Story by Ryan T. Bell / Photographs by Eliseo Miciú
Argentine braiding traditions, an increasing influence north of the equator, were fueled by a need to survive on the South American frontier, where a strand of rawhide was all that separated a gaucho from certain death.
It’s hard to beat the utilitarian perfection of rawhide leather. It’s the horseman’s duct tape. use it to fix saddles, mend fence or wrap around your foot to hold on a floppy boot sole. In a crunch, tie a strand in a loop to substitute for an engagement ring. It’s no surprise, then, that the versatile Argentine gaucho would make use of this do-it-all material in the trenzas tradition of rawhide braiding.
Home on the Pampa
A strand of rawhide was all that separated a gaucho form certain death on the Argentine frontier. Whether used for securing a rope around a horse or constructing tools for hunting food, the trenza tradition was born of the need to be self-sufficient on an unforgiving continent. It makes sense then that the Spanish immigrants who filled the gaucho’s sparse ranks took great care in braiding horse saddlery. In a pair of reins, a gaucho literally held his own life in his hands.
The tribes of Mapuche Indians that inhabited the pampa prairies were the inventors of what’s become the signature gaucho trenza, the boleadoras. This piece of equipment is composed of three ropes with weights fastened to the ends and held together at the center like a pin wheel. Holding the boleadoras by one weighted end, a horseman swung them overhead like a lazo to cast at the feet of his prey, tripping it to the ground.
Wild herds of cattle and horses were a relatively recent apparition on the pampa, and the Mapuches hadn’t yet mastered making leather from their hides. Gauchos improved on the boleadoras’ rudimentary design by using braided trenzas in place of the crude rope the Mapuches made from the tendons and ligaments of wild animals, such as the estrus and guanaco, cousins of the ostrich and llama. Gauchos did heed the Mapuche advice to use the tough, plate-like leather from an armadillo for making the pouches that hold the boleadoras’ rock weights.
The bozal and lazo (“bosal” and “reata” in North American terminology) are further examples of how gaucho saddlery adapted to the utilitarian needs of life on the Argentine Pampa. the bozal and lazo are constructed from rawhide braids of up to 32 strands, and often incorporate decorative motifs of silver rings, medallions and stitched embroideries. A clever feature is a rawhide button-and-loop used as buckle-and-clasp fastener. This invention allows reins, lead ropes, lazos and bozales to be attached without tying a knot in the rope, which would weaken the braid and cause it to break.
Because no other piece of gaucho saddlery receives as much day-to-day abuse, the lazo’s design evolved to allow for the inevitability of breakage. Lazos are constructed with an innovative yapa braided onto the catch end of each rope, similar in design and function to the tapered leader of a fly-fishing line. A lazo will almost certainly break in this expendable four-foot section of rope and can be easily repaired by braiding a new yapa instead of an entire new rope. In addition, the yapa is made of a bulkier braid that makes it stronger and heavier than the rest of the rope, and more durable, facilitating lazo throws over greater distances.
Daniel Posse, a craftsman who’s practiced trenza leatherwork for 26 years, explains that today’s trenzador (braider) is more artisan than gaucho. Nonetheless, leatherworkers heed the wisdom of Argentina’s trenza tradition in the way a lazo is cared for to ensure it a long life.
“A lazo is dragged through mud, water and even soaked with blood during daily use. Washing it with soap and water isn’t enough,” Posse says. “A gaucho will rub the brain matter from a butchered animal into the rawhide, and then store the rope wrapped inside the animal’s stomach. This keeps the rope humid and helps preserve the rawhide from deteriorating.”
Posee learned the art of gaucho trenzas in the provincial countryside of Buenos Aires. In 2002 he moved to Junin de Los Andes, a small town int he Andes Mountain foothills,a nd opened his workshop, El Rodeo. There he draws inspiration from the everyday gauchos who ride down his street, as well as from the volumes of gaucho literature that fill his bookshelves.
“I reconstructed a bozal from a description I found in a historical text,” Posse says, pointing out one of his creations. “The piece incorporates authentic silver rings I found in an antique store, still in their original wrapping paper.” the final product is a museum-quality re-creation of a 19th century gaucho bozal.
