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Cowboys of Color in South America

In the following account North Carolina State University historian Richard Slatta explores the little known history and heritage of South American cowboys of African and mixed race background.

Many students of frontier societies, most notably Frederick Jackson Turner, have depicted the frontier as a place of relatively greater democracy and social leveling. Unfettered by the social conventions and constraints of settled society, the frontier supposedly offered greater opportunity and equality to all. In reality, ethnic minorities faced discrimination in ranching frontiers throughout the Americas. A parallel myth, especially strong in Argentina and the United States, depicts cowboys, the quintessential frontier heroes, as white. A look at frontier demographics reveals the vast majority of Latin American cowboys to have been any color except white. Thus myth and social reality diverged in both North and South America.

Horsemen throughout South America exhibited a similar ethnic makeup, but local differences altered the relative proportions. In Venezuela, the greater number of slaves and runaways who escaped from coastal plantations increased the black influence among the cowboy or llanero population. Estimates for Venezuela in the early nineteenth century place the white population (Spaniards and creoles, or American-born Spaniards) at no more than 20 to 25 percent of the total, with castas (nonwhite lower classes) comprising the balance. Slavery figured less prominently in the economies of colonial Uruguay and Argentina, so mestizos outnumbered black gauchos (cowboys of the pampas or plains).

Brazil developed two distinctive cowboy cultures. Vaqueiros worked in the sertão, the poor, dry, dusty backlands of the countrys northeastern hump. Often beset by long droughts, the region required hardy cattle capable of surviving the desert conditions. In the early colonial era, poor Portuguese immigrants worked as cowboys, but over time, miscegenation created a multiethnic society throughout most of Brazil. By the