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Argentine Literature and the 'Conquest of the Desert', 1872-1896 Jens Andermann
Birkbeck College

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Ocupación militar del Río Negro por la expedición al mando del General Julio A. Roca, 1879; Blanes, Juan Manuel

On the frontier, forms and ideas take separate paths; illusions, appearances and spectres proliferate in a great void of credos and values, clustering in an epistemological murk which suspends habitual oppositions between the symbolic and the imaginary, or between terror, desire, and the law. However, to say that the literary language which articulates and accompanies the slow but firm military advance towards the South rushing into its final stage by the early 1870s, is one of violence, is not the entire truth: it is a language capable of compassion and even tenderness. "To treat them with sweetness and justice was indispensable in order to erase the bloody memories of past horrors," says of the Indians the colonel Alvaro Barros, later to become the first governor of Patagonia, in his Fronteras y territorios federales de las Pampas del Sur(1872) . Two pages further on he continues:
The resistance by the Indians who have sought refuge in the desert still unknown to us: hence the difficulties that will have to be overcome. As a first step of the plan, we have to choose between two options: 1° to encircle the Indians in the desert, cutting all their communications to the other side of the Río Negro. 2° to enter and persecute them in the desert without mercy or contempt until exterminating them, to submit them, or to force them to seek refuge south of the Río Negro, and thus to establish the frontier there.(Barros 1872: 81-82)

It is this sudden acceleration, this abrupt change from the discourse of 'defensive warfare' and 'merciful civilization' to that of 'offensive warfare' and of genocide, which is perhaps the most distinctive mark of the literature of the Argentine frontier. Because, if the frontier cycle comes to replace the 'literature of the desert', that romantic topos of Argentine literature since, at the very least, Echeverría´s Cartas a un amigo written in 1822, it does so subordinating itself entirely to the imperatives of military action.

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Less than a decade mediates between the planes and the planos, the strategic projects of advancing the frontier and the cartographical depiction of their results, which on the new national maps appear as mere 'accidents' of an entirely positivized geography. In other words, the literature of the Argentine frontier is violent not only, and not even in the first place, because it anticipates, promotes and narrates the erasure of the Indians, but because, moreover, it ratifies, celebrates and finally denies this very 'solution' by what we can call the erasure of violence. It only takes ten years for the military space of the last projects of conquest -Barros´s La guerra contra los indios (1877) and Estanislao S. Zeballos´s La conquista de las quince mil leguas (1878)- to convert itself into the lavish natural theatre of "Nuestra tierra à vista de pájaro" (1889), our country from bird´s eye, by Eduardo L. Holmberg, one of the young disciples of the German naturalist Karl Hermann Burmeister at the Museo Público.

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Lago y arroyo Gió; Moyano, Carlos M.

His brief piece rewrites the panoptical vision of Sarmiento´s 'national physiognomy', as laid out in the opening chapter of Facundo (1845), in the light of the recent military expeditions southward, to display before his audience an immense botanical garden inhabited by men of science:
... there are human forms moving about this stunning solitude. Do not ask who they are, for the very rocks and montains, the extinguished life forms and the icebergs, the plants and the rivers, the living animals and the rains and the ice shells, the moss and the volcanos, will tell you their names. Their arms are the sextant and the barometre, the chisel and the compass, the gunpowder and the mountain knife, the chronometre and the chain, the thermometre, the lead and the hoist.(Holmberg 1889: 178)

What is so profoundly disturbing, and even appalling, about this text -a speech delivered at the Argentine Geographical Institute, some of whose members were the main technicians and ideologues of the 'war against the Indians'- is its gardenesque language contemplating a landscape where scientists have come to be the only 'human forms moving about' and their names have overwritten the indigenous toponymies and thus wiped from the map even the memories of difference.

