A gaucho (Spanish: [ˈɡawtʃo]) or gaúcho (Portuguese: [ɡaˈuʃu]) is a skilled horseman, reputed to be brave and unruly. The figure of the gaucho is a folk symbol of Argentina, Uruguay, Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and the south of Chilean Patagonia.[1] Gauchos became greatly admired and renowned in legend, folklore, and literature and became an important part of their regional cultural tradition. Beginning late in the 19th century, after the heyday of the gauchos, they were celebrated by South American writers.

Gaucho from Argentina, photographed in Peru, 1868

The gaucho in some respects resembled members of other nineteenth century rural, horse-based cultures such as the North American cowboy (vaquero in Spanish), huaso of Central Chile, the Peruvian chalan or morochuco, the Venezuelan and Colombian llanero, the Ecuadorian chagra, the Hawaiian paniolo,[2] the Mexican charro, and the Portuguese campino.

According to the Diccionario de la lengua española, in its historical sense a gaucho was a "mestizo who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, inhabited Argentina, Uruguay, and Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and was a migratory horseman, and adept in cattle work".[3] In Argentina and Uruguay today, gaucho can refer to any "country person, experienced in traditional livestock farming".[3] Because historical gauchos were reputed to be brave, if unruly, the word is also applied metaphorically to mean "noble, brave and generous", but also "one who is skillful in subtle tricks, crafty".[3] In Portuguese the word gaúcho means "an inhabitant of the plains of Rio Grande do Sul or the Pampas of Argentina of European and indigenous American descent who devotes himself to lassoing and raising cattle and horses"; gaúcho has also acquired a metonymic signification in Brazil, meaning anyone, even an urban dweller, who is a citizen of the State of Rio Grande do Sul.[4][5]


The earliest securely dated depiction of an Uruguayan gaucho. From Picturesque Illustrations of Buenos Ayres and Monte Video by Emeric Essex Vidal (1820)
Gaucho in ring lancing contest, Buenos Aires Province

There are several hypotheses concerning the origin of the term. It may derive from the Spanish term chaucho, in turn derived from a Turkish low-rank military term Chiaus (çavuş), through Arabic shawsh which became broadly applied to any guard/watcher or aide.[a] The first recorded use of the term dates to Argentine independence in 1816. Another scenario indicates the word may derive from the Portuguese gaudério, which was designated to the inhabitants of the vast regions of Rio Grande do Sul and Río de la Plata in the 18th century or the Portuguese garrucho that points to an instrument used by the gauchos to trap and hamstring cattle. The 18th century chronicler Alonso Carrió de la Vandera speaks of gauderios when it mentions the gauchos or huasos as poorly dressed men.

Another plausible origin is from a South American indigenous language, such as Mapudungun cauchu ("vagrant", "wanderer"), kauču ("friend"), or Quechua wahcha ("vagabond", "poor person”) which means the state of being lonely in the wilderness.


An essential attribute of a gaucho is that he is a skilled horseman. Gauchos were and remain proud and great horse riders—typically, a gaucho's horse constituted most of what he owned in the world. Scottish physician and botanist David Christison noted in 1882, "He has taken his first lessons in riding before he is well able to walk".[6] Without a horse the gaucho himself felt unmanned. During the wars of the 19th century in the Southern Cone, the cavalries on all sides were composed almost entirely of gauchos. In Argentina, gaucho armies such as that of Martín Miguel de Güemes, slowed Spanish advances. Furthermore, many caudillos relied on gaucho armies to control the Argentine provinces.

The naturalist William Henry Hudson, who was born on the Pampas of Buenos Aires province, recorded that the gauchos of his childhood used to say that a man without a horse was a man without legs.[7] He described meeting a blind gaucho who was obliged to beg for his food yet behaved with dignity and went about on horseback.[8] Richard W. Slatta, the author of a scholarly work about gauchos,[b] notes that the gaucho used horses to collect, mark, drive or tame cattle, to draw fishing nets, to hunt ostriches, to snare partridges, to draw well water, and even—with the help of his friends—to ride to his own burial.[9]

By reputation the quintessential gaucho caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas could throw his hat on the ground and scoop it up while galloping his horse, without touching the saddle with his hand.[10] For the gaucho, the horse was absolutely essential to his survival for, said Hudson: "he must every day traverse vast distances, see quickly, judge rapidly, be ready at all times to encounter hunger and fatigue, violent changes of temperature, great and sudden perils".[11]

A popular copla was:

Mi caballo y mi mujer
viajaron para Salta,
el caballo que se vuelva,
mi mujer que no me hace falta.[12]

My horse and my woman
Went off to Salta
May the horse return
For I don't need my woman.

