Solo un Sol: Gaucho Uruguayo


The Uruguayan gaucho is a grass land horseman and, not of a single ethnicity, his origin flows from Uruguay’s political, historical, and economic state during the 1800s. The term gaucho was coined from “huachu,” meaning “orphan” in the indigenous Quechua language. The name suggests the solitary life and non-denominational contraband mix of indigenous people, both Portuguese and Spanish, who drove cattle across open and unsettled country to sell their leather to Colonia on the coast and towns in the frontier.

Initially venturing not far from Montevideo, they eventually traversed deeper into the interior. Some Spanish soldiers abandoned the military to join the rural population, dreaming of lands offering rich bounty and having only to extend their hands and receive it, living as free men, with a horse to spur the herds and provide leather for necessary goods like boots, reigns, bed, habitation, and hip flask.

Though his hair and eyes may range from the dark pigmentation of the indigenous to the fair European, in general the gaucho is thin and sallow. A life on horseback, exposed to the tonic winds and a carnivorous diet make him tough, lean, and agile, with an arid temperament. The solitude and quiet leaves him taciturn and silent. The liberty gives him a love of freedom and a sense of loyalty to his fellows and the land. The permanent hostility from the Spanish and the fight against beasts teaches courage, audacity, and defiance. And, as there are no laws, he despises cheating and low tricks. Because there is no jurisdiction and an absence of private property, he deals the justice he deems appropriate. Policy is mocked and fought. He is used to dying without remorse and killing without disgust. Such is the typical national gaucho.

The official birth of Uruguay, before La Guerra Grande (the civil war), there was a trade agreement between Argentina, Brazil, and Britain, with the latter secretly wanting to plug Argentina and Brazil by giving a third, independent, smaller nation control of the ports opening to the Atlantic. During the signing, no Uruguayan was actually present, and, having no founder to look to in that initial moment, the country refers to its gauchos—the hard-working prairie men and symbol of the fight for independence against corruption—as their national heroes.

One gaucho in particular, Artigas, is the official hero of Uruguay. A native-born Uruguayan and descendant of Spaniards, he rallied his countrymen against Spain’s monetary drain. It is said when he felt the final throws of death, he asked to be mounted on his horse so he could die a true gaucho.

Fiercely independent in character and inextricable from the land, gauchos are a symbol for nationalists, especially in times of turbulence. In the years leading to the dictatorship, protesting artists mixed folk music (the music of the gaucho) with their own, metaphorically showing loyalty to their country and speaking against the restraints of freedom by the state.

Rock music was greatly impeded in Uruguay during these years, because groups were prohibited from forming without supervision, regardless of intention.

Artists singing Canto Popular, such as Artigas Zitarrosa, wrote folkloric tales into their songs—for example “Minas y Abril”—hoping to unite the country by recreating gaucho traditions. Even under the constant weight of censorship, being hassled during tours, their lyrics reviewed for subversive content, and the diffusion of music venues, artists continued to sing Canto Popular and include in it the gaucho influence.

The movement became heterogeneous, and spread to incorporate multiple styles, including Candombre, murga, and milonga. Artists used the gaucho influence as their vessel, both through music and poetic lyrics, to convey political ideas to the country. The music had a dramatic influence on politically concerned youth of the time, and helped charge the country.

Writers throughout Uruguayan history have also romanticized the gaucho—full of courage, ruler of his own life and of an ultimate freedom—and in this way the Uruguayan cattlemen serve as a front for political and social protest. Filigreed and hyperbolized to frame their particular philosophy and character, gaucho literature rose to world recognition during the Romantic Period (19th century). Used by great writers such as José Hernández, Estanislao Del Campo, and Hilario Ascasubi, the gaucho was a way to express the developing national identity, in Uruguay and parallel in Argentina. The influence continues in the works of later writers Ricardo Güiraldes, Benito Lynch, and Enrique Amorim, and on to current modern Uruguayan literature.

Painters also used gauchos as a nationalist image. Native Uruguayan artist Juan Manuel Blanes lived through the country’s independence and its civil war. His subjects were often gauchos who grew as nationalist icons after the end of the war. Portraying their solitary life and highlighting their self-reliance and freedom, Blanes romanticized the gauchos, portraying not the turbulent nation he knew but the pride he felt for it.

Although a rural figure, the gaucho is a symbol for the entire nation. The country pays tribute to him and traditional culture through festivals, namely Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha in Tacuarembó, El Prado Creole Week in Montevideo, and the Roosevelt Park Festival in Canelones. There the guitar and the accordion, key instruments in gaucho music, are played, and the celebration includes tiendas (show stands), rodeos, campfires, and the demonstration of camping skills.

As Uruguay moves into the future, Uruguayans maintain the gaucho as a national hero, reminding them of the honest roots and hard work on which their country was grown.

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