I wish here to examine nineteenth and early twentieth century Latin American narratives of the frontier and their relation to Latin American national narratives and the building of Latin American nations. In doing so, I will explore the character and transformations of terrain and nature, from chaotic wild space to disciplined, tamed place, and the role of gender, masculinity in particular, in all of this. My discussion will focus primarily on narratives by the nineteenth century Argentines Domingo Sarmiento and José Hernández and the early twentieth century Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos, choosing narratives from these two national contexts because these are two settings in which the frontier takes on an important role in national discourse. I will also occasionally interject commentary from or about the Mexican José Vasconcelos and the Cuban José Martí, as well as Anglo North American narratives of the frontier and nation, in order to more fully analyze what about these narratives pertains to Latin American narratives of nation generally or to American (Latin or otherwise) narratives of the frontier generally. Further, in this essay I will remain primarily focused on the narratives themselves, rather than the specifics of the biographies or socio-cultural backgrounds of Sarmiento, Hernández, and Gallegos. I would like, and do plan, to discuss just those sorts of issues in another essay, but that is a different project from this where I explore the mythology of the frontier and the nation in the Americas as such.
Civilization and Barbarism
The Plainsman and the Plains across which he roams figure prominently in nineteenth and early twentieth century Latin American frontier narratives of the Argentine pampas or the Venezuelan llanos. This is seen in the imagery of the Gaucho and the Argentine Pampas in Domingo F. Sarmiento’s novelistic political polemic piece Facundo; or Civilization and Barbarism (1971) (In English, this work typically appears under the title Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or Civilization and Barbarism) and José Hernández’s epic poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1974), as well as in the depiction of Santos Luzardo and his men on the plains of Venezuela in Romulo Gallegos’ novel Doña Barbara (1948). Each of these works can be situated within a discourse of Progress, providing accounts of the struggle between “Civilization and Barbarism,” between order and disorder. While using similar tropes and images, these writings take up different perspectives, in the process producing different meanings and ideological configurations of the realities of nation-state building.
In each of these narratives there are similar accounts of the plainsman’s physical prowess and general manliness. The gaucho Martín Fierro, Hernández’s protagonist, is portrayed as a man who will go where any other goes, “Nothing makes him back away” (1974: 12). When Hernández’s narrator describes himself, he boasts (1974):
I’m a bull in my corral
And a bigger one in someone else’s;
I always thought I was pretty good,
And if others want to try me
Let ‘em come out and sing
And we’ll see who’s second best.
I don’t step to one side
Even if they come slashin’ at my throat…
And in a tight spot no one
Ever seen me flinch.
According to Sarmiento, “The gaucho esteems skill in horsemanship and physical strength, and especially courage, above all other things” (1971: 49). Esteeming strength, courage, and the skills of the Pampas, the gaucho scorns the city dweller (1971: 21):
"who may have read many books, but who cannot overthrow and slay a fierce bull, who could not provide himself with a horse from the pampas, who has never met a tiger alone, and received him with a dagger in one hand and a poncho rolled up in the other, to be thrust into the animal’s mouth, while he transfixes his heart with his dagger."
Similarly, Martín Fierro despises the “gringos” who cannot tell an ostrich from a man on horseback from a cow when on lookout, who quickly get “blisters on their butts” from the saddle, and who are “only fit to live with sissies” (Hernández 1974: 42).
Finally, Gallegos’ plainsmen associate manhood with possession of the physical skills of life on the plains of Venezuela. The manhood of Gallegos’ protagonist, Santos Luzardo, an educated, civilized man returning after many years to his ancestral home on the plains, is suspect until he proves himself, most notably through horse-breaking, “the great test of the cowboy, proof of the courage and skill these men were waiting to attribute to him” (Gallegos 1948: 97).
Aside from similar accounts of the plainsmen’s manliness, however, the interpretations of the plainsmen’s character offered by Hernández on the one hand and Sarmiento and Gallegos on the other are near polar opposites. Sarmiento describes the pampas as vast, chaotic, and largely empty, a savage land of tigers and vipers (1971: 2-3). The gauchos who inhabit this land are naturally barbarians. Moral progress is impossible, “Barbarism is the normal condition” (1971: 18), and the male gauchos spend their time in complete idleness (20).