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Junta de los ríos Neuquén y Limay; Olascoaga, Manuel José

Landscape here provides the final tableau, the point of arrival in a series of genres which had accompanied the advances of the troops: the planes or military projects of the 1860s and early 1870s which, as events accerelated by the end of the decade, gave way to the crónicas de frontera, episodical narrations or character sketches, which would be developed on full novelistic scale in the historias which would begin to flourish immediately after the expedition to the Río Negro in 1879, and of course on the maps which, shortly thereafter, would eternalize their 'data' and freeze narrative action in apparently purely spatial and mimetic accounts of territories nevertheless systematically refurbished with the names and symbols of the nation and of 'civilization'. An openly pamphletarian apology of the new positivistic order -written at a moment when Roca´s first presidency was addressing the controversial issues of secularizing educational and legal reforms-, Zeballos´s Callvucurá y la dinastía de los Piedra (1884), the first in a series of 'Indian romances', is horrendously efficient when it comes to summarizing in a couple of sentences this step from massacre to fertilization of the earth, as the very founding scene of the liberal state:
Levalle and Freyre tear Namuncurá to pieces and cast him off to Chile; Villegas removes the once feared and valient Indians of Pincén and presents the latter as prisoner in Buenos Aires; Racedo does not leave a single wild man in ranquel country, and his greatest trophy offered to the Government is the principal chief of the tribe, Epugner and his family; and even the skulls of Callvucurá and Mariano Rosas, the two great generals of Tierra Adentro, unburied solemnly by Levalle and Racedo, now form part of my history collection [...] Finally the Indian chief recognizes our dominion over the fourty-thousand leagues of his demolished empire! A fertile territory, exhuberantly gifted by nature in vigourous triumph, given the abundance of species, over the deceptive and wasteful nature of the tropics [...] A territory containing the healthiest spots on which the flag of the fatherland has yet cast its shadow in the southern regions, substituting the sombre Indian village for its colours that symbolize: Virtue, Civilization and Hope.(Zeballos 1884: I, 92)

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Retrato del General Roca en su carpa en los márgenes del Río Negro. Lo acompañan los generales Vintter, Teodoro García y Conrado Villegas; Roca, Julio Argentino

Just as in the strategic plans of conquest a decade earlier, in these courtly and apologetic frontier histories of the 1880s the violence of the 'operation' is trivialized into the commonplace and summarizing formulas of military discourse. It is elsewhere, then, in the crónicas, where the disturbing side of this modernizing violence eventually surfaces: what Mansilla had revealed in his Excursión a los indios ranqueles (1870) -the hunger, forced recruitments and ravaging smallpox- and what Eduardo Gutiérrez would recall a quarter of a century later in his Croquis y siluetas militares (1896), in the years of the final advance is reported by a French engineer, Alfred Ébélot, who had been contracted by the minister Adolfo Alsina to direct the work on a borderline trench. Ébélot´s chronicals, most of them first published in French in the Révue des Deux Mondes, create, in the words of Juan José Saer, "this singular athmosphere which, in my opinion, is only to be found in the best films of John Ford." (Saer 1997: 73)
Catriel arrived in the company of an heterogeneous war council, among which it would have been possible to carry out a comparative study of the various degrees of Indian ugliness. On horseback, all these people made a good impression, as they adeptly moved their beautiful animals whose harnesses were adorned in silver. But once on foot they were different men. Legs bent, shoulders fallen in, their walk clumsy and obstacled by spurs with huge wheels which they dragged over the ground with a sound of old iron; everything about them was vulgar and without grace.(Ébélot 1875-79: 53)

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El cacique Pincén; Pozzo, Antonio

Here then, the telescopic lense of the war reporter has replaced the totalizing view of the military strategist, providing us with a physiologist´s perspective mediated by an ontologized, occidental concept of physical beauty (a status which Ébélot, on other occasions, readily transfers on to those of virtue, work and property) and which immediately translates difference into inferiority. However, what distiguishes this prose from Zeballos´s laborious monumentalism is the precision of detail, that 'sound of old iron' which assaults us with much the same immediacy as what Roland Barthes, in his meditations on photography, describes as the punctum: a sudden prick, a tiny and acute sense of pain, a momentaneous state of shock during which the past instant reaches out to us, only to fade out of our reach once again. (Barthes 1993) Perhaps this instantaneous immediacy occurs in the very split that cuts through Ébélot´s discourse, to almost invert his scheme of values: until they dismount, as horsemen, the Indians are not portrayed from the physiologist´s but the adventurer´s point of view, who readily admits their ability and admires the beauty of their profusely 'adorned' animals.

