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 Mart�n Fierro by JOS� HERN�NDEZ, 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?
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 semi-savage half-breeds to displaced outlaws to freedom fighters to common ranch hands to national symbols of honor, bravery and self-reliance.
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," Jos� Hern�ndez wrote in his 1872 epic poem, The Gaucho Martin Fierro, the definitive work on the subject.
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 tempestuous stew.
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 mat�, the herbal tea to which they were addicted. Those pleasures, his horse and his freedom were all he asked for in life.
"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."