Last reviewed: June 2018
Argentine poet, journalist, and politician
November 10, 1834
Buenos Aires, Argentina
October 21, 1886
José Hernández (ehr-NAHN-days), Argentine poet, soldier, political office holder, and champion of minorities, was born at the Estancia Pueyrredón, province of Buenos Aires, on November 10, 1834; he died in Belgrano on October 21, 1886. He lacked the education of other Argentine writers such as Bartolomé Hidalgo, Estanislao del Campo, and Hilario Ascasubi, who are important figures in Gauchesque literature, because illness halted his formal education. Yet he was the poet read by the gauchos about whom he wrote. The unprecedented success of his narrative poem was such that in less than two years there were eight printings of it. However, sixty thousand copies of the first part of his epic poem, The Gaucho Martin Fierro, were sold before he could persuade himself to go on with its sequel. Country pulperías stocked copies, along with other essentials such as tobacco and food, for the cattle herders to purchase and read around their campfires. Hernández was an active participant in the delicate political situation of Argentina prior to the period of national organization and, later, he was an active opponent of the oligarchical interests of the ruling class. He was so closely identified with his work that as he strode along Buenos Aires streets, people addressed him as “Don Martín.” José Hernández.
The first part of The Gaucho Martin Fierro introduces the image of an individual whose family life is destroyed by the political decisions of the authorities. The poem does not limit itself to presenting a conflict between individuals and society; it also makes room for the display of the perspective of the marginalized, along with descriptions of rural customs and beliefs. The second part, in which the author pleads for fair treatment for the gaucho by the government, continues the narrative line and incorporates a character, old Vizcacha, who supposedly espouses the essence of the gaucho philosophy.
Hernández married Carolina González del Solar in 1863. In one of the many places where they settled, he founded the newspaper Río de la Plata and ran it for a year before his enemy, President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, closed it. In his newspaper articles, Hernández stated his opposition to the official policy of frontiers and his strong defense of the gauchos. He also wrote a handbook on farming and animal husbandry in 1881, but nothing else from his pen will have the permanence of his rhymed yarn of the gaucho, told in the literary language that Hernández helped to establish as a naturalized vehicle for expressing folk culture. Since it was first published, the poem and the main character have become key ideological aspects of Argentine intellectual history.