In 1980 the redoubtable, inimitable Steely Dan released an album called ‘Gaucho’. “Wot dat mean?” I thought to myself at the time, cradling my new LP in a Bradford slum. And so, being endlessly fascinated by all ‘Danisms’, I immediately reached for my heavyweight dictionary. I remember the entry to this day: ‘A cowboy from the South American Pampas region’. How remote that seemed, how other-worldly, as far away from the north of England as Bethlehem or the Bermuda Triangle. Little did I know how my world would dramatically change.
Now Gauchos fill my life. I couldn’t rid myself of them even if I wanted to. But the Gaúchos (and Gaúchas) I meet and greet everyday are not cowboys or cowgirls. They are proud, hard-working Brazilians who love barbecued beef and coarse green tea sucked through a metal tube. Rio Grande do Sul, on the south side of Brazil, is Gaúcho country, where the cattle herders used to roam the Pampas plains in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were a proud bunch who resented encroachment from the north and fought for independence from the rest of Brazil. Even today, Gaúchos in Porto Alegre, where I live, readily admit they have more in common with other ‘Gauchos’ from nearby Uruguay and Argentina than they do with Brazilians in Rio or Bahia.
The immigrants who settled in the cooler climes of southern Brazil were predominantly Italian and German. Not natural bedfellows you might think, but with their stiff European edges smoothened by the long humid summers, the two cultures learned to mingle and merge. On the German side you have that pragmatic, Protestant work-ethic with the pioneering, mechanical mind-set and loud, beer-drinking heartiness. The Italians temper this will-to-succeed with their love of children, good food, gossip and, at least for the men, chasing women.
But there’s still enough of the Brazilian about these umpteenth generation Gaúchos to make the party swing; to spice up the sausage pizza with some of that hot samba sauce.