A bozal and bridle set that hangs over Posse’s fireplace is exemplary of how, in capable hands, trenza leatherwork can become an art form. The leather appears tanned, when really the light-brown color of the rawhide comes from an Aberdeen Angus-Hereford cowhide Posse handpicked for the job. The reins have intricate embroidery running down the center, and a miniature pair of hobbles that attach the bridle to the bozal. Such details have earned Posse’s leatherwork a place in private collections like that of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Gaucho leatherwork stood for over three hundred years as a word-of-mouth tradition. Recognizing the craft’s value to Argentina’s gaucho heritage, Mario A. Lopez Osorno published a how-to book on the subject in 1932 titled Trenzas Gauchas. In his research Lopez Osorno used the precision befitting a doctor to painstakingly dismantle, rebuild, and diagram hundreds of rawhide braiding patterns and techniques. Today this historical text stands as the torchbearer of the gaucho rawhide braiding tradition.
“My mother gave me Trenzas Gauchas for my fourteenth birthday,” says Luis Flores, a widely recognized authority on Argentine rawhide leatherwork. “I remember the gift came with strips of rawhide hand cut by a gaucho named Ishmael Basan.”
Flores’s memory is impressively sharp for an eighty-three year old man. Nonetheless, he shares Lopez Osorno’s commitment to preservation and has Basan’s name listed for safe keeping in a card catalog of 1,600 trenzadores (rawhide braiders) from across Argentina.
“When I hear of a new trenzador I write their information down in my directory and the next time I travel to that part of the country I pay them a visit,” Flores explains. “Each person has at least one new braiding trick to teach. I believe it is important to document their knowledge so it won’t disappear in time.”
To date, Luis Flores has added six volumes of original material to Lopez Osorno’s body of work, the first of which published in his 1960 book El Guasquero. Along with Trenzas Gauchas, these two texts are required reading for any student attending Luis Flores’s rawhide braiding academy in Buenos Aires.
“I do not consider myself a talented artisan. I am well practiced, but my specialty is in teaching others what I have learned.”
More than four hundred students over thirty-five years attest to the fact. Ranking among them is Pablo Losano, one of only two artisans distinguished with the title Master Trenzador by the Buenos Aires Rural Society. In September 2004 Losano traveled to the United States to be a guest speaker at the Rawhide Braiding Seminar held at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma. Upon his return to Argentina, Pablo Losano proudly reported that his one-hour presentation was received with a standing ovation, an honor he attributes to his mentor’s legacy.
It wasn’t the first time that Luis Flores was a bridge-gap between the gaucho and cowboy rawhide leatherworkers of America. In 1965, while serving as editor of the Argentine magazine El Caballo (The Horse), Flores received a letter out of the blue from a North American reader.
“I recently read with considerable interest your article ‘Pasadores y Armadura’ in the April edition of El Caballo. As it turns out, the four Spanish woven knots that appear in the photo on page 42 of this issue were made by me as an illustration to an article I wrote for Western Horseman magazine in 1949. I have published two books on rawhide leatherwork, with a third one on the way…I am very interested in gaucho trenzas and would be pleased to send you a complimentary copy of one of my own books.”
The letter was written by Bruce Grant, a Western Horseman contributor from 1949 to 1966 and the author of what many consider the seminal North American text about leatherwork, Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding. Grant had come across Luis Flores’s article by accident and was surprised to find his own name and leatherwork credited inside the magazine from South America.
Grant and Flores shared a decade-long correspondence that culminated with Grant visiting Argentina on two different occasions. These encounters with his rawhide-braiding colleagues to the south of the equator were very influential on Bruce Grant. An intricate saddle cincha (cinch) shown to him on an estancia (cattle ranch) in the Buenos Aires countryside inspired Bruce Grant to write the article “How to Make a Braided Cincha” (Western Horseman, March 1966). And when his book Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding published in 1972 it wasn’t surprising that a section of the book was dedicated to gaucho trenzas.
Though Bruce Grant passed away in 1977, Luis Flores proudly keeps a place of honor for him in the Trenzador Card Catalog.
Sailors and Horsemen
The knowledge of how to cure, cut and braid leather crossed the globe long before its arrival in South America. According to most studies on the subject the craft of leatherwork can be traced back to the Phoenicians, a Middle Eastern civilization that existed between 3,200 and 146 BC. From the coasts of what is modern day Syria and Lebanon, the Phoenician’s launched a maritime dynasty that circled the Mediterranean Sea rim.
