Oh, Ernesto

The person who wrote these notes died upon stepping once again onto Argentine soil; he who edits and polishes them, ‘I’ am not I; at least I am not the same I was before. That vagabonding through our ‘America’ has changed me more than I thought.

The whole month of May has been swallowed by the 750-page behemoth that is Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara. I’ve been keeping Corey fully updated on the different stages of Che’s life for the past three weeks: “Che’s bumming around in Guatemala with not much idea of what to do with himself. God, it makes me feel so much better about my life!” “Che just arrived in the Congo. Things are not looking good.”

This whole month of May feels like it just got swallowed. I could write something about how it’s been a year since I’ve graduated and so now I have this great manifesto… but I don’t, so I won’t.

My favorite part of the book was the first part, entitled “Unquiet Youth,” mainly because it dealt with what I was most interested in: what Ernesto was like as a young man and what drove him to pick his particular life path. This was my favorite part because it was what felt most relevant to me personally, as a young person still trying to figure out the best way to manage my freedom, my privilege and my choices. It was almost with a sense of relief that I read about Ernesto’s lack of direction and pervasive sense of uncertainty following his graduation from medical school. I thought it was really interesting that even though Ernesto was surrounded by all these radical Communists, Socialists and Marxists in Mexico and Guatemela, it wasn’t until after (as opposed to before, or during) the American intervention/CIA overthrow that he made the decision that he wanted to be more involved. As he wrote in a letter to his mother, “The bad thing is that at the same time I haven’t taken the decisive attitude that I should have taken a long time ago, because deep down (and on the surface) I am a complete bum and I don’t feel like having my career interrupted by an iron discipline.” (162-163) I almost felt like cheering when I read this: Ernesto gives a big stamp of approval on bumming around for a couple of years!

I thought it was fascinating to read about the gradual formation and changes of Ernesto’s sense of self. It was really interesting to me reading about how your childhood can have such a monumental effect on you throughout your life: as a little kid, Ernesto was so constantly sick with asthma, he was babied a lot by his mother, but also developed this incredibly fierce iron will to compete (like in rugby) and be considered as “good” as the other kids. As the biographer describes it, his asthma also led to his sense of isolation and resulting craving for camaraderie, which the author sees as the main reason for Ernesto’s fierce adoption of the Cuban cause and intense loyalty to Fidel Castro. Being a guerrilla made him feel like he was a part of a group, that he had friends, he had comrades. God, it makes me wonder how my childhood is affecting my current life. It also makes me wonder if life can really be seen as a narrative this convenient, that this straight lines can be drawn from our childhood right up to the present day. I guess it’s helpful to think so.

When Ernesto adopts ‘Che’ as his name, I couldn’t help but think of Into the Wild and Alexander Supertramp. “Call each thing by it’s proper name,” he writes in his journal near the end of the movie, signing his death note with his birth name, Christopher. Man, how hard is that, trying to figure out what your proper name is! Talk about easy say, hard do. It’s something that might take a lifetime to do.

At one point, one of Che’s comrades says, “In spite of everything, you can’t help admiring him. He knows what he wants better than we do. And he lives entirely for it.” I think this is an accurate reflection of my own feelings. I could never, ever live like Che Guevara—hell, very few of us could! It takes an incredible iron will to do so. At times, he was a hardcore maniac to the point of insanity, justifying the executions in Cuba as “justice at the service of future justice.” (458) I thought it was funny how he was particularly enraged by “individualistic” university students with “middle-class’ mentalities: “perhaps in the students he saw his self-absorbed former self, and it rankled him. He had given up his self, his ‘vocation’ for the revolution; why couldn’t they?” The answer, Che, is we’re all different. We are all different people with different paths in life, and it’s not helpful to say that one path is better than others or is the “right” path or whatever. Some of us are constantly seeking happiness and contentment, others find it pretty quickly and effortlessly. That’s just the way it is. That’s what makes us so valuable as human beings, right? Our individual, crazy, unique messed-up selves, these ridiculous consciousness we’re carrying around in the mushy gray matter enveloped behind our thick skulls?