For Sarmiento, Progress and Civilization require cities and education, but the very vastness of the pampas and the great distances between their people inhibit the growth of these things. The gauchos dwell in an environment prohibitive of civilization, and as a result, a comparison of the cities and the countryside would give the impression of two different nations co-existing, or of the nineteenth and the twelfth centuries alongside one another (1971: 14, 42). Sarmiento does recognize factors limiting the development of civilization among the gauchos on the nineteenth century pampas, a sort of environmental and technological possibilism á la twentieth century anthropologist Julian Steward’s cultural ecology (1955), whereby given non-modern technology and economy and a harsh environment, the development of civilization as envisioned by Sarmiento is an impossibility for the gauchos. The gaucho cannot help but be barbarian. Yet this does not stop Sarmiento from repeatedly demonizing the gaucho, or looked at another way, this is the implicit justification for taming the pampas and the gauchos, introducing and imposing civilization, so that people exposed to a civilized environment will become civilized people. To go back to the accusation of the gauchos’ “idleness” above, we can see that the gauchos are “idle” in a particular sort of way. Even Sarmiento does not depict them as inactive or passive, what with the gauchos overthrowing and slaying fierce bulls, taming horses, and meeting “tigers” headlong with nothing but a dagger in one hand and a poncho rolled over the other. Instead, it seems, it is their not engaging in disciplined production or in permanent transformation of the land, which is to say their non-contribution to the project of the modern nation, which makes them “idle.”
Gallegos, like Sarmiento with the Argentine pampas, sees the Venezuelan llano as savage and the plainsmen as barbarians. However, Gallegos does provide a somewhat more sympathetic view of the plainsmen, presenting at least some of them, mostly those working for Luzardo (this is not insignificant, as it is precisely these plainsmen who are exposed to the potentially civilizing influence of Luzardo), in a positive light as basically good and loyal people, though barbaric and rough. Gallegos also presents a tie between the land and barbarism at a much more essential level than Sarmiento. Luzardo, even as an educated and cilivized man, must nonetheless upon return to his ancestral plains resist “The Call of the Centaur” to barbarism. For Sarmiento, Progress will require taming the pampas, building cities and roads. For Gallegos, it will also require taming the centaur within, and ultimately, as we will see, that there be a centaur within that must be tamed (that is, civilized masculinity requires taming of the centaur, but civilized masculinity requires that there have been centaur within in need of taming). Even here, though, taming the land must be stressed because to transform the land is to transform the essential tie with the land. With this “Call of the Centaur” of Gallegos, we see foreshadowed an inherent tension (even within the texts most strenuously calling for national state building and the taming of the plains) between state building and frontier filling: the impetus to fill in and order the map on the one hand, and on the other the allure, even the need for the frontier, for space rather than ordered place, for the nomad centaur within, for what Deleuze and Guattari (1986) call the War Machine resisting the ordering, disciplining impositions of the state. But before examining this tension further, we should first lay out the primary program of these state builders.
According to Sarmiento, on the untamed pampas, “order,” political organization, and justice were the extension of the brute force of a caudillo (a sort of local or regional strong man and patron) when they existed at all (Sarmiento 1971: 51-2). Further, since only maintained by imposed brute force, even this was a barbaric and uncivilized “order” at best. Through the use of such brute force, men such as Rosas, although himself of aristocratic background (Rennie 1945: 40-1; Williamson 1992), and their gaucho supporters applied the “knife of the gaucho” (Sarmiento 1971: 55) to civilization, i.e. Buenos Aires.
It is interesting that in contrast many 19th century North American views of the frontier saw the frontier as naturally producing democracy rather than dictatorial caudillismo. This view was based in part upon the idea of “free land” with open and equal access to all, an idea to which there was a certain amount of truth, if only for some, in the early stages of the North American frontier, such as the trans-Appalachian frontier (see Slotkin 1985: 38), though much less true for later times and places (see Limerick 1987). Silvio Duncan Baretta and John Markoff (1978: esp. 600-601) point out that Latin American frontiers were typically characterized by large landholders with most people denied land ownership, a situation which could easily contribute to the caudillismo posited by Sarmiento as the only form of frontier “order,” though in Sarmiento’s view large land ownership was the result and not the cause of caudillismo. As Eric Wolf and Edward Hansen (1967) discuss, caudillismo functioned primarily through unequal reciprocal ties of patronage in a context where most were denied ready access to resources rather than through the use of brute force, as posited by Sarmiento. Early North American theorists saw the wilderness as being tamed by the actions of pioneers. Slotkin points out that the taming of the frontier actually depended upon infusions of capital from the metropole, and was not simply the result of the action of hardy independent pioneers (1985:43). Sarmiento’s view is similar, though with a judgmental slant: it is “civilization” and not the “idle” gauchos who will tame the pampas.
Following Ruth Smith’s characterization of order and disorder, and especially her discussion of Baudrillard’s categories of “good nature” and “bad nature,” the plainsmen as described by both Sarmiento and Gallegos can be identified with “bad nature” – “the nature that is uncontrollable, disorderly, impure” (Smith 1990: 214). (Of course, as mentioned above, a caudillo did occasionally “control” gauchos, yet according to Sarmiento this control is only in response to brute force, not to order, justice, or civilization as such, and lasts only so long as this brute force is exercised.) Sarmiento makes it abundantly clear that in his mind, the gaucho is disorderly, incapable of political order, and that barbarism is his natural condition. It is these characteristics which identify the plainsman as bad nature and in need of taming.