The fate of modern rawhide saddlery was cast when these Phoenician merchantmen landed in the north of Africa. Their historic encounter with the African Moors marked the moment when the knowledge of braided ropes and knots was passed from sailor to horseman. The Moors used the new craft “to good advantage in their saddles, bridles, whips and, in fact, to everything that applied to the horse,” wrote Bruce Grant (Western Horseman, December 1949). “It is from that time on that fancy leather work was to be associated with this noble creature.”
Archeological remnants are few, but the Phoenician’s fingerprint was left on the leatherwork that disseminated from the Middle East through Europe, Asia, and ultimately found its way to the Americas. In Trenzas Gauchas Mario A. Lopez Osorno explains how the craft arrived in Argentina.
“In the first parts of the eighth-century AD the Moors crossed the Straights of Gibraltar and penetrated into Spain,” he wrote. The Christian Crusades in the ninth and thirteenth-centuries dislodged the Moors from Europe, but not before leather craftsmanship became an integral part of a Spanish culture that would soon be exported to the New World.
“In 1536, when Don Pedro de Mendoza (founder of Buenos Aires) introduced domestic animals to America, he brought along craftsmen knowledgeable in the industry of leather,” Lopez Osorno wrote. This was the beginning of “the complicated and difficult art of the gauchos.”
A Gaucho Relic
Patagonia, on the opposite side of Argentina from the capital city of Buenos Aires, was the final limit of the gaucho’s western expansion,. Today’s inhabitants of this rugged landscape are as close to authentic descendents of the wild gauchos of the Pampa as can be found today.
Don Jorge Cuevas has lived his entire life in the Patagonian Andes Mountains where he works as a gaucho on 110,000-acre Estancia Ranquilco. He can barely write his own name, yet his profound wisdom is that of the frontier-era gaucho. In the summers he builds rock-walled corrals, trains horses and pack mules, and prepares animal hides for making rawhide leather. When the winter snows fall, he spends the long evening hours next to a burning log in the fireplace and braids rawhide lazos, ropes, and bozales that have made him a legend on the Estancia.
“My uncle was a great trenzador,” recalls Don Cuevas. “He taught me how to braid my first lazo when I was fourteen.”
He has since expanded his trenza repertoire to include complex 16-strand braids and stitched embroidery patterns that he uses to decorate stirrups, belts, and knife handles. When riding down the trail, working cattle, or doing daily chores his analytical mind is at work considering how to make a better tool for the job at hand.
“Look at how the braid of this bozal appears round, but is really flat on the underside,” Don Cuevas demonstrates. “You see, a rope that is braided in a round pattern will rub the hair off a horse’s cheek. This bozal has a U-shaped braid that lays flat against the face and won’t rub.”
He looks at the bozal like it were one-of-a-kind, but in reality the braided pattern is described on page 47 of Lopez Osorno’s Trenzas Gauchas. When asked if he has heard of the book, he looks blankly and asks, “There’s a book about braiding rope?”
“Well, I know these stirrups are my own invention,” he says. “You see, I made them extra wide because in the Andes Mountains we wear thick boots to walk through the snow in the winter and the grass marshes in the summer. This way we can get in and out of the stirrups easily.”
“A lot of the horse trails around here pass through mountains canyons and stirrups get damaged from bumping against the rocks and boulders. Not these,” he says, hitting one against the ground for emphasis.
Don Cuevas lowers his voice in confidence, “they’re made out of goat horn.” The stirrups’ rock-solid frame was made by joining two half-moon horns together with wraps of rawhide holding them at the seams. The sides of the stirrups were then covered with braided trenzas that spiral from top to bottom. They appear decorative, but Don Cuevas assures it too serves a purpose.
“The trenza is made from horsehide, which holds up better than cowhide to the wear and tear of the trail.”
It is a long and complicated road the craft of rawhide leatherwork has traveled. What began as a word-of-mouth tradition passed from the rowboats of the Phoenicians to the saddles of the African Moors, and took to the seas once again on the Spanish galleons destined for the New World. As if its destiny all along was to arrive on the grassland prairies of America, rawhide leatherwork reached an artful mastery in the hands of cattlemen that go by different names, but share a single leatherworking heritage.
Thanks to archivists like Mario A. Lopez, Bruce Grant, and Luis Flores customs like the gaucho trenza are now safely penned for the sake of horseman posterity. But the final chapter won’t be written as long as there are new generations of leatherworkers, a fact Luis Flores is aware of as he takes a blank note card from his desk and writes “Jorge Cuevas, Estancia Ranquilco in Patagonia”, Trenzador Card Catalog number 1,601.