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El cacique Coliqueo y su familia; Panunzi, Benito

In this gaze there is envy and even desire, more so if we compare it to the frowning look that Ébélot shades on the ruinous ways in which the Argentine cavallery maintains its state-owned horses. "The main element in this war -Ébélot insists- is the Cavallery horse, which has yet to be created in the Argentine army." (Ébélot 1875-79: 156) Strangely enough, in this French engineer´s opinion, what has to decide the war of the frontier is not the 'holy trinity' of railways, telegraph lines and remington rifles: it is the adventurer rather than the military technician who is speaking to us, and who decidedly prefers the archaic, epic elements of this war on the borders of civilization, a view that confers even onto the Indians -as equestrian enemies- a certain degree of nobility (which they immediately lose once they are defeated, and unhorsed). Misunderstood as a humanitarian pacifist by some critics (see Saer 1997), Ébélot actually reports enthusiastically on his participation in combats and savours the danger of the approaching Indian 'horde': there is in his very language an epic and erotic violence, a brutal precision which, for moments, confounds whites and Indians, civilized and savages. But it is this unsentimental and almost pure enthusiasm for the experience of war as such, that makes Ébélot realize the less luminous aspects and, in opposition to most contemporary authors, stay focused on the sordid details without allowing his narration to escape into abstract moralization:
The final memory that remains with me from that day is one of the execution of 2 Indians who had been taken prisoners. I can still see them, short and squat, impassible, in the clumsy attitude of the Indian on foot, standing in front of the General Command and replying invariably: 'I don´t know' to all the questions the interpreter asked them about their chiefs, their forces and details of the invasion. Enough! the commander said simply. [...] The two men, their hands bound on their backs, ran, stumbled, and screamed at every blow: Señor! Señor! It was all the Spanish they knew. One of them, on spotting in front of him a pit without a parapet, plunged himself into it with his head first and disappeared. His agony was short at least, but the spectacle nonetheless repulsive; while his deprived executioners registered the water with their spears, multitudes of scared frogs assembled in dirty garlands on the walls of this open pit. I turned in horror and my gaze fell on the other Indian lying on the ground in agony. An official had mercy with him at last and had his throat cut, but as this was not enough, and as the horror of his death rattles became worse every instant, they drove a dagger into his heart.(Ébélot 1875-79: 74-75)

'I can still see them': there is something, apparently, that Ébélot cannot keep from returning, uncannily, in this scene from which he is unable to turn his eyes, in this excess of cruelty which, according to the engineer, is devoid of any means and function: "It is already a measure of humanity to shoot them," he writes somewhat later, having witnessed a series of mass executions which, he insists, exceed the civilizing mission in whose name they are carried out: "Without judging the mass executions from any moral point of view, we may call them a stupidity from the practical side." (Ébélot 1875-79: 123) A civilizing violence, according to Ébélot, has to be applied in therapeutical dosis, and be accompanied by incentives to break with savage life: there have to be trenches for protection against the invasions, yes, but also "new cities, surrounded by groves and small plantations" where, once dominated, the indigenous populations will settle and undergo basic training in 'civilization'.