Following Wolf and Hansen’s argument, with caudillismo there is a production of social order, if order is understood as social pattern and regulation. It is a social order based upon personalist patronage, though, and not order as understood by Sarmiento, where order as understood by Sarmiento gives us an example of the disciplining and subjecting power of the modern state as analyzed and critiqued by Foucault. So, even if the reality of the pampas was not always control or pattern only through the exercise of brute force, as posited by Sarmiento, he was on to something here: certainly the socio-cultural order of the pampas was of a different sort than that of the civilization of a modern state.
It is the idleness of the plainsmen, or rather what is perceived as their idleness, which defines them as disorderly. In her analysis of the attribution of disorder to the poor, Smith writes that “The production of abundance becomes the basis for order; the poor as necessity and scarcity themselves have no place in the production of ‘good nature’ and so remain in their ‘natural’ disorder” (Smith 1990: 219), hence naturalizing their disorder as with the assertion of the gauchos’ “natural” barbarity by Sarmiento (see Coronil 1997; Patton 1997; 1999; for discussion of the naturalization of poverty in other contexts). For the poor, of course, it is the preoccupation with eking out an existence which keeps them from contributing to the production of abundance. For the plainsmen, on the other hand, it is the natural potentials of the land which allow them to live in perceived idleness. Historian Ysabel Rennie writes of a gaucho dinner as consisting of slaughtering a stray cow, eating the desired portion, and leaving the rest to go to waste (Rennie 1945: 10), presumably retaining the hide, the most important part of the cow in the pre-industrial, or more importantly pre-refrigeration, era, for the rightful owner of the cattle (see Wolf 1982).
(Lest the gauchos be perceived as wasteful, it should be asked, What else could they do in the era before refrigeration? Nor should it be forgotten that on the pampas, as in many other areas of Latin America, feral cattle were quite common, much like the bison of the 19th century North American plains, which raises a question of “waste” in relation to social scale. Shepard Krech III’s book The Ecological Indian (1999) is insightful. As Krech points out, Native North Americans occasionally (even routinely) slaughtered animals, bison, deer, beaver, etc., in numbers beyond their capacity for use, and that this didn’t adversely affect the populations in question as these animals represented in fact virtually inextinguishable resources – until animal products became commodities in a continental fur and/or meat trade, and the slaughter by Native Americans and whites, using guns and steel traps, occurred on a scale never before seen, and in fact, never before possible, in the process pushing the bison and beaver nearly to extinction.)
Whether or not Rennie’s account of the culinary habits of the gauchos is an exaggeration, both Sarmiento and Gallegos write of the natural potential of the land for development and production which will go unrealized until land and men are tamed and ordered. The perception of plainsmen as idle then has to do with what is perceived as production. The work which they perform to live from the land is perceived as nonwork, as it does not contribute to the transformation of nature, the inscription of order upon the land, or the creation of abundance.
As seen above, Hernández certainly makes no case against the masculinity or physical skill and prowess of the gaucho, and in fact deplores the perceived softness and lack of skill of civilized men. Furthermore, The Gaucho Martín Fierro also argues against notions of the natural barbarity and outlawry of the gaucho as presented by writers such as Sarmiento, inverting the scheme of civilization and barbarism.
The story of Martín Fierro starts in an idyllic past, a time when he is a good family man, waking at dawn to “git to work” before a variety of abuses are visited upon him by “civilization” (Hernández 1974:16). This trouble-free time, when the gaucho is respectable and far from barbaric, is quickly disrupted, and Martín Fierro does end up as an outlaw, as the lawless ruffian that Sarmiento would expect, but not because it is his nature nor because he inhabits a savage land where barbarism is the normal and natural condition.
Instead, Fierro becomes an outlaw because he is left with little other option, after being rounded up with other gauchos, taken away from his family, sent to a military outpost, and forced to work for two years on officers’ land with no pay and little hope of ever being officially relieved of service or of receiving any pay. If the gaucho is a criminal, it is because as Martín Fierro says, “To be a gaucho is a crime” (Hernández 1974:57).
Martín Fierro becomes an outlaw because of the law and the order of “civilization,” with further consequence that Fierro and others like him become outlaws in proportion to the growth of state power. To be a gaucho on the frontier is to be labeled a vagrant, a criminal, a barbarian, and generally, given circumstances, to begin to act the part. As Hernández writes, “he’s wrong if he puts up a fight,” thus proving his criminality, barbarity and disorderly nature by resisting order, “and if he doesn’t… he’s done for” (Hernández 1974: 57). Order is imposed upon him, which is what befell Fierro and eventually turned him to outlawry.
