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Ostensibly a biography of the gaucho barbarian Juan Facundo Quiroga, Facundo is also a complex, passionate work of history, sociology, and political commentary, and Latin America's most important essay of the nineteenth century.
The American continent ends to the south in a point, at whose extreme end the Strait of Magellan is formed. To the west, and at a short distance from the Pacific, the Chilean Andes run parallel to the coast. The land that lies to the east of that chain of mountains and to the west of the Atlantic, following the Rmo de la Plata toward the interior upstream along the Uruguay, is the territory formerly called the United Provinces of the Rmo de la Plata, and there, blood is still being shed in order to name it either the Argentine Republic or the Argentine Confederation. To the north are Paraguay, the Gran Chaco, and Bolivia, its alleged borders.
The immense expanse of land is entirely unpopulated at its extreme limits, and it possesses navigable rivers that no fragile little boat has yet plowed. The disease from which the Argentine Republic suffers is its own expanse: the desertwilderness surrounds it on all sides and insinuates into its bowels; solitude, a barren land with no human habitation, in general are the unquestionable borders between one province and another. There, immensity is everywhere: immense plains, immense forests, immense rivers, the horizon always unclear, always confused with the earth amid swift-moving clouds and tenuous mists, which do not allow the point where the world ends and the sky begins to be marked in a far-off perspective. To the south and the north, savages lurk, waiting for moonlit nights to descend, like a pack of hyenas, on the herds that graze the countryside, and on defenseless settlements. In the solitary caravan of wagons slowly traversing the Pampas that stops to rest for a few moments, the crew, gathered around a poor fire, mechanically turn their eyes toward the south at the least murmur of wind blowing the dry grass, to bore their gaze into the profound darkness of the night, searching out the sinister bulks of savage hordes that from one moment to the next can surprise them unprepared. If their ears hear no sound, if their eyes cannot pierce the dark veil that covers this quiet solitude, to be absolutely sure they turn their gaze to the ears of some horse next to the fire, observing if these are at rest and easily folded back. Then their interrupted conversation continues, or they put the half-singed strips of dried beef that are their food into their mouths. If it is not the proximity of savages that worries the man of the countryside, it is the fear of a tiger stalking him, of a viper he might step on. This insecurity in life, which is customary and permanent in the countryside, imprints upon the Argentine character, to my mind, a certain stoic resignation to violent death, making it one of the misfortunes that are inseparable from life, a manner of dying just like any other, and perhaps this may explain, in part, the indifference with which death is given and received, without leaving any deep or lasting impression on those who survive.
The inhabited part of this country, so privileged in riches and containing all manner of climates, may be divided into three distinct physiognomies that imprint different qualities on the populace, according to the way in which it must come to terms with the nature that surrounds it. In the north, melding into the Chaco, a dense forest with impenetrable branches covers expanses we would call unheard of, were there anything unheard of about colossal forms anywhere in the entire expanse of America. In the center, parallel zone, the Pampas and the jungle dispute the land for a long while; the forest dominates in places, then breaks down into sickly, spiny bushes; the jungle appears again thanks to some river that favors it, until in the south the Pampas finally triumph and display their smooth, downy brow, infinite, with no known limit, no noteworthy break. It is an image of the sea on land, the land as it looks on the map, the land still waiting for a command to produce plants and all kinds of seed.
As a notable feature of the physiognomy of this country, one could indicate the agglomeration of navigable rivers that meet in the east, from all points on the horizon, to unite in the Plata and gravely present their stupendous tribute to the ocean, which takes it on the flank, not without visible signs of turbulence and respect. But these immense canals, excavated by the solicitous hand of nature, do not bring about any changes at all in national customs. The son of the Spanish adventurers that colonized the country detests navigation, and feels himself imprisoned within the narrow confines of a boat or launch. When a large river cuts off his path, he calmly undresses, prepares his horse, and directs it to swim toward some barren island out in the distance; arriving there, horse and horseman rest, and from island to island, the crossing is finally completed.