The matter [...] is about suppressing the sterile communism in which they vegetate under the patriarchal despotism of their chiefs; in other words, to give each of them, with the property of his land and his home, a sense of his independence as a human being...(Ébélot 1875-79: 31)

On the frontier, however, these pious utopias of urban improvement -which, in Ébélot´s native Paris, had of course proved so efficient only a few years ago in re-socializing the perilous classes, after crushing the Communard revolt and executing or jailing their more active members-, seem to last no longer than sand castles in the Patagonian wind. Or rather, commodity fetishism alone, on the southern frontier as well as a few years later in the northern Chaco savannahs, 'dark places of the earth', fails to exercise any lasting effects of coercion, if it is not enforced by permanent vigilation: "These criminals in a cage -Zeballos informs in 1881-, in the very moment they are allowed to leave the camps turn into savages once again, if they are not accompanied by the veterans." (Zeballos 1881: 93) Whereas, then, in the urban centres of capitalism, a capitalist fiction of reciprocity forms the core of bourgeois hegemony, violence -and a hyperbolic, necessarily 'excessive' kind of violence- becomes the narrative single currency which extends this hegemony to the populations of a deserted frontier, sustaining a form of power which has once again and farcily taken on the features of what Foucault calls a sovereign power (Foucault 1977). In one of his last frontier chronicals, "The frontline soldier", Eduardo Gutiérrez writes:

The frontline soldier enters our army by two means: either he is hooked or condemned to the service of arms. In one case or the other, he sees his term expire without the Government or his immediate superior caring to release him. [...] The stocks and the stake, the colombiano and flogging with clubs have raised the cry of vengeance in his hidalgo heart, awaiting the day of battle to satisfy his revenge. But the day of battle comes, the blue and white flag rises above the smoke of combat, and the soldier forgets his anger and his vengeance. [...] The soldier has once again replaced the man: the fatherland´s voice speaks to his heart in higher tones than any other feeling.(Gutiérrez 1896: 281-282)

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Expedición al Río Negro, abril de 1879; Pozzo, Antonio

Here, then, is how terror and violence rather than monetary retribution -and the hyperbolic stories and myths, the 'magical realism' this very violence brings into circulation- succeed in constructing a hegemony whose reproduction relies on the annihilation of an exterior subalternity, an act that sustains the fiction of holding a share of the national self, a position in which one does not only receive but also give death to someone else. We must not forget, of course, that if the violence suffered inside an army which, again according to Ébélot, "practised the worst possible system of recruitment" (Ébélot 1876-1879: 102), is reinvested onto the 'external enemy' in a surplus economy of terror apparently devoid of any material exchange of goods, it is also the somewhat ghostly reproduction of this latter, ethnicized violence inside creole society itself: "Corporal punishments were frequent and carried out with odious refinement -Ébélot goes on- Mild men, illustrated officers, applied them in cold blood." (Ébélot 1876-79: 104)

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Interior de la mayoría del Regimiento no 3 de Caballería, sres. Daza, Morosini y Solicier, cirujano de la brigada; Pozzo, Antonio

There seems to be, then, more than just one direction of mimesis and mimicry, the one that addresses us from the photographs of indios amigos posing in oversized officers´ uniforms, ready to afflict on their neighbouring tribes the kind of benevolent, civilizing treatment they themselves have enjoyed from the suave commanders of the Desert Expedition; but instead these same mild men, on arriving at the frontier, seem to sport a more ferocious character themselves, and start to talk in tongues of violence which, as Ébélot desperately reminds them and us, come not from 'civilization' but from somewhere else. Why, we may ask with the confused Frenchman, this refusal to take prisoners, this inflationary economy of killings and terror, in a 'desert' area where human labour resources are short? Was it not true, after all, that 'to govern is to populate'?


Ramón Lista, one of the few Argentine writers of the Generation of 1880 whose simple and rustic language supports comparison with the prose of travelling adventurers such as Ébélot, or the anglo-creole horseback naturalists Hudson and Cunninghame Grahame, in his Viaje al país de los tehuelches, published in 1879, talks of the joys of frontier life, in spite (or because) of its austerity and the absence of all of civilization´s commodities:

... I was burning with desire to start my explorations; to return to the life of the desert, to a life of roaming. Now, as I write these lines, a world of memories is moving in my head. I will never forget the incomparable beauty of the southern sky, and those moonlit nights spent under the savage Patagon´s tent. I would like to go on living as a nomad for a long time, to go to rest wrapped up in my blanket of skins, to climb the high mountains and jump across torrents.(Lista 1879: 33)
But then, of course, for Lista just as much as for Ébélot, the only way to practise this evasive nomadism consisted precisely in acting as an agent of the very same disciplinary powers from which frontier life momentarily sustracted him: while the military engineer was digging trenches and tracing prison-towns on the surface of the desert, the anthropologist entered the very space of otherness, lodging in the savages´ tents and measuring their lands and their bodies (although it is fair to say that Lista, unlike his contemporaries such as Zeballos or the much worshipped Francisco P. Moreno, founding father of Argentine anthropology, was less interested in anthropometric measurements than in the social practices of the Tehuelches and Onas). In the same way as for the colonial heroes of Joseph Conrad (and a few years later those of Horacio Quiroga), to evade temporarily the coercitive power of capitalist modernity, for Lista only becomes possible at the price of contributing to the extension of this very power. The freedom and joy experienced in this space beyond the frontiers of civilization, this momentaneous and epiphanic feeling of wholeness during which, through the adventurer´s eyes, we may catch a glimpse of the uncommodified, is at the same time the triumphant beginning of commodification. The very gaze which contemplates the pure and 'unspoiled' beauty of the 'natural spectacles' of the South is already the taxation of their value as landed property.

At the opposite end of literary language, in the stanzas of the thirteenth canto of El gaucho Martín Fierro -the first part of José Hernández´s gauchesque epic written in 1872-, we find the most radical articulation of this romantic and imperial vision.

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Gauchos; Witcomb, Alejandro S.

Even though, as is well known, Hernández published a second part of the poem in 1879, La vuelta de Martín Fierro, where he let his hero return from the desert, like President Roca´s divisions, having imposed the 'order of justice' and revenged the dishonour of white women at the hands of cruel savages, it is towards the end of the first part that the revolutionary potential of the frontier as the spatial expression of the inversion of a social order becomes manifest. It is here, also, where the direction of the annexations of spaces and advances of values and legal systems, is finally inverted in the act of a cultural desertion (of Martín Fierro and his fellow runaway, the -until recently- Sergeant Cruz, who cross the borders of the land and the text and settle with the Indians): "There will be security, / because here we do not have it" (Allá habrá seguridá, / ya que aquí no la tenemos); and also "There one does not need to work, / one lives just like a gentleman" (Allá no hay que trabajar, / vive uno como un señor). If we may believe Hernández´s contemporary editorials in El Río de la Plata, where he attacks Sarmiento´s land policy and denounces the mass desertions of frontier settlers to the Indians, cultural conversion was a very real option before 1880, probably because it was not so much of a conversion after all, compared to the one the still rather embryonic liberal state was demanding from faraway Buenos Aires. It is this very challenge of a sustainable alternative, a very real rather than the romantiziced, landscaped aesthetic experience of the travelling bourgeois adventurers, against which the state has to invert the full weight of its violence, terror and hyperbole. It is Ébélot, once again, who registers, in a language resonant with the temptation of an option he can only faintly sense, the power and the magnetism of this challenge:
This free and violent life must have its charms. Not only children raised in the open hold on to it to the point of not being able to abandon it anymore; but even adult men, after having tasted it, may not want to exchange it for any other. They are daring chaps who refuse every attachment, lovers of the free air and the open skies [...] Three of Catriel´s old friends from the time when he lived among the Argentines, three brothers who possessed land, sheep and money near Azul, could not resist the temptation to share their old drinking and hunting companion´s adventures. One fine day they left behind their lambs, took their best horses, and crossed the frontier after a thousand perils, to gain the desert.(Ébélot 1876-79: 149-50)