However, it is not as if no order operated amongst the gauchos before the imposition of civilization’s brand of order. From Martín Fierro we get a sense of social space ordered through a man’s code of honor – and it is definitely a man’s code of honor portrayed in Hernández’s work. From this perspective, “civilization” is the sower of disorder. Rather than gauchos acting as barbarians, barbarous things are done to them. Martín Fierro’s children are turned out like dogs, his woman (the possessive is in the original, and the woman in question is never named) is left to fend as best she can with some other man to replace him (and in Hernández’s account, not replacing Fierro with another man is not presented as an option for her), and Fierro himself is left with no choice but to turn “outlaw.”
Of course, the reality of the frontier situation and “barbarism” was a bit more complex than presented by Sarmiento, Gallegos, or Hernández. Frontier contexts in Latin America, especially where cattle-raising was the primary economic activity, such as in parts of Argentina or Venezuela, no doubt resulted in many victims of order and civilization, like Martín Fierro, while at the same time creating a context where opportunities for cattle rustling and outlawry were rife.
Duncan Baretta and Markoff point out that the lower classes on the frontier, denied land ownership, were left with basically two options, life in settled peonage on one of the large ranches or vagrancy. Those choosing vagrancy were a threat to the large landowners, because they could easily turn rustler or bandit, and were likely to be involved in commercial relations uncontrolled by the landowners, such as the smuggling of hides (1978:600). The landowners championed measures to repress vagrancy, forcing those untied to a specific place into government service or peonage. “On the one hand they needed labor; on the other, each vagrant was a very real menace to orderly business” (1978:601). Such repression turned out to be as much a problem as a solution, for many simply fled to avoid forced recruitment, and the brutalities of the imposed military life resulted in a high rate of desertion, so that nomadism potentially increased as a result of the repressive measures.
Romantic Demons: The Dual Nature of Marginal Characters
In her work Peasant and Nation, Florencia Mallon provides a definition of “discourse” which I find useful – “the combination of intellectual and political practices that makes sense of events, objects and relationships” (Mallon 1995:5). I take the notion of discourse as making sense of things in two ways. Discourse is the process through which meanings, interpretations, and understandings of things are generated. Further, discourse produces the actual categories of things which are perceived or sensed in the world. Looking at the discourse in which Sarmiento, Hernández, and Gallegos participate, a number of categories have been produced, such as civilization, barbarism, order, disorder, vagrancy, production. Of course, the possibilities of this discourse are not exhausted by these three writers. For example, there is Cuba's José Martí, who in one way inverts the connotations of civilization and barbarism like Hernández, but in another shifts the very categories of the debate from “civilization and barbarity” to “false erudition and Nature” (Martí 1977:87), such that the "halfbreed" becomes the natural and real man, while the civilization espoused by Sarmiento is exotic and the domain of artificial men. Alongside Martí stands Mexico’s José Vasconcelos for whom mestizaje, or race mixture, produces La Raza Cosmica which supercedes its European and Native American sources.
It should be asked here why Sarmiento, Gallegos, and Hernández, whatever their differences, all take up positions within the discourse of civilization and barbarism which are far more similar to North American narratives of the frontier and the spread of civilization than to those of Martí or Vasconcelos in which the notion of (white) civilization is turned on its head. Here we are dealing with race in relation to the frontier. As Charles Wagley (1965) discusses, there are three main types of racial classifications to be found in the Americas, one to be found in the highland areas of Latin America marked by large pre-Hispanic civilizations (i.e. Mesoamerica and the Andes), where race is classified in terms of one’s Indian, European, or mixed mestizo heritage; a second to be found in the Caribbean, Brazil, and to a more limited extent in the U.S. Southeast before the Civil War (i.e. the areas dominated by slave plantation production), where race is classified in terms of one’s black or white “blood”, but where race mixture is readily recognized and somewhat accepted; and a third found in the extreme northern and southern portions of the Americas (Colonial British America and the Southern Cone of South America), where, at least until the 20th century, populations were relatively racially homogenous – which is to say white European. The Argentina of Sarmiento and Hernández is more like North America (except perhaps the Southeast) than like the Caribbean of Martí or the Mexico of Vasconcelos, and this difference is based in part on the resolutely non-frontier nature of the Caribbean and Mexico. Mexico, except for the sparsely populated desert north which played only a small role in Mexican national narrative after the Revolution – concerned as that was with land reform, was never an empty wilderness for Europeans, and while the Caribbean may have been quickly emptied by the decimation of its native Carib and Arawak populations, this subject population was nearly as quickly replaced by an imported subject population of Africans. The race mixture or mestizaje characterizing the Mesoamerican, Andean, or Caribbean areas results from the social and sexual interaction of a small colonizing population with a large and highly exploited subject population. So, for Argentina, or for North America, progress is about taming the wilds and disciplining them in a way which was never the case for the core areas of Mesoamerica or the Caribbean, which were never “empty lands” for Europeans as were the Argentine pampas or Venezuelan llanos or North American Great Plains. In these non-frontier areas, progress was often instead about whitening of the population - a cultural, rather than biological, whitening to be seen in the discourse of the Cientificos of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Mexico, or the Neo-Lamarckian eugenics discussed for twentieth century Guatemala by Diane Nelson in A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (1999). Both Martí and Vasconcelos question the value of European, and white, civilization, praising instead the “halfbreed” or the mestizo, but it should be remembered that both are also social revolutionaries, which for Cuba or Mexico respectively implicitly entails being racial or ethnic revolutionaries as well.
