The Argentine Art of Sogueria

“Do you mind if I use my knife?” Pablo asked the waiter as our dinner plates were laid before us. After a long, dusty day at La Rural, Argentina’s national livestock show, we had invited our friend to dine with us in the swanky San Telmo district of Buenos Aires where our hotel was located. His dinner preference? Bife de Chorizo, a standard sized portion of 16oz/ 500 gram served with little else. “Of course!” the waiter replied. Pablo’s trusty silver embellished cuchillo, a 10”/ 25.4 cm blade traditionally tucked into a gaucho’s waistband at the small of the back, quickly surfaced and was put to work on the bife. We ate steak, drank malbec, and talked about leather, art, politics and Argentina.

Pablo Lozano is a soguero, and among his soguero peers, he is a rock star. Distinguished from a talabatero, who works only on cured leather, a soguero works exclusively with uncured, untreated rawhide. Sogueria, or the art of working with rawhide is considered part of the patrimonio, an identifying element that Argentinians recognize and value as their distinctive cultural heritage.

Like the iconic Argentinian cowboys known as gauchos, sogueros such as Pablo lead a solitary life. Working in their home based taller (workshop), sogueros spend weeks, if not months, at their workbench, cutting and braiding. A few times a year, professional sogueros will be invited to a museum to show their crafts (many times abroad) but for the most part, cultural events like La Rural function as an annual soguero convention.

La Rural, which takes place from July 16-31st in Buenos Aires, is the largest and most enduring of Latin America’s livestock shows, and is a gathering time for all agriculturalists and their related craftspeople. Pablo and his compatriots make their annual pilgrimage to La Rural to show their latest creations to aficionados, to sell their wares, and of course, to show off a bit.

As a Texan, I consider myself quite familiar with our agricultural community, and I have attended my fair share of big livestock shows and rodeos. But frankly, La Rural blew my boots off. A ten day celebration of current state of the art farming techniques and equipment, La Rural offers seminars on the latest ranching efficiencies and government policy, as well as the pageantry of show animals, traditional rodeo events, costume competitions, and musical performances. With a third of its population employed in the agricultural sector, and 85% of its exports attributed to livestock, agriculture in Argentina is serious business.

Out of all the livestock raised in Argentina, it is most famous for cattle, no doubt. The wide-open plains of the Pampas were considered ideal for raising livestock when discovered by the Spanish, but traders didn’t have refrigerated sea vessels to get all that meat back to Europe. Modern consumers may be under the impression that leather has always been a byproduct of the meat producing industry, but the reality is was quite the opposite. In the olden days, before refrigerators and freezer technology, Argentinian beef was a byproduct of the leather producing industry.

Ample land in the New World meant an explosion in world leather trade starting in the 16th Century. Leather was the precursor to plastic and paper, and used for clothing, upholstery, hinges, book covers, saddle and carriage construction, and documents in the form of vellum and parchment. Leather was a sought-after commodity of world trade. Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote in 1776 that leather was “…a real necessary of life.” Precious metals took time and resources to find, and farm-raised crops such as fruit, vegetables and cereals were difficult to deliver in marketable condition to European consumers. Leather dried easily, could be folded and compacted, making for a profitable payload. The leather trade quickly produced the first millionaires of the New World.

Haciendas were large land holdings that were run as businesses to produce agricultural products, such as livestock for leather. With the high level of demand for animal products back in Europe, Argentinian hacendados or hacienda owners became quite wealthy. And in Argentina, wealth and status has always been represented by silver.

Just as a modern day business mogul splurges on a fancy sports cars to identify themselves as successful, the hacendados tricked out their ponies with elaborate silver embellished saddles, stirrups, bridles and reins. The hacendados also spent their money on gentlemanly accoutrement such as spurs, quirts, cuchillos and facons (long knives), fajas (girdle like belts), buttons and buckles, all made of silver. The resplendent hacendado and his net worth would be admired by all who saw him as he rode by on his silver bedazzled steed.

However, the cattlemen employed by the hacendado couldn’t afford silver to decorate their horses. Gauchos are Argentina’s cowboys (the moniker is derived from the French word gauche, which literally means “left,” but in this case implies awkwardness, or brutish behavior). Famous for their provincial, yet practical, prideful and tenacious nature, gauchos developed a culture of poetry, story, song and craftsmanship similar to the celebrated Western cowboy culture of the United States. Without the cash flow to silver plate their horses, gauchos developed ornate methods of leatherwork that became part of their horse’s traditional adornment. Enter the soguero.

As a brief intermission from our 5 days at La Rural, my husband and I traveled by bus to the town of San Antonio de Areco, home to a museum dedicated to Argentina’s gaucho, and gaucho culture. Walking the grounds of Parque Criollo y Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Güiraldes, we were guided by our friend and internationally recognized gaucho historian, master soguero and silversmith Armando Deferrari. He pointed out that the paucity of resources available on the Pampas created a culture of fascinating resourcefulness among Argentinian settlers. The Argentinian Pampas is home to only one native tree, the Ombu, which are scattered sparsely across the grassy plains. There was virtually no wood for available for fires, so most foods were cooked over manure deposits, or animal bones. The most traditional chair on the Pampas was a short stool composed of two interlocked cow pelvis.

But animal products on the Pampas such as untreated rawhide were plentiful. The art of sogueria at its most basic is braided cords of rawhide leather (a cord in Spanish is known as a sogue). A simple lasso for catching wild cattle could be made of roughly cut strips of rawhide. But if a gaucho wanted to compete with the showy silver splendor of his boss, the leather work needed to be exceedingly fine. Over time, the art of sogueria elevated to a level that outshined silver.

A soguero, such as Pablo Lozano, carefully collects tientos (or tethers) of rawhide, which for Pablo’s fine pieces, measure 1.2mm wide by .06-.07mm thick. Braiding leather of this tiny scale can take up to a full day to create a single square centimeter. The resulting braids are as smooth and sensual as a snakeskin, with fancy picots and filigree like lace, while retaining the strength needed to control the muscle power of a horse.

After our visit to San Antonio de Areco, we returned to Buenos Aires and caught up with Pablo at La Rural, where we followed the competitions for the best bull, the best milk cow, the best chicken, the best chinchilla, the best canary, and of course, the best llama. For me, the most dazzling competition was that of the traditional riders. Each competitor elected a specific time period in Argentina’s history, and recreated a character of that time. Scruffy bearded gauchos wearing the classic chiripá over white fringed calzoncillo pantaloons guided their leather adorned horses through the ring. Wealthy hacendado reenactors strutted across the sand, their horses decked out in the finest examples of sogueria, heavily embellished with silver.

“That one is wearing a custom bridle that I made for him.” Pablo pointed out a golden palomino with a long, blond carefully brushed tail. The rider, dressed in a fawn colored poncho, embroidered with creamy roses, had elected to portray a hacendado of the 19th century. He and his horse were a breathtaking vision in gold and silver. I snapped a few pictures as Pablo waited for the judges’ decision. The golden hacendado took first place.

“Bravo!” shouted Pablo. I took a few more pictures, and showed him a fairly handsome portrait. “Why do I like this one so much? I never like pictures of myself!” Pablo exclaimed. “Well,” I said, “your work just won the competition.”

“Of course!” he grinned.