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L'ailleurs de l'autre

Claudine Le Blanc
Jacques Weber

Voyageurs d'Amérique

Primitivism and Progress in the Representation of Patagonia and the Pampas in the Travel Literature of Estrada, Onelli and Rusiñol

Dr. Ángel T. Tuninetti

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1Different nations or cultures have landscapes that play a central role in their collective national consciousness. In the case of Argentina, two regions have caught the attention of travelers and natives : the pampa, the almost endless grass plain that stretch from the Atlantic to the Andes, and Patagonia, the mythical land that extends towards the south. Since the late nineteenth century, the pampa has been associated with the national agricultural wealth (fueled by the stereotype of Argentina as granero del mundo, the world grain basket). Patagonia is still – even after numerous political and economic plans to change its image – today being considered a forsaken region, but also as the Promised Land where it is possible to start again and be reborn.

  • 1 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon Books, 1978, p. 23.

2This duality is noteworthy if we consider that both regions were described by travelers in a similar way, as empty and indescribable spaces, more suitable to be described by poets than scientists. Both regions were delimited, culturally and historically, by a corpus of texts that work in a similar way, much like as Orientalism as formulated by Edward Said : “Orientalism is after all a system for citing works and authors1”. Among the most important texts of this system of references, we have the travelogues, as well as several key Argentine literary works, from the early nineteenth century until today : Esteban Echeverría’s La cautiva (The Captive Woman), Domingo F. Sarmiento’s Facundo o Civilización y Barbarie (Civilization and Barbarism), José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, and Ricardo Güiraldes’Don Segundo Sombra, among others.

3My purpose here is consider how these “Pampean texts” and “Patagonian texts” don’t constitute a homogeneous corpus, and how different authors used the texts to foster not only their visions of the regions, but also the political agendas of their times.

4Given the size and the variety in the corpus of travel literature focused on those regions, my emphasis here will be limited to three travelers from very particular moments of Argentine history : a) Santiago Estrada, who described the pampa when Argentina have reached unity after the 19 th century civil wars ; b) the Italian Clemente Onelli, who explored the Andean Patagonia as part of the scientific expeditions in charge of mapping the frontiers of the new nation ; and c) the Spaniard Santiago Rusiñol, who visited Argentina in 1910 during the celebrations of the Centennial of Independence.

5Santiago Estrada (1841-1891) is one of those authors almost forgotten now, but who played an important role in the public life of his time. A prolific journalist, novelist, and theatre critic, his more noteworthy political participation was in defense of Argentine rights on Patagonia during the border disputes with Chile. In 1869 he traveled to Chile as secretary of a diplomatic mission, and he wrote two travelogues based on that trip : “Del Plata a los Andes” (“From the River Plate to the Andes”), and “Del Mar Pacífico al Mar Atlántico” (“From the Pacific to the Atlantic”).

  • 2 Beatriz Sarlo, “La segunda generación romántica. Gutiérrez, Andrade”, in Historia de la literatura (...)
  • 3 Santiago Estrada, Viajes, Barcelona, Henrich y Cª, 1889. Since there are no English translations o (...)

6It is in the first trip where Estrada sees the pampas for the first time, and his vision represents clearly the ideological problems of his time. Wedged between the late Romanticism and the Positivism that was becoming the philosophical foundation of the Generation of 1880, Estrada’s vision of the pampas oscillates between a Romantic admiration of the local landscape and human types, and the need for progress defended by the Positivists2. Estrada’s admiration for the primitive and virgin nature of the pampas conflicts with his admiration for the progress that is going to change the inhospitable land into a future agricultural paradise. Crossing the pampas on his way to the town of Tandil, he writes : “The land that is not the home for men, their forests and crops, is cursed by the One that created it, make it the center of thought, activity, and work” (II, 10)3.

7Estrada sees the pampas through the lenses of his literary knowledge. The inhabitants of the pampas, the gauchos, are described based on commonplaces and stereotypes : their asceticism, frugality, courage, knowledge of the land, but Estrada never describes a real gaucho, an individual that can exemplify his direct knowledge of them, as we can appreciate in this quote :

The son of the pampas take cares of the traveler as the Arab does with the pilgrim, and he is the providence of who faces for the first Nature’s inclemency. The gaucho is the hero of the desert : he is a character in of this great painting which frame is formed by infinite horizons.
It’s necessary to possess his agility to cross the immense distances between towns in the plains. It’s necessary to have his courage to face the desert’s dangers. It’s necessary to possess his strength to tame the indomitable horse and the fierce bull. It’s necessary to own his instinct to find the way, and his frugality to survive in uninhabited places, that lack even water during the dry season.
Life in the desert is indeed a struggle against Nature, which cannot be accepted by other beings besides the gaucho and the Bedouin (I, 106).

