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E.M. Swift
February 01, 2002
The cowboys of Argentina have a really bad reputation—which is why everyone loves them
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February 01, 2002

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Gauchos

The cowboys of Argentina have a really bad reputation—which is why everyone loves them

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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 gaucho...damn it all!/to be a gaucho is a crime."

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 Mart�n 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 hall.

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 mat� and rum. What would Mart�n 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 flinch."

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 attack.

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 the face.

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