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My grandfather, before he died, told me his own repertoire of stories about the Che Guevara he knew, when Che was even younger than the twenty-something traveler portrayed in the film "The Motorcycle Diaries."
Many of my grandfather's stories had to do with Che's eccentric parents. Even people with sketchy knowledge of Che's biography know he came from Argentina's upper classes. That bit of biography accounts for one of the clichés that have begun to cling to Che's popular image. When young people the world over plaster Che's posters on university walls or wear his face on their T-shirts, they are often paying homage to an idol who purged the baggage of his privileged upbringing to become a "pure revolutionary."
But as New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson's biography has documented, this notion, however convenient to the manufacture of the Che myth, doesn't exactly fit. According to my grandfather's stories, it may be that the revolutionary in Che owes as much to his parents as it does to forging fires of history or experience.
My grandfather, the law professor Ángel B. Chávarri, was a contemporary of Che's and their families became acquainted in the 1930s and 1940s in Alta Gracia, a small resort town in Argentina's central sierras. My great-grandfather had tuberculosis and was prescribed the healthy air there. The Guevara family lived there to assuage Che's asthma. My grandfather remembered Che as a "rambunctious rapscallion," a grade-schooler who, despite his asthma, was notorious for his mischief.
Che's parents—who eloped and married against the wishes of their families, with Che's mother already pregnant—were eccentrics, almost misfits, and had a much more hardscrabble, idiosyncratic lifestyle than your typical Buenos Aires aristocrats.
Che's mother for one, used a long cigarette holder, slicked her hair back so that it stuck to her skull, wore un-ladylike trouser suits and drove the family's dilapidated convertible herself through the town's streets. For the time and place, her behavior was thoroughly unconventional.
Che's father, who had a temper, was a cerebral dreamer who tried and failed at various business schemes, including yacht-building. His hobbies included graphology, the science of studying handwriting to determine an individual's character.
Che's father applied his temper in an episode that is still part of oral tradition around Alta Gracia. During World War II, a group of Argentina's many Nazi sympathizers gathered regularly at a hotel to hear broadcasts from Europe. Che's father was an ardent aliadófilo, as partisans of the allies were known, and with friends carried out a raid on the hotel. They scaled to the hotel's roof to disable the radio antenna and then, for good measure, they slashed the tires of the cars parked outside.
Despite his bravura, Che's father, like many dabblers, never found real success, and the Guevaras weren't wealthy, whatever their pedigree. In Alta Gracia, the man who delivered wood fuel for heating and cooking refused to unload orders at the Guevara's place unless they paid him in cash.
Che happened to be born in Rosario, upriver from Buenos Aires, because his parents stopped there hurrying back to the capital from a yerba mate (a native plant taken as tea in South America) plantation they tried unsuccessfully to run in Argentina's still wild northern frontier. In his pursuit of the frontier lifestyle, Che's father—Ernesto Guevara Lynch—was following in the footsteps of his own adventurous grandparents, who lived in Gold Rush-era California.
Coincidentally, Che spent his first days of life in the same Parisian-style apartment building where my mother was later born in downtown Rosario. A few years ago, a handful of Cuban military officials were there on a pilgrimage and rewarded my uncle—who still lives in the building—with a box of Cuban cigars after he let them in and showed them his own apartment.
"The Motorcycle Diaries" will not be the last rendering of Che designed to appeal to romantic ideas of revolution; "Che," a film still in the works and rumored to be starring Benicio del Toro, will likely pick up where Brazilian director Walter Salles leaves off. "The Motorcycle Diaries" was conceived by Salles as a kind of portrait of the revolutionary as a young man.
But the "real" Che wasn't just the steely-eyed leftist icon in beret and olive uniform. Che's parents, down-on-their-luck aristocrats who refused to bow to convention, in their own subtler ways, were revolutionaries of a kind. Closely examined, Che's background reveals an even deeper lesson for activists who wield his image: sometimes models for rebellion are closer at hand than one may imagine.
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