In South America there is a local variant on the cowboy theme, namely the gaucho- the cowboy of the pampas. The image of the gaucho is central to Argentine national identity. He is seen as a tough upholder of traditional values, facing adversity in an inhospitable environment.
The seminal work of the gaucho genre is Martín Fierro ,an epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández. Originally published in two parts, El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879)it is a protest against the Europeanizing and modernizing tendencies of president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the urbanization of society . The poem also acknowledges the role of the gauchos in the development of Argentina and it’s independence from Spain.
Written in rural language evocative of earlier folk ballads,Martín Fierro holds a position of unparalleled esteem in Argentina’s heritage and has been much analyzed by later writers including Jorge Luis Borges, who made reference to gaucho culture in a number of his stories.
The gaucho resided outside the region’s growing urban centers and farming settlements. He developed a strong sense of identity and code of conduct, traveling when and where he wanted. He willingly shared his food and lodgings with fellow travelers. When not working, he spent his time drinking maté or alcohol, card playing, and fighting.
The gaucho was the ideal soldier during the wars of independence and the civil wars that followed. This skilled rider could survive off the land, knew the terrain intimately, and was a brave warrior.
The gaucho has come to mean many things to Latin America. He is the romantic image of the past, representing freedom from colonial control and from the urban encumbrances that have come to define the Latin American experience. He could live off of the land with no need for civilization, only his horse, knife and lasso. Not unlike the American cowboy, the gaucho has become idealized and the stuff of myth. No one did so much to create that myth than José Hernandez with his poem Martin Fierro , one of the finest and best-known pieces of Latin American literature.
Scott Van Jacob- University of Notre Dame.