The Myth of Che

The Motorcycle Diaries is a film based on the travel journal of Ernesto Guevara, the future Che Guevara, as he and his friend traveled across South America in the 1950’s. The movie portrays the experience as life changing for Che, a catalyst for his future revolutionary actions. While his experiences may have been jarring, they were not unique. The movie leaves out much of Peronist politics and the Bolivian revolution to achieve its purpose: the glorification of the future Che.

As Ernesto travels across South America he encounters many scenes of poverty and injustice. He interviews a local Inca farmer who laments being thrown off his land. He also encounters disenfranchised miners, the urban poor in Cusco, and a leper colony where the sick and poor are discriminated against. Other than the doctors at the leper colony (and even they refuse to touch the patients without gloves), there seem to be few people, other than Ernesto and Granado, who are concerned with the poor. This completely ignores and glosses over the Peronist movement occurring at the same time as Guevara’s journey. Peronism claimed to be a “‘socially just’” movement who focused on “working class-empowerment” and whose “base … lay among the working class” (Elena 34-35).  Even the poor in other countries like Peru knew of and had concocted dreams of utopias based around the Peronist policies (Elena 38). Even if the Perons were self-serving “opportunists” (Elena 35) they still at least made a show of speaking out for the poor, a component that is not present in the film The Motorcycle Diaries.

The same thing occurs in the film’s treatment of Bolvia which, like Southern Argentina in the Peron years, was not mentioned as part of the trip. Guevara was present in Bolvia just months after a revolution that ousted the political elites and nationalized the country’s tin mines (Zulawski 181). In his diaries, he blandly comments on the situation, but mostly sticks to traditional tourists venues (Zulawski 184), turning down the opportunity to see the mining community first hand (Zulawski 195). Although there is paternalistic sympathy expressed for the native peoples, there is no mention of their personal efforts of unionization (Zulawski 198). The grass roots peasant movements received no mention in the film and little time was given to Che’s time in Bolivia, despite its importance in native movements and later Che’s own death.

The decision to leave out such important and contemporary movements from the film is not an accident. Leaving out other movements makes Guevara seem like a visionary on top of revolutionary. The film portrays him as the first to care for South America’s poor while, in reality, he was one of a handful of movements that drew attention to the struggles of the lower class. It also allows Che to appear to be the great mobilizer, whose words and charisma were the catalyst for revolution. To achieve this, the film ignores previous indigenous efforts to politically mobilize. By leaving these important movements out, The Motorcycle Diaries hopes to feed into the myth of the exceptionality of Che Guevara, that he was doing and thinking what no one else was thinking at the time, while, in reality, he was part of larger movements in Latin America.