Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
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 the semicivilized gauchos of their own country’s interior. After Argentina became independent, early in the nineteenth century, an army of gauchos, led by Juan Manuel de Rosas, captured Buenos Aires. To symbolize the capture of the city by the country, Rosas’s gauchos tied their horses in front of the Pink House, Argentina’s presidential palace. For twenty-three years, Rosas dominated Buenos Aires, persecuting the intellectual class and forcing everyone to wear red, his favorite color.
One young intellectual, Domingo Sarmiento, went into exile and wrote the book Facundo (1845). In Facundo, the gaucho was criticized as Argentina’s barbaric drawback. The title referred to Facundo Quiroga, a gaucho tyrant who ruled La Rioja Province as head of a gaucho army flying a black death’s-head flag of skull and crossbones. Sarmiento included a blueprint for a new Argentina, in which the gaucho would be tamed or replaced by European immigrants, the pampa fenced, railroads built, wheat planted, and higher-bred livestock introduced. Rosas finally fell in 1852, and Sarmiento and others lived to carry out Sarmiento’s blueprint for a modernized Argentina.
Hernández was born on an Argentine estancia, or large ranch, in Rosas’s day. He grew up among gauchos and Indians and loved their free way of life. He knew the gaucho thoroughly—his speech, folklore, psychology, heart, and soul. He also knew the pampa—its beauty, silence, climate, grass, sunrises, and sunsets. As the day of the gaucho began to wane, and Hernández realized that the antigaucho intellectuals were creating a new Argentina, he decided to tell the dying gaucho’s story, to portray his manly virtues and his once-happy way of life.
The Gaucho Martín Fierro thus tells of the gaucho’s passing. This took place after the 1850’s, when the last wild Indian tribes were being pushed up against the setting sun and the Andes foothills. At the same time, the gaucho was being supplanted by progress in the form of barbed wire, railroads, immigrants, wheat, and the herds of purebred cattle and sheep and thoroughbred horses that have made Argentina famous. In telling the tragic story of Martín and his lost family and lost home, the poem includes many epic themes—the fight against injustice, against governmental power over individuals, and against nature and the yearning for lost freedom and lost loved ones during bitter years of exile in a strange country. It also contains such themes as a temporary flight to the land of a hated enemy and the rescue of a maiden in distress. Drenched with the pampa’s earthiness, The Gaucho Martín Fierro gives pictures of the land and sky, the grass, the birds, and other creatures of the pampa, as well as of the gaucho himself, as symbolized by the redoubtable but bigoted Martín. The poem presents the life cycle of a group of people; the poetic style is brisk and clear, and the language is replete with gaucho vocabulary and flavor of speech. Martín’s character projects itself over the poem: The reader can empathize with him for the loss of his home and family; for the lonely bitterness of his cruel military years fighting the raiding Indians on the far frontier; and for his sadness when he finally returns home to find his cabin abandoned, his wife and children gone, and only one familiar figure in sight, his old cat prowling unhappily around the well. The Gaucho Martín Fierro holds one’s interest throughout most of its stanzas and stands at the summit of Argentine gaucho literature. It attracted attention in Spanish America, Brazil, and Spain, where the noted Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo often read it aloud to his classes at the Spanish Oxford, Salamanca University.
Gauchos no longer roam the unfenced pampas. They are often only peons on a mechanized estancia, but still have nostalgic yearnings for the past. At night, around campfires, they often produce old copies of The Gaucho Martín Fierro, bound in calfskin. Gauchos speak of Martín himself as if he still lives and might, at any moment, flip open the cowhide door flap and walk in to sip yerba maté and sing his sorrows.