8This description of the gaucho as atavistically attached to the land has its origin in literature, not in his direct contact with the gauchos, which is merely circumstantial. Estrada indicates that he is writing these pages while looking at some gauchos barbecuing. He must, though, be aware that the “desert” he is going through is not really the desert of the Bedouins. This is not the only occasion in which Estrada uses the Orientalism that Sorensen has studied in Domingo F. Sarmiento’s description of the Pampas. At the beginning of his Del Plata a los Andes, Estrada writes that this is his first trip outside the Buenos Aires province. So, when comparing the Argentine pampas to the African desert, he is using an unknown landscape to describe what he is just getting to know.

9A few pages later, it became even more evident how his previous readings mark his perception of the reality in front of him :

After eating, I read to my mates some fragments of Sarmiento’s Facundo and Echeverría’s La cautiva, books that I always carry with me in my travels. Facundo is a graphic depiction of the pampas, the romantic history of its heroes ; it’s the philosophy of our tempestuous history. La cautiva is the voice of solitude, it’s the breath of the Pampas wind, it’s the mirror in which the poet’s ardent soul has portrayed the soul of the Pampa’s inhabitants. So, those wretched gauchos that surrounded us cried when listening to the Facundo, and smiled and sighed when listening to La cautiva’s stanzas. The gauchos’hearts sanctioned, with the authority given by their suffering, the truth of their painful history : their spirit perceived the artistic revelation (I, 108-109).

10When confronted with the real gaucho, Estrada needs to validate his figure with the literary model. Even when Facundo and La cautiva might have been Estrada’s favorite books, the image of the gaucho that Estrada depicts in his Viajes is very different than Sarmiento’s depiction of the gaucho (it’s important to remember here that the main characters of La cautiva are a military officer and a white woman ; the gaucho doesn’t appear). Even when at times Sarmiento’s admiration for the gaucho is evident, ultimately he is the barbarian that needs to be destroyed for the sake of Argentina’s progress. Instead, Estrada sees the gaucho as a human being that could be educated and whose redemption should be brought by religion : “The man of the desert is susceptible to education and improvement, because his heart is noble, because curiosity thrust his spirit, because the darkness in which he lives is not the darkness of eternal death” (I, 107).

  • 4 Aurora Sanchez, “Una crítica al sistema : católicos y nacionalistas”, in Buenos Aires 1880-1930. L (...)

11This way, using literature as the main source to read and to write the pampas, Estrada becomes a precursor of the spiritualism of early 20th century, when nationalist and catholic authors like Manuel Gálvez and Ricardo Rojas emphasized the need to defend the Argentine identity returning to traditional values, as a reaction to the changes brought to Argentina by the immigrants4, and they were able to do so through literature.

  • 5 Diego A. Del Pino, “Clemente Onelli, el italiano sabio que amó la Patagonia”, in Todo es historia (...)

12This process of cartographic classification would be continued a few years later by an Italian traveler, Clemente Onelli, who arrived to Argentina looking for the mythical and primitive Patagonia. He was born in Rome in 1864, but his readings of Darwin, Salgari, and more specifically of Jules Verne’s Captain Grant’s Children moved him to look for adventures in Patagonia. However, his trip was well planned. He arrived to Buenos Aires with a university degree, a mission from the Italian government, and contacts with Francisco P. Moreno, and soon he was an expeditionary to Patagonia. Later, he settled in Buenos Aires as director of the Buenos Aires zoo5.

  • 6 Clemente Onelli, Trepando los Andes, Buenos Aires, El Elefante Blanco, 1998.

13His travelogue, Trepando los Andes (Climbing the Andes)6, published in 1904, could be considered as part of the group of works that shifted the parameters of Patagonia’s representation. On one hand, Onelli’s narrative can be considered part of the corpus of texts interested in the geographic, natural and anthropologic mapping of the region. This corpus (which include, among others, Francisco P. Moreno and Ramón Lista) were written in the last two decades of the 19 th century, as part of the military and political process aimed to incorporate the Patagonian territory to the Argentine nation.

