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Gauchos and Caudillos

Colonial life in the pampas south and west of Buenos Aires developed under conditions of isolation and hardship. At the end of the colonial period, the grassland frontiers were inhabited by Indians and gauchos mestizo offspring of Spaniards and Indian women who asserted their freedom from all formal institutional arrangements, being indifferent to the government and the church. Illiterate and unexposed to the rudimentary civilized mores of the early colonial towns, gauchos became identified with savagery, courage, and independence, with a clear disposition to rebel against any attempts at political control by Buenos Aires.

A folkloric view of the gaucho permeated the writings of travelers in the colonial period. They depicted the pampas frontiersmen as indolent and extremely fond of singing and dancing, although in fact they were skillful on horseback and expert in the use of gun, knife, lasso, and bola. Gauchos survived on a diet of raw meat and water and lived in miserable mud huts covered with hides, owning almost no furniture but for some skulls of horses for stools. While the men hunted, the women prepared meals, sheared sheep, milked cows, made cheese, and wove coarse wool into ponchos. The nomadism of the gaucho had several implications; it prevented any kind of settled work, and it made sedentary concepts of land, property, or family alien to the gaucho.

During the wars of independence, gauchos were recruited into the cavalry of the revolutionary armies. After 1810 life in the pampas became even more difficult for them because of the spread of estancias owned by hacendados (large landowners): the land and the wild herds were appropriated, hunting and slaughter were regulated, trade in hides and tallow was controlled, and the life-style of the gaucho was disrupted. This conflict between hacendados and gauchos revived during times of war, when gauchos raided the estancias for cattle, although the hacendado reaffirmed his property rights once order was reestablished.

Eventually, the gauchos were recruited to work on the estancias. There were advantages in this patron-client relationship since both groups struggled to defend the cattle from Indian raids. The hacendado sought a loyal and skillful labor force, whereas the gauchos traded their freedom for a salary, a house, food, and clothing. These alliances extended beyond the limits of individual patron-client arrangements and into the larger social pyramid where hacendados became clients of a more powerful landowner the caudillo.

Caudillos fought in the civil wars in Argentina during the decades after independence, joining in the struggle for selfdetermination as an opportunity for adventure and an outlet for excess energy. They became agents against urban interests, and every province produced its own band of gauchos under the leadership of a famous caudillo. Names such as Artigas (from the Banda Oriental), Juan Facundo Quiroga (from La Rioja), and Juan Manuel de Rosas (from Buenos Aires Province) are historically identified with the power of caudillos in the area of the Rio de la Plata. The political turmoil of the 1820s was rooted in the struggle of caudillo interests for political autonomy and against the Unitarian tendency of the city of Buenos Aires.

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Page last modified: 07-01-2015 18:40:56 ZULU