2012
10/27

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Horsemen of the Colchagua Valley: Chile’s Huaso Keeps His Cowboy Cuture Alive

The glistening high-rises of Santiago are home for more than a third of Chile’s 16 million people

By John H. Ostdick

Photos by the author

Santiago looms above the rest of Chile like a gigantic statue. The country’s young are drawn to the capital in droves. As Chile’s cultural and financial center, it sets the tone for this slender thread of a country, perched awkwardly between the Pacific Ocean and Andes.

More than a third of Chile’s 16 million people live in Santiago, with the rest scattered haphazardly north and south. On a map the nation’s 15 different regions, each of which is led by a Chilean presidential appointee, resemble an X-ray of a twisted spine. These regions are divided into provinces, and then again into self-governing entities. The country has a literacy rate of 95 percent, one of Latin America’s highest.

The country is as much a smorgasbord of landscapes and climates as is its population, a mestizo cocktail of European and indigenous lineage. The northern stretches of the Chilean ribbon include a convergence of ranges, including the sparsely populated Atcama Desert, considered the driest in the world. It is in this hardscrabble region that a cave-in occurred at the San José copper-gold mine, near Copiapó, in August 2010. The world watched transfixed as 69 days later, one by one, thirty-three miners climbed into a specially designed steel capsule barely wider than a man’s shoulders and took a 15-minute journey through 2,050 feet of rock to the surface.

The Museo de Colchagua Cardeon in Santa Cruz has a significant huaso section among its exhibits

The land is hard here, virtually sterile, as the Andes mountains and the Chilean Coast Range block it from moisture on both sides. The skin reacts to this absolute dryness upon contact, and the desolation of some the region’s communities is palpable.

The country’s twisted geological base makes it a hotbed for earthquake activity. A Feb. 27, 2010 quake shoved coastal land upward by more than 8 feet and caused some inward lands to sink, according to the findings of an University of Chile research team. The 8.8 quake centered in south-central Chile was the fifth-largest temblor recorded by modern seismology. According to news reports, the quake moved the town of Concepción at least 10 feet to the west and Santiago about 11 inches to the west-southwest.

At this country’s far southern reaches, the sea has broken through the coast range forest, creating a fractured terrain of lakes, volcanoes, and rolling grasses ideal for grazing sheep and cattle. In between, a fertile valley affords the country’s vast agricultural region.

One of these fertile areas, the Colchagua Valley, is about a three-hour bus ride from Santiago. It is home to rich vineyards and a deep cowboy history essential to its cultural fabric but sometimes lost in the lore of its other South American cousins.

Rolando Verdugo, the Professor, commands respect in the Lolol community

Santa Cruz is a quaint town that provides a perfect jumping-off spot for exploring the rich wine and huaso culture  — the culture of the Chilean cowboy — in the Colchagua Valley region.

The central square of old Santa Cruz, the Plaza de Armos, is a long block wide on all sides, with packed dirt and cobblestone sidewalks cutting around a large fountain in its center. Benches are sprinkled under imposing fir and palm trees. A gazebo is located on its eastern side.

Locals are draped — alone or in bunches — over the benches throughout the day, but it is in the late afternoon when the square buzzes with activity. Uniformed students wander through on the way from school, and old men confer from perches in the shade. A young couple nuzzles.

A block down the street, a handful of tourists depart the Colchagua Museum, the country’s largest private museum. The Colchagua, which faithfully tracks Chile’s history, contains an extensive folkloric collection. In a corner of the beautiful colonial-style structure, an extensive collection explores the huaso culture.

Although the Chilean cowboy’s place in history may be murkier than his more celebrated neighbor, the Argentine gaucho, the fierce pride the country’s modern-day huaso feels is evident in the way Rolando Verdugo sits his horse and deliberately explains the life he has chosen.