  • 7 Ernesto Livon-Grosman, “Lo abierto y lo cerrado : el espacio patagónico en la literatura de viaje” (...)

14Onelli’s text could be considered part of this group from a chronological perspective (even if a little belated), and also for the trip circumstances : he traveled to Patagonia as part of an official mission to map and set the limits with Chile. Besides these external aspects, the text itself reproduces many commonplaces of the genre at that time. As Ernesto Livon-Grossman has described them, the travelogues have a naturalistic tone, a mixture of ethnography, botanical descriptions, hunting and adventure narratives7.

  • 8 Gabriela Nouzeilles, “Patagonia as Borderland : Nature, Culture, and the Idea of State”, Journal o (...)
  • 9 Silvia Bittar, Silvia Casini, Viviana Polli, Estela Saint-Andre, “El imaginario patagónico en el c (...)

15Like in all travelogues, descriptions play a central role. The Patagonian landscape is described in a conventional way8 and they follow the five categories that usually appear in the descriptions of the region since the foundational texts : astonishment for the extension of the territory, description of the area as barren and inhospitable, harsh climate, geo-politic abandonment, and consideration of the region as tierra de paso, an area in which transient people look for quick riches9.

  • 10 Eva-Lynn Jagoe, “Patagonia Peripheries” in Studies in Travel Writing : Papers from the Essex Sympo (...)

16The ethnographic description plays an important role in Onelli’s book, especially the description of Indian everyday life and funerary rituals. He follows the “scientific” practices common in his time, including not only the descriptions, but also the recollection of artifacts and Indian skulls. When one of his hosts, Chief Klocosk, dies, he repeats the necrophiliac relationship that Francisco P. Moreno established with the chief Sam Slick10 : to observe and to describe the burial, and to come back later to steal the skull :

When I saw that the preparations for the burial were starting, I camped far away to give them [the Indians] the complete freedom that they require for the ceremony ; but I paid close attention to the bushes and the cliff where he was going to be buried, for ulterior motives. A year later, the Indians have abandoned Sheuen-Aiken, and I was able to unbury the skull that has enriched my anthropological collection (p. 105).

17Onelli’s descriptions emphasize the economic possibilities of the region. He adds an appendix titled “Practical Information and the Future of Patagonia”, and often he leaves the descriptive mode to prescribe measures that would improve the political and economic future of the region. For example, after criticizing the failure of the South-Land Company Limited cattle venture, he admonishes :

In case these lines reach the hands of a South-Land Company Limited shareholder who cannot understand why his capital invested in Argentina is not producing the expected dividends, I advise him that in the first shareholders’meeting he should propose : 1 st. To introduce a bigger number of purebred animals, to improve the degenerate breeds… (p. 41-42).

18and he continues with more advise on cattle raising (we should remember here that Onelli was, at that moment, in his early twenties, recently arrived from Italy, so his credentials as cattle farmer are certainly arguable). He is also very interested in hydraulic energy, which he calls “white coal”, and he considers that the future of the region depends on it.

19Ultimately, this combination of descriptive and prescriptive aspects represents the positivistic project proposed by the national government. The official mission of setting borders is part of the project of nation building, as he describes it at the end of his travelogue when he praises the hard work of the people involved in the mission :

And that campaign, all that victorious struggle against the wild and harsh nature, was possible thanks to the effort of tireless men who distributed through leagues and leagues of the Andes, who solved the geographical enigmas and prepared the land to demarcate the frontiers, frontiers that truly entitle the sovereignty if a civilized nation (p. 111, my emphasis).

  • 11 Op. cit., p. 2.

20While the characteristics that I have described so far fit very well with the corpus of texts produced by official expeditions, there is another dimension, as Livon-Grossman has pointed out11 : the narratives that constitute the Patagonian myth lose progressively their scientific goals, and we can see more literary ambitions. In Onelli, we can see that from the beginning. While traditionally other travelers from the period start their narratives with their goals, the point of departure, and after that a chronological narration of the trip, in Trepando los Andes the structure is flexible. The narration starts with the entrance into Patagonian territory, but after that, the reader loses track of the traveler’s bearings, and we don’t even know exactly what Onelli’s role in the expedition is. He also incorporates digressions and ancillary stories, the way Lucio V. Mansilla did in Una excursion a los indios ranqueles. Onelli’s lack of interest for the historical and political aspects of the trip is complemented by literary references. The most representative example is what can be conside-red already a commonplace in the narratives of the area, the entrance to Patagonia as entrance to hell, indicated in the case for the presence of the gatekeeper :

To enter the desert, you have to deal with the gatekeeper, the owner of a disgusting shack that hosts under its roof of rotten straw all the parasites that torture humanity, all the damaged goods from Buenos Aires stores, and all the debts of the neighbors. Without him, there is no way of finding food or other elements for the trip, because the horse owners and guides owned this Cerberus thousands of pesos for the alcoholic poison that he provides for the long and boring afternoons in the desert (p. 11).

