His hope is his courage,
his defense is his caution,
his horse is his salvation,
and he spends the sleepless night
with no more protection than the sky
and no other friend than his blade.
--from The Gaucho Martin Fierro by JOSE HERNANDEZ, 1872
What would a gaucho do? I found myself wondering as Molly Sims
sprinted back to her bedroom in her thong.
It was a fair question, unlikely as it may sound. I had come to
Argentina to study gauchos, not swimsuit models. My mind was on
this noble, knife-wielding South American cousin of the cowboy,
his violent history and sad lore, not long-legged maidens in
thongs. Why should I get involved with Miss Sims's problems at
this hour of the night? Who knew what dangers awaited if I were
to follow her into the smoldering heat I'd been assured I'd find
in her boudoir?
February 26, 2002
Embers to flames; flames to damnation and hell. What would a
gaucho do? I wondered anew.
That's poetry. Bad poetry, but poetry nevertheless. The gauchos
were full of poetry and song. It was the Andalusian blood in
them. Gauchos were solitary men, independent nomads whose social
status in Argentina evolved over three centuries from semisavage
half-breeds to displaced outlaws to freedom fighters to common
ranch hands to national symbols of honor, bravery and
Unless you own a ranch. According to Cesar Aldao Bombal, an
obese, gravel-voiced, good-humored man who with his brother,
Camilo, manages Los Alamos, the estancia where the SI crew
stayed during a swimsuit shoot, "The gaucho was no hero. He
wouldn't work. He was lazy and indolent."
Spoken like a landowner, the descendant of men who, by taming
and fencing the pampas, disenfranchised the free-spirited
gaucho. The first gauchos were sons of the pioneers, mostly
Andalusian, who settled the coastal region of Argentina in the
mid-16th century. Unlike the Pilgrims these settlers came to the
New World without their women, and intermarriage--or, at the
least, intermingling--with the natives was common. The resulting
mestizos, mixed bloods, were the earliest gauchos, a name
believed to be derived from the Indian word huacho, meaning
orphan. They were part of neither the white man's world nor the
Indians'. "My joy is to live as free/as the bird in the sky;/I
make no nest on this earth," Jose Hernandez wrote in his 1872
epic poem, The Gaucho Martin Fierro, the definitive work on the
From their Indian forebears the gauchos were said to have
inherited their love of freedom, disdain for civilization and
disregard for law and order. From the Andalusians, who were part
Arab, they inherited nomadic tendencies and unparalleled
horsemanship. From the Spanish they inherited passion,
superstition and a love of poetry and music. It was a rich and
The pampas on which the early gauchos roamed were populated by
vast herds of horses and cattle, wild descendants of livestock
that had escaped from the earliest Spanish settlements. Since
the pampas were largely free of predators, except Indians, these
wild herds were as abundant as the vast buffalo herds of the
North American frontier and afforded the gauchos their way of
life. The horses were caught, broken and used to run down the
cattle on the open range--gauchos were foragers, not cattlemen.
The cows were butchered for sustenance, not for sale. There was
no refrigeration, of course, and salt for curing meat was
expensive, so the only commercial value of a cow was in its hide
and tallow. The gauchos would trade these for rum, tobacco and
mate, the herbal tea to which they were addicted. Those
pleasures, his horse and his freedom were all he asked for in
"The gaucho has no luxuries; but the great feature of his
character is that he is a person without wants," English mining
adventurer Francis Bond Head, author of the 1828 travel volume
Rough Notes, wrote, "If he has got a good saddle and sharp
spurs, he does not consider that money has much value....
[Still], I made it a rule never to be an instant without my
[fire]arms, and to cock both barrels of my gun whenever I met
any gauchos.... [They] were often perceived as being as wild as
Indians, and just as interesting."
"They have little beard, and never shave," wrote another
traveler, A. Gillespie, in his memoir, Gleanings and Remarks,
published in 1818. "[They] are copper-colored, very strong made,
have long black hair floating about the shoulders; flattish faces
and noses, mounted [on horseback] unless when asleep, at their
meat, or when engaged in gambling."
Indeed, the gaucho was thought of as a sort of centaur. So
seldom would he dismount that he stood severely bowlegged and
had a crabbed gait. He even bathed while mounted. The tips of
his boots were open so he could grip long pieces of knotted
rawhide--which served as stirrups--between his toes.
A gaucho carried all his worldly possessions with him as he
rode. His saddle was sheepskin and cloth laid over a
leather-covered frame, and it doubled as his bedroll. He had no
pockets in his baggy pants, so he wore a thick leather belt that
supported his back as he rode and was adorned with silver coins.
