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Llaneros - Cowboys of Colombia and Venezuela

First cowboys of the Americas




Peter and Jackie Main
The llanos of Venezuela and Colombia are vast savannahs with an extensive variety of wildlife. Before the coming of the Spaniards in the mid-1500s, the llanos were inhabited by various indigenous groups. When the Spaniards began to colonize the area, a new population group arose, the first cowboy of the Americas, the llanero. The llanero's language is peppered with words and phrases unchanged from the idioms of the first Spaniards.

Part Indian, part Spanish to begin with, and now a mixture of many ethnic groups, the llaneros are skilled horsemen, adept at rounding up and corraling cattle on the Hatos, or cattle ranches as well as on the open range. Wearing a distinctive starched hat, they appear impervious to heat or cold, and often go barefoot. Until the discovery of vast oil reserves, the llanos were barely inhabited, with the population scattered over great distances.

"The Llaneros are proud of their hard lives, the true cowboys live close to nature from cradle to grave. They break in fresh horses each year, releasing them to run wild when the rains come. Their rich folklore is revealed in legends and stories, and in poignant songs accompanied by the strum of the cuatro guitar or the lilting rhythms of the Venezuelan harp."

Llaneros display their skills in coleo competitions in which cowboys try to rope cows by grabbing their tails, colas, and dragging them to the ground.

The llaneros, and their way of life have come to symbolize much of Venezuela's folklore. Their music has become a national favorite, and the joropo, a llanero dance, has become the national dance of Venezuela. Llanero music uses a small harp, maracas, and a four-stringed guitar called a cuatro. Authentic llanero music is rarely heard outside the llanos, but groups like Los Llaneros are taking the llanero sound to the world. Llanero cuisine is based on meat, fish, chicken, rice, arepas and other starches, but no wheat. The llanero culture has become so prevalent in modern Venezuelan society that dolls have been dressed as llaneros: Llanero Ken.

It wasn't always this way. At the time of the wars of independence, the llaneros distrusted and disliked the aristocratic criollos who looked down on them as mestizos and peasants. It was easy for the Spanish forces to play on those feelings and enlist the llaneros against the creole forces. After a battle in which the might of these bold warriors finally made an impression on the criollos, Simón Bolívar realized he needed these horsemen who called themselves centaurs. He went to live among them, to convince them the true enemy was Spain, not the criollo landlords who wanted to bring the llanos under private ownership.

It wasn't easy. The llaneros didn't understand Bolívar's speech and didn't think he could eat like them, swim across rivers and sleep in the open, or wear their rough clothing. Bolívar, always slight of stature, lost weight in the llanos, but by enduring all the hardships the llaneros endured - heat, cold, storms, high winds, and hours in the saddle, Bolívar gradually won them over and became known as "culo de hierro", which translates politely as "iron posterior" after the defeat of the Spanish forces at the Battle of Carabobo, in which Llaneros, now on the side of Bolívar and his generals, played their part.

This isn't the only literature about the llaneros. b]Doña Bárbara, a novel by Rómulo Gallegos was written in the 1920's about the life of the Llaneros. The main character, Doña Bárbara, is likened to the sabana or the llano, beautiful but deadly. A character in the books says “Once a llanero always a llanero up to the fifth generation.”

The concept of Llaneridad is defined in by Luis Guillermo Camejo: una Ciudadanía Cultural para Apure.

There are many tours to the llanos and sabanas to see the wildlife and the llanero way of life. Many of the landowners have instituted ecological programs to protect the wildlife and the forests. Some of the Hatos, now accept visitors and provide viewing opportunities for wildlife, and llaneros.

For more information, and a comparison between cowboys, gauchos, huasos and llaneros, refer to: Richard W. Slatta, Cowboys of the Americas (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990).

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