Wednesday, February 17, 2010


As the world becomes smaller, traditional cultures are heavily influenced by encroachments of modern life, so much so that in time many eventually disappear. I recall recently that the last known member of a native East Indian group passed, taking with her the language and culture of her people. And this process, of course, is not new, though modern technology seems to have accelerated it. In Nick Reding’s Last Cowboys at the End of the World the author sought to come to some understanding about the changes experienced by one group, the gauchos of Chile (who migrated out of Argentina as it was modernized). In Patagonia these independent and tough individuals (who often prefer being alone) work as sheep and cattle raisers in the high mountains of southern South America. Although not very religious, they are strong believers in the Devil and witchcraft. They resist newcomers, to the point of extreme shyness, and suffer the effects of isolation in such a hard country. In fact, boredom and isolation seem to be the root of violence and drunkenness. Reding spent most of his time living with Duck and Edith, and their three children; Duck was the foreman on an absentee-owner ranch. One of the most harrowing incidents happens when the author is attacked by his host, seemingly (as later explained) because he is trying to elicit some sort of emotional response from the writer, who had tried to maintain his distance and objectivity. There are fascinating and funny details of cultural nuances, from the manner of drinking and sharing mate (tea), which can reveal the unspoken intentions of the host. Although the book is uneven, there are wonderful parts, such as his description of his participation on a cattle drive (after he lied about knowing how to ride a horse), attending a dance, tagging along with a cattle rustler into the neighboring Argentina, facing a street gang in one of the towns. I loved when Duck turned to Reding, who had screwed up royally, and says, "If idiots like you could fly, Nico, the sky would be cloudy every day." I also was fascinated by the collogialisms, such as when a person tells another that they know they are holding back on some tidbit of information, "I can see the tail of the rat in your trap." These are stubborn and proud people, and yet there is humor and desire, jealousy and spite, sadness and despair. Although I was acquainted with the gauchos’ history somewhat, this book was an interesting, revealing exploration that broadened my limited knowledge. I think it is a good addition to the literature on the effect of modernization in Latin America.

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