In this manner, the greatest favor that divine providence grants to a people is disdained by the Argentine gaucho, who sees it as an obstacle opposing his movement, rather than the most powerful medium for facilitating it. In this manner, the source of the greatness of nations which brought celebrity to remote Egypt, which made Holland great and is the cause of the rapid development of North America-navigation through rivers or canals-is a dead resource, unexploited by the inhabitant of the margins of the Bermejo, Pilcomayo, Parana, Paraguay, and Uruguay Rivers. From the Plata, a few little ships with Italian and Genoese crews sail upstream; but this movement goes only a few leagues, and then ceases almost entirely. The instinct for navigation, possessed to such a high degree by the Saxons of the north, was not given to the Spanish. A different spirit is needed to stir up those arteries, in which the vivifying fluids of a nation today lie stagnant. Of all these rivers that should be bringing civilization, power, and wealth to even the most hidden depths of the continent, making Santa Fe, Entre Rmos, Corrientes, Csrdoba, Salta, Tucuman, and Jujuy peoples swimming in riches and overflowing with population and culture, there is only one that is fecund in its benefits for those who live on its banks: the Plata, which sums up all of them.
At its mouth are situated two cities: Montevideo and Buenos Aires, today alternately reaping the advantages of their enviable position. Buenos Aires is destined one day to be the most gigantic city of both Americas. With a benign climate, mistress of the navigation of the hundred rivers that flow at its feet, leisurely reclining over an immense territory, and with thirteen interior provinces knowing no other outlet for their products, it already would be the American Babylon, had not the spirit of the Pampas blown over it and the riches that the rivers and provinces must always bring to it in tribute been strangled at their source. It alone, in the vast expanse of Argentina, is in contact with European nations; it alone exploits the advantages of foreign commerce; it alone has power and income. In vain, the provinces have asked it to allow a little bit of European civilization, industry, and immigration to reach them; stupid, colonial policies have turned a deaf ear to this clamor. But the provinces avenged themselves by sending Buenos Aires, in Rosas, much and too much of the barbarism they have to spare.
Very dearly have those who used to say, "The Argentine Republic ends at Arroyo del Medio," paid the price. Now it goes from the Andes to the sea: barbarism and violence have brought Buenos Aires down to a level even lower than that of the provinces. We should not complain about Buenos Aires, which is great and will become more so, because this is its fate. First we would have to complain about divine providence, and ask that it rectify the configuration of the earth. As this is not possible, let us accept as made well that which the Master's hand has made. Let us complain about the ignorance of this brutal power that makes sterile, for himself and for the provinces, the gifts that nature wasted on a people who have strayed. Buenos Aires, instead of sending prosperity, riches, and knowledge to the interior, now sends only chains, exterminating hordes, and little subordinate tyrants. It too avenges the evil the provinces did to it when they trained Rosas! I have indicated this circumstance of the monopolizing position of Buenos Aires to show how in that country there is an organization of the land so central and so unitary, that although Rosas might have cried in good faith: "Confederation or death!" he would have ended up with the Unitarist system that he has established today. We, however, wanted unity in civilization and liberty and have been given unity in barbarism and slavery. But another time will come in which things will return to their normal course. For now, what concerns us is to know that the progress of civilization accrues only in Buenos Aires: the Pampas are a very bad means of bringing and distributing it to the provinces, and later we shall see what results from this. But, beyond all these features peculiar to certain parts of that territory, one general, uniform, and constant trait predominates: Whether the land is covered with the lush, colossal vegetation of the tropics, or sickly, spiny, rough bushes reveal the scarce moisture that gives them life, or, finally, whether the Pampas display their clear, monotonous face, the surface of the land is generally flat and unified, without even the sierras of San Luis and Csrdoba in the center, and some outlying branches of the Andes in the north, being enough to interrupt this limitless continuity. A new unifying element for the nation that one day will populate those vast solitudes, since it is well known that mountains interposed between countries, and other natural obstacles, maintain the isolation of peoples and preserve their primitive peculiarities. North America is destined to be a federation, less because of the initial independence of its settlements, than because of her broad exposure to the Atlantic and the many routes that lead from it to the interior: the St. Lawrence in the north, the Mississippi in the south, and the immense system of canals in the center. The Argentine Republic is "one and indivisible."