Verdugo, referred to by other huasos as “El Professor,” is surrounded by six other men and one teenage boy on horseback in a well-worn corral in the small town of Lolol, situated about 19 miles (30 km) into the verdant Santa Cruz Valley in Colchagua Province. Aspiring huasos come from throughout Chile to Lolol — a town of 6,200 declared a national monument in 2003 because of its traditional architecture blending adobe, roofing tile and corridor constructions — to learn riding and rodeo skills from Verdugo and other local huasos. (The town was severely damaged in the 2010 earthquake, and restoration of its church, one of the oldest in the country, and other historic structures continues today.)

Rolando Verdugo, who spent 29 days in a coma after a riding accident, can no longer drive a car but remains in dynamic control atop a horse.

The gray-haired, stocky Verdugo, in his early sixties, began riding at fourteen. He speaks Chilean Spanish softly, a trace of a lisp the after-affect of twenty-seven days he spent in a coma after being thrown by a horse several years ago.

“I was more on the other side for a time,” he explains, smiling. “I can no longer drive a car because I tire quickly, and my attention wanders. But I can still sit a horse. It is my life.”

That life includes at least five hours in the saddle each day, either working or honing skills.

On this day, persistent rain has waterlogged the official town half-moon-shaped rodeo field on the outskirts of town. Nearby, a large tin-roofed structure that provides room for up to 6,000 people for after-rodeo dancing, an important part of the tradition, sits soggily vacant as well.

The modern, strictly regulated Chilean rodeo is different from the events familiar to most North Americans. A two-huaso team (a collera) on horseback rides laps around an arena trying to stop a calf, pinning him against massive cushions. Points are earned for every time the steer is properly driven around the corral, with deductions for faults.

Near the middle of town, Verdugo apologizes for the shabbiness of the dingy practice corral he is using before putting his horse through a rigorous warm-up, riding back and forth across the center of the muddy ring, turning and stopping abruptly. That abrupt stop is a Chilean huaso trademark. Huasos train their mounts to stop suddenly, dropping down on their haunches (sentada), without throwing their rider.

A huaso and his trained dog work a pasture southeast of Santa Cruz in Chile’s Colchagua Valley

Soon, two other huasos bring a training calf — “it knows all the tricks,” one of them says  — into the ring, and start it through a series of warm-up drills for the atajada, a spellbinding Chilean rodeo pursuit-and-blocking exhibition in which the riders guide a steer toward the corral fence, which serves as a target.

Another huaso sits his horse in the middle of the corral, observing. His cell phone rings, and he conducts his business as the action swirls around him.

Verdugo then begins working the calf, blocking it and holding it against the fence while riding sideways. During a rodeo, points are awarded for a series of technical skills exhibited, such as what part of the animal’s body is used to block the steer (the degree of difficulty increases the further down the body a steer is blocked).

Verdugo redirects the calf, seemingly at ease, although his jaw is set throughout and his horse is working up a good lather.

Another huaso nearby, Hector Perez, in his 40s, smiles thinly, and explains that Verdugo “makes invisible the work of the rodeo.”

A huaso’s formal rodeo jacket is cut short to allow for full mobility in the saddle

The crescent-shaped arena — the medialuna — offers the perfect modern-day proving ground for the Chilean Cirillo, a breed known for lateral dexterity, even temperament, and courage. In the 18th Century, annual Chilean roundups on large encomiendas (royal land grants) involved pens that could contain 7,000 head of cattle. Sorting the cattle by ownership, designated use, and requirements for castration and branding resulted in herding and pushing cattle down long alleyways into classificatory pens, skills that translate to the half-moon corrals of the modern Chilean rodeo, according to Randall Ray Arms, a Chilean Criollo expert.

The Santa Cruz Valley is fertile agricultural land. Once the exclusive domain of wealthy landowners and the huasos who worked for them, the demand for men on horseback has dwindled.

