Wherever you have cattle and cattle ranches, you have people on horseback tending to them. They're called by many names: a cowboy in the US; gaucho in Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil; vaqueiro in northern Brazil; huaso in Chile, and llanero in Colombia and Venezuela.
In the great wide plains areas, called pampas, of Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, cattle raising is a primary way of life.
What Are Gauchos?
The men who work the cattle are called gauchos, from the Quechua huachu, which means orphan or vagabond. Spanish settlers distinguished the two by calling orphans gauchos and vagabonds gauchos, but over time the usage melded into gaucho.
Much has been written, fact and fiction, about the legendary gauchos, the wanderers of the pampas. The early horsemen were skilled horsemen, loners, scrabbling out a life on the sun-baked pampas, living off the land and tracking down lost cattle for ranchers, their patrons for whom they also provided protection, and in times of battle, military service.
Their nomadic life meant little time spent at home, which they might have shared with a common-law wife who raised their children. Sons followed their father's traditions. Their clothing reflected their life on horseback: a wide hat, a woolen poncho, long pleated trousers, or loose baggy pants called bombachas and knee-high leather boots. They made their boots by wrapping the hide of a freshly killed calf around their legs and feet. As the hide dried, it took on the form of the foot and leg. They owned nothing of value but their horse and the long knife, the facon, that they kept sharp and handy.
The facon and the boleadora, stones bound in leather strips and used as a lariat to trip cattle or other animals by looping it around their legs.
They had no way of preserving meat, and after butchering a cow would cook it immediately over an open fire. This was the beginning of the Asado, still popular today. Meat and maté were the mainstays of their diets and the brewing and consumption of this herb called yerba maté were several times a day ritual.
It wasn't always so. In the beginning, they were looked down on as lower-class, mestizos, but when the wars of independence against Spain began, and commanders looked for able-bodied men, the gauchos were called into service and commanded the respect of the military. Today, in Argentina, June 16 is a holiday, celebrating the gaucho contribution to the War of Independence.
Back then, as settlements grew in the interior of the country, the gauchos resisted encroaching civilization. Over time, however, the early gaucho lost his solitary existence and became employed on the great ranches. They settled down, rounded up cattle, mended fences, branded animals and tended sheep. As their way of living changed, the legend of the gaucho grew.
Are Gauchos Still Relevant?
Gauchos still are an integral part of the ranching areas of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, as glimpses of gauchos and the countryside in Uruguay attest.
Today, musical groups and sports teams call themselves gauchos, clothiers sell hats, and the gaucho is a prime attraction on tours and often photographed.
In Brazil, the southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul is a cattle-raising area famous for its rough-riding cowboys, and its 10 million inhabitants are even known as gauchos. They do the same work as other gauchos, including curing and dyeing hides using tree bark.
Surprising to some, "Brazil also boasts a year-round circuit of more than 1,200 other rodeos, according to the National Rodeo Federation." Barretos International Rodeo is the largest international rodeo. Competitors come from many countries and celebrity country and western music stars from the US make regular appearances there. The Festa do Peão de Boiadeiro is held in conjunction with the rodeo, and in addition to awards for rodeo performance, music, and exhibition rounds.