His woolen poncho was used as a raincoat by day, a blanket by
night, and, during knife fights, as a shield when wrapped around
The gaucho's most prized possession, though, was his knife, or
facon. "The facon was the gaucho's third arm," says Charles
Balbe, who is called the English Gaucho by friends because his
grandfather emigrated from Scotland. "He used it for finely
chopping tobacco for his cigarettes, for eating, for cleaning
his horse's hooves and for ending a conversation. He didn't
approve of firearms. He only loved his knife, and in a duel he
wouldn't try to kill you. He'd try to cut you to leave a scar.
That way every time you saw the scar, you'd remember how you'd
been bested. You'd respect him."
Knife fights between gauchos might break out at the slightest
offense when liquor was flowing. "A dispute easily arises about
a hand of cards or the heart of a woman, and a sharp word is too
often answered by a sharp knife," wrote T.W. Hinchliff in 1863
in South American Sketches. The author then goes on to describe
a tradition in which two guitar-playing gauchos would challenge
each other to an improvisational duel. It often began in fun but
would spin out of control and become a challenge of manhood.
Alternating verses, they taunted one another in song--"You play
like you have hooves/and sing like sheep being gelded"--on and
on, the insults ever escalating, until one of the troubadours,
tongue-tied with humiliation and rage, could not continue. "Amid
jeers of the spectators, he is compelled to shut up," Hinchliff
wrote. "Boiling with wrath, Apollo casts his lyre upon the
ground and transforms himself into the god of war. 'Caramba!' he
cries, 'you may beat me at that stuff, but try this,' long
knives gleam in the light, and a deed of blood is done."
Sometimes that deed of blood was a fatal one. In The Gaucho
Martin Fierro the fictional hero is taunted by a "foul-mouthed
gaucho" with a guitar who sings that Fierro's wife likes to
share her favors when he's away. Fierro's a little sensitive on
the subject since the taunt has an element of truth to it, and
he slashes the balladeer's guitar strings. "Stop that singin'
... you chirpin' locust," he warns. When Fierro leaves, the
guitar player follows him--a big mistake. "And that poor fellow
was/like a tender pigeon to me.... /There I left him holding his
guts, to make new strings out of."
In his book Far Away and Long Ago (1918) Argentine naturalist
William Henry Hudson wrote that gauchos "loved to kill a man, not
with a bullet, but in a manner to make them know and feel that
they were really and truly killing."
"They liked to see blood," says Balbe. "They wouldn't hang a
horse thief, as they did in the American West. They'd slit his
throat without blinking an eye. They liked the color red."
The bola was the gaucho's other weapon of choice, though it was
primarily employed to capture game. An Indian invention, the
bola was fashioned of three billiard-ball-sized rocks or iron
balls that were covered in leather and attached to long lengths
of rawhide. Holding the middle ball, the gaucho would swing the
bola over his head, lasso-style, and fling it at the legs of his
prey. It would enwrap them as neat as you please. In this manner
he could bring down rheas--small, ostrichlike birds--cattle or
horses. If the horse happened to have a man on its back, that
man was in trouble, which is why gauchos used to train their
mounts to run with their hind legs tied together. They also took
pride in being able to land on their feet if their horses took a
header. Indians galloped from pursuers with their lances
pointing backward to deflect a bola's flight.
That didn't stop our man Fierro, the most famous gaucho of them
all, from successfully dispatching a chief's son during an
Indian attack. " ... with a bola throw/I knocked him off his
horse./Right away I jumped down to the ground/and planted my
feet on his shoulder blades;/he began to screw up his face/and
did all he could to cover his throat ... /but I performed the
holy deed/of finishin' him off."
Fierro must have performed the "holy deed" about 200 times in
that 2,316-line poem. However, as Hernandez repeatedly points
out, Fierro is really a victim driven to the life he leads by
the changing times. "He's always on the run,/always poor, always
hounded;/he hasn't a cave or a nest,/it's like he had a curse on
him;/because to be a gauchodamn it all!/to be a gaucho is a
The beginning of the end for the gauchos came late in the 18th
century when vast land grants were awarded to wealthy men from
Buenos Aires in return for political support. The wild livestock
that had been the gauchos' livelihood became part of huge
private herds, and the pampas on which gauchos freely roamed
were deeded. Because these giant ranches required skilled
horsemen to handle the cattle, many gauchos found work as ranch
hands. But they refused to do chores that required them to get
down from their horses--digging postholes, putting up hay,
mending fences. That was peons' work.
