The gaucho is not unknown but he remains one of the great silent characters of history, a subject of disapproval in his own time and of propaganda afterward, yet one who has rarely spoken for himself. Richard Slatta has sought to rescue him from his admirers and detractors, and to render him intelligible. The result is an original piece of research set firmly in the mainstream of Argentine history.
The book opens with an obligatory discussion of social origins and etymology. The details remain obscure, but the gaucho emerges into the light of the pampas in the eighteenth century as a man of mixed race who spent his life on horseback, hunting for his subsistence, independent of the state and the estancia, conditioned by his pampa environment and frontier existence. But the economy changed as estancias expanded and began to produce for export and, from the 1840s, to diversify into wool. As rural conditions changed, so did the life of the gaucho. The new economy needed labor; land concentration for some restricted the opportunities of others; and landlords began to define the gaucho as a vagrant and to turn him into a peon.
The process is known in its general outlines and has been the subject of much debate, though not very much research, in Argentina. But Slatta takes the subject forward. Where before there were mere generalizations, he provides new research and original detail. In effect, he writes the history of the gaucho, as distinct from his mere typology, and for the first time enables the story to unfold in a coherent and chronological way. There is also a question of interpretation. As against those who view the history of the nineteenth-century pampa in terms of social collaboration rather than conflict, and in contrast to the Rosista historians who have propagated a variant of this myth, Slatta draws attention to the existence of oppression, exploitation, and strife, and uncovers new evidence of legal restriction, forced military service, and other repressive mechanisms, which the state placed at the service of the landowners.
Harrassed by officials, driven into the estancias, the gaucho was finally surrounded by gringos, the precursors of mass immigration. The response was xenophobic and often violent, as witnessed by the horrific massacre of seventeen foreigners at Tandil in 1872. Slatta tells this story well, though whether Tata Dios was man of the pampas and his bloodthirsty followers were “gauchos” in the sense in which the author has defined the term is far from certain. But it is a dramatic note on which to conclude, and is followed by a final assessment of the enduring myth of the gaucho in Argentine literary culture.
There are one or two gaps in this otherwise comprehensive study. The author says virtually nothing on the recruitment of gauchos into montonero bands—as distinct from state forces—or on the primitive caudillos who led them. His account of the changing agrarian structure would have benefited from reference to the researches of Hilda Sábato and Juan Carlos Korol. But there are compensations in the author’s own researches, presented in a book that is written with due economy of words yet that constantly retains the reader’s interest.