Sociólogo - Escritor

"La Casa de la Magdalena" (1977), "Essays of Resistance" (1991), "El destino de Norte América", de José Carlos Mariátegui. En narrativa ha escrito la novela "Secreto de desamor", Rentería Editores, Lima 2007, "Mufida, La angolesa", Altazor Editores, Lima, 2011; "Mujeres malas Mujeres buenas", (2013) vicio perfecto vicio perpetuo, poesía. Algunos ensayos, notas periodísticas y cuentos del autor aparecen en diversos medios virtuales. Jorge Aliaga es peruano-escocés y vive entre el Perú y Escocia.

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10 de febrero de 2011

The Indian in “Martin Fierro”

By Jorge Aliaga Cacho

In “Martin Fierro”, José Hernández wishes to represent the life of the gaucho, before their extintion, in the late nineteenth century Argentina.   The poem was conceived as a popular work to be read by a section of the population on the point of extinction and also, as a protest against the Government of Domingo Sarmiento.
During the writing of the second part of the poem he seems to be convinced that his work had achieved artistic perfection, a place in eternity.
By examining the poem, I wish to demonstrate that Hernández`s description of the gaucho overlooks the presence of the Indian in the region of the Rio de La Plata.  I will draw comparisons from the poem`s text which wil provide evidence for my assertion that in Martin Fierro the Indian is discriminated against.  I will also suggest that the poem political intention is to defend landowner interests rather than those of the gaucho.
During the nineteenth century the area of the Rio de La Plata experienced profound economic changes which determined not only the destiny of the native population but also the fate of the main economic groups, who saw attainment of political power as a necessary condition for their development.  By sketching historical accounts and searching the poem, I will try to demonstrate that in “Martin Fierro”, civilisation symbolised by the Creole prevails over the antithesis of the barbarian represented by the Indian.
The poem pays little attention to the life of the Indians in the tolderias and neglects the Indian’s action in favour of the gaucho. Supposedly viewed as the symbol of Argentinidad.  When Juan Diaz de Solis arrived in Rio de La Plata he found that the region between Maldonado and the Uruguay river was occupied by about two thousand people distributed among many tribes.  Other estimates push the figure to four thousand, among them the Charrua tribe.   Their name translated into Spanish means ‘Somos turbulentos y revoltosos’.
The missions which were in contact with them had little success in converting them to Christianity.
There are many testimonies from people who met the Charruas from 1526 to the beginning of the nineteenth century.  These testimonies deny that the Charruas were cannibals and confirm that they treated their prisoners well.  However, they were ferocious fighters, skilful with the bolas, arrows and weapons. With the introduction of horses they became skilful horsemen and with the introduction of cattle they could obtain food more easily (1).
The Charruas were at this stage horsemen, ‘galloping like the wind across the pastures’, armed with deadly iron tipped with metal.  They had obtained the means to fight the conquistadores with some Hispanic weapons but never abandoned their efficient boleadoras. (2). The Charruas remained fierce, winning and loosing endless battles but never conquered nor enslaved until they were nearly annihilated in 1832.
The Indian in Argentina resisted even longer.  Their resistance can be documented until 1879 when Julio Roca’s campaign put and end to the Indian resistance.  This was one year after the publication of  “La vuelta de Martin Fierro”.
An example of the Indian presence in Argentina is Domingo Sarmiento’s annotation in his “Facundo”:
‘En Santiago del Estero el grueso de la población campesina habla aùn la Quichua, que revela su origen indio`. (3).
Hernàndez reference the malones is not, in my view, a fair representation of the Indian struggle for land.  The poem does not mention, for instance, the festines, or Indian celebrations, as in works such as “La cautiva” or “Una excursion”.
Martinez Estrada asserts that the festines could have provided Hernandez with the opportunity to describe one of the most savage Indian customs.  However, “Martin Fierro” could not describe them,  Estrada affirms, because Fierro never lived inside the Indian communities.  I agree with Martinez Estrada in the latter point because I think that Hernandez’description of the campañas originates in his memories as young estanciero.
The festines, for instance, were celebrated in the  autumn, when the apples were fermented in pits dug in the earth and lined with horse hides to prevent the juice from escaping.  They were the annual drinking bouts.  Indian women would first go round carefully gathering up any knives, pears, bolas, or other weapons in the hands of drunken men, to carry them away into the forest, where they would conceal themselves with the children. Then for days the warriors would give themselves up to the joy of alcohol. Their favourite entertainment was to have a Koko-hinche or “white fool”, as a figure of fun.
Martinnez Estrada asserts that the poem`s doctrine represents ‘un cuadro de costumbres’ whose merits touch the substance of the life of the nation.  The prologues of the book, he argues, were written a posteriori when he was a reformist politician.  The poem touches the substance of the Argentinian nation, but not the Indian nation.  Martinez Estrada`s assertions of Indian presence in Argentina are not well documented.  However, I believe that the cultural legacy of an Indian past cannot be denied or ignored as Martin Fierro seems to imply.
Carlos Alonso argues that ‘a careful consideration of cultural discourse in Latin America reveals that the end of the nineteenth century coincided with a decided challenge in Latin America’s relationship with modernity’ (5).  If this argument is correct, I would say that, “Martin Fierro” was affected by the changes that occurred in the division of labour and the social upheaval which those social changes implied.
Alonso also argues that Neo-Kantian, Crocea  or Bergsonian ideas were, at the beginning, very slow to  reach Latin American intellectuals and that this failed to account for the unanimity  and depth of the nativist explosion al over Latin America.  It is also argued that autochthonous literature appeared because of a nostalgia for an agrarian past in the face of an imposed industrialization that shook the hegemony of the landed aristocracy.  I believe that Martin Fierro responded to the latter because the poem was inspired by Hernandez’ nostalgia for the estancia, an institution based on cattle farming which was by then being affected by the capitalist development of industry, commerce and banking.
“Martin Fierro” is one of the most rrepresentative works of literature gauchesca.  It efficiently describes the gaucho`s soul but fails to understand the Indian.  The poem`s description of the Indian in the frontera provides some epic passages, the monumental and heroic description of the fights with the Indians, delivers a feeling of veracity and grandeur which are reminiscent of Byron`s style.
The poem should be seen as similar to the Romances of the Spanish frontiers, but perhaps it is more appropriately consider seen as the work of the chronicler in a period of belligerence directed against the native population of Rio de la Plata.  Some verses relating to the Indian are full of veracity but even those passages also demonstrate prejudice, reflecting his own position of estanciero.  Hernandez spent ten years in the estancias of Camarones and Laguna.
In the first poem “Martin Fierro” describes his life as a happy gaucho.
‘Era una delicia ver como pasaba sus dìas’.

