When 23-year-old Ernesto “Che” Guevara set off in 1950 with no other companions than Alberto Granado and faithful La Poderosa motorcycle, one might not suspect revolutionary intentions. Yet somehow, between Argentina and Perú, Guevara is transformed into what would soon be one of the most famed, and perhaps influential, revolutionaries of our time. So how is it that Ernesto, asthmatic, lovestruck medical student traveling atop a smoking, belching clunker bike, became “El Che,” Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla fighter?
As Eduardo Elena argues in “Point of Departure,” the groundwork of this transformation stems back to his already “anticonformist character” (22). Elena asserts that Guevara’s trek across South America, which is “ambitious … on a minimal budget and just shy of earning his medical degree, … clearly bucked convention” (22). Under Eva Perón’s leadership, Argentina was already undergoing social changes: increases in urbanization, rural exodus, and leisure tourism all caused a flux in travel across the population (not unlike what we are experiencing in our US society today: we as youth and young adults are encouraged to travel and “experience” the country and even countries abroad as part of a coming-of-age experience. Yet we are not often encouraged to see the “ordinary, impoveished” side of the world as Elena describes it (27), except in a voluntary aid sort of manner, i.e. spend a week painting a schoolhouse in a rural Bolivian town, help distribute clean water for a month in Ghana, teach English for the summer in northern Japan! It is interesting to analyze how Guevara’s experience differs from, say, a college student’s backpacking across Europe, or a self-supported bicycle tour through Central America. Will such an experience cause me to revolutionize, and if so, to what extent relative to Guevara’s revolutionary, revelationary journey? Not all travelers turn revolutionary after experiencing first-hand the struggles of the poor and disabled. Was Guevara destined to be a revolutionary, or did his motorcycle travels really ignite that spark?)
Guevara’s trek was more than tourism, for not many conventional tourists would opt for a night spent slogging across a river to mingle with lepers as opposed to a proper evening, in their honor nonetheless, spent rubbing elbows with intellectual, influential medical personnel. Instead of seeking solely leisure, relaxation and fun, Guevara consistently seeks the “revelation of hidden aspects of social reality” by getting to know the not-so-glamorous South America (Elena 27).
Not all travelers and revelation-seekers will become the martyr that Che became. Yet through a series of interactions with wanderers, lepers, doctors, intellectuals, Dr. Hugo Pesce, women, miners, survivors and even fellow Argentine travelers, Che was able to see himself enough in each of these people to realize that their survival and well-being was as important as his own, a “nationalist tendency” to see the tarnished and impoverished as culturally authentic, as Elena notes (Drinot 95, Elena 43). The injustice about which Guevara scrawls and scribbles on multiple occasion throughout his trek was not something he could simply write about; it struck a “sensitive chord,” and ultimately he fought with his life to change it (Drinot 90). Guevara seems to have set himself apart from the “mass tourists” of his time (Elena 30); his revolutionary nature grows with time and travel and ultimately manifests itself in martyrdom (moments before his execution, Guevara allegedly says he is thinking not of mortality, but rather of “the immortality of the revolution,” Time magazine, “Che: A Myth Embalmed in a Matrix of Ignorance,” 1970).
Elena concludes his piece with a reflection on the disconnect that ultimately evidenced in the revolutionary Che: he is at once a freedom fighter, and a “harsh Angel” (term borrowed from Alma Guillermoprieto). I challenge you to reflect on whether it possible to have seen so much hardship, so much injustice and contradiction in the world, and not yourself become somewhat of a cold-hearted yet passionate contradiction.