Although it is not well known in the English-speaking world, the tale of Martín Fierro has had great popularity in the South American countries, particularly in Argentina. Fierro gave hope to a people long oppressed by the government and cheated by corrupt officials. He became a legend, and his tale was repeated over and over again. José Hernández himself was identified with his hero, and everywhere he went he was idolized as the spokesman for the gaucho. It is said that much of the romantic appeal of the poem is lost in translation; nevertheless, the English version is musical, vigorous, and exciting.
The Gaucho Martín Fierro is the poetic epic of the gauchos who settled the rich Argentine pampas. An ocean of land, pancake flat, the pampa has fertile brown soil and may be the only area on earth where one can yoke oxen to a plow and slice a furrow for six hundred miles without turning up a stone. Before the Spaniards arrived, it was peopled by warlike, nomadic Indians. Its deep grass supported birds and ostriches; its only tree was the rugged ombu, later sung about by Argentine poets, including Hernández. Cattle and horses introduced by the first Spaniards increased at an amazing rate around the port town of Buenos Aires, on the ocean’s edge, and a cowboy type known as gaucho began to ride the plains near the town. Slowly, the first gauchos pushed inland, rolling back the Indians, thus starting what was to be their historic role of settling Argentina. Gauchos also settled the “purple land” of Uruguay and the extensive Brazilian pampa of Rio Grande do Sul, but in Argentina they built a nation.
Usually of Spanish or mestizo blood, the gaucho lived on horseback in his sea of grass. He ate only meat, sometimes killing a steer simply to eat its tongue or to have a seat. He was nervous, restless, and almost always in motion. His weapons were a huge knife and the bolas that he twirled to capture steers or ostriches. His games were rough and on horseback; he was tough and ignorant and despised city folk. He drank “Paraguay Tea,” or yerba maté, and danced the tango. His literature was the so-called gaucho poetry, redolent of the pampa, that was sung around campfires at night by illiterate minstrels known as payadores. The payador was a medieval European minstrel of Spanish origin, transplanted to the New World, his songs comprising a new, regional literature describing the various types of gaucho, such as the outlaw, the tracker, the tamer of horses, the lover, or the storyteller. This literary genre was to tinge all Argentine literature centuries later, even the drama, and from it came The Gaucho Martín Fierro.
A dichotomized Argentina grew during three centuries of colonialism under Spain. White bread was eaten only in “the Port,” Buenos Aires, where an urban class dressed in European style and had more contact with Europe than with...
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