The Story of the Uruguayan Guachos
(For photos of Juan’s estancia go here)
Juan Moralez is not a typical Gaucho. He treks up Machu Picchu each June, has travelled on horseback across Argentina and he met his Swiss-German partner Suzanne in Tibet when he was 20 – she’s a vegetarian. Juan refers to all tourists as city slickers, laughing at their faces when telling them that the estancia’s generators provides two hours of electricity per day. Concerned that the traditions of Gaucho life are retreating in the face of urbanisation and the exodus of rural workers from the countryside, Juan and Suzanne opened their estancia for travellers willing to work fifteen years ago.
Gauchos have been living amongst Uruguay’s grasslands, or Pampas, since cattle were first introduced there by the Spanish Major of Buenos Aires in 1630. Emigrants from Europe were needed to manage the cattle, and the majority of Gauchos were Spanish or Italian settlers. Mythologised as nomadic, isolated figures, Gauchos were enlisted by warring Colonialist militias in the bloody battles between Europeans countries over ownership of the fertile land. When they were not fighting, they rode between large estancias to work for a season, cultivating their national image as skilled equestrian herdsmen. Travelling on bus through Uruguay today, you still see Gauchos wearing ponchos, baggy cotton trousers and woollen berets.
Juan, who I interviewed last August, explains that Uruguay was first formed as a ‘“buffer state” between the Spanish crown and the Portuguese crown – meaning Argentina and Brazil. The story of Uruguay’s fight for Independence, won in 1828, is as not as ‘bloody as the history of Peru or Mexico’, Juan explains. Yet unmarked graves from the 1800’s scatter his own Estancia, telling silent stories of hardship. ‘The Charrúa, about 3,000 of them, were the indigenous population of Uruguay, either killed by the Spanish or absorbed’. It was the first constitutional president of an independent Uruguay that led the Salsipuedes massacre of hundreds of Charrúa, taking place in the region of Tacuarembo, an hours drive from Juan’s estancia. ‘The last four Charrúa left alive were sold to a circus in Paris. They died there, and in 1983, they sent back the bones that were exhibited in Paris’, tells Juan.
There is a small, painting of José Artigas in the public school closest to Juan’s estancia. Known as the ‘father of Uruguay’s nationhood’, he ran away from a religious school aged twelve. Working on a farm, he acquired the vagabonish nature of a Gaucho and began illegally smuggling cattle. As a military lieutenant, he channelling popular discontent towards the colonialists in the early 19th century, he used guerrilla warfare tactics with the aid of Gauchos to fight the Spanish royalists in Montevideo. Guachos, originally fighting for colonist factions, cemented their national identity as fighters for Uruguayan independence in the 19th century. In the 21st century, Uruguay is still distanced from its monarchist roots: democratic, lacking in corruption and until last year, lead by Mujica Cordano, the left-wing socialist who was proud to be known as the ‘poorest’ president in the world.
The image of the Gaucho is a source of national pride in the present day constitutional republic. Many wealthy, cosmopolitan ‘weekend Gauchos’ in Uruguay don the traditional horsemen’s outfit to survey their estancias as a pastoral escape from the crowded city. Belinqa, who works on Juan’s Estancia, it is a full-time look.
Before dawn, he wakes to prepare mate, allowing time for the dried leaves of yerba to steep in hot water. Overrun by a family of wind-strewn cross-breeds, his house is chipped electric blue and yellow paint, with drying cow hides hanging on a washing lines between trees. He lives one hour from Tacuarembo, a busy town he has visited only a handful of times – rivers scare him. His working day begins at four and ends at dusk, and he and Juan manage the Estancia’s hundreds of cattle. Their jobs vary from herding cattle across the 2,400 acres of Pampas, choosing bulls for mating season and distributing tic medicine. He speaks Portunol, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese, and will always be wearing his Bombachas de Campo, traditional cotton Gaucho trousers. This has been Belinqa’s routine for over 20 years, although Juan’s Estancia has been in his family for over a century.