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A country affair with national pride.


COUNTRY COMES TO CITY AND VICE versa is perhaps the best way to describe Argentina's annual Exposicion de Ganaderia, Agricultura e Industria, Internacional, or La Feria Rural as it is popularly called. Massive draft horses, sheep that seem to be all wool, and breeding bulls weighing more than a ton suddenly invade the fairgrounds adjacent to Plaza Italia in the Palermo District of Buenos Aires. Simultaneously, over one and a half million city folk pass through the turnstiles to experience the sights, sounds, and even the smells of this little piece of urbanized campo which comes to life for three short weeks from late July to mid-August.

To describe La Rural as simply a livestock show is as absurd as calling the Olympic Games a track meet. In addition to the livestock and all manner of agricultural equipment, the exposition features mini-fairs within the fair: trade pavilions crammed with high-tech gear, outlets for artisan goods from all provinces and foodstands and restaurants with domestic and foreign delicacies. For both tourists and natives, a visit to the Rural is the best way to experience the essence of Argentina. There, in capsule form, is much of what propels this important Southern Cone country.

To trace the history of this truly national event is to track the evolution of the ranching industry, still an essential part of Argentina's economy. The fair has its roots in the Sociedad Rural Argentina (SRA), an organization founded in 1866 at the instigation of thirteen prominent hacendados bonaerenses intent on promoting ranching interests, especially the improvement of breeding stock and the expansion of markets for meat and hides. Eduardo Olivera, an agronomist trained at the Grignon Institute in France and one of the principal founders of the SRA, specified in the original charter that the organization sponsor expositions for livestock and agriculture products, awarding prizes to those worthy of distinction. On April 11, 1875, the SRA did just that, using land now in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires--a parcel at the intersection of Calles Florida and Paraguay then belonging to one of the organization's founders, Leonardo Pereyra. Dr. Nicolas Avellaneda, Argentina's president at the time, inaugurated the fair. Eighty-five ranchers exhibited 13 bulls, 74 sheep, 66 horses, 16 goats and 11 pigs to the enjoyment of some 18,000 people who visited during the seven day affair.

In 1878, La Feria Rural moved to its current home, property at the intersection of Avenida Santa Fe and Avenida Sarmiento. The twenty-seven acre site was ceded to the SRA by the park commission of Palermo and proved to be a very convenient location because the Belgrano tramway stopped right in front of the main entrance to the fairground. In 1886, the SRA decided to expand the exposition to a full-fledged international event that would attract animals and machinery from overseas, especially from Europe. The idea was vigorously promoted by General Julio Argentina Roca, who wanted to conclude his term as Argentina's president with some sort of gesture that acknowledged the Republic's growing stature in the world. He inaugurated the event personally, noting in his speech that the fair had the potential to "lift the spirit and make people love peace, work, and liberty." He also applauded the substantial European presence: some 220 imported animals, more than one-fourth of the total on exhibit. As the years rolled by, La Rural frequently would prove to be an agent for change, not just through the introduction of improved breeding stock, but also by presenting new advances in veterinary medicine, farm machinery, and refrigeration methods. Ranching was becoming a national industry and the technology associated with that industry would become as important as the animals themselves.

In a typical year, the fairgrounds are open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. except on Fridays, Saturdays, and holidays, when the eight separate entry gates stay open an additional hour. Admission costs US$5.00 for adults and US$2.50 for children. Because parking space is at a premium, many visitors simply take the subway to the Plaza Italia Station or use taxis or buses to reach the fairgrounds. Within the Predio Ferial de Palermo (the official name of the site) there are ample public services: lavatories, first aid stations, annexes for police and firemen, telephones, telex and fax facilities, and a full array of banking services. Weather is temperate during the winter in Buenos Aires but it often rains so it is wise to bring an umbrella. To fully enjoy the fair, one is well-advised to purchase the official catalog (cost US$5.00) which offers a color layout of the exposition grounds, listings of the hundreds of companies and institutions sponsoring exhibits, and detailed information on the all-important judging of livestock.

