For many people the state of Rio Grande do Sul, bordering Argentina and Uruguay, is their first or last experience of Brazil. More than most parts of the country, it has an extremely strong regional identity – to the extent that it’s the only state where the possibility of independence has been discussed. Central government’s authority over Brazil’s southernmost state has often been weak: in the colonial era, the territory was virtually a no-man’s-land separating the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Out of this emerged a strongly independent people, mostly pioneer farmers and the descendants of European immigrants, isolated fishing communities and, best known, the gaúchos, the cowboys of southern South America whose name is now used for all inhabitants of the state, whatever their origins.
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During the colonial era and well into the nineteenth century, Rio Grande do Sul’s southern and western frontiers were ill-defined, with Portugal and Spain, and then independent Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, maintaining garrisons to assert their claims to the region. Frontier clashes were frequent, with central government presence weak or nonexistent. If anyone could maintain some measure of control over these border territories it was the gaúchos, the fabled horsemen of southern South America. The product of miscegenation between Spanish, Portuguese, Indians and escaped slaves, the gaúchos wandered the region on horseback, either individually or in small bands, making a living by hunting wild cattle for their hides. Alliances were formed in support of local caudilhos (chiefs), who fought for control of the territory on behalf of the flag of one or other competing power. With a reputation for being tough and fearless, the gaúcho was also said to be supremely callous – displaying the same indifference in slitting a human or a bullock’s throat.
As the nineteenth century ended, so too did the gaúcho’s traditional way of life. International boundaries were accepted, and landowners were better able to exert control over their properties. Finally, as fencing was introduced and rail lines arrived, cattle turned into an industry, with the animals raised rather than hunted. Gradually gaúchos were made redundant, reduced to the status of mere peões or cattle hands.
Still, more in Rio Grande do Sul than in Argentina, some gaúcho traditions persist, though for a visitor to get much of a picture of the present-day way of life is difficult. In general, the cities and towns of the state’s interior are fairly characterless, though travelling between towns still brings echoes of former times, especially if you get off the beaten track. Here, in the small villages, horses are not only a tool used to herd cattle, but remain an essential means of transport. While women are no differently dressed than in the rest of Brazil, men appear in much the same way as their gaúcho predecessors: in bombachas (baggy trousers), linen shirt, kerchief, poncho and felt-rimmed hat, shod in pleated boots and fancy spurs. Also associated with the interior of Rio Grande do Sul is chimarrão (sugarless maté tea), which is sipped through a bomba (a silver straw) from a cuia (a gourd). In the towns themselves, cattlemen are always to be seen, purchasing supplies or hanging out in bars. But undoubtedly your best chance of getting a feel of the interior is to attend a rodeio, held regularly in towns and villages throughout gaúcho country. Branches of the state tourist office, CRTur, will have information about when and where rodeios are due to take place.