Many philosophers, too, have thought that the plains prepare the way for despotism, in the same way that the mountains have lent support to the forces of liberty. This limitless plain, which from Salta to Buenos Aires and from there to Mendoza, for a distance of more than seven hundred leagues, allows enormous, heavy wagons to roll without meeting a single obstacle on roads where human hands have scarcely needed to cut down more than a few trees and shrubs, this plain constitutes one of the most notable features of the Republic's interior physiognomy. To prepare routes of communication, all that is needed are individual effort and the results of raw nature; even if skill were to lend nature its assistance, even if the forces of society tried to supplant the weakness of the individual, the colossal dimensions of the task would terrify the most enterprising, and the inadequacy of the effort would make it inopportune. So, in the matter of roads, wild nature will make the laws for a long time to come, and the actions of civilization will remain weak and ineffective.
This expanse of the plains, moreover, imprints a certain Asiatic tinge on life in the interior that is not at all unpronounced. Many times, when a tranquil, resplendent moon appears from amid the grassland, I have saluted it mechanically with these words of Volney, describing the Ruins: "La pleine lune ' l'Orient s'ilevait sur un fond bleubtre aux plaines rives de l'Euphrate." And, in effect, there is something in the Argentine solitudes that brings to mind the Asian solitudes; there is some analogy to be found between the spirit of the Pampas and the plains that lie between the Tigris and the Euphrates; some relation between the troop of solitary wagons crossing our solitudes to arrive, after a march of months, in Buenos Aires, and the caravan of camels heading for Baghdad or Smyrna. Our traveling wagons are a kind of squadron of small vessels, whose people have their own customs, languages, and dress that distinguish them from other inhabitants, as the sailor may be distinguished from men of the land.
The foreman is a caudillo, as is the caravan chief in Asia. To reach this position, he needs a will of iron and a character so bold as to be rash, in order to control the audacity and turbulent nature of the land buccaneers that he alone will govern and dominate, in the abandoned wilds of the desert. At the least sign of insubordination, the foreman raises his iron chicote and lets loose blows causing contusions and wounds on the insolent one; if the resistance continues, before resorting to pistols, whose aid he generally disdains, he jumps from his horse with his formidable knife in hand, and very quickly reclaims his authority by the superior dexterity with which he handles it. He who dies in these executions by the foreman leaves behind no rights to any kind of complaint, since the authority that has murdered him is considered to be legitimate.
This, then, is how, in Argentine life, the predominance of brute force, the preponderance of the strongest, authority with no limits and no accountability for those in command, justice administered without formality and without debate, begin to be established because of these peculiar characteristics. In addition, the wagon troop carries firearms: a rifle or two in each wagon and sometimes a small, swiveling cannon in the lead one. If barbarians attack the troop, it forms a circle by tying one wagon to the next, and almost always victoriously resists the greed of the savages, avid for blood and plunder.
Mule trains frequently fall, defenseless, into the hands of these American Bedouins, and it is a rare instance when the muleteers escape having their throats cut. On these long trips, the Argentine proletarian acquires the habit of living far from society and of struggling alone with nature, hardened by privation, with no resources but his own personal cleverness and ability to guard against all the risks that continually surround him.
The people who inhabit these extensive territories are made up of two distinct races, Spanish and indigenous, which, by mixing, form imperceptible halfway points.
Excerpted from Facundo by Domingo F. Sarmiento Copyright © 1998 by Domingo F. Sarmiento. Excerpted by permission.
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Translated by Mary Peabody Mann with an Introduction by Ilan Stavans
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Text
FACUNDO: OR, CIVILIZATION AND BARBARISM
Appendix: Author's Notice from the 1845 Edition
Posted May 14, 2009
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