La Patria Gaucha (The Gaucho Motherland)

March 22, 2012

By Andres Stapff

The Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha transcends Uruguay.  Named that way in reference to borders that are cultural rather than political, the celebration includes communities from Uruguay, Argentina and southern Brazil; all regions that have a common past involving livestock, open plains and immense spaces.

The first smells of the Fiesta were harsh. Several calves had been slaughtered with their carcasses hanging from old-style hooks made of tree branches and leather straps. The bowels lay in blood puddles covered with big green flies, while men butchered meat and prepared innards for the barbecue. The participants’ sleeping quarters where constructed with age-old techniques using building materials that are no longer seen, such as mud, manure, straw and branches. The gauchos would sleep on the floor using part of their saddles as mattress and pillow. Nobody seemed to notice the flies, blood, offal or manure.

The gaucho, in both character and lifestyle, originated with cattle and its abundance, beginning when cows roamed freely everywhere. With such supply cows could be openly hunted for their meat, and leather became its only commercial value. The gauchos’ appearance comes in part from that abundance of food; typically he is a solitary semi-nomad who spends a good part of his life on the back of the other animal he is identified with – the horse.

Everything the gaucho does for his horse, starting with the first ride and taming, shows his dedication to the animal. The design of his best belts and buckles and knife handles, all made of silver and gold, prove this relationship. Horses are the main theme in decorating all the jewelry that gauchos proudly display. At a festival such as this one, the elaborate clothing contrasts with the simple, daily garb. Berets give way to full-brimmed hats, and the small, horn-handled knife of daily use is swapped for a gold and silver one.

The gauchos’ horses also get party dresses. They’re spiffed up with fancy saddles, braided harnesses, ornate spurs, and elaborate whips. Just by looking at their lavish gold and silver details I found it hard to believe that those are precious metals. With a silver and gold handled knife costing nearly $600, it takes a ranch hand much more than a month of hard work to pay for one. I decided to buy myself a bone-handled one, a nice addition to my barbecue set.

Getting into the rodeo ring made me nervous. With so much activity and too many horses to keep an eye on, several photographers and cameramen have been rammed covering past gaucho festivals. This time, after finding a solid piece of fence to climb up on and out of danger, I found myself cheering for the horses and admiring the courage and ability of the gaucho riders.

A row of ambulances sat parked on the side of the ring in case of an accident. They were called into action several times a day, to rescue riders suffering from bad falls, a photographer hit by a horse, women that fainted in the stands due to heatstroke. I was fine on my stable piece of fence, enjoying the spectacle.

The rodeo was exciting, but the highlight of the festival was the parade. Some 3,200 horses and riders took part. The aparcería, or gaucho team, that won the festival last year opened the parade, dressed in typical clothes with “La flor del pago,” a gaucho expression for the beauty queen, leading the group. Make no mistake about it; they take the competition very seriously. As much as possible, the horses should all be of the same color. Criollos, a Uruguayan breed that excels at herding cattle, are favored over others. At the rear of the parade thousands of riders that were not members of any aparcería rode just for the fun of it.

Lots of the people participating in the parade were fully drunk by the end of it, and walking around the area became difficult. A herd of galloping horses passed by, guided by a drunken gaucho. One of the horses brushed my shoulder and hip, quite a blow given the animal’s weight, but the rider just laughed. After it was all over, the city slowly returned to normal as city hall workers dressed in gaucho clothes started sweeping away the tons of manure that were left on the streets.

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