Martín Fierro (mahr-TEEN FYEH-rroh), the central character. He sings of his misfortunes and adventures on the Argentine pampa (open plain), where he can live by his skills and enjoy nature’s beauty. Born to sing, he celebrates the life and character of the gaucho, whom he typifies. He is fearless and quick in a fight, and he is truthful in speech. His greatest joy is to live free. The life of the gaucho is not easy. Fate and corrupt officials are responsible for the many injustices he and his kind have suffered. His own misfortunes began when a judge took him from his wife and children, sending him away to the army to fight the Indians. Forced to perform hard labor without pay and treated brutally by those in charge, he deserts after two years, returning home to find his family and possessions gone. He soon kills a black man in a barroom brawl, then a drunken bully. With his new companion, Cruz, he sets out for the wildlands, breaking his guitar as a final gesture.
Cruz (crewz), who, with several other policemen, attempts to arrest Martín for murder. Admiring Martín’s bravery, Cruz helps him escape. A gaucho himself, he too has endured many hardships with an unbroken spirit. Like Martín, he enjoys the freedom of the outlaw life and is convinced that the gaucho is persecuted and doomed to suffer unremitting hardships. It is better, he says at the end, to wander free in the highlands.
Martín Fierro, whose fortunes have not improved; his songs sustain him. Now he tells of his life among the Indians, his friend Cruz with him. Although the Indians are skilled hunters and fighters, they are lazy, ruthless, and brutal. They treat women and children with savage cruelty. Gallantly, Martín rescues a woman in the desert, killing the Indian who has beaten her and slaughtered her infant. When he meets two of his sons after ten years away from them, he displays a fatherly regard and gives them advice that reflects his own principles: be a good friend; hold firm to faith in God; be good to the poor and aged; do not look for trouble; be truthful, lawful, and hardworking; treat women with respect; and sing always from the heart. He is proudest of his minstrel skills and wit, which he displays in a singing match with a black man, who turns out to be the brother of the black man he killed. A fight is averted—perhaps age and experience have tempered his fiery spirit. The wildlands beckon again, so he bids his companion farewell and goes on his separate way.
Cruz, who lives with Martín in captivity for two hard years among the Indians. His humanity is evident in his tending of an Indian chief stricken with smallpox. This charitable act costs Cruz his life, for he contracts smallpox himself and dies.
The oldest son of Martín Fierro
The oldest son of Martín Fierro, who tells Martín of his childhood spent in extreme poverty and of his years in prison, falsely accused of murder. Like his father, he remains strong in spirit and independent, going his separate way with his father’s advice.
The second son of Martín Fierro
The second son of Martín Fierro, who had his inheritance taken away by a crooked judge. The judge also placed him in the care of a scoundrel of a tutor, who cruelly mistreated him. The son does not abandon him as the old rascal is dying. Left homeless and poor, he falls...
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for a widow, who gives him a hard lesson in unrequited love before he is shipped off to the army. After his sad tale is told, he sets off on his own with a new name.
Don Vizcacha (veez-KAH-chah), a mangy, drunken, thieving, cowardly wife-murderer who is put in charge of the second son. His advice on how to survive in a ruthless world contrasts sharply with Martín’s: Be selfish, sly, and suspicious of everyone, and keep the knife ready. His wickedness catches up with him at last as, raving and cursing God, he expires.
Picardia (pee-KAHR-dee-ah), whose life has been one of gambling and cheating. When he learned that he is Cruz’s son, he mended his ways in honor of his father and joined the army. In the end, he goes his separate way with a new name and a better understanding of honor and virtue.
Martín Fierro is a gaucho, born and raised on the rolling plains of Argentina. A gaucho is a mixture of the Spaniard and the Moor, transplanted to South America and mixed again with aboriginal Indians. He is God-fearing, brutal, superstitious, ignorant, lazy, and kind. His type is a passing one, but while he roams the plains he is a legend. Martín plays his guitar and sings his songs, songs that tell of his unhappiness and the sorrows of the gaucho all over the land.
Martín has a home and a wife and children to comfort him. He owns land and cattle and a snug house. He rides the plains and lives in peace with his neighbors. Then officers appear to take Martín and his neighbors away from their homes and families to serve the government in wars with the Indians. Martín is among those chosen because he did not vote when the judge was up for election, and the judge says that those who do not vote help the opposition. The government promises that the gauchos will serve only six months and then be replaced. Martín takes his horse and clothes and leaves his wife and children.