What about the Venezuela of Gallegos, though? With Venezuela, like Brazil and much of the Caribbean, on the one hand, there is the perpetual ideological claim (Wright 1990) that race doesn’t matter, while on the other hand, race clearly does matter. For example, though the specific dynamics were different, in Venezuela as in Mexico, Latin America’s nineteenth century wars of independence turned into not only a war of secession from Spain on the part of criollo elites but also a class-based civil war, which in these contexts is also to say a race or ethnicity based (or at least correlated) civil war (Harvey 2000). It would seem then, that Venezuela would not be the site of a frontier narrative similar to those of Argentina or North America given the differences in racial dynamics. The key here, though, is the ideological claim that race doesn’t matter - and the fact that Gallegos is very much an establishment figure and not a social revolutionary like Martí or Vasconcelos. In fact, both Gallegos and Sarmiento were such figures of the establishment in their respective countries that they both served as their countries’ presidents at one point or another, and unlike Vasconcelos who, while never president, was politically powerful in Mexico, they did not come to political power as part of a successful (class and race based) social revolution. So unlike Martí or Vasconcelos, Gallegos does not subvert or question the ideological construct. As a result, the frontier is able to be imagined as racially homogenous (or at least racially neutral) as in Argentina or North America.
From any given perspective, such as that of Sarmiento, Gallegos, or Hernández, however, discursively constructed reality is rarely a straightforward and unitary thing. In each of these narratives, there is a marginalized character: the plainsman in the case of Sarmiento and Gallegos, the Indian in the case of Hernández. While this marginal character is often represented in a negative light, if not outright demonized, there are occasional romanticized depictions of these same marginal figures.
This is seen most strikingly and in most detail in Sarmiento. The main theme of Sarmiento’s work is that the gauchos and barbarism in general are an obstacle standing in the path of civilization’s progress. However, Sarmiento does note that there is a poetic side to this struggle between civilization and barbarism (1971: 24). Accordingly, Sarmiento gives us a certain romanticization or poeticization of the Gaucho as a general type alongside the more negative depictions. “As the water of a river is no less pure for the mire and pollution of its sources” (1971:22), so too there is something noble and pure in the gaucho character, which is “strong, haughty, and energetic” (22), though the associated mire and pollution cannot be forgotten.
Sarmiento presents four gaucho “occupations,” characters worthy of the poetic struggle between civilization and barbarism: The Rastreador, or track-finder, the Barqueano, or path-finder, the “Gaucho Outlaw,” and the Cantor (32-45). Through his discussion of these four general characters, Sarmiento elaborates upon the physical skills and masculinity of the gaucho, sometimes attributing abilities of mythic proportion, such as Calibar the Rastreador who was able to pick up upon a thief’s trail after it had lain cold for two years (34). Even the Gaucho Outlaw is presented as having honor, even if only in the section of Sarmiento’s work devoted to presenting the poetics of the Gaucho. The Gaucho Outlaw is no petty brigand. Rather to him the theft of horses is an art (40-41).
(We see similarly ambiguous figures, romanticized while also demonized and marginalized, in a variety of Mediterranean and North American contexts. In his ethnography on Cretan masculinity, Michael Herzfeld (1985) discusses the role of the Greek bandit, stealing from under the noses of the Turks, in Greek national narratives, as well as the simultaneous stigmatization and romanticization of goat thieves on Crete today. We see in Sarmiento’s Gaucho “occupations,” especially the Gaucho Outlaw, shades of the outlaws of the North American Wild West, especially those like Jesse James or the fictitious Outlaw Josey Wales who play simultaneously into two national constructions (American and Southern/Confederate nationalisms) as both honorable, noble, yet ultimately bad men of the Old West, and as Southern figures turned to outlawry through the depredations wrought upon their families during the Civil War (never mind similar atrocities they committed as members of Confederate guerrilla outfits like Quantrill’s Raiders operating in Missouri and Kansas).)