Horses, cows, sheep, pigs, even rabbits and poultry all have their own pavilion in this grand show. Handlers invest countless hours grooming them, and feeding upwards of 70,000 kilograms of alfalfa and 28,000 kilograms of grain to the nearly 3,000 hungry contestants. The pampered animals are paraded before judges who silently scrutinize each from all sides and make notations on clipboards. The judging of the "glamor categories," mainly entries of equine and bovine stock, occurs in a large open air arena with Victorian style cast iron grandstands that accommodate thousands of spectators. Ranchhands parade the animals around the enclosure while anxious owners coax and coach along the rail, ever hopeful that the form, weight, and disposition of their candidate will conform to that elusive image of the ideal animal. When the winners are finally announced on the public address system, a great round of applause goes up from the crowd while winning cabaneros embrace family and friends. Throughout its run, the fair is headline news in Buenos Aires, hence journalists and photographers constantly scamper about documenting the proceedings, especially the moment when dignitaries attach the multicolored ribbons to the halter of the winning animals. (The grand champion ribbon in national colors of blue and white is the ultimate award in each category.) Large sums of money can ride on these announcements as many of the winning animals are auctioned off at hefty prices in the waning days of the fair. As the genetic foundation for their respective breeds, these animals literally define the shape of Argentina's livestock industry for generations to come.

For careless urbanites inclined to say, "if you've seen one cow, you've seen them all," the fair offers a superb opportunity to test that assumption and realize that there is enormous variety in today's livestock. Although the exposition in Palermo features the more common breeds of cows like Hereford and Aberdeen Angus, it also offers a chance to see lesser known exotic strains like the Marchigiana (an old Italian breed), Nelore (a Cebu by way of Brazil), Retinta (introduced from Spain in the 1980s) and Fleckvieh-Simmental (prized for its production of both milk and meat). For those more interested in equine stock, in addition to typical Arabians, North American quarter horses and Argentine criollas, there are English bloodlines like the Hackney, Anglo Normando, and Anglo Arabe, and German breeds like the Hannoveriana, Holstein, Oldenburgues and Westfalen (introduced to Argentina as recently as 1981). Signs over the stalls in the sheep pavilion identify the animal prized for their wool, meat, and even milk from production: Black Face from Scotland, Romney Marsh from England, and Corriedale from New Zealand (actually a cross of Merino and Lincoln sheep). The procine representative (forever a delight to the onlookers as they snort and root their way through the judging process) have equally intriguing names: Chester White, Duroc Jersey, Spotted Poland, Pietrain and Landrace. If it is too daunting to behold from a close range an Aberdeen Angus breeding bull weighing over 1,100 kilograms, or a heavily muscled Percheron horse, there are plenty of chickens and turkeys, even exotic breeds of rabbits, nutria, and chinchilla to delight those of a fainter heart.

All the exotic animal breeds aside, La Rural offers an equally intriguing opportunity to observe the intermingling of diverse sectors of Argentine society. There is a lively mix of upper crust portenos (residents of Buenos Aires) swathed in cashmere overcoats, hip young people using the fair as a meeting place, and families on an inexpensive outing. Most prominent in this largely urban crowd are the ranching people: an estanciero in high leather boots and riding jacket, a Basque sheepherder, or the many ranch hands who can be seen grooming their charges with electric clippers, hair blowers, even handheld vacuum cleaners. By far the most dashing are the cowboys, or gauchos, themselves a work of art as they parade the cows and horses around the arena or demonstrate their horsemanship and ability to handle livestock in la jineteada (a separately judged competition similar to a rodeo). As much the stars of the La Rural as the animals, gauchos willingly pose for cameras aboard their steeds, sipping yerba mate with cohorts, or having a drink at one of the fair's several pulperias (traditionally a caged-in bar intended to prevent rambunctious customers from assailing the barkeeper).