‘h tiempos….si era un orgullo
Ver ginetear un paisano-
Cuando era gaucho vaquiano
Aunque el potro se boliase
No habìa uno que no parase
Con el cabresto en la mano’  (Verse181).

In the first part of the poem the Indian plunders everything and kills everyone.  The Indian burns estancias.   However, the poems expresses similar attitudes from the gauchos who were sent to beat up the Indian communities, including women and children, in the toldos.

‘Nos anunciaban que irìamos
Sin carretas ni bagages
A golpear a los salvages.
En sus mesmas tolderìas…(Verses 943-946, page 1).

Another aspecto of the poem relates to Autori.  The first part of the poem was clearly against the authorities:

Pero aura…barbarida!
La cosa anda tan fruncida
Que gasta el pobre la vida
En juir de la utoridad (verse 255-8. p.1)

What happened was that the gauchos were compulsory conscripted.  Once in the army they were sent to the frontiers to fight the Indians to the wars of Independence.  Ramos Mejìa, in his book “Rosas y su tiempo”, states the following:
‘ El coronel Granada tenìa a sus ordenes batallones enteros de indígenas, y como èl muchos otros regimientos de caballerìa’ (6).
The fact is that the Indians were also used by the army to attack other tribes which did not comply with governmental authority.  Therefore, the Indians became distrustful and dealt for or against the army troops according to their own convenience.
In “La vuelta” the poem is designed to appease the authorities, a result of the author`s changed political views.  His party, the Autonomista Nacional, had become reconciled with the Mitrismo which formed part of the Conciliaciòn which in 1879 won a place for Hernandez as a member of Parliament in Buenos Aires.  The landowners and new industrialists weemed to have agreed on the course of development for Argentina.  This symbolized a re-alignment of the political forces in Argenitna which again did a little in favour of the Indian.
In “La vuelta” the Indians were accused of being alcoholics:
El bàrbaro solo sabe
Emborracharse y peliar: (Verse 569 p.2).
But in a sympathetic manner Martinn Fierro opines of Cruz`s drinking habits:

`Y Cruz no era remolòn
Ni pijotiaba garganta.  (Verse 1657, p.1)

And later states ‘lo agarramos mano a mano entre los dos al porròn’.  This does not epress criticism.  Martìn Fierro and Cruz came to the baile in a drunken state, Vizcacha used to give advice when drunk.  The killing of the negro was also carried out under the effects of alcohol.  These are examples of Hernandez partiality against the Indian.

Martin Fierro advises his sons not to consume alcohol:

‘Es siempre, en toda occasion.
El trago el pior enemigo.  (Verses, 4745-6, p.2).