Gallegos, who is similar to Sarmiento in his insistence on the necessity of taming the plains and barbarism, is perhaps less extreme in presenting the dual nature of the plainsmen. That is, the demonizations and negative depictions of the Venezuelan plainsmen are less extreme, and the romanticizations are less Olympian. Still, Gallegos’ plainsmen manifest a propensity to resort to violence, barbarity, and generally disorderly means to achieve their ends alongside positive qualities such as loyalty, and an inner strength deriving from the will to work (albeit not in a way channeled toward “production”) and to do what is necessary to get by on the rugged plains.
Hernández’s Martin Fíerro presents a more difficult case. While not apparently holding the progress of civilization up on a pedestal, the work is still situated within the discourse of progress. The mestizo gaucho is perhaps a marginal member of civilization, yet he is still presented as non-barbarian. Hernández might problematize “civilization” and “progress,” yet he does more than Sarmiento to show their inevitability. For Sarmiento and Gallegos, the struggle is incomplete, its results still up in the air, while Hernández’s gauchos have already fallen as its unfortunate victims. The Indian, though, resides clearly outside of civilization and is presented as barbarian. Like Sarmiento’s and Gallegos’ portrayals of plainsmen, there is a duality to Hernández’s depictions of Indians. On the one hand, the Indians are presented as the worst sort of blood-thirsty savages imaginable, while on the other, Martín Fierro (the protagonist/narrator and the work) lauds the horsemanship and other physical skills of the Indian as superior to the gauchos’, and some individual Indians at least are possessed of a noble spirit. Here we see both the complexity of the Gaucho as Nomad/Centaur and the perpetual duality between nomad and state discussed by Deleuze and Guattari. Just as the Gaucho stands opposed to the civilization of the Argentine state, the Indian stands as foil to the Gaucho in association with the state. For all that the gaucho stands in opposition to and outside of civilization, he is nonetheless not as far outside of Latin culture as the Indian is. Gaucho life is not just a frontier variant of Latin American culture or a frontier anomaly, but an integral part of Argentine culture of the time, as the frontier is necessary to the spread of civilization.
Why is there a romanticization of the barbarian or marginal character, whether plainsman or Indian? Given a gender hierarchy valorizing masculinity, why is the barbarous presented as more masculine than the civilized? One reason, which is especially evident in Sarmiento but which can also apply to Gallegos and Hernández, is that in the attempt to portray the poetics of the struggle between civilization and barbarism, a barbarian character worthy of the struggle is necessary. This goes beyond the simple point that a complex character makes for a better story, though of course this is true. For example, Richard Slotkin in discussing the mythology of the frontier in North America points out that the trope of the Indian War, or of playing “Cowboys and Indians,” applied to a variety of contexts complete with attributions of savagery and brutality to the opponents alongside notation of their worthy stature, has been used to bolster the masculinity of North America(ns) and deter possible charges of effeminacy (1985: esp. 60-61). If the Gaucho, for example, is so obviously masculine, he is that much more worthy an opponent, and makes all the more impressive the victory of disciplined, ordered civilization.
Slotkin, writing about the North American Indian, points out another important reason for the dual nature of such marginal frontier characters. These characters, whether Plainsman or Indian, are identified with land and nature. On the one hand, untamed nature or wilderness is seen as savage and barbaric, as are these marginal characters, but on the other, nature is potentially pure, noble and bounteous. These characters possess a noble spirit, even if tainted by barbarity. To invoke Smith’s conceptual schema, the untamed frontier is bad nature, disorderly, chaotic, and barbaric, but through taming it can be transformed into good nature, controlled, regulated, ordered, and productive. There is a certain lure to the frontier, perceived as a land of opportunity, and it is understandable that romanticization would be a part of the mythology of the frontier. There are at least two kinds of people who might be drawn by this lure, on the one hand those drawn by the openness and natural bounty looking for a better place, perhaps but not necessarily those displaced and marginalized within society, and on the other hand those, such as the large landowners, drawn by the potentials for production and development, who will be the ones to impose order upon the land in their attempt to make the land productive (see Duncan Baretta and Markoff 1978: esp. 600-601).