The fierce individualism often associated with the mythic gaucho (Jose Hernandez' Martin Fierro, for example) finds considerable confirmation in the wide range of cowboy apparel one can spot in the La Rural's parade grounds, improvised corrals, and covered stables. Gauchos have a general respect for traditional styles but, within that framework, each fashions his own highly idiosyncratic look. Headgear, for example, can be a boina vasca (Basque style beret) at a jaunty angle, or a regal, black flat-brimmed sombrero espanol, or even a high-crowned panza de burra (which in times past was made from the skin of a horse's belly, formed over a rounded fence post). Similarly, boots can be rustic botas de potro (literally, filly boots made of hide stripped from a colt's hind leg and pulled on while still moist for a custom-tailored fit) or shiny, black leather boots, the upper part obliged to sag like an accordian, often adorned with iron or silver spurs. The baggy pants or bombachas can be decorated with fancy stitchery down the seam or have extra pleats (typical of the bombacha de fiesta). An embroidered chaleco (vest) or tight fitting corralera (jacket) also is typical as are fajas (colorful shashes), cinturones (wide leather belts), a braided rebenque (riding crop), or boleadores tied around the waist. The various adornments associated with the cintura offer a special opportunity to make a flamboyant fashion statement but they also define economic status. Elements like the facon (sheathed knife worn at the back), monedas (coins sewed to the leather in rows), and rastra (cinch) often are of silver and can be surprisingly expensive. Colorful ponchos and scarves complete the ensemble, sometimes indicating the regional identity of a gaucho. When the gauchos saltenos (from the Province of Salta) enter the central ring wearing their red and black mantas and enormous leather guardamontes (oversized chaps), they never fail to get a warm response from the crowd.

With such an enormous captive audience of farmers and ranchers at the La Rural, the opportunity to promote and sell agricultural equipment and products is not wasted. In displays throughout the exposition grounds, manufacturers, both foreign and domestic, stage showy presentations of milking machines, pumps, generators and chain saws, fertilizers and hybrid seeds, as well as innoculation and artificial insemination equipment. To the left of the fair's main entrance on Plaza Italia and adjacent to Avenida Santa Fe is the International Pavilion, its main floor like a world bazaar full of exotic items. Whether in the market for Cuban cigars, Polish vodka, Loden coats from Germany, nanduti lace from Paraguay or recordings of Andean music of Bolivia and Peru, this is the place to go. Numerous multinational corporations have booths with glitzy pace cars featuring the company's logo or stylish vendors handing out samples and pamphlets. Some of Argentina's major trading partners (Spain, France, Germany) sponsor their own futuristic outdoor structures to house their product lines while other countries, through their embassies and trade missions, sponsor displays of export goods, catalogs, and technical literature within the confines of the International Pavilion.

On the upper level of this pavilion is the Exposicion y Feria de Artesanias Tradicionales Argentinas, which offers an opportunity to purchase, at reasonable prices, art and crafts from the entire republic. One would have to travel for days and thousands of miles to find a selection equivalent to the extraordinary variety of handmade products immediately available under this one roof. From the Andean northwest come mantas, ponchos and chalinas of llama and alpaca wool, musical instruments like the quena (reed flute) and zamponas (pan pipes), and vessels and figures of fired clay. There are fiber bags made by the Guaycuru Indians of the Province of Formosa, straw items from Cordoba, high quality wool yarn from Rio Negro and Chubut, and baskets from Corrientes. If leather is your preference, this is the place to find gloves made from the skin

of a carpincho (capybara), a braided cowhide rebenque trimmed in silver, tack of all types, a cintura de gaucho complete with silver rastra, fancy bombillas and mates for consumption of yerba mate tea.

