruthless dictator, Juan Vicente Gómez. In spite of this, so great was his skill as a novelist that no taint of propaganda ever attached to his books, and Doña Bárbara is universally recognized as one of the truly great pieces of fiction produced in Ibero-America.

In Mexico it was the cancioneros with their corridos who focussed attention on native themes. I remember well the first time I heard a corrido. I was on Pancho Villa’s train during his assault on the city of Celaya and, as I walked along the tracks in the moonlight, I heard the sound of singing and came upon a campfire surrounded by ragged soldiers and their soldaderas—those incredible Amazons, who cooked for their men and with pots and pans and often a baby on their back kept up on gruelling marches; or, if need be, snatched a rifle from a corpse to fight as fiercely as any male. They were listening like fascinated children to three singing cancioneros in charro dress with tight trousers and wide sombreros.

I, too, was enthralled and, after hearing a few verses, was surprised to realize that this was no old folksong, but a fresh-minted account of the battle of the day before that related the conduct of the generals and acts of individual heroism.

It was corridos like this that, taken together, constituted a rough people’s history of the Revolution and expressed their hopes and aspirations. Even more important, they reoriented Mexican authors, weaned them from tales of sentiment and society, and set them to writing of the woes of their own proletariat.

Dr. Mariano Azuela, who had been a surgeon with Pancho Villa’s defeated troops, on their retreat from Celaya to Chihauhua, was the founder of this school, and his stark, ruthless revelation of the mind and mores of the Mexican soldier—Los de Abajo—remains its greatest literary achievement, one not yet equalled by any of the host of poets, novelists, and historians that he inspired. As the ranks of the armies on both sides of the Revolution were composed for the most part of vaqueros, the works of these writers might be classed as a literature of horsemen.

The cowboy played only a regional role in the United States, and for a relatively short period, when compared to the position of national importance occupied over several centuries by the other cattlemen of the continent, so it is to be expected that the literature he sparked is a trifle less sophisticated, less psychological, than that of Ibero-America. Nevertheless, the bulk of it is good, red-blooded adventure; while the best, taken together, forms an interesting regional literature and a thrilling history of the settling of the West in which the forthright human traits of fairness, justice, and courage that Americans treasure, are clearly visible.

The cowboy saga, however, has fared less well in the movies; for it has been bowdlerized in thousands of variations of the same plot in which the brave puncher or sheriff always defeats the wicked gamblers and cattle rustlers after titanic battles, the heroine is always saved and only the guilty suffer or are shot. Nevertheless, the feats of horsemanship are so skillful and the hero’s horse is such a beautiful specimen that they are well worth watching.

These rather puerile standards are being ameliorated, for the movie producers began to fear that their audience for “horse operas” would be limited to children; so they are now making what they call “adult Westerns” of dramatic and historical value to cater to grown-up viewers who love the West and its true saga.

To summarize: there are on this continent large bodies of men that have become a tradition in their various countries and, in spite of language barriers and differences in blood, are as alike as Ford cars. All endured the same hardships, solved the same problems; all fired the imaginations and won the regard of their fellow citizens; all served their countries well, were canonized as hardy folk heroes, and became symbols of daring, virility, patriotism, and fanatical independence; each inspired a picturesque literature.

Men of this ilk can easily understand one another; and nations that have produced such identical types must have much common ground upon which they can meet and act in unison.

In the event of another general war, the future and freedom of the entire globe may well depend upon the mutual trust and concerted action of the countries of this continent; and every way of promoting them should be pursued.

The striking similarities that exist between the Horsemen of the Americas present such a means, for they prove the spiritual kinship of these nations and their admiration for the same fine qualities of courage, independence, and love of liberty that the horsemen of the plains and pampas have inspired in them—qualities that have sparked the unprecedented progress and prosperity of the New World.

Could not these likenesses be made a bridge to better understanding by an intercontinental exchange, in translation, of these indigenous literatures, for they seem best to embody the soul, characteristics, and aspirations of their various nations in a form easily exportable; and, as I said in the beginning, it is similarities, not differences, that act as a spiritual cement to bind together men as well as nations.

Author notes


The author, who has been closely connected with Latin American affairs for many years, was decorated by the Argentine Government for his work in the field of the horsemen of the Americas and the literature they inspired.