The Motorcycle Diaries is a film about two young Argentine friends, Ernesto and Alberto, who embarked upon a journey to see South America and help whomever they could along the way.
Ernest, 23, in school to become a doctor, left his schooling against his father’s wishes wanting him to stay home and finish school. But it was a time of travel in 1950’s Argentina and the road was calling.
Eduardo Elena’s, Point of Departure: Travel and Nationalism in Ernesto Guevara’s Argentina, describes the transformation of Ernesto Guevara from “asthmatic youth to medical student, and then as wanderer, guerrillero, revolutionary leader, and, finally, martyr.” Elena says that it is widely believed to have been the “journey across South America” that opened Ernesto’s eyes to the sufferings of the people as he left his “familiar life in Argentina” in 1951-1952.
According to Elena, Ernesto’s desire for travel came from a long ancestral line of travelers. He came by his nomad tendencies, honestly, so to speak. His family’s library also had “scores of travel chronicles and related books.” This had a major impact on his later actions to chronicle his own travels.
His “privileged social position” played a major role in his traveling experiences (Elena). It gave him the “freedom with which he transgressed social norms and spatial boundaries” (Elena). However, in the film his status did not seem to afford very many privileges. Alberto always tried to trade their ability as doctors for room and food, but they often slept in places below their status in the film as portrayed when they spent the night in a shed with migrants while Alberto objected saying, “We’re doctors.” Their status had not made any difference.
In Chile, they met a couple who had been kicked off of their land and were traveling, looking for work. They tell Ernesto and Alberto that they could have been arrested because they were communists. This was the first glimpse of any type of political turmoil portrayed in the film. It had an impacted upon Ernesto because he gave them the fifteen dollars he had guarded so closely for a promised purchase for his, once, girl friend. The wife asked them why they traveled and instead of telling her they were doctors, Ernesto simply said that they traveled just to travel. This was the first glimpse of any indication that people traveled for enjoyment during this time and that was the last.
One thing that the film did not portray was the “internal massive migration” from the rural areas to the cities that was a major occurrence in the 1950’s, and according to Elena, Ernesto said little about it in his diaries, as well. Elena explains this by pointing out that it was Ernesto’s desire to encounter people and places different from the urban areas he was familiar with which was the driving force behind his quest for more and more secluded areas and peoples. In Chile, he talked of setting up a clinic on the lake one day when they are old and tired of traveling, a reflection of his desire to “find far-flung corners of the countryside and to spend time among the ‘ordinary’ impoverished residents” (Elena).
The portrayals of injustice continued in such ways as migrant workers being denied water to drink, a man who had been kicked off of his land by his rich landlord and finally in San Pablo where they treated and did research in the leper colony. Their refusal to wear gloves was a portrayal of their belief in equality of people and their desire to do away with prejudices. Later during his stay, he offered a toast to a United America with “no more divisions or provincialism.” After that statement he swam across the river to the leprosy colony, a picture of the gap he would later fight to bridge.
In Venezuela the two men part ways. Ernesto said that there had been so much injustice on their journey that it had given him much to think about. The journey had changed who he was. He also expressed a concern as to whether or not they had been too biased on their trip and in their conclusions. Elena describes him as a man who changed from “seemingly more human” in his young traveling years to “a distant and cold man” as the years went on.
Ann Zulawski wrote in The National Revolution, that Ernesto, later known as Che, was a student “traveling on the cheap” and by the time he reached Mexico in 1954 something had changed within in him. He had become a staunch supporter of the revolution. He had seen the devastation in which people lived, but with a noted “lack of interest in the country” of Bolivia and as not truly seeing what was going on in Bolivia where the “government managed to hold on to an alliance with the peasants.”
Zulawski sites Guevara’s failure in Bolivia as being connected to his lack of interest to fully take advantage of his time there and says that in the end it cost him his fight for revolution, as well as his life. Zulawski described him as having “a lack of knowledge about working class, peasants, and radical movements” which made him “unaware of what alliances” would have been of use to his cause. Again, he was not portrayed in the film as a man who did not connect with the Indian people. He was portrayed as a man who deeply cared for them and took great interest in them and in their needs.
In Paulo Drinot’s Awaiting the Blood of Truly Emancipating Revolution, a slight variation from reality in the film is the portrayal of Ernesto as being engrossed in the reading of Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. In portraying him as reading and learning from this book it portrayed a “hastened political awakening,” and according to Drinot, Ernesto wrote little about his feelings of the political situation in Peru.
The film does not take the audience into Guevara’s 1953 journey which led him to join forces with Fidel Castro. Perhaps, if it had it would have given the viewer a better glimpse into the impact his journeys had upon him by seeing what actions he took in response to his encounters along the way (Elena). Elena also points out similarities between Ernesto’s experiences as a traveler, existing in poverty and always on the move in remote areas, as qualities that crossed over into his revolutionary actions as a guerrillero.
Ernesto went on to become a commandant for the Cuban revolution. He was later captured and murdered with the help of the CIA in 1967. His dreams of social justice were never realized.