For many fair goers, the sumptuous array of traditional foods is the highlight of this event: an authentic asado (barbeque) of grilled ribs, steak, chorizos (sausages), even an exotic mix of innards can be washed down with a chop (draft beer) or one of Argentina's many fine wines. Asadores preside over the open fire grilling of lechon (young pork) or costillas de cordero (rack of lamb). Often within the window of each establishment, obviously aimed at tempting would-be diners, is a display of guzzy pastries. Other tempting items include jamon serrano (country ham), lomito canadense (Canadian smoked ham), tamales tucumanos (tamales from the Province of Tucuman), quesillo (soft fresh goat or sheep cheese), and pan casero (gutsy hearth baked bread). Those with a sweet tooth que up to buy alfajores de Cordoba (cookies filled with fruit), chocolates de Bariloche (Swiss chocolate), panettone (Italian-style fruit bread), and dulce de leche (caramelized sweetened milk), a great favorite in the Cono Sur. One could spend the entire Rural just eating and leave the premises with the rotund contours of a prize bull!

Curiously enough, it is not until four days before the end of the exposition that the President of Argentina traditionally arrives to formally inaugurate the fair. Actually more an act of closure, it coincides with the official awarding in each category of the champion and grand champion prizes. An open air mass in the central arena is held on the last Sunday of the exposition followed by two days of livestock auctions before things shut down. Although La Feria Rural is the most obvious, public manifestation of the Sociedad Rural Argentina, it is by no means the only activity sponsored by that organization. On a year round basis, it maintains (at its central administrative offices at Calle Florida 460) a genealogical registry to record pedigree bloodlines going back to the nineteenth century and a research library containing over 30,000 books and technical journals. It supports, through two separate institutes, economic and legal studies as they pertain to the livestock industry. It also hosts conferences like the World Congress of Sheep and Wool (which this year coincided with La Feria Rural) and Forrajes '92, the first world congress on animal feeds, held in early November of this year.

The motto of the SRA on its official seal reads cultivar el suelo es servir a la patria (to work the soil is to serve the country) but in these times of global interdependency, the organization's leaders avoid nationalist rhetoric and emphasize the need for farmers and ranchers everywhere to conduct their business in a responsible and cooperative fashion. Although La Feria Rural is an expression of national pride, in its very conscious effort to attract products and technology from the world over, it is also a celebration of international interdependency, the common good over ruthless competition. In his dedicatory comments for the 106th Exposition in 1992, Dr. Eduardo A. C. de Zavalia, the current president of the Sociedad Rural Argentina put it this way: "Now the fair is everyone's responsibility, because we are all its owners to the extent that we participate in it--the breeders, who have put together an excellent selection of the best livestock, the 607 industrial and commercial exhibitors who, surpassing previous records, astonish us with their advanced technology, the 17 foreign countries which have exhibited the fruits of their high-level production, and the vast public, who with its support, has encouraged this phenomenal effort. Thus united, a great future awaits us."

Caleb Bach, freelance writer and visual artist, teaches art and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. This article was made possible with the generous support of LAN CHILE airlines.


In this age of sartorial pluralism, at least when it comes to pants, many adhere to the adage, "the baggier the better." If that is your position, then consider buying a pair of bombachas, those ample trousers long a gaucho staple. Their roomy fit makes them comfortable for all sorts of situations, active and passive, while their tough, utilitarian fabrics seem to last forever. The buttoned cuff at the ankle keeps out dust, bugs, twigs, and even catches loose change if you have a hole in your pocket. Although the Southern Cone offers the best bargains on bombachas, they are readily available elsewhere, even by mail order catalogs.

Theories abound as to the origin of bombachas. Ernesto Sabato, the Argentine novelist, favors a universalist approach: that many mounted peoples like the Mongols or Cossacks favored clothing that afforded freedom of movement. Thus, it was inevitable that ranchhands of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and even Southern Brazil would gravitate toward these baggy trousers.