In the early 19th century, civilization further encroached on
their way of life, as gauchos were conscripted into the army to
fight against the Spanish in the War of Independence. Once the
Spanish colonials were ousted, regional armies sprang up in
which gauchos were often forced to fight for provincial
generals. For decades these renegade militias waged brutal civil
wars against one another and the Indians as powerful
landowner-warlords tried to expand their holdings. Agriculture
was introduced. Where the wild grasslands had been, orchards and
vineyards were planted. Barbed wire was strung, putting an end
to the open range. By the late 19th century, when The Gaucho
Martin Fierro was published, the gaucho had virtually
disappeared. He had entered the realm of the folk hero,
remembered in song and rhyme but replaced in flesh and blood by
a modern cowhand who kept a roof over his head, ate vegetables,
collected wages and dug postholes when asked.
All these things I had learned--and all these things flashed
through my mind--as the diva of MTV, Molly Sims, 21st-century
supermodel, wearing nothing but T-shirt and thong, ran
breathlessly into the salon where Cesar, Camilo, Camilo Jr. and
I were having a drink and reliving the days of the gaucho. Los
Alamos was built in 1830 and was one of the ranches that had
helped bring an end to the gaucho. Originally a half-million
acres, it had been planted with vineyards and apricot trees,
sliced up and sold off and tamed. The estancia had seen many
things--Indian attacks and drought, lynchings and poetry
readings by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges--but never anything
quite like this.
"My room is on fire!" Molly said, screeching to a halt. I
believe slack-jawed might appropriately describe the expressions
she found on our faces. "I'm not kidding!" she cried. Without
another word Molly spun on her heels and rushed back down the
I'm quite certain I was the last of our small group to move.
What would a gaucho do? I repeatedly asked myself, sipping my
mate and rum. What would Martin Fierro, the gaucho's gaucho, do?
Then I remembered his credo: "I don't step to one side/even if
they come slashin' at my throat;/I'm soft with the soft/and
tough with the tough,/and in a tight spot no one ever seen me
A gaucho would follow the damsel. I rose and, at what passes
these days for a sprint, took off down the hall, grabbing a rug
off the floor on the way.
Molly was right. Her bedroom was engulfed in flames. One of the
logs from the fireplace had rolled under her couch as she slept,
and the couch was now ablaze in the center of the room.
Fortunately the walls of the estancia were adobe, the floor was
tile, and the ceilings were high. I tossed the rug at the couch,
but I missed. Molly, meanwhile, had taken shelter in her
bathroom with her hairstylist, Eric, who was wetting washcloths
in the event they were needed to protect her tresses. The smoke
was getting thicker.
Bracing myself against the heat, I grabbed the couch by its legs
and pushed it toward the open doorway, beyond which lay a
courtyard. It was a fine plan, except one of the French doors
was locked. I heaved and heaved, successfully wedging the couch
into our only point of egress. The windows were blocked by iron
bars that had been placed there 170 years ago in case of Indian
We were trapped like rats. The flames danced at eye level.
"Unlock that door!" I shouted with renewed urgency. On the other
side of the door, Camilo Jr. was poised with a fire
extinguisher. He let loose, and the chemical hit me square in
"Bmmvvvhh!" I protested.
I was blind. And I couldn't breathe. But the fire was out, and
Molly was alive, so the expedition had been a success. I began
to wonder about my own prospects because the room was filled
with smoke and it had been some time since my lungs had had
anything in them but carbon vapors and fire retardant. I was
growing a little faint.
People rushed by. As I crawled along the floor looking for
oxygen, I could hear their concerned voices comforting Molly and
congratulating her hairstylist on his moxie in the face of
peril. I bumped into a wall. More footsteps as the door was
pried open and the couch was dragged out into the open air. The
The room was now empty. I was a charred survivor of my first
asado. On hands and knees, gagging, I was left alone and in
peace, the dream of every true gaucho. It was comforting to know
that in a tight spot no one had seen me flinch.
FROM THEIR INDIAN FOREBEARS THE GAUCHOS INHERITED THEIR LOVE OF
FREEDOM AND THEIR disregard for law and order.
"I MADE IT A RULE TO COCK BOTH BARRELS OF MY GUN whenever I met
"They liked to see blood. THEY WOULDN'T HANG A HORSE
THIEF...THEY'D SLIT HIS THROAT."
"HE DISMOUNTED so seldom that he was severely BOWLEGGED; HE EVEN
BATHED ON HORSEBACK.