It was the gaucho's passion to own all his steeds in matching colours.[13] Hudson recalled:

The gaucho, from the poorest worker on horseback to the largest owner of lands and cattle, has, or had in those days, a fancy for having all his riding-horses of one colour. Every man as a rule had his tropilla — his own half a dozen or a dozen or more saddle-horses, and he would have them all as nearly alike as possible, so that one man had chestnuts, another browns, bays, silver- or iron-greys, duns, fawns, cream-noses, or blacks, or whites, or piebalds.[14]

The caudillo Chacho Peñaloza described the low point of his life as "In Chile − and on foot!" (En Chile y a pie.)[15]


Gauchos drinking mate and playing the guitar in the Argentine Pampas
Segundo Ramírez, who inspired Ricardo Güiraldes to write Don Segundo Sombra

The gaucho plays an important symbolic role in the nationalist feelings of this region, especially that of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The epic poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández (considered by some the national epic of Argentina)[c] used the gaucho as a symbol against corruption and of Argentine national tradition, pitted against Europeanising tendencies. Martín Fierro, the hero of the poem, is drafted into the Argentine military for a border war, deserts, and becomes an outlaw and fugitive. The image of the free gaucho is often contrasted to the slaves who worked the northern Brazilian lands. Further literary descriptions are found in Ricardo Güiraldes' Don Segundo Sombra.

Gauchos were generally reputed to be strong, honest, silent types, but proud and capable of violence when provoked.[18] The gaucho tendency to violence over petty matters is also recognized as a typical trait. Gauchos' use of the facón—a large knife generally tucked into the rear of the gaucho's sash—is legendary, often associated with considerable bloodletting. Historically, the facón was typically the only eating instrument that a gaucho carried.[19]

The gaucho diet was composed almost entirely of beef while on the range, supplemented by mate, an herbal infusion made from the leaves of yerba mate, a type of holly rich in caffeine and nutrients. The water for mate was heated short of boiling on a stove in a kettle, and traditionally served in a hollowed-out gourd and sipped through a metal straw called a bombilla.[20]

Gauchos dressed and wielded tools quite distinct from North American cowboys. In addition to the lariat, gauchos used bolas or boleadoras (boleadeiras in Portuguese)—three leather-bound rocks tied together with leather straps. The typical gaucho outfit would include a poncho, which doubled as a saddle blanket and as sleeping gear; a facón; a leather whip called a rebenque; and loose-fitting trousers called bombachas or a poncho or blanket wrapped around the loins like a diaper called a chiripá, belted with a sash called a faja. A leather belt, sometimes decorated with coins and elaborate buckles, is often worn over the sash. During winters, gauchos wore heavy wool ponchos to protect against cold.

Their tasks were to move the cattle between grazing fields, or to market sites such as the port of Buenos Aires. The yerra consists of branding the animal with the owner’s sign. The taming of animals was another of their usual activities. Taming was a trade especially appreciated throughout Argentina and competitions to domesticate wild foal remained in force at festivals. The majority of gauchos were illiterate and considered as countrymen.[21]

Modern influencesEdit

Gauchito, a boy in the Argentine colors and a gaucho hat, was the mascot for the 1978 FIFA World Cup.

In popular cultureEdit


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ This is rather an implausible origin given that in Spanish loanwords from Arabic, the gau is often a transformation from the Arabic letter waw (W).
  2. ^ The work has been reviewed by Adelman (1993), Collier (1988), Lynch (1984), and Reber (1984).
  3. ^ Leopoldo Lugones in "El Payador" (1916) and Ricardo Rojas established the canonical view regarding the Martín Fierro as Argentina's national epic.[16] The consequences of these considerations are discussed by Jorge Luis Borges in his essay "El Martín Fierro".[17]



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