Gaucho Life: Brazil’s Traditions Travel The Silk Road

0914_coverstoryIf you’re lucky, living far from home and country, you have just a few pictures of family and friends to keep memories and tradition alive. On the other hand, there are some in Dongguan that travel in such massive packs that it seems they might just take over, or at least assimilate their adopted home.

“I think you have a feeling that you are more proud of your country when you are away.”

Comments like this one were spoken more than once at a regular gathering of the gauchos of Dongguan, many of them dressed in traditional clothing to keep close, and healthy, the customs of southern Brazil. Also prevalent in Argentina and Uruguay, these Latin American cowboys carry a modern identity steeped in values from their ancestors.

The Foreign Affairs Bureau says that Dongguan is home to over 10,000 foreign-passport holders from 84 countries. Among those, an estimated 2,500 are from Brazil, and from those Brazilians, an overwhelming majority are from Rio Grande do Sul, its southernmost state famous for its beef, leather and shoes.


Working together is a core tenement of the gaucho culture. Here, Dongguan resident gauchos pour an iron pot of polenta, a staple dish made from cornmeal.

This month is one of the Portuguese-speaking country’s most packed with holidays and festivals. September marks many localized cultural festivals, and the nation’s declaration of independence from Portugal in 1822. But most important to the gauchos of southern Brazil, “more important than Christmas, even,” is the Ragamuffin Festival.

That’s the English translation for Farrapos, the republican rebels from the province of Rio Grande do Sul.

Their war created an independent state lasting for ten years during an 1835-to-1845 war over unfair beef taxation. The gauchos didn’t like having to compete against other South American countries that were allowed to import tariff-free beef.

“How do you call? Rag-MOO-fin?” said Alan Sehn, a tall 35-year-old gaucho who has spent 18 years in Dongguan and has become a community leader among the city’s Brazilians. Spending time at a late night barbecue, where famed, skewered and grilled meats are a must, other traditions are kept sacred.

Women are not allowed. “They gossip and cause fights, but you can see we are just here to relax. We are not husbands out to find other girls,” said Sehn. “We don’t allow two other things. Notice that no one is wearing football clothes, and no talking politics.” Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no women gauchos, just not at these parties.

It’s a strategy of harmonious practice that works. As an outsider among a group that so obviously belongs together—many wearing the same round, cake-pan gaucho hats—this reporter has rarely felt more welcomed. Introduction decorum was a strong handshake accompanied by stronger eye contact and genuine smiles.

United together, this crowd of masculinity, juxtaposed with warm Latin displays of affection, enjoy few things more than reminiscing about old homes and faraway family members. One, however, might be a strong teasing followed by outbursts of boisterous laughter.

 Life in China

Junior Amaral, member of local gaucho musicians Banda Nativa, plays the accordion wearing at a recent gathering of his gaucho peers

Junior Amaral, member of local gaucho musicians Banda Nativa, plays the accordion wearing traditional guacho garb at a recent gathering of his gaucho peers.

Junior Amaral sees similarities (with limitations) to China’s culture of miànzi, or face, in how his compatriots determine a person’s qualities. “Self-worth, that’s a good way to put it, because the way they do the fire when they do the barbecue—the way they put the sticks in—it’s a sort of ritual for every movement. The music, the dance and the gathering,” he said.

And if you’re fire is not hot enough or your dance is not vibrant enough, expect to hear about it. “And then they’re going to take some thick salt and put it on the fire and say, ‘come on,’ and just make fun,” he said.

It seems there is no taking south Brazil out of the Brazilians. None the less, they are not in a hurry to get back to their collective motherland.

After Brazil’s currency, the real, was indexed to the U.S. dollar in 1995, its footwear industry, which is still second only to Asia, ran into large drops in shoe exports. And so the country’s skilled designers and leather finishers followed the industry into another hemisphere.

“I came to China to make a trade here,” said Sehn. “I never worked in Brazil; I came from leather school to China and then I stayed.” At age 18, he set off for an adventure and has moved up in his career in a local tannery ever since.