An alternative thesis is that of Eduardo Falu, the great guitarist and composer from the Argentine northwest. With Syrian ancestry, Falu points to the Middle East, probably Turkey, as the homeland of bombachas. In his opinion, either a misshipment of pants intended for the Pasha's troops, or war surplus in the wake of the Crimean conflict found its way to Rio de la Plata and seeded the land. If not that, quite possibly a batalion of French troops stationed in South America, the so-called Zouaves, might have been responsible. They favored not only billowy trousers made from yards of fabric but also vest-like jackets without lapels, much like the corralero jacket still worn today by many gauchos. In the nineteenth century, a great vogue for things Middle Eastern swept much of Europe. In 1888, Vincent van Gogh depicted a Zouave he knew in Provence in two oil paintings. One of the canvasses found its way to a private collection in Argentina.

Fernando O. Assuncao, a Uruguayan ethnologist and author of a wonderful book called Pilchas Criollas (Montevideo, 1979), acknowledges the "Ottoman connection" but also believes that bombachas grew out of the chiripa, an apron or diaper-like square of cloth which, in the name of modesty, Jesuit priests imposed upon the Guarani Indians and other native peoples during the eighteenth century. Looped fore and after over a belt and eventually worn over a panal or loose-fitting undertrouser, this combination in Assuncao's opinion evolved into one-piece bombachas. Clearly this form of clothing was well-established by the early nineteenth century as evidenced by a letter (also cited by Assuncao) dated February 15, 1843 from General Fructuoso Rivera. This famous Uruguayan caudillo needed some new clothing and sent his wife in Montevideo the following request: "send me some reddish-brown merino-wool pants of the baggy type, or as they are commonly called, Chinese style."

Whatever their origins, modern day bombachas are very stylish for people of both sexes whether they are in the countryside, residential suburbs, or workplace. Bombachas are a must at an asado (barbeque) and upscale versions are quite appropriate for an elegant garden party or a day at the hipodromo (race track). Bombachas can be worn with a regular belt and sandals or tennis shoes (with the narrow double-buttoned cuff exposed at the ankles) or as part of an authentic gaucho outfit with a hat, scarf, blouse or jacket, boots, and fancy sash or belt. The pants come in many colors and fabrics: light-weight, pale-colored cotton gabardine or military twill, ideal for warm weather, or wide-wale corduroy and heavy prewashed denim more suitable for winter. A particularly refined version are bombachas bataraza (the term refers to the hound's tooth pattern) made from soft all-wool fabric also called pied de poule because its pattern resembles the footprint of a chicken. There are also bombachas de fiesta, an even baggier style for fancy occasions with panels of pleats on each side. They take forever to iron and normally come only in white, black, or dark blue colors. There are regional variations, too, like red bombachas characteristic of the Argentine province of Entre Rios. In Paraguay and in the state of Rio Grando do Sul in Brazil, fancy bombachas feature embroidered work or lacy net insets along the seams, perhaps a throw-back to the panal which often had a lace fringe.

Aficionados are highly opinionated regarding their sources for bombachas and each has an outlet they insist produces the best fit, fabrics, and workmanship. City dwellers on a country outing can return proudly waving authentic bombachas purchased at some wayside stand only to learn that gauchos themselves often buy them in the city where selection of sizes and fabrics is greater. In Buenos Aires, many ranching people buy their clothing and accessories at the Feria Rural or nearby outlets which intentionally increase their inventories to meet the short-term demand. Generally, in the Rio de la Plata region, prices range from US $25.00 to U.S. $50, depending on fabric. During the 1992 Feria Rural, El Ombu, a local firm noted for its service industry uniforms, sold sturdy twill bombachas from a stall in the Equestrian Pavillion for a rock bottom price of $U.S.$15.00. For the last four years, Patagonia, the Montana-based U.S. mail order company, also has sold bombachas. The company features different fabrics each year but in the Fall 1992 catalog, Patagonia offered either black or khaki brushed twill bombachas in various sizes for both men and women. They are listed at U.S. $72.50 plus shipping.
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Title Annotation:Argentina's Feria Rural exposition
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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