“Modernization in agricultural practices has lessened the farming dependence on horses, but they remain a rich part of the culture,” explains Pamela Guzman, a Santa Cruz-area guide and translator. “These people are very proud to be a huaso, to live in the country. Some still work cattle, but their rodeo skills are highly prized.”

In towns throughout Chile, but especially in this valley, the national sport (decreed such in 1962) is the culmination of a huaso’s year-round pursuit of highly polished skills. There are twelve rodeo clubs in Lolol, with about thirty members in each.

This 15-year-old huaso-in-training will undergo a year’s worth of instruction and face skill tests before being considered a true huaso

It is an expensive proposition. A good rodeo horse will run between $10,000 and $15,000 (the winning horse in the national rodeo could easily fetch $80,000) in a country where the gross national income is about $5,870 per person (rural incomes may be lower), and then there is the cost of feeding and caring for the animal, and rodeo competition fees.

“To be a huaso and compete in the rodeo, you need money,” says Ernan Gonzales, who is sponsored by the Lolol mayor. “The most important thing is to take proper care of my horse, so he is ready for the rodeo.”

Gonzales, in his 50s, is decked out in formal rodeo garb. He sits a mount he has owned for more than ten years. Its tail is trimmed long, to the crook of the hind legs; its mare is cropped short, with a large tuft.

A huaso generally wears loose-fitting pants, a short bolero jacket, and fringed leather boots. A colorful manta (a poncho-cut blanket also known as chamanta) drapes his jacket, keeps him warm but allows his arms to move freely. He wears a broad, flat-brim hat and carries a corvo, a knife tucked into the back of his red sash similar to the gaucho’s facon. He carries a manea, a lasso used in the rodeo, and uses large spurs and Austrian-style stirrups carved of wood, called estibos.

Gonzales competes in thirteen rodeos each year, and instructs teens interested in becoming huasos. He points out the single charge currently under tutelage, a thin fifteen-year-old two months into his yearlong training, who says he is attracted “to the huaso life.” Gonzales, who began riding at 14, works with several horses at a time (four at this time), as he uses different horses for varying rodeo skills competition categories. It takes up to a year and a half to properly train a horse for the rodeo.

Ernan Gonzales stands before lush Colchagua Valley hillside just outside of Lolol

“You have to learn each horse’s personality and how it will react in the corral, and then train it to move sideways under controlled speeds,” Gonzales explains. “Each one has its own personality.”

Countless rows of vineyards and modest houses trail off from the winding road that cuts through the Lolol Valley. A huaso and his two dogs are moving cattle from one pasture into another. As the huaso whistles, the dogs react with quick sprints, prompting the cows to move in a specific direction.

Outsiders may know this region more from visiting the massive Viña Santa Cruz winery on a rise above the roadway. It is the first Chilean winery designed for tourists, featuring a wine museum and tours, examples of pre-Colombian architecture, and a restaurant. The winery is a venture of Carlos Cardoen, who owns the Santa Cruz Plaza Hotel in the nearby city of Santa Cruz. The tourist attraction represents the future of the region and Lolol (“land of crops”), which also produces a good organic olive oil.

(The Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA), recognized in 1981, was the first AVA in the nation to be defined by its mountain topography. The wineries that flourish in these mountains are for the most part small, family-owned, boutique operations — many don’t have tasting rooms and are rarely open to the public.)

El Professor and his fellow huasos have a foot planted firmly in both the past and future in this strangely situated country, which Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda once wrote “was invented by a poet.”

Most Chileans trace their ancestry to European or mixed European-indigenous origins, and only about 5 percent are wholly indigenous (mostly Mapuche). About 40 percent of Chileans live in the Santiago area.  For many reasons, the huaso culture is not universally celebrated in Chilean story or song, as has its neighboring Argentine gaucho culture or the North American cowboy. Generally, Chilean writers seldom championed a huaso mythology, as had many Argentine authors, according to Richard W. Slatta, author of Cowboys of the Americas (Yale University Press, 1990). Yet, the huaso is indelibly etched into the Chilean national identity and folkloric culture, particularly outside its urban center in Santiago.