21Onelli also uses literary figures in the description of natural elements, moving farther away from the scientific model. He criticizes the excesses of the romanticism, but often his descriptions fall into the excesses that he rejects. This is particularly clear when describing plants. While the scientific travelers wanted to describe them using botanical terms, and exploring the possibilities of economic exploitation (locally or cultivating them in other regions), Onelli is interested in what makes the plants unique. Here is his description of the copihué :

In the morning, in the deep forest, under a delicious shower of dewdrops, among the glittering wet moss, I saw for the first time the queen of the Andean flowers, the copihué. The splendor of its pink flesh hangs in cheerful garlands from the endless columns of this shaded temple of stale air that seems carved in the bowels of the Earth. I compared this flower to the orchid, and I thought : the pride and aristocracy of the orchids were soon defeated : daughters of the tropics in the time of the monarchies, they evolved with time, and now they are cultivated in glasshouses in all climates, at the reach of enriched bourgeois. Not the copihué : austere, it resists being transplanted to the parks of the nobility or the greenhouses of the bourgeoisie. Perhaps a suicide, it saddens and dies when far from its native forest ; but neither princesses nor millionaires can boast of having used them as ornament. Like ancient bacchantes, beautiful Araucanian girls used them as garlands (p. 34-35).

22There is a reason to associate the copihué’s resistance to be transplanted, and its use by the Indian women. In the same way that the copihué doesn’t have a place outside the Patagonian Andes, he knows that the Indians don’t have a place in the modern Argentina that his mission represents.

23It is here where we can see Onelli’s ambiguity : on one hand, he applauds the inexorable advance toward modernity, but he also laments what it means for Patagonia. He sees the future as full with the noise of progress : “cities, towns, railroads, factories, they will be the continued and indefinite noise that will reverberate in the mountains” (p. 114), driven by hydraulic energy. Meanwhile, now the rivers only produce music : “For now, it is sweet to dream rocked by the music of the Andean waterfalls” (p. 114). The music of Nature is incompatible with the noise of progress. He knows exactly what progress will bring to the area, as proved by the sarcasm used to describe an incident when he is returning : “I believed I had arrived to a civilized place, and I was able to confirm it in the morning by a fight between two drunken shepherds, one of which ended dead, covered with stab wounds” (p. 107). Civilization is essentially violent, and the music of the waters, the “white coal” that will power progress, “has a thousand crystalline notes : it is the subdued murmur of invisible fairies, it is the gallop of granite horses, it is the coarse rumble of the avalanche, the roar of enraged beasts, the sigh of a lost soul” (p. 115). The lost soul of a pristine Patagonia destined to disappear.

  • 12 Santiago Rusinol, De Barcelona al Plata. Un viaje a la Argentina de 1910, Barcelona, Ediciones B, (...)

24A few years later, when Argentina celebrates the Centenary of its independence in 1910, the model of progress proposed and defended by Estrada and Onelli has not fully reached Patagonia, but it has changed the pampas. Argentina is becoming a rich country, based on the agricultural production of its prairies. The landscape of the pampas has changed, as Santiago Rusiñol shows in his De Barcelona al Plata. Un viaje a la Argentina de 1910 (From Barcelona to the River Plate. A Trip to Argentina in 1910)12. Rusiñol (1861-1931), a painter and writer, was an important representative of the Catalonian modernist movement. In 1910 he traveled to Buenos Aires and the pampas, and became fascinated by its extension. In his descriptions, it is evident the impact of literature on his perceptions : he is trying to find the literary pampas, but the progress has changed it. In the first chapter, titled “La fuerza del alambre” (“The strengths of barbwire”), he presents his idea of the pampa, taken from literature :

We are going towards the pampa, the immense pampa, the flatlands that, when we were children, were described at school as an unexplored territory, full of Indians dressed in feathers performing war dances… and fighting with the Spaniards because they would steal their Indian women. Those flatlands that later we imagined full of gauchos dressed with chiripás, on their horses from the moment they were born until they died ; those flatlands that we imagined full of Indian chiefs hunting enemies […] That mysterious pampa, big as the sea, flat as the sea ; an immensurable piece of land where God, creator of everything, forgot to put mountains (p. 162).

