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Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Uruguay

Old-School Gaucho Develops New-Age Career

  KIYU, Uruguay – Where there are cattle – lots of them – there has to be cowboys. That was the assumption I had after learning that tiny Uruguay leads the world in cattle per capita. An easier way to explain it: There are 3.5 million people living here. They are joined by 12 million cattle.

  Which is why I traveled 60 miles northwest from Montevideo, the capital, to this small coastal village in search of a Uruguayan cowboy, called gauchos here.

  I found my gaucho.

  But he was not what I expected.

                                                               ***

  The journey was promising. As we motored along a fairly flat, two-lane road, I felt like I was in a Western state, passing one cattle ranch after the other. They were mostly smaller than their American counterparts. An occasional dairy or sheep farm were sprinkled in among them.

  When we arrived in Kiyu [population: 300], I assumed we were headed to a ranch west of the village. But we pulled off the road and parked in front of a sizable corral surrounded by a sparse forest.    Around a dozen horses occupied the corral. If there were cattle around, I didn’t see any. Small homes just west of the trees and across the road gave the setting more of a residential rather than rural vibe.

  In front of the corral was a long, wooden, handmade sofa with three thick cushions. Sitting on the couch was a man who introduced himself as William David Cabrera Hernandez.

  “Call me David,” he said, standing up and shaking my hand with a firm grip.

  First question: “Is this where you work?”

  David: “Yes, most of the time.”

  He could see I was surprised.

  “I thought you worked on a ranch,” I said.

  He laughed and said he used to work on a ranch. Many ranches. But those days were mostly over.

  David was a formidable presence. He was of medium height but had the neck of a football linebacker and forearms the size of fence posts. He had a strong nose, thick, black eyebrows and olive skin. A gaucho-styled beret covered his shiny pate. Wedged into his waistband was a knife and knife sharpener. A leather whip of some sort lay next to him on the sofa. He later told me it was a horse guide, known as a rebenque.

  David said he grew up in a nearby village, one of five children in a non-ranching family. His father sold cow hides to leather factories.   David was different than his siblings. From an early age, he had a love of horses. At 12, he graduated from primary school and instead of a bicycle, like most of his friends wanted, he asked his father for a horse.  To his surprise, his wish was granted. He named him Mandinga.

  Almost immediately, it was clear David was born to be a horseman.   Recalling his early training of Mandiga, he said: “I had a connection with the horse.”

  He soon was noticed by local gauchos, one of whom, Luis Villa, became his mentor. Under Luis’s tutelage, David became a gaucho-in-training. Although he had yet to turn 13, he found himself working on cattle drives and grazing excursions, which sometimes kept him away from home a week or more. He loved sleeping under the stars and bonding with the other gauchos. But mostly he enjoyed being around horses. By 14 he could break in a colt for riding no matter the level of its ferocity.

  Asked what his family thought of him leaving school at such a young age, he said: “Well, I was the black sheep in the family. No one could understand why I wanted to choose this path.”

  In gaucho circles, he was something altogether different. Gerardo Gomez, a local gaucho historian, told me later that day that David was like a soccer prodigy.

  “But his gift was taming wild horses.”

Moving On

  At 18, David decided to earn a better living and signed on at a meat processing plant. To say the job was out of his element would be an understatement.

  “Worst three years of my life,” he said.

  Once he regained his senses, David returned to his former life. He was hired as a laborer at a ranch, where he also trained horses.   Eventually, he married and fathered two sons. The family moved into a house that, well, was pretty much just a roof and four walls.

  “We had no water. No electricity. No bathroom,” David said.

  After 10 years, the marriage ended.

  “Your wife didn’t like the lifestyle?” I asked.

  “No,” he said. “She liked it. Our divorce was related to something else.”

 On his own once again, David began a career as a freelance gaucho, moving from one ranch to another. This ran counter to the typical Uruguayan gaucho who generally remained at a single ranch their entire career.

  “I enjoyed being independent,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be in one place.”

 David’s reputation as an untamed horse whisperer guaranteed he’d always be employed.

The Modern Gaucho

  Around 2013, when David was 45, he could see the days of the traditional gaucho declining. Cattle began being moved by trucks rather than the traditional overland drive. The gaucho’s duties became more confined to the ranch – branding, mending fences and other laborious tasks. Many of the traditions of the gaucho’s way of life – traveling miles on horseback, living out in the open, campfire kitchens – were disappearing.

  Aside from being a skilled horseman David was a savvy businessman with a flexible mindset. He moved here. Bought some land. Built a simple home on one side of the road and on the other side the corral behind where we sat. He continued his work as a horse trainer for hire. And he began buying and raising colts as well as adult horses.

  Another surprise: The 11 horses in the corral belonged to David. An additional 29, also owned by him, were grazing on a ranch with whom David has a barter agreement. David’s horses keep the wild grasses trimmed. And his horses have a place to stay fed.

  “There’s no money involved,” he said of the arrangement.

  I asked: “So how do you make a living besides training horses?”

  He smiled and pulled out his cell phone. In about 15 seconds he had me looking at a Facebook page titled Horseback Riding Tours in Kuya. He then clicked on a Tik Tok file and there was a slide show with David on horseback leading a group of young adults, also on horseback, along a sandy path.

  By then I was done being shocked by anything he told me.

  Once he had his horses, David started promoting riding tours. Tourism was on the increase in Uruguay. Some ranches welcomed visitors for riding excursions and hobnobbing with their gauchos, who in recent years had become romanticized figures. David, remaining independent as always, figured he could combine the two on his own. After all, who could talk about the life of a gaucho better than he?

  “How’s business?” I asked.

  “Good,” he said.

  He explained his schedule. The tours are arranged for weekends. He charges $11.50 an hour for each customer. His most popular ride is the monthly full moon excursion, which includes a trek on the beach, bonfire and barbecue. [$25.40]. During the week, David tends to his horses and handles the occasional training gig. Even that has changed over the years.

  “The younger gauchos are less patient and are trying new techniques,” he said. “For me, it’s always been my strength versus the strength of the horse.”

  Another unwelcomed change: David was obliged to buy a truck to transport his horses.

  “I’d rather move them on horseback, like the old days,” he said, “but that’s no longer possible because the roads are too dangerous.”

Reflections

  As we began to wind down our discussion, a trio of mutts showed up. David introduced them: Paloma, Rita and Malava.

  “They keep me company.”

  I asked what it has been like to, essentially, live two different lives – the traditional gaucho and now a modern one.

  “I miss the old days,” said David, now 55. “Especially sleeping under the stars. I still do it from time-to-time. But the reality is you have to do whatever it takes to make a living.”

  Did his family ever agree with his life as a gaucho? I asked.

  “After a while, my father eventually accepted it. He understood that every person needs to live the way they want.”

  Finally: What would your mentor, Luis Villa, think about the life of a new age gaucho?

  That question evoked a loud laugh from David.

  “He wouldn’t like it at all.”

Editor’s note: Fourth in a series from a reporting trip to Uruguay Oct. 8-12, 2023

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