Gaucho Literature

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gaucho Literature

The following entry discusses the literature depicting life on the Pampas in Argentina and Uruguay from the 19th and early 20th century.

Often considered the national literature of Argentina, “gaucho literature” is the name given to a broad category of written works—from traditional ballads to novels, plays and poetry—that illustrate the gaucho tradition of the Pampas. Possibly derived etymologically from the native Quichara or Aimará tribal word huajcho, meaning “orphan” or “poor person,” the gauchos were a politically repressed, then eventually romanticized, culture of people coming from a wide-ranging mix of mestizo, indian, black, Jewish, immigrant, and white backgrounds. Over time, these mostly free-ranging horsemen, who eventually were forced to make their livings working on the vast ranches of the Pampas, established a folkloric tradition that would serve to inspire myriad works of literature in the region.

In Argentina today, the gaucho is synonymous with an image shared with that of the American cowboy, and in many ways their cultural roots are similar. As members of an independent class of people that made a living working with the countless herds of cattle, the rugged gaucho has achieved mythical proportions in the urbanized atmosphere of modern-day Argentina as wild adventurers possessed with a sage-like earthy wisdom. But their true origins are much more complicated and wrapped in the history of the Argentine interior. A racial fusion of newly arrived settlers and native peoples were the genesis of the gaucho, who strove to survive on the harsh, dry landscape of the Pampas—an expansive plain extending for 1600 miles from the Paraná River in Uruguay south to the south-central region of Argentina. The early gauchos lived in clustered villages throughout the region, herded cattle and were among the defenders in the repulsion of the English invasion of 1806-1807, and the rebellion against Spanish rule in 1809-1816. Upon the independence of Argentina in 1816, a new effort was made to colonize the interior, which in turn helped to give rise to the ranches that sprang up over the landscape over the following half century. It was this collision of cultures that gave the gaucho literary movement its true impetus starting as early as the 1850's.

In 1845 Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a future president of the Argentine Republic, released his consequential prose work on politics and social work in Argentina, Facundo, o Civilización i barbarie or, in English, Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants. In Facundo, he condemned the gauchos as dangerous bandits and urged urban dwellers to settle the pampas en masse so as to reduce gaucho control of the region, neglecting their contributions to Argentina's independence. The book, widely circulated and influential in the densely populated coastal cities, pressed a dark stereotype upon the gaucho in the impressionable eyes of many Argentines who had no knowledge of the Pampas outside of Sarmiento's censures. As a direct result of Sarmiento's efforts, barbed wire fences, farmers and huge ranches began to obstruct the open ranges that the gauchos had become accustomed to, forcing many to alter their lifestyles and find work on the ranches. More troubling however were the increasing oppressive dictums and conditions the gaucho found himself forced to endure—such as conscription (forced military service), latifundism (the land/estate entitlement of the powerful), corrupt and antagonistic local officials, as well as a difficulty in acquiring passports to move about the country.

Prior to these dramatic changes to their lifestyle, gaucho literature existed solely in two nascent forms: the narrative folkloric ballads sung by travelling payadores and the pulp novels written by non-gauchos that were popular in the cities. But with the release of José Hernández's epic El gaucho Martín Fierro (1872; The Gaucho Martín Fierro ), the gaucho literary movement...

(The entire section is 1,658 words.)