Pope Francis’ fascination with ‘El Gaucho’

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Though she lived in Spain for much of her adult life, my fiancé was born and attended school in Argentina, and so at both a profound personal and a professional level, I continue to actively seek out ways to better understand this largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, which formed Pope Francis’ historical, biographical and ecclesial context, because my heart and head are so moved by people from there.

Of course, this current pontificate is as ineradicable from the Latin American experience as Pope John Paul II’s was from the Polish. One can understand very little of either without the wider cultural and political forces that brought them into being.

My most recent contribution to this ongoing effort was to explore the mythic national epic of Argentina, “El Gaucho Martin Fierro,” by Jose Hernandez. “Gaucho” is the term for the poncho-wearing national cowboy of the Pampas plains in Argentina, a symbolic hero who spends his time riding horses and lassoing cattle. (Argentines to this day will freak many American palates out with the parts of the cow they are willing to cook and eat, virtually daily). Though slightly later than both of them, Hernandez’s character of Martin Fierro could in some ways be seen to mean as much to Argentina as Cervantes’ Don Quixote does to Spain, or Manzoni’s Renzo and Lucia do to Italy.

Never failing to contextualize and condemn the historically-conditioned views on race and womanhood present in the text which are abhorrent to contemporary standards of decency, Martin Fierro nevertheless presents himself as a dashing and intriguing figure. Long-suffering in his solitude, lack of education, and experiences of exclusion, Fierro still embodies qualities that capture the Argentine spirit, particularly in the second volume, “The Return (vuelta) of Martin Fierro.”

Pope Francis has cited the figure in various writings and homilies, both when he was a cardinal in Buenos Aires to a more familiar audience, and on the global stage as pope to many of us who know very little of the tale.

As Mario Aguilar has written about the pope’s love for this cultural touchstone: “[Bergoglio] points to the ethical lessons that come out of the text: operating from a framework of truth, working for one’s keep, serving the weakest of society, remembering that being poor is not shameful but stealing from others is a personal shame, preserving unity and serving all who need it…. Bergoglio believed that Martin Fierro showed the possibility of constructing a fraternal nation that loves justice and is indomitable.”

Pope Francis’s tireless exhortation to appreciate the theology of culture mandates that he (and we) value not only particular identities of place, but also of time.

As the pope puts it: “We are historical persons. We live in time and space. Each generation needs the previous ones and has a duty toward the following ones. That is what it means, for the most part, to be a Nation.”

A People, like a doctrine, does not drop out of heaven untouched by the vicissitudes of history.

These perspectives, while rooted in particularity and growing inculturation, also demand inclusivity in place of ghettoization, protectionism or isolationism. They are oriented toward a “preferential option for the poor,” who incarnate these national narratives and identities in a special and mystical way, as the Latin American bishops’ Aparecida Document puts it. They also continue to welcome demographic changes and social development, and are determined to put their culture in touch with other vulnerable populations, so that society can progress in defending the weakest.

As Fierro reminds us so hauntingly:

“Though many people think a gaucho

Has no more feelin’ than a worn-out nag,

You won’t find one of us

Who hasn’t known real pain;

But a gaucho shouldn’t give up

While there’s blood in his veins.”

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.