Where, Ébélot goes on, the Indians arrange for them 'brilliant weddings', knowing "that family ties are the true means of establishing these permanently among them." (Ébélot 1876-79: 150) In other words, his story confirms everything the first part of Martín Fierro had projected, as the hope of a better future, onto the desert, and what the second part, in the year of the Desert Campaign, will try to refute and to demonise. With Foucault we could read this competition for the frontier settlers´ cultural allegiance in terms of antagonistic biopolitics of settlement, one of them based on the logic of compadrazgo, of godfathers and blood alliances, the other on racial selection and permanent control of dutifully measured and classified bodies, and of their desires and their unions and their clashes, through schemes of value which are directly linked to the utilitarian terms of the market. However, if the discourse of modern biopower, according to Foucault, rather than to stage a spectacle of death that makes manifest the power of the sovereign, dissects and re-arranges life in a classificatory grid, according to its value and utility, (Foucault 1977: 174) on the frontier the attributes of sovereign power continue to juxtapose themselves onto the disciplinary 'continuum of apparatuses'. To 'make die' and 'let live', attitudes of a colonial sovereignty which had never quite succeeded to impose itself on the La Plata basin, finally return as the uncanny of the positivist state´s genocidal eugenics: "it would be necessary -so Luis Jorge Fontana, govenment secretary of the Chaco, recommends in 1881- that these indios ceased to be nomads, every particular unit staying in one and the same spot." (Fontana 1881: 95)

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Explorers in the Chaco; Witcomb, Alejandro S.

On the plantation frontier of the Chaco, rather than about deportation and annihilation as on the southern cattle frontier, the 'campaign' is about creating a slave economy by changing through force, the habits and ways of life of the indigenous population. In both cases, however, to conquer is to systematically adjust the ethnic composition of the population to the requirements of the state and the market.


Only two years after Roca´s expedition to the Río Negro, the plains present the appearance of an immense deposit of human remains. Strange moral debates are heard in these spaces of death:

My dear lieutenant, I answered, putting my foot into the stirrup, if Civilization has urged you to twist and persecute their race and conquer their lands, so Science urges that I serve her by bringing the skulls of Indians to the museums and laboratories. Barbarism is cursed, and not even the remains of its dead will remain in the desert.(Zeballos 1881: 181)

Estanislao Zeballos, founding director of the Argentine Geographical Institute, in his Viaje al país de los araucanos (1881) returns to the battlefields of the past years and months, to dissect bodies still fresh yet already fossilized from the evolutionist´s point of view, precosciously transformed into 'relics' of an almost prehistorical past.

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Sección antropológica, sala 1 (lámina 7); Moreno, Francisco Pascasio

Zeballos´s collection eventually formed the core of the La Plata Museum´s gallery of 'American anatomy', consisting of "a hundred Indian skulls, ancient and modern, several of these of famous chiefs", as the Museum´s director and Zeballos´s fellow naturalist Francisco P. Moreno enthusiastically wrote in 1891. To watch over these, the Museum 'employed' Indian guards who had been taken prisoners during the very same military campaign which had killed some of their relatives now on display (and like these, some of them were also 'famous chiefs'). Argentine anthropology is born here as a pillaging science, a secularizing experiment confirming the absolute power over life and death the new positivist elite has just attributed itself (and thus, the killings and dissections of Indian 'specimens' are not the contrary but a complement to the contemporary secularizing legislation on laicist education and civil marriage: both are disciplinary and discursive practices of the same progressive and authoritarian State, applying its archival machinery on the bodies and corpses of the population and the populace). While digging up Indian cemeteries, Zeballos not only maintains, in the face of his scandalized and appalled indigenous and mestizo servants, the impassive and humorous spirit of the amateur scientist; he also stages this contrast in his text as a means of emphasizing his own distinctive position as a modernizing hero among supersticious, yet now powerless savages:
The indio Carriqueo was somewhat of a sight. He watched me from afar with eyes of an Asian tigress protecting her wounded kin. He spoke swiftly in his language, almost crying, moved about pointing his finger at me, and seemed desperate not to be able to pull his spear and add mine to the bodies of his brothers; and suddenly lowering the tone of his lectures, he supplicated me, his voice drowning under constant sobbings. Every bit I understood, yet I feigned understanding nothing.(Zeballos 1881: 243)
In the final chiasm, a whole attitude of self-security of the positivist state and its´ servants and propagators is summarized: the entire knowledge-power is on their side, while the Other ignores even their understanding him.