But later we find him again drinking in el boliche when states:

‘Aquel que ofiende embriagado
Merece doble  castigo’.  (Verses 4749-50, p.2)

So Martin Fierro`s antipathy towards the Indian is subjective.  This is clear in the following verse:

‘Ha nacido el indio ladròn
y como indio ladròn muere.  (Verses 587-8, p.2).

Another of Martin`s Fierro biased assertions is his statement
That the Indians adopted the names of animals.  It is true that Indians used to name themselves after animals such as puma, leòn, ratòn, etc.

‘Hasta los nombres que tienen
Son de animales y fieras. (Verse 594, p.2).

However, during that period the Spaniards also were in the habito f adopting surnames such as Leòn, Vaca, Carnero, Toro, Aguila, etc.

“Martin Fierro” states that he only fights or kills when it is absolutely necessary:

‘Que nunca peleo ni mato
Sino por necesidad; …. (Verses 105-6, p.1).This attitude on the part of the gaucho is reminiscente of the attitude of the Carhuaz who settled their domestic diputes without the use of weapons.  However, it seems that Hernandez did not see this similarity, which would have reflected favourably on the Indian.

The gravity of the following verses suggests that the Indians were present in the dessert and that they constituted a considerable danger for travellers:

‘Para ocultarnos de dìa
A la vista del salvage,
Ganàbamos un parage
En que algùn abrigo hubiera-
A esperar que anocheciera
Para seguir nuestro viaje.  (Verses 1515-20, p.2).

However, earlier in the poem Martin Fierro contradicts himself when he states:

‘as tribus estàn desechas;
Los caciques màs altivos
Estàn muertos o cautivos’ (Verses 673-5, p.2).

This is partially trae, Julio Roca`s campaign against the Indian was in process but it finished a year after the publication of “La vuelta de Martin Fierro”.  It is true that Indian leaders such as Calfucura, Catriel and Baigorrita were dead, and many others in prison, but the tribes were not annihilated, they were dispersed.
I think that this discrimination against the Indian in favour of the gaucho arises from Hernandez’ luck of understanding of the Indian, his soul, his deprived social condition.  The poet did not portray the Indian from a native point of view as Arguedas did a hundred years later in Perù.  Hernandez’ view was the same as that held by the political establishment which saw the very existence of the Indian as a problem which ought to be dealt with.  His was the view of the estanciero, the land owner.  “Martin Fierro” is the product of a period in which the landed barons shared in the politics of conciliation.  La Conciliaciòn was in effect the name of the political alliance which place Hernandez as a member of Parliament in Buenos Äires in 1879.
The optimistic suggestion of Martinez Estrada of an organized Indian presence in the region at the end of the nineteenth century is not well documented.  I would argue that at the time Indians had been already exterminated in their thousands in the wars of pacification.  However the Indian survivors would surely have been difficult to ignore.

Finally I would like to state that: I agree with Carlos Alonso`s rejection of positivism as a cause for the development of an autochthonous literature, since positivist literature reached Latin America very slowly.  Bergson, for instance, published his first book in 1888:  “Ensayos sobre los Datos Inmediatos de la Conciencia”.  I believe that historical factors such as: modernization, industrialization, urbanism, etc. were factors which affected the development of an autochthonous literature.
The antagonistic contenders of the cuadro de costumbres versus the novella de la tierra, in my opinion, still far short of providing an interpretation of what is considered autochthonous.
I think that the nostalgia for an agrarian past which is very well illustrated by Weber, in his “Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism’, produced a reaction of the traditionalists, which in my view is expressed by “Martin Fierro”.  But it was traditional business which animated the entrepreneur, traditional life style, traditional profit making, traditional working conditions and traditional mistreatment of the Indian population.
My final view is that: the development of capitalism was not only in the interest of the landed aristocracy but also benefitted the rising strata of the lower industrial middle classes.   The contradictions between campaña and city were the soul of “Martin Fierro”.


1                    Figueroa, Josè H, “Los primitivos habitantes del Uruguay”, p.27, Montevideo, 1984.
2                    Koebel, “Uruguay”, p.147
3                    Sarmiento, Domingo, “Facundo” p.63, Catedra, Madrid, 1983.
4                    Martinez, Ezequiel, “Muerte y transfiguración de Martin Fierro”, volume 2, p.467, Capìtulo, Buenos Aires, 1981,
5                    Alonso, Carlos, “The Spanish American regional novel”, ch. 1,2, Nebraska, 1983.
6                    Martinez, Ezequiel, quoted bye ME, Muerte and transfiguraciòn de Martin Fierro”,v 3, p.587, Buenos Aires, 1983.