The first shoe factory in Brazil opened in 1888 and the industry grew quickly, impelled by the immigration of German and Italian craftsmen to South Brazil. In today’s market, there is now growing concern that the shoe industry might not eternally call Dongguan home. “The business for shoes is shrinking and everybody is moving—especially to Vietnam. You see a lot of Brazilians going back to Brazil,” he said. “They suffer.”

But for now, the city is still full of Brazilian eateries, salons and even a Portuguese-dominant school that educates around 85 young students.

A State Religion

Brazilian barbecue has become a part of Dongguan culture with a few restaurants around town catering to the city’s gaucho population. In their culture a man that can cook a spit, is a man indeed.

Brazilian barbecue has become a part of Dongguan culture with a few restaurants around town catering to the city’s gaucho population. In their culture a man that can cook a spit, is a man indeed.

With day to day necessities taken care of, it’s the heart and soul of China’s biggest Brazilian community, that they feel can’t be severed. And it’s the handmade leather sheath sticking out from Oseas Flesch’s sturdy cotton trousers—they call them bombachas—and the pearl-polished blade within it, that portrays a prime example of gaucho character.

“You can not give to your friend a knife. You can give, but he must give one coin or money,” said Flesch. “Why? Because if I give to you one knife you didn’t buy, our friendship, you cut.”

This photo taken in the 1840’s shows a gaucho in full dress, including bombachas, greatcoat, poncho, his facón knife and a rebenque horse whip.

The facón knife, used now for cutting succulent grilled meats and in Brazil as a ranch tool, is a throwback to the war that molded the horse-riding culture from a way of life into a cultural identity that separates the south from its northern cousins. They liken themselves to Americans from Texas, who often feel that their allegiance to the nation is an inconvenience of necessity.

Motivated by what the gauchos felt were unfair trade practices, mainly large taxes placed on a dried and salted beef called charque, while imports from neighboring countries were unhindered, the state of Rio Grande do Sul declared war on September 20, 1835. And due to the fringed leather of the gaucho’s ponchos, the rebels were called farrapos.

And though the war was eventually lost, peace came with an end to the taxes and choice of the nation’s next president. Honoring that day, grills across Dongguan will be flaming up in remembrance to those that came before and fought for their way of life.

“It’s not just another party,” said Amaral. “It’s probably like [America’s] thanksgiving. It’s sort of the main celebration of the year. It’s really the center of all celebrations for guacho.”

But they are not celebrating the war as much as they are continuing a proud tradition that centers around family, music and food. Speaking to these men, the culture is close, but not exactly, a religion. It’s about respect, they say—friendship and sharing.

Sharing laughter, food and the responsibility of nurturing a 19th century lifestyle in a 21st century world, there is no shortage of quick, lighthearted insults or tests of manhood when the gauchos ride through town.

“We have a new guy. He’s going to play the accordion with me. We will see if he is a real man,” said Amaral. It’s a way to test each other, but mostly it’s a manor of teaching old ways and reinforcing their importance.

Brazilian No-No’s


No Business over lunch

Food is a Passion, not a negotiation.



Don’t use your hands

Eat your burger with utensils.



A Gaucho Love

by Angelica Beck

0914_coverstory_4Since we were kids, we’ve learned about south Brazilian culture as traditional habits followed by our parents and grandparents. One main example is the tea called chimarrão, which is drank daily by every gaucho. Personally, I talk about southern culture as the religion I practiced during childhood and adolescence. Drinking chimarrão daily and the weekend routine of going to the parties called baile at the CTG (Gaucho Traditional Center), instead of going to the nightclubs, made me different.

It was always more like a family environment than those places you go to simply dance, drink and date guys. Of course occasionally you would date guys at the Bailes, but that was not the only purpose of such gatherings. It was the best opportunity to hang out with friends, family and meet different people as well, plus and most important, celebrate the culture, of which we, gauchos, are very proud.