25That immensurable territory is being divided and imprisoned by the barbwire, as he points out in the following quote, a perfect synthesis of the conflict between nature and progress :

We have the feeling that the barbwire here is a social issue : it’s the death of freedom, the death of poetry, the invasion of the proletarians, the correction of Nature, and, above all, the end of the gaucho. The gaucho was free, independent. The gaucho, according to a writer, had the pride and the vanity of not having fences or borders. And the barbwire has divided that. He had an inclination for everything big and infinite, and the barbwire limits him. He had the love for the desert, enjoying the tempests ; he had the prairies as altar, only limited by imagination, the southern winds as orchestra, the birds as music, and chance as guide. And the barbwire, the damned barbwire, encloses him in big chicken coops. And the gaucho poet, the bard, the one that mined the clouds for words and the stars for advice, and who got advice from the insects’songs, and had the whole world to fly from one place to another, and now comes the arrival of private property and classifies him. It converts the prairies into planting pots, to raise horses and men, and everything because of an invention called the barbed wire, that should be called ropes of oppression of the gaucho soul (p. 165).

26Later on, a chapter entitled “El gaucho” is based on the knowledge provided by the book that he is reading on the train : José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, which “it figures it was written by a gaucho” and from which stanzas “we will deduce how the man of the flatlands live, since, like everywhere, the typical ways of life are slowly disappearing” (p. 170). Martín Fierro, the literary creation of an educated man, is taken by Rusiñol as definitive authority on the conflict between tradition and progress in the pampa.

27After the excesses of positivism at the end of the 19th century, Rusiñol’s artistic perspective makes him read the Argentine territory from the same romantic literary perspective that we saw in Estrada, and that Onelli tried to leave aside. All these writers confront the pampa and Patagonia with similar backgrounds : a corpus of readings and stereotypes used to read the territory according to their ideological perspectives and the political context of their times. Ultimately, taking us back to Edward Said’s quotation at the beginning of this text, and showing us that our conceptions of these territories are created based on a system of quotations.


1 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon Books, 1978, p. 23.

2 Beatriz Sarlo, “La segunda generación romántica. Gutiérrez, Andrade”, in Historia de la literatura argentina, Buenos Aires, CEDAL, 1980, p. 449.

3 Santiago Estrada, Viajes, Barcelona, Henrich y Cª, 1889. Since there are no English translations of any of the travelogues discussed in this article, all translations are mine.

4 Aurora Sanchez, “Una crítica al sistema : católicos y nacionalistas”, in Buenos Aires 1880-1930. La capital de un imperio imaginario, ed. Horacio Vázquez-Rial, Madrid, Alianza, 1996, p. 150.

5 Diego A. Del Pino, “Clemente Onelli, el italiano sabio que amó la Patagonia”, in Todo es historia 281, Nov. 1990, p. 74-94.

6 Clemente Onelli, Trepando los Andes, Buenos Aires, El Elefante Blanco, 1998.

7 Ernesto Livon-Grosman, “Lo abierto y lo cerrado : el espacio patagónico en la literatura de viaje”, in Ciberletras 5 (www. lehman. cuny. edu/ciberletras/v05/grosman. html), December 4, 2004, p. 2.

8 Gabriela Nouzeilles, “Patagonia as Borderland : Nature, Culture, and the Idea of State”, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 8.1, 1999, p. 44.

9 Silvia Bittar, Silvia Casini, Viviana Polli, Estela Saint-Andre, “El imaginario patagónico en el contexto de la literatura hispanoamericana”, in Celehis : Revista del Centro de Letras Hispanoamericanas 5.6-8, 1996, p. 50.

10 Eva-Lynn Jagoe, “Patagonia Peripheries” in Studies in Travel Writing : Papers from the Essex Symposium on Writing Travels, Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University, 2003, p. 29 ; Angel Tuninetti, Nuevas tierras con viejos ojos. Viajeros españoles y latinoamericanos en Sudamérica, siglos XVIII y XIX, Buenos Aires, Corregidor, 2001, p. 174.

11 Op. cit., p. 2.

12 Santiago Rusinol, De Barcelona al Plata. Un viaje a la Argentina de 1910, Barcelona, Ediciones B, 1999.


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