The next day, Juan and I climb into his pickup and drive to Taquerembó, an hour away. Thousands of gauchos, and as many horses, have come from all over South America and taken over the small town for the 26th Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, the biggest gaucho festival in the world.
“First I am a gaucho, and second I am Uruguayan,” Juan told me during our time on the range. “The word gauchadameans an act of kindness or integrity.” Clearly, gaucho is not simply the South American version of cowboy, and it’s not just a job; it’s a rich, old culture with deep traditions. Gaucho is a way of being connected to the natural world and other people. “Because we have so few relationships, we value them more,” Juan says. I wonder aloud how long the gaucho ethos and lifestyle can exist in this era of globalism and industrial food production. To my surprise, Juan feels optimistic. “The entire world, I believe, will have a return to values from Mother Nature,” he says. “Modern societies eventually will start degrading. I see the signs in the visitors who come to the ranch, who are unable to perform the most basic things, like make a fire, use a hammer and nails. And you see all the young gauchos at the festival? It is cool to be gaucho. Their parents left for cities, but their grownup children are back.”
On the fairgrounds, hundreds of gaucho families—women, men and -children—are camped out. Women wearing long period dresses serve up platefuls of traditional fare—tangy hot beans, tongue, other meat and more meat and more meat, and sweet, silky flan. When the gauchos’ nomadic era came to an end in the late 1800s, gaucho often became a family (not solo) affair, and there was a clearer place for women: the kitchen, with all its attendant domestic oppressions. But from what I see at the festival, women are also corralling cattle, shoeing horses and participating in traditional dance and song. Gaucho culture hasn’t transcended the continental penchant for machismo, but as I watch clear-eyed young girls—nine, 10, 11—ride bareback throughout the grounds, I sense something familiar and share in Juan’s optimism. They aren’t just Riding a Horse; they are Going Places with unconscious ease.
A grating, tinny loudspeaker announces the beginning of the bronco-busting event. A sea of gauchos in hats and baggy pants—some with wide, traditional ornamented belts, and daggers dangling off them—fill the grandstands to watch young men (no women riders in sight) compete to see how long they can stay on a wild horse.
A lithe chestnut filly is run into the ring, tethered between a pair of gauchos on horseback. They are struggling to control her. The horse is blindfolded and held in place while a gaucho in his twenties climbs on her back. The blindfold is pulled off, and the horse lunges toward the center of the ring, ferociously bucking and trying to eject the young man, who hangs on to her mane with one hand and swings his other arm in huge circles, trying to stay on until the clock ticks out. She throws him off quickly and with vigor, circles around and, before she dashes for the gap in the fence, steps solidly on his neck. The crowd freezes with a collective “Ohhh!” An ambulance and medical personnel come out to help the gaucho; eventually he walks off to cheers.
As I say good-bye to Juan and his family and prepare for the last leg of my journey—to Cabo Polonio, on Uruguay’s coast—I think about how incredibly hard Susanna and Juan work; what living so close to the animals, the earth, the capricious seasons, demands. “People who come always tell me how to ‘improve’ the ranch,” Juan told me. “How to run more water, electricity, cattle. They don’t understand that this is the way we want to live.” I’m reminded of my old friend Sunny Speidel, who left the city for rural life and recently extricated herself from decades in the family business to pursue Reiki bodywork. “Huh, funny you should ask,” she responded when I e-mailed her my questions about age nine. “I recently put up a picture of myself at that age because I felt it was a representation of my true self.”