The men live in filth and poverty. Complaints bring a staking out and lashes with leather thongs. There are no arms; the colonel keeps the guns and ammunition locked up except when the Indians attack. The Indians come and go as they please, killing, plundering, and taking hostages. They pull babies from mothers’ arms and kill them for sport. The Indians are not much worse than the officers, however. The men have no pay, no decent food. They wear rags, and rats crawl over them while they sleep.
At last, Martín escapes and returns to his home. There he finds his wife and sons gone, the house destroyed, the cattle and sheep sold by the government. Martín swears revenge and sets out to find his sons. He is soon in more trouble. He kills a black man in a fight. Another swaggering gaucho picks a quarrel and Martín kills him. These killings bring the police after him. They track him down and are about to kill him when one of their number joins him in fighting the others. Cruz, his new friend, fights so bravely that the two of them drive off or kill their attackers.
Cruz, telling Martín his story, sings it like a true gaucho. He lost his woman to the commandante of the army and so left his home. He, too, killed a man and was hunted by the law until an influential friend got him a pardon and a job with the police, but Cruz has no heart for the police. Seeing Martín prepared to fight against great odds, he decides to join him. The two resolve to leave the frontier and go to live among the Indians.
Martín and Cruz travel across the desert to the land of the savages. Before they can make friends and join a tribe, they are captured by a raiding party. For two years, they suffer tortures inflicted by the Indians; then they are allowed to pitch a tent and live together, still under guard. They have to ride with the savages on raids against the Christians. When smallpox ravages the tribe, Cruz gives his life by nursing a chief who has been kind to them.
Martín is alone once more. At last, he escapes from the Indians. He rescues a white woman who had been beaten with the bowels of her own baby son. After weeks of weary travel, they return to the plains, where Martín leaves the woman with a rancher and goes on his way. He knows by then that even the evils of the government are better than life with savage Indians.
Martín, returning to his homeland, learns that he is no longer wanted by the government. The judge who put him into the army is dead, and no one any longer cares about the black man and the gaucho he killed in fair fights. In his new freedom, he goes to a racing meet and there is reunited with two of his sons. From them, he learns that his wife is dead and that they had also been tortured and cheated by the government.
The older son sings his song first. He had been arrested and convicted for a killing that he did not do. Beaten, starved, abused, he spent a long time in the penitentiary. In his loneliness, he had had no friend to share his woes. He cautions all who hear his tale to keep away from the law, for the law is not for the gaucho.
The second son sings his song. An aunt died and left him some property. The judge appointed a tutor who robbed the boy of his inheritance and beat him and starved him. Penniless, Martín’s second son roamed the land like a tramp until he was sent to the frontier with the army.
Father and sons sit singing and talking, when a stranger named Picardia appears and sings his song. Like the others, he was sent to serve in the army and endured the tortures of the wicked officials. At the end of his song, Picardia tells Martín that he is the son of Cruz, Martín’s old friend. The friends celebrate the meeting with wine and song. While they sing, a black man joins them. He and Martín hold a singing match, a common thing among the gauchos. The African American sings that he is the brother of the black man Martín killed long years before, and that he will avenge the death. Before they can fight, other gauchos step between them and send Martín, his sons, and Picardia on their way.
They ride only a short distance together, then separate to seek new lives, each man alone. Before they depart, Martín gives the young men some advice out of his own experience. He tells them to be true to their friends, to give every man his due, to obey the law, and to never cheat. If ever a woman should win their hearts, they must treat her well and be true. The four scatter, each one taking a new name from that day on. Martín, ending his song, commends his words to gauchos everywhere, for they come from the wisdom of an old man. Then he lays down his guitar, never to sing again.
Carilla, Emilio. La creación del “Martín Fierro.” Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1973. In Spanish. A broad-based study of The Gaucho Martín Fierro that covers the author’s life and the major themes of the poem.
Franco, Jean. An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Pages 77-82 relate the poem’s plot and demonstrate how Hernández’s masterpiece transcends the regional dimensions of the pampas to become a universal myth.
Lindstrom, Naomi. “Argentina.” In Handbook of Latin American Literature, edited by David William Foster. 2d ed. New York: Garland, 1992. Shows that, despite its harsh criticism of the contemporary Argentinian government’s policy of waging war on the Indians in the pampas, this novel did not slow the campaign to convert the pampas to fenced private property.
Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Compares the poem to José Mármol’s novel Amalia (1851), and shows how the former projects an epic view of the Argentinian nation as rooted in the ruggedness of the gaucho way of life.
Vogeley, Nancy. “The Figure of the Black Payador in Martín Fierro.” College Language Association Journal 26, no. 1 (September, 1982): 34-48. Compares the unfavorable depiction of the black singer in The Gaucho Martín Fierro with the favorable depiction of the gaucho.