In the biography there are some parts that indicate that Che felt isolated at times, like he was living this double life, due to his commitment to the “revolutionary cause.” At one point he says to Alberto (his old travel companion from The Motorcyle Diaries) “I live like someone torn in two, twenty-four hours a day, completely torn in two, and I haven’t got anybody to tell it to. Even if I did, they would never believe me.” (608) As he writes to his mother, “I am still the loner I used to be, looking for my path without personal help, but now I possess the sense of my historic duty. I have no home, no woman, no children [I’m sure his wife and daughter were a bit bummed to read this], nor parents, nor brothers nor sisters, my friends are my friends as long as they think politically like I do and yet I am content, I feel something in life, not just a powerful internal strength, which I always felt, but also the power to inject others, and an absolutely fatalistic sense of my mission which strips me of all fear.” (433-434) I don’t know if I could throw my life in a similarly all-in fashion in pursuit of one single goal.

It makes me feel so young saying this, but I remember watching The Motorcycle Diaries with my freshman year boyfriend in theaters on our very first date together and being extraordinarily moved. I was particularly struck by the montage of black and white photos at the end of the different people that Alberto and Ernesto. Here’s an excerpt from my personal journal that I wrote on March 19th, 2005, (Gaaaah!) shortly after I came back from the spring break service trip to Juarez:

These are some things that I cannot quite get my head around yet:

1) The difficulty between making a connection between what you think and what you do. This is something I was discussing with Ian the other day in the rhodadendron (god help me, I can never spell that word) gardens. It’s very easy to think that “I”m liberal” or “I’m creative” or “I’m a good person”, but if you don’t acutally DO anything physical in this world that serves as a concrete, physical testament to that belief, well then it just doesn’t sound very realistic to say it anymore, innit? This is something that I admire very greatly about Che Guevara upon reading “The Motorcycle Diaries”: say whatever you might like about him, but he was extremely effective at forming a connection between his ideas and his actions. The equal images of a clenched fist and a mouth streaming ideas, resting side by side… I think I’m going to have to check out some books from the library in order to learn more about him and Cuba from a more academic, scholarly point of view, because all I’m going on here is the adoring worship of the people that I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life. I think it’s creepy that “The Motorcycle Diaries” affected me much more than I ever thought it would. At the time I just thought it was a big deal because it was my first American date or whatever, but look at me, I don’t know how many months later and still thinking about it. I guess it must have resonated very deeply within me, and I have this picture of my soul being struck like a guitar string and still quivering back and forth, months later.

I went on to rant a little about how I was changing my major to General Literature or Spanish as opposed to English and Creative Writing, because I felt it would be more useful. I used an interesting phrase, about “learning to balance the Howard Roark and the mother in me.” A struggle that still continues to this day. God, I’d forgotten how excruciating reading old journal entries can be. If nothing else, they serve as a reaffirming validation that yes, it is possible for people to change, and yes, I *have* changed since I was a freshman. Thank god. Anyway, I just thought it was funny, reading what I wrote all the way back then, in context of me in the process of finishing this enormous biography.

It was fun reading about Ernesto’s early life because his writings were equally melodramatic. I think he brought a very good definition to being a traveler rather than a tourist: roughing it, being dirty (his lifelong nickname was “El Chancho” (the pig) from how infrequently he changed his clothes and how nasty he consequently smelled), being as open and receptive as possible. I’ve been thinking lately that I want to try to be more like a “tourist” in my everyday life; that is, to adopt the same mind frame that I aspire to have while I’m traveling here in what I consider my “static” period: working, living in Portland. My definition of being a good traveler is to be as open as possible to new experiences, to try to stay away from judgment. When you’re having an experience, to not so much worry about quickly judging it or summarizing it as “good” or “bad,” but instead try to reflect that “oh, this is an experience that I’m having,” and just kind of try to be in the moment, and then reflect upon it in full later. I think this is a good way to avoid the kind of stress you inevitably run into while traveling: late buses, mean people, bad food. I mean, I run into that kind of stuff here in Portland as well, but to some degree it feels less heightened, less intense than it does when I’m in a different country… maybe because I’ve been living here for a while now.

Here’s to being a good tourist in everyday life.


Lying introspectively like Jorge Malabia on his back: a common motif among young brooding men of the Rio Plata region.

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Filed under books, experience, non-fiction, social justice, travel

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