Why am I Perplexed by the Gaucho Festival?
I’m in two minds about the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha that we spent 5 days experiencing in Tacuarembó , Uruguay.
Cultural Heritage or Cruelty and Sexism?
On the one hand, while travelling in Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay you can’t help but notice the gaucho culture that pervades rural life – and sometimes even city life. You see them on their horses along the roads, sometimes herding cattle or other horses, sometimes with just a dog. We spotted one at the San Telmo markets in Buenos Aires in traditional dress, with a stall full of gaucho paraphernalia. In Brazil we followed hand-painted signs along a back road towards a canyon; when we found it, we also found the owner of the property in gaucho dress.
Everyone we spoke to about the Patria Gaucha in Uruguay insisted that it was the most important celebration of Uruguay’s heritage. Since we were there and had the time, we went.
There must have been thousands of horses! There were also enough gauchos, along with their families, to manage them. Almost all of them were dressed for the occasion in some type of gaucho gear. The women were often in traditional long, frilly dresses, and when they were on a horse the dresses flowed back over its rump. Even the children were dressed up. It was quite an impressive sight. Many of the spectators were also dressed in some form of their gaucho best, although the distinction between them and the participants was usually quite obvious.
Activities at the festival included various events in the arena. These seemed to be popular with everyone, although we had some difficulty following the programme and the progress of the competitions due to our limited Spanish. A lot of it seemed to be gauchos hopping onto lively horses which tried hard to buck them off. We also happened on an event where the gaucho was showing off his horse management skills, including things like the horse not getting spooked by twirling lassoes or other moving objects. Some of them even crawled around under the horse’s legs to prove the horse wouldn’t trample them. This was quite the juxtaposition to the bucking horse battle! The youngsters also showed their horse skills in competitions like slalom drum races.
Another competition which was particularly interesting involved different groups building several buildings in a small compound. They were constructed in traditional ways out of rocks, mud and even turf. They then displayed their heritage through various activities, objects and costumes. All had a fireplace where there was constantly either a cauldron bubbling away, or some part of an animal grilling asado-style. This was probably the most informative part of the whole festival for us, and we spent a lot of time wandering in and out of the constructions. The public were asked to vote for their favourite ‘estancia’ with a tear-off portion of the entry ticket. We voted but have no idea who won.
The whole event was interesting, but I started out by saying that I am in two minds about it.
So, on the other hand, I am very much against cruelty to animals and a lot of what we saw in the arena verged toward it. For the bucking events the horses often fought hard with the handlers at the hitching post; rearing up, pulling away, rolling over, and even lying down and refusing to budge. The handlers then used various means of force to get the animal to do what they wanted; punching, kicking, pushing, whipping, and even bringing in a horse with a rider to push the horse into position. When they finally had it subdued, with a blindfold to help the process, the rider would mount.
Most of the action we saw was bareback. The rider would hold onto a leather strap, and also the mane of the horse, in order to stay on. Once the horse was released – and the blindfold removed – the horse would take off, bucking madly. The rider would beat it with some sort of whip, which seemed to have a spherical shape on the end. This continued until he was bucked off, or removed by two other horsemen when the bell rang. It was only after seeing a photo Juergen took with a strong zoom that I realised they also stayed on by digging their spurs into the horse’s belly! We also noticed that riders sometimes came off with hands full of mane hair.
There were also bucking events where the horses were saddled and had stirrups and reins. In these contests the gaucho only had a large piece of cloth, which he waved around the horse, more so than hitting it. Some still wore spurs but they were much smaller. This was a little easier for me to watch, but the horses were no more willing at the hitching post.
We have two short videos from the horse events in the arena at Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha:
I may appear to be a bit naïve, but I’ve never really seen anything like this before. Is it cruel to the horses – or just a normal part of the culture where horses and humans work together?
Another thing that disturbed me at the festival was the stereotypical roles of the sexes. In this culture it appears that the men are the action figures and the women dress up in frilly dresses and look beautiful. They do this from the back of a horse and are very comfortable there, but none of them are in the arena showing off their horse skills.
This is propagated in the next generation with toddlers and even babies dressed like little gauchos if they’re boys. Of course the girls are in frilly dresses not unlike those of their mothers. There were however, girls competing in the youth activities in the arena, like the slalom barrel races. And just maybe this is only ‘playing dress up’ for this occasion, so my reservations on this point are not so strongly founded in fact. Either way, I still have reservations.
On the last evening I was delighted to see a woman of my age walk past, who was dressed in what would probably be considered men’s gaucho gear. She looked great, but no chance of a quick photo.
Would I go to a gaucho festival again?
Would I recommend it to others who have the opportunity?
Yes, because it gives a real insight into the culture and heritage that is so important in this part of South America.
I would love to read your reactions and thoughts in the ‘comments’ below!