There has always been something very special about Che Guevara to me. It all depends on who you talk to. For freedom fighters and artists around the world, Che has been a source of inspiration and influence. For the courageous Cuban Americans that fled their beautiful homeland and were separated from their families after the Revolution, he is a monster and a source of pain and anger. For the United States, let’s just say he is not liked.
Che was a complicated man with quite a few layers of bravery, contradiction, steadfast conviction, and general bad-assery. There are many things he did that I do not agree with at all. But, there are things I believe he did well and I think for the most part his heart was in the right place, even though his actions did not always translate well.
Che’s philosophy and convictions about Pan-Americanism, uniting the poor and indigenous peoples, and fighting imperialism/colonization has helped to shape my worldview tremendously. It has helped me to see the global issues of the world from more than just my western eyes. It has contributed, among other sources to my deep connection to the African Diaspora, and my identity as a world citizen. It has helped me to understand that there are many sides to the story of revolution, and that everyone’s experience in the revolution must be heard.
I just finished reading Che’s “Motorcycle Diaries.” Now, this is the very young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and before he became the Che that the world over loves and hates. This is Ernesto, the young 23-year-old Argentine medical student who decided to travel throughout Latin America with his buddy, Dr. Alberto Granado who was 29 at the time.
I loved this book so much. These two young men packed their things in 1951, jumped on “La Poderosa” (the Mighty One – their motorcycle) and took the journey of a lifetime. They traveled from Argentina to Chile, Peru, the Amazon, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, the United States, and back to Argentina. They visited hospitals, tended to patients affected by Leprosy, spent time visiting and learning about the life of Copper Miners, and got to know the many indigenous peoples of Latin America. It was on this trip that Ernesto and Alberto saw firsthand extreme poverty, discrimination and inhumane treatment of indigenous people, sickness, indifference, apathy, and the generational impact of racism, classism, and colonialism. Ernesto gave a first-hand account of what he learned in Cuzco, Peru for example about one of the greatest civilizations to grace this earth – The Inca Empire. But I will get to that in a minute.
I have to say that there were times Ernesto’s stories made me laugh out loud due to the pure shenanigans he and Alberto would get themselves involved in. There were times that I had to stop and take a break from reading a passage to cry a bit because I could relate so much. There were also times where I would read his words and become angry at the things he saw – the violation of human rights and human dignity of the Miners in Chile, the mistreatment of people who shared different political ideologies, and the one elderly woman he treated that had no money, no medicine and lost her ability to work and support her family. What made me most angry was the way Ernesto described how indigenous people, the original people of these lands, were not considered fully human or full citizens. Here we have the descendants of the greatest civilizations that ever lived, those who have been stewards of Mother Earth, and they endure discrimination and humiliation on a daily basis. Sadly, it feels familiar as a person of color living in the United States. It is the plight of brown people around the world – it is a heaven burden to bear.
I truly felt like the third companion with Ernesto and Alberto on their journey. I felt their hunger, I felt cold when they were sleeping out in the elements, I felt their sadness and frustration when they had to let go of “La Poderosa” and continue to travel on foot and hitch rides. I felt frustrated when they were turned away from shelter or were not always treated so nicely by people they requested assistance from along the way. I felt relieved when they were able to get a good meal, safe shelter and good sleep when they were exhausted. I was happy when Ernesto spoke of the pure warmness of the Chilean people. I also felt nervous for Ernesto when he would have his horrible asthma attacks and he didn’t have his medicine. How he managed to travel through the Amazon with his lung issues I will never know. I am especially sensitive to lung issues because of my own lung/autoimmune disease. Ernesto was a brave one, man.
I felt most close to Ernesto and Alberto when they traveled to Cuzco, Machu Pichu, and the surrounding cities in Peru. I was with them on the train to Cuzco and Machu Pichu. I felt Ernesto was talking directly to me when he was describing every stone, every animal, every footstep of the Inca and Quechua people, and all the ruins he saw leading to Machu Pichu. I wondered how he physically managed the high- altitude levels as they traveled through Cuzco and the surrounding areas. I listened (read) intensely as he described the heavy influence of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Catholic Church. He also spoke in detail about the possible ways that the Inca Warriors fought and protected their land, for as long as they could.
The most consistent themes from Ernesto’s storytelling is he and Alberto’s resilience, resourcefulness, and determination to finish their trip, even through some tumultuous circumstances. I also believe that their open minds and hearts enabled them to walk away from their experiences even more “woke” and complete human beings than ever before. In kind, they were both able to pass what they learned on to me as their reader and third companion.
You want to know my favorite quotes/passages from The Motorcycle Diaries? I have two. The first is when Ernesto visited a local poor Chilean woman to exam her for her asthma and heart condition.
For anyone that is poor, chronically ill and unable to carry their weight in the family/community, I think Ernesto speaks truth to life –
“On top of her asthma, she had a heart condition. It is at times like this, when a doctor is conscious of his complete powerlessness, that he longs for changes: a change to prevent the injustice of a system in which only a month ago this poor woman was still earning her living as a waitress, wheezing and panting but facing life with dignity. In circumstances like this, individuals in poor families who can’t pay their way become surrounded by an atmosphere of barely disguised acrimony; they stop being father, mother, sister, or brother and become purely a negative factor in the struggle for life and consequently, a source of bitterness for the healthy members of the community who resent their illness as if it were a personal insult to those who have to support them. It is there, in the final moments, for people whose farthest horizons has always been tomorrow, that one comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over.”
The second quote/passage I loved from this book is when he was explaining in detail the war for Chile’s natural resources – and especially copper. Ernesto explained the complete process of extracting this mineral from the earth and how it is processed and used. Of all the interested parties, foreign entities, leftist groups, and nationalists, Ernesto asked that we not forget about the miners themselves.
“Whatever the outcome of the battle, one would do well not to forget the lesson taught by the graveyards of the mines, containing only a small share of the immense number of people devoured by cave-ins, silica, and the hellish climate of the mountains.”
I could go on about Ernesto, Alberto, and The Motorcycle Diaries. However, I will stop here for now.
I will end this blog post with a few questions I would ask Ernesto Che Guevara if I had a chance to sit with him and drink herb mate with him one on one:
What really kept you from giving up on your journey through the most stressful times of the trip? How long did it take you to physically and emotionally recover from your journey when you made it back to Argentina? In 2018, if you think you could, would you take the journey again? Do you think the circumstances have gotten better or worse in Latin America since 1951? How would Pan-Americanism work in present day Latin America? Did you ever meet Stokely Carmichael in the 60’s? He was a Pan-Africanist and revolutionary too. What are your thoughts on Mandela’s philosophy of using violence only when absolutely necessary and with no human targets, and his co-founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation)? What are your thoughts of Mandela’s action of forgiveness when he was released from prison? What do you think of Obama? If you had a chance to address the present day United Nations General Assembly, what would you say?