Finally, at least for Sarmiento and Gallegos, who are attempting to contribute to American forms of nation-state and national identity, the frontier plainsman or some similarly American figure is a necessary character in order to distinguish their brands of nation and nationalism from European examples. This of course is not the only manner in which a quintessentially American figure can be inserted into a national identity and consciousness. Think again of Martí’s “halfbreed” as “Natural Man,” or in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, La Raza Cosmica of José Vasconcelos, formed from the hybrid union of Native American and European. However, Sarmiento and Gallegos do not hold up this American figure as the ideal Latin American in the way that Martí does. Instead, with his masculinity and noble spirit, the gaucho or Venezuelan plainsman becomes useful and desirable as an historical figure, though preferably not a present figure. Further, while the plainsman is more overtly masculine than the civilized man, the plainsman’s masculinity is uncontrollable and barbaric, inferior to the refined, orderly and disciplined masculinity of the civilized man. The plainsman makes for fine roots if you will, but his appropriate, and necessary, place is in the past or in a museum. Rennie writes (1945:6):
"The gaucho has gone the way of the American Bad Man, or Ouida’s Algerian Tirailleurs, and the controversy is dead. Being extinct, he is, like the dodo or the buffalo, merely picturesque. Now the Argentines are proud of him, and his is a part of their Heroic Legend."
I would here add, though, that though the Gaucho in literal 19th century form is extinct and today picturesque, he is not merely picturesque. Considering the role it took on as Argentine national epic in the 20th Century, Hernández’s Martín Fierro represents both the museumification of the gaucho, sympathetic, noble, and extinct except in literary form, and at the same time the centrality of the gaucho and his attributes to the national character. What is important for Sarmiento and Gallegos in their contributions to nation-building is that the character of the plainsman be maintained, but in transformed, disciplined form. Gallegos’ protagonist Santos Luzardo is the archetype here: from the plains, he possesses the Centaur-Within, but being civilized, he has disciplined and harnessed the Centaur. To return to Sarmiento’s polluted river metaphor, the gaucho may represent an impure and polluted source, but is the source of Argentine masculinity and nationality nonetheless, one that can be purified through discipline and order.
The Imposition of Order on the Frontier
Slotkin identifies an ideology of agrarianism in western thought, characterized by “the cultivation of the land, the interaction of man with pure and inanimate nature” (Slotkin 1985: 52). A number of feminist scholars have pointed out that in western gender ideology, nature has typically been coded as feminine (See Griffin 1978; Ortner 1974; Ruether 1993; Warren 1990), and likewise, women have often been identified with the natural, typically through a naturalization of motherhood and the domestic sphere (see Ortner 1974; Rosaldo 1974; Yeatman 1984), or the attribution to women of an uncontrollable (unless ordered and regulated) sexual passion (Smith 1990: 221). In this ideology, Man and civilization is lord over inanimate feminine nature, as well as over passive, submissive naturalized women.
It should be stressed that this is the ideal of this particular gender ideology, but that this is not the only possible condition within this set of ideological constructions. Masculinity is ideally and properly orderly, rational, and disciplined. The ideal for proper femininity is to be ordered, controlled, regulated, i.e. to be “good nature.” In the absence of imposed order and control, women are a threat because of their inherent disorder. For example, “In the absence of a controlling superego and the presence of sexual passion, according to Freud, women by their very being resist morality and threaten the state” (Smith 1990: 221). Unregulated women, ambiguous in that they are neither properly masculine nor properly feminine, are threatening to this system, as for that matter are un-ordered and un-disciplined nomad men.
The plains themselves are similarly threatening and ambiguous (or threatening because ambiguous). The pampas, by Sarmiento’s account, are not a pure and inanimate land. While they have great potentials for cultivation and production, the pampas are not the passive land of the agrarian ideology. Instead, they are a savage, untamed land which resists civilization: vast, chaotic, and empty but for tigers and vipers, savages and barbarians. Such a frontier land is neither properly masculine nor properly feminine. It is “bad nature,” “uncontrollable [without strenuous efforts at imposing order], disorderly, impure” (Smith 1990: 214; parenthetical added). For civilization to proceed, order must be imposed, and the soil must be possessed and controlled (Sarmiento 1972:15).
Slotkin speaks of a “Regeneration through violence” in the mythology of the frontier. In this mythology, there is a regeneration of the land through the “Indian War,” whereby the land is forcibly tamed along with its inhabitants, and regenerated as the pure and inanimate land of agrarian ideology (see Slotkin 1985: esp. 51-3, 60-1). With Sarmiento and Gallegos, we have the struggle between civilization and barbarism rather than the Indian War, but the goal is similar, to tame the land and its inhabitants. In short, the goal is a transformation of bad nature into good nature. As Smith says (1990:224):
"They must be domesticated in some way, and so they become the nature to be known, to be controlled and managed, the epitome of bureaucratic order and regulation – a statistic, a lost number. This is the managerial image of the vegetable in Merchant’s terms: the nature that is still nature but is controllable because it is without sensation."
Smith is here talking about the regulation of women and/or the poor, but the general point applies. Savage, uncontrollable and ambiguous frontier wilderness must be ordered into passive, controllable, and properly feminine nature.
