Ricardo E. Rodríguez Molas, Professor of Economic History at the University of Buenos Aires, has written a thorough social history of the gaucho in the Río de la Plata region. He avoids dwelling excessively on the romantic aspects of gaucho life, symbolizing the ideals of self-sufficient independence, but analyzes the gaucho as a definite social and historical figure. Produced by several ethnic, biological, geographic, and economic components, the gaucho was the principal human element on the pampas until the introduction of the barbed wire fence, the windmill, and the telegraph brought civilization and technology.
The gauchos were the explorers and conquerors of the pampas, the first grassland frontiers encountered by Europeans. Most of the early gauchos were of mixed ancestry, the sons of Spanish conquerors and Indian or African women. These horsemen rode through the grasslands hunting wild cattle for their hides and gradually expanding the boundaries of the Spanish Empire by fighting marauding Indians during the early pastoral period. According to Martiniano Leguizamón, the gaucho remains the most original and authentic product of Argentina.
Territorial expansion into the pampas began to follow a certain pattern in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spaniards and creoles staked out tracts of land forming estancias. By the middle of the eighteenth century nomadic Indians, who considered the pampas their land, gathered into large marauding malones (hostile, predatory groups), roaming the countryside and thwarting the estancieros’ efforts to settle the wilderness. The establishment of armed garrisons (fortines) became imperative. The gaucho was indispensable during the long frontier period, not only for his dexterity with cattle, but because he was a brave soldier. Frequently, gauchos were rounded up and recruited into military service to fight the Indians. Military commanders of the fortines often shielded fugitive cattle rustlers and other outlaws because they were valuable fighters.
However, the gauchos’ crude, nomadic life, and their fierce independence antagonized the landowners. Their disregard for the law made them the most persecuted social class in the Río de la Plata. Most gauchos worked periodically on ranches and farms, though these were usually temporary arrangements. Society and the law favored the merchant and the landowner—the gente decente; therefore, the gauchos saw little incentive in honest hard work as a cowhand or peón. For them the wide open pampa with cattle roaming over it presented a much greater challenge. Nevertheless, their life was not glamorous and daring but poor and harsh. Nourishment consisted of yerba mate for breakfast, with a noon and an evening meal of beef and bread. Their clothing was tattered and not really adequate for the often bitter winters of the interior. Even the gauchos’ apparel made them social outcasts.
The gauchos fought well when the British tried to invade Buenos Aires on two occasions. At the dawn of Independence, the Junta of 1810 started a rigorous recruiting drive of “all vagabonds without a known occupation, between the ages of 18 and 40” (pp. 185-186), which included all gauchos unemployed at the time. During the War of Independence against Spain the gaucho proved his worth and exchanged his role as outcast for one as national hero. Through the decades that followed many gauchos served in the army as infantrymen, fighting not only the Spanish but also the Brazilian Empire and the Indians. Conditions under which the soldiers lived were desperately poor.
Juan Manuel de Rosas, a landowner-turned-caudillo, wooed and won the loyalty of the Argentine gauchos, identifying himself with the lowest classes of Argentina. Thanks to his charisma, his troops followed him, much as they had followed the gaucho leader Martín Güemes in northern Argentina during the early years of the War of Independence. After Justo Urquiza defeated Rosas at the Battle of Caseros in 1852, many of the gaucho units were disbanded. It marked the end of an era. During the second half of the nineteenth century European settlers began to arrive in increasingly large numbers; the wilderness was settled; and agriculture began in earnest. The gaucho reverted gradually to the status of a hired cattle hand, which led to his ultimate extinction as a social type.
This book is largely based on primary sources. A valuable appendix of documents has been added. The utility of this volume could have been enhanced by an index, indispensable in a work of this size.