In conversation: Juan Morales, Uruguayan Gaucho

JUAN MORALES WAS BORN ON A RANCH. He now runs the Panagea Estancia, and as a boy, he rode two hours on horse back everyday to a one-room school house overlooking acres of grassland. His two daughters might start riding there as well, if he and his partner Suzanne decide to send them there instead of the local town’s boarding school. Juan was taught in a class of thirty pupils, but four decades later, there are only three pupils. With one class for different age groups, Juan and Suzanne decide between the quality of their daughters’ education and sustaining a school that allows the children of neighbouring Gauchos to remain at home. Since the 1950s, rural workers have migrated to over-crowded cities. The school is testament to their stories. 

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Uruguay on the map is a fish swimming peacefully between two sharks, Argentina and Brazil. With a population of under three and half million, change could be wrought quickly. José Mujica, Uruguay’s previous president, fought with left-wing urban guerrilla group Tupamaros in the 60’s – robbing banks to give money to Montevideo’s poorest. You wouldn’t see him in the Legislative Palace wearing a three-piece suit because he donated 90% of his monthly wage to charity. In his last presidential term, he passed the experimental legalisation of Marijuana to combat the street drug Pasta Base, a by-product of Cocaine. With the effects of this law yielding mixed opinions, the new leftist president Tabaré Vázquez is radically developing Uruguay’s environmental footprint, and as of 2015, 95% of the country’s energy is supplied by renewable sources.

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However, in the less developed north, the working conditions of many Gauchos resemble their distant ancestors. Juan becomes impassioned when discussing Gaucho’s lack of a fridge in the summer, or their lack of running water. A Gaucho all his life, he began accepting travellers to his Estancia fifteen years ago with the intent of sharing a manner of life he fears is depleting. Gauchos figure less than 3% of the population. Without a growth in rural workers, there is little Government incentive to extend electrical grids to the most isolated parts of the North. Above all Juan hopes for the modernisation and expansion of rural work, even if this threatens the preservation of the traditional Gaucho lifestyle he has grown up with. He feels that Vázquez overlooks the potential of rural work as a mode to tackle poverty, unemployment and drug abuse within Uruguay’s cities. I interviewed Juan last August to find out more about his concerns.

Would you say Gauchos in Uruguay have similar political views to one another?

I would say that most Gauchos share the same philosophy and attitude regarding everything in life and this includes politics, yes. In Uruguay, under 5% of the population live in the countryside. Out of this percentage, around 3% are Gauchos. We are in 2015 now, and you go to visit any ranch in the North of Uruguay and people are still living like they are living half a century ago – exactly the same. If you go to the ranches in Northern Uruguay, no one has electricity – no one has running water. I am lucky, I have a generator and a fridge. I just complain about the Gauchos that live in the darkness. I am speaking for the Gauchos that do not have a voice.

Near the Brazilian border?

Uruguay is split in two, by the Rio Negro (black river). You have the South – quite developed, and you have the North, where we are. Since most owners of the land do not live in their farms, they live in the cities. They go to their ranches in the weekend – we call them ‘weekend Gauchos’ they go to take a look and then come back to the city.

Do they have workers there?

Yes, living there. They do not care at all about the conditions of the Gauchos living there. That is why there are Gauchos living in 2015 – they live with candles and no running water and no decent roads and no mobile coverage. The thing is that most of them have been living like this for their whole life – they do not know any different.

And there’s no resentment from them towards Uruguay’s urbanisation?

The thing is that, the Gaucho life is so hard and tough – and demanding, that there is not a place for resentment. They do not have time or energy to go to these feelings. They have to survive in a very harsh, hard environment all of the time.

Do you think rural work is a viable solution to the abuse of Pasta Base in the cities?

It would be a huge step. As the book of Martin Fierro says; “muchos vicios nacen del ocio” (many vices arise during leisure). But you need to create a new mentality with programs that try to integrate the rural population with the urban one. In Uruguay the rural and urban population do not know each other – they are pulling in different directions.

If a higher percentage of the countryside was electrified, would be a growth of new Estancias?

Absolutely! We need people in the countryside, for God’s sake! 2015 without electricity! It is amazing. And our government claims that Uruguay is the most electrified country in Latin America. They say that 95% of the people have electricity. Yes, correct, 95% have electricity. But if you consider the countryside, I would say that 75% of the countryside does not have electricity. The government’s percentage is about size, not about numbers of people. This small percentage does not matter to politicians.

Does rural work offer better economic prospects than lower paid jobs in the city? Do you think the government should encourage more Uruguayans to work in the rural sector?

Correct. Uruguay is a rural based economy, and needs more people working in rural areas – every day it is more difficult to find hands. All those people living on the favelas outskirts of Uruguayan cities are a “waste” of human resources, in a country with a chronic shortage of them.

Do Gauchos get a proper education in your opinion?

Everybody has been to school, state school. It is compulsory. You do not get many things if you have not been in school. To get to the Gaucho school near here, it is 7km. Start early in the morning with a horse, and when you go there, you get the feeling of what the children feel when going to school. Every day on horseback, they ride to school, over rivers. Some of them for hours!

Do you think that if there is no increase in electricity within the next 20 years, that there will be a gradual decline in new generations of Gauchos?

Yes, exactly, that is a good way to put things in perspective. If we keep it the same way, there will be a moment when there are no Gauchos at all, because no one, only very old people, will be living in the countryside.

So Gaucho culture is dying out.

Nobody wants to live in the countryside, you don’t have a fridge! Imagine from November to March, 25 degrees – without a fridge! If the government invested in resources to bring the slums of the cities into the countryside – than we would have a new Uruguay. So far we are unable to think in this way.

The thing is you need to make a decision: Do you want, in the 21st century, to keep people living like they were in the 19th century, just for the sake of keeping a culture, or do you think people have the right to have internet, and electricity and a bloody phone and a fridge running in bloody summer? I am very sorry if that is going to take some part of the Gaucho culture but of course we need to change that.

Part III of our series, ‘Uruguayan Gauchos – Living in Darkness‘. 

This article was written by Flora Hastings. She is also a photographer – visit her website here

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