Ernan Gonzales, known in the historic town of Lolol as “the teacher,” wears his formal rodeo attire perched on his show horse

“The character of cowboys of the Americas — even the definition of who they were — has aroused great extended controversies,” Slatta writes. “One view held that cowboys were the paragon of national virtue — patriotic, honest, principled. An opposing image represented cowboys as lazy, immoral, backward, low-class drifters. As often the case, reality lay somewhere in between these two caricatures.”

“Of the many cowboys in the America, none remains as shrouded in mystery and contradiction as Chile’s huaso,” he concludes.

In the Lolol Valley, such semantics are part of a different universe

Beginning each September, local rodeos take place across the rural landscape here, culminating months later in the Campeonato Nacional de Rodeo (late March to early April), a National Rodeo Championship in Rancagua.  Regional huaso champions compete against each other, displaying their impressive horsemanship.

After each rodeo, everyone in attendance — virtually the whole town — feasts on meats, beans, and an abundance of red wine, followed by accordion music and dancing.

Dressed in work attire, Ernan Gonzales puts his work horse — el torque — through the paces in a practice rodeo pen in Lolol

The huaso and his china (partner) display their best clothes and dancing abilities during the cueca, the Chilean national dance.

Although the dance is performed throughout the country with many choreographic variations — popular themes include reenactment of a cock’s courting of a hen, the amorous mating rituals of a young couple, or even the attempt of a young huaso to lasso a young mare — the basic movements remain the same. A man and woman, each brandishing a handkerchief, dance around each other in time to music supplied by guitar, harp, or accordian as a singer provides a story.

A formal cueca calls for a huaso dressed in black pants and shirt, short poncho that drapes halfway down his chest, a wide faja (sash) with fringed ends that usually contain the red, white, and blue of Chile’s flag, and black boots with spurs attached. He taps his boots in almost a flamenco rhythm (zapateo). As he moves across the floor with his partner, the singer relates a story and the audience emits a high-pitched sound that resembles the Spanish trilled R.

A huaso warms up his horse in a Lolol practice pen

The modern-day huaso is engaged in another kind of dance, however, one of both pride and, perhaps, fading cultural significance. For those such as the venerable Verdugo and his disciples, however, little of that matters when they are ensconced in the saddle. That is their life, the huaso life.

 

A young girl waits for her mother after school in the Santa Cruz plaza while her older sister spoons with her boyfriend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Chilean Gaucho

 

In the southern reaches of Chilean Patagonia, the cowboy culture associates more clearly with the gaucho than the huaso, probably because many Argentine gauchos fled persecution (or prosecution) in their country into Chilean Patagonia, and many never returned.

 

In 1998, writer Nick Reding spent 10 sometimes savage months in Middle Cisnes, Patagonia, chronicling in Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia (Crown Publishers, 2001) what might be the last fading remnants of the Chilean gaucho as the national road and modern yearnings invaded the last patch of their fading domain.

 

“People have disputed everything from the gauchos’ ethnic or historical origin to what they do to what language they speak,” Nick Reding writes. “Some people even deny they exist.”

 

Exist they did, however, often in almost complete isolation.

 

Patagonia, which covers 250,000 square miles over the two countries, averages less than one inhabitant per square mile. Many Chileans go their entire lives without coming across a gaucho.

 

“In Coahaique, though, they’d call me huaso, too, because I look from the country — whether or not I know what a bank is,” one of his hosts tells Reding. “In Argentina and down here, a gaucho is a cowboy. Huaso is also what they call cowboys in the Central Valley, up around Santiago. You ask someone up there what a Chilean cowboy is, and they’ll say huaso; ask them what an Argentine cowboys is, they say gaucho.”

 

“Difference is that a huaso up there is more a landowning gentleman than what a cowboy is here, which is basically a peasant with horses ….”

 

 

 

 

 

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