North America has its cowboys, Argentina its gauchos, but the closest equivalent in Chile is the huaso chileno. This is the typical folkloric portrayal of Chileans, complete with traditional costume, that one finds in illustrated travel literature.
In Chile, the true reference is to the rural farmers of the Central and Southern Regions, from Coquimbo in northern Chile to the Lakes Region in the south. These farmers, who are engaged in livestock and agriculture, are the men who make their living from the earth. There are differing opinions about the origin of the term huaso.
One opinion is that the roots are from Andalusia in Spain, where the word huasa referred to “a lack of grace”. Another opinion is that it derives from the indigenous Quechua (inhabitants of the Central Andes) word “huasu”, referring to riders and later to refer to all those engaged in agriculture who also rode a horse. A huaso chileno is a rural farmer and unlike their Argentine counterparts, may be engaged in not only livestock breeding but also in agriculture in its broadest sense. Whichever opinion is correct, the essence of the word is very clear. The huaso chileno came to the fore in the 18th century when the central zone of Chile began to witness economic, political and cultural development. Man and horse became an integral part of this process and naturally, a close bond developed which continues until today, despite the mechanization of many of the original activities.
Their attributes are the same as those generally admired and associated with their counterparts worldwide. They are regarded as loyal, chivalrous, honest, hard-working, generous, proud and forthright. The huaso chileno is a man who makes his living the hard way and has no time for the sensitivities of urban life. Constantly arm-wrestling with Mother Nature to feed his family, he is alien to the 9 to 5 routine, the demands of impetuous bosses and the social skills essential to his urban cousins. The true huaso, of course, is a horseman first and foremost – so it is no surprise that the national sport of Chile, the Rodeo, is the opportunity for the huaso to display his skills.
The skills on display in the rodeo are those that have been learned and honed in everyday life, such as the herding of cattle. This involves teamwork between huaso and horse, which must be trained to gallop sideways in order to effectively herd the cattle into an enclosure. During the Rodeo, the horsemen are required to wear the traditional huaso garb. The rodeo season is spring and summer and the main centre is in Rancagua.
The dress of the huaso has evolved into two distinct forms – one that is used for everyday work and the other that is used for ceremonial occasions, parades and other fiestas. Naturally, the attire for everyday life is comfortable and practical. Both dress forms however, are similar and are characterised by a flat-brimmed hat, short jacket and a chamanta (a short multi-coloured blanket with an opening for the head, similar to a poncho) which is worn over the shoulders. Ceremonial wear tends to be more colourful, with a red sash and includes other elaborate items such as decorative stirrups and silver spurs called espuelas. These ceremonial spurs are frequently found in good gift stores as they are a very fine and typical representation of the folkloric culture of Chile, apart from being a wonderful gift.
Unfortunately, and rather similarly to their counterparts in most countries worldwide, the perceived absence of social graces and of urban sophistication has led to the development of expressions among the urban Santiago population that are less than flattering to the huaso population. The term huaso is often used in a derogatory sense to identify someone who is not from the city, is shy, or who fits the prejudice that being from the rural areas, he does not have good social skills.
That being the case, it is something of a paradox that the major celebrations in Chile, especially for the Independence festivities around the 18th of September, are characterised by the appearance of the huaso chileno in full ceremonial dress. These celebrations would never be complete without their appearance and their participation in the traditional Chilean folk dance, the cueca, which was declared the national dance of Chile in 1979. This dance is thought to symbolise the courtship ritual between a rooster and hen, where the brightly coloured ceremonial outfit of the huaso and his spurs match the colourful plumage and spurs of the rooster. The hen, of course, is represented by his dance partner, referred to as china, who is likewise dressed in an extravagant traditional folkloric manner. The dance is characterised by both partners shaking a handkerchief in the air as they twirl and move in a courtship routine.
Despite this less than dignified use of the term, the huaso chileno remains a true symbol of Chile, a colourful character whose labour and horsemanship were integral to the evolution of Chile into the strong agrarian society that it is today. Every year on the 18thof September as Chileans celebrate their independence, they know full well the important role that the huaso has played in this evolution. They expect to see their participation front and centre and their presence is a reminder of the romance that exists between man, animal and Mother Earth.
If you are interested to see a small exhibition of huaso artefacts such as the chamanta, hats, stirrups, spurs and saddles they are available in a small museum, the misleadingly named Museo de la Chilenidad, in the grounds of the Casa Santa Rosa de Apoquindo. This is located at 1155 Av.Padre Hurtado Sur in Las Condes. It’s not easy to get to as the nearest metro stop at Los Dominicos is about a 20 minute walk away. This is really a very small exhibit and does not include many other dress items nor does it present a complete portrayal of the life and evolution of the huaso chileno. In that respect it is disappointing. The exhibit is sponsored by the Municipality of Las Condes together with the Horse Breeders’ Federation. I was told that plans are in the works to extend the exhibition to present a more complete portrayal. On the other hand, entrance is free and the grounds are pleasant. Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30am to 7:00pm.