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Anatomía indígena; unknown

A moment of triumph, certainly, in which a physiological gaze is born that will shortly be applied to the homeless and the insane, to anarchists, homosexuals, transvestites, in short, the bestiarium of the belle époque city which is to replace and reinscribe that of the desert.

It is, then, not a minor detail that guilt, towards the end of the decade of the 1880s, should return precisely in the figure of the Indian or mestiza servant. This is the case, for instance, of Pampa, the slave girl whose large interior monologue opens Carlos María Ocantos´s novel Quilito, published in Paris in 1891, and which culminates in the traumatic remembrance of the auction of deported Indians on their arrival at La Boca, when her family was forever torn apart. The limits of Ocantos´s humanitarian empathy are the same as those of positivist physiology at large: the first image of the novel is that of Pampa´s "monstruous head", and the deported Indians will eventually be compared to "a herd of pigs driven to the market". After Pampa falls asleep at the end of the novel´s first chapter, the Bildungsroman of Quilito, the male heir to the impoverished patrician household where she serves, unfolds to the continuous, and disturbing, presence of the Indian maid, always at work or receiving punishment on the very margins of the narrative scene. When, finally, she speaks up for the second time, towards the end of the novel, her gloomy figure almost incarnates the guilt which shortly thereafter will precipitate her young master into suicide:

He took her arm and pushed her towards the door; she resisted herself looking at the young man from her strange eyes: 'Niño not love Pampa, she said slowly, with that strange pronounciation of hers, Pampa very sad ... last night dream that mother have died! Cristiano kill with very large knife ... I wanted die, too!' Poor girl! With her hand, horribly disfigured by chilblains, she rubbed her eyes making the pitiful sound of the child that is about to cry; Quilito felt sorry and caressed her filthy hair, always resistant to the discipline of the comb: 'Don´t cry, stupid, what you have dreamt is a big lie; all dreams are lies, listen to what I tell you. Your mother is healthy and well, and one day she will come to see you. (Ocantos 1891: 119-20)

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Madre india con niños; Witcomb, Alejandro S.

This scene is actually a chiasm, too, for only a few pages further on Quilito will have died after having entrusted his old, indefensive father and aunt to the Indian orphan servant. The slave girl who dreams with violent and insisting images of massacres and deportations, is finally to prevail over the promising young oligarch, to the extent of taking his place in seeing after the elderly parents. It is obvious that this ending with its implications of historical inversion would have been impossible to construct with that other survivor of the frontier,the gaucho, and not just because this latter lacked the skills for such domestic tasks as nurturing the elderly and sick. Rather, I would like to suggest that while, in the literature following the historical landmark of 1880, the invocations of the gaucho and his traditional rural world reoccur almost ritually in order to demonstrate (or to recall) the vitality of a creole and patriarchal order, here this very order has become an orphan of the future, on the brink of a solitary death in the company of a 'monstruous' Indian slave who is herself a personification of guilt rather than comfort. It is important, however, to mention the political dimension of Ocantos´s novel as part of a number of works written around 1890 and addressing in various ways the financial crash that took place in that very year: the figure of the Indian, in this context, becomes useful to the effect of denouncing the 'excesses' of market speculation, but at the same time of pointing to the dysfunctionalities of a modernizing process where there continued to be 'archaic relics' of a 'prehistoric' past. This is why Ocantos´s text does not even remotely consider nostalgic retreat into a countryside previous to the ruptures and contradictions of modernity, an imaginary solution that was already being proclaimed by some early forerunners of turn-of-the-century criollismo: the invocation of the Indians does not lead towards identity but towards difference. In what will soon become a pattern of Argentine literature and culture, it is an accusation of the imperfect and incomplete character of modernity on the periphery rather than a vindication of the desert. To evoke the gaucho is to regret his 'disappearance' and recompose an imaginary, collective creole past; to evoke the Indian is to regret her survival, in spite of all the 'desert campaigns', at the heart of a nation that can never be modern and never be one.

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