When I was a kid, I used to be part of a traditional dancing group in my hometown. At least once a week we used to meet to practice so we could eventually compete. Our competitions with other dancing groups would usually happen at events called rodeio.

Rodeio is an event where Gauchos compete in different modalities, such as dancing, singing, horse riding, local games, like truco, and even cooking. All those things related to the customs. We never won, I remember, but it was the best way for friends to be and keep united, no matter what.

I was 15-years-old when I used to dance in the juvenile age group. And I will never forget the first time we went camping at a rodeio. I met my first boyfriend there. He was part of another CTG from another city, and he was also competing at the juvenile level in dancing and truco. A big fan of horses, he was one of the best riders at the competition. That’s how he caught my eye, I think. But we lived too far from each other and were too young to keep the relationship. Good memories, though.

The south Brazilian culture taught me the meaning of friendship. I met my two best friends at the CTG, during my years at the dancing group. There is another story which makes me laugh when I recall it. Three of us met a gaucho band, only guys, and fell in love with them and their songs, like fans. We used to attend every baile they played. But later on we went to college, then quit the CTG and lost contact with the band.

Today, each of us is living in a different country, but we carry the gaucho culture in our hearts, since it has made us better people, more sensitive and strong at the same time, more family oriented people. And most important, we carry the friendships wherever we go, which will never die.


Don’t refuse the coffee

Don’t expect it, but don’t say no.



In The Family

by Angelica Beck

“I joined the CTG motivated by my older brother, while my wife took part because her older sister used to dance and go to competitions,” said Leomar Lima, when mentioning the coincidences that brought him together with his wife Camile Silvano de Lima. Both born in the same hometown in Brazil, Campo Bom, they’ve been together for 17 years. She was around 8-years-old when at her first group dance, much younger than Leomar, who was 15 when he first started.

“My first time at the CTG didn’t last too long, as I was just a little girl and didn’t know exactly what I wanted.” The memory made her laugh at herself. “I left the CTG because of many factors. One of them was due to the weekly training. I couldn’t watch my favorite TV show, so I decided to quit,” she recalled.

Dancing in the same group, having family and common friends join, Leomar and Camile couldn’t avoid falling in love with each other when still teenagers. It was a life inside the CTG, joining different kinds of competitions, and occasionally even traveling overseas to dance in big events, always in order to celebrate the south Brazilian culture.

0914_coverstory_5Leomar spoke about his first trip to Asia, which happened when his dancing group attended the FIFA Fan Fest at the South Korea World Cup in 2002. “We spent 23 days there and it was an unforgettable experience for me to propagate our customs, and in the meantime understand a totally different culture from ours.”

Camile could not attend that event in 2002, and she remembered some occasions when both were apart due to business trips, but Leomar still celebrated the Ragamuffin holiday himself with a barbecue and wearing the traditional gaucho clothing. “When I first came to China, seven years ago, I put my Gaucho uniform in my luggage, as I knew I would wear it, while at home I used to wear it in my CTG only.”

Leomar has also traveled to other states in Brazil to compete as a truco player. He was the best at a regional tournament and therefore competed with the best players in the country. And he won.

Camile emphasized the important role of the CTG in their life as it’s the best place for children and elders to become good people. For competitions, the girls had to know how to cook, how to dress and were even motivated to do volunteer jobs. Moreover, the beauty was not the point to win the prize of best lady, which is called prenda by the gauchos. It was bestowed upon the best posture from a lady who knows how to behave and who had an intellect of general southern history.

With the responsibility at work, college, and later on moving to China, both Leomar and Camile left the dancing group, even though they kept practicing local habits. In 2011, their daughter Cecilia was born bringing more happiness to the family. “Her whole life was spent in China, but she knows how to drink chimarrão and can also dance traditional music, from watching videos on the Internet,” remarked the proud father. “The culture is part of us, even we are on the other side of the world,” said Camile, exemplifying the circle of the south Brazilian culture, in which parents teach children, who teach grandchildren and so on.



Don’t use “OK” hand signal

Figure that one out on your own.