The mythology is framed as a regeneration of bad nature into good nature, but looked at closer, it seems that it is a generation, rather than a re-generation. Both Sarmiento and Gallegos speak of the great potentials of the plains as areas of production (see especially Sarmiento 1972:4-5; Gallegos 1948:288), but as long as they are without order, they are not a pure, fertile, or properly feminine land. With the imposition of order, the land will not be regenerated as fertile and feminine once more, for it was never unambiguously feminine and fertile in the first place. Instead, it will be newly generated as fertile and properly feminine.
Western gender ideology would have us believe that the true disorderly female nature must be repressed, resulting in an ordered and proper femininity, and similarly that the savage frontier must be repressed. Foucault (1990) has critiqued this ideological construction, what he calls the repressive hypothesis, along with its corresponding idea of liberation whereby we must free ourselves from this repression and liberate our true selves. Foucault instead argues that particular kinds of subjects have been produced (in opposition to the view that subjects formed a priori are repressed). I do think that repression is one way in which power can be exercised in some cultural contexts, but that as human subjectivity is intertwined with cultural production, repression never operates on a priori subjects, but always on culturally produced subjects. So, while repression and production are different exercises of power, repression can only ever work on prior production. Further, while there may be a repressive or “taming” element to the civilizing of the frontier, simply repressing disorder does not yield automatically any specific type of order. Order must be produced, whereby there is a discursively generated qualitative or categorical difference in the land.
Before the emplacement of civilization’s order, the frontier is conceived as vast, chaotic, mostly empty, and unpossessed. Land is simply unbounded space. For civilization to proceed, the land must be possessed permanently, cities and roads must be built (Sarmiento 1972: especially 8, 14-5). Fences must be built, clearly delineating the territories of people and cattle (Gallegos 1948: especially 136-8). Order and a sense of place, as opposed to space, must be generated and inscribed upon the plain. With the production of order and place, there is also the production of vagrancy as a major concern and of vagrants as a particular kind of essential subject. Without a sense of place and an understanding that everyone should be attached to some place, the concept of vagrancy makes little sense, and further, it is those people concerned with imposing order, the large landowners, who are most threatened by vagrants. It is only with the ordered delineation of the land as owned by specific individuals that vagrancy is produced, and thus only then that vagrancy as such can be repressed and even made to benefit these large landowners.
This discussion of the production of place brings to mind Benedict Anderson’s comments about maps (1991: 170-178). Once the conceptual ordering of the map is imposed on the land, the map must be filled up and the land known through the inscription of place - both on the map and on the land. The effect of the map, the fence, and other ordering devices is to produce what Anderson calls a “totalizing classificatory grid” so as “to be able to say of anything that it was this, not that; it belonged here, not there” (1991: 184). With Sarmiento, the grid is to be imposed on the ground by the inscription of the land with fences, roads, and other markers of the advance of civilization.
Order and discipline, with their need to put everything in its proper place, require the extensive production of truth - of the nation and of the subject. A number of ordering devices have been created to produce these truths and naturalize the nation and the subject. Anderson discusses the role of the census, the map, and the museum in producing the truth of the nation. Foucault discusses the role of surveillance (1979) and of psychoanalytic confessional (1990) in the production of the truth of subjects. In either case, the point is to delineate truth down to the last detail. The disorderly frontier, on the other hand, as uncharted territory is the unknown and uncontrolled. The frontier, as the margin of civilization, is an inevitable product of the expansion of civilization, but because of its disorder it is intolerable. The map must be filled up so that the frontier is pinned down and known, until there is no frontier, no margin, no disorder. Even if this last is an impossible task – after all, no matter how much we know, there is still the yet unknown constantly producing new frontiers – the impulse is strong nonetheless.
The cost of progress is the imposition of order and the taming of the land and nomadic plainsmen. The barbaric masculinity of the plainsmen is dis-ordered and dis-placed, that is made to be without place and order where previously the gaucho possessed a social constituted order and place – if one not recognized as such, not made sense of as such, but instead as space and disorder by Sarmiento, and this for the production of disciplined civilized man and a pure feminine nature. The gaucho, once moving freely across unbounded space, is now disorder incarnate, a vagrant without place. While the ideals of Progress aim to produce order, disorder is also produced as those who do not fit the “totalizing classificatory grid” are proclaimed disorderly. Finally, the dis-place-ment and the disordering of the plainsmen’s lives is naturalized and masked, as those now newly defined as inherently disorderly and having no place cannot be “disordered” nor “displaced.”
The disciplining of the plainsmen and of the plains or frontier is a key component of nation building in frontier-oriented states of the Americas, such as Argentina and Venezuela. The Plainsman, whether in the guise of the Argentine gaucho or Venezuelan Llanero, is the masculine source of national character, and the open space of the plains is the locus of potential national bounty. However, it is only once these are disciplined and transformed, once the land is produced as properly feminine and the centaur within is tamed that the nation and its bounty are realized.
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