by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith
Walter Salles’s beautifully photographed film (by French photographer, Eric Gautier), could be a South American travelogue were it not based on an iconic revolutionary. “Motorcycle Diaries,” was adapted from the diaries from 1952 that Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his friend, Alberto Granado, wrote while riding around South America on a 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, which Alberto named La Poderosa II.
Those who know of Che only as an image on t-shirts bearing his stylized beret-wearing portrait in black on red will get from this film a sense of the early influences that inspired his revolutionary fervor. The film depicts Guevara (played by Mexican heart-throb Gael Garcia Bernal) on the bike with mustachioed Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), when they were both in their twenties.
This was not Guevara’s first trip; in 1949, he had ventured alone around northern Argentina on a motorized bicycle, where he came into contact, for the first time, with the mixed-race poor and the decimated Indian tribes. In 1951, he traveled more extensively throughout South America.
Ernesto Guevara came from a privileged, middle-class background and was first schooled by his mother, Celia de la Serna, an anti-Peronist activist (as was his father). Prior to entering secondary school in 1941, he was already reading Marx, Engels, and Freud, whose books he’d found in his father’s library.
Edward Hyams wrote in “A Dictionary of Modern Revolution” that around this time, Che was impressed by the Spanish Civil War refugees he encountered in Argentina and was shaken up by the country’s long series of political crises that culminated in the coming to power of strongman Juan Peron. These events and influences inculcated in the young Guevara a contempt for the pantomime of parliamentary democracy, and a hatred of the capitalist oligarchy and, above all, U.S. imperialism.
In the film, we see Guevara and Granado, with the Norton bike loaded down with blankets and camping gear (not the hi-tech, lightweight equipment of today), wobbling off through downtown Buenos Aires, just missing being creamed by a bus. It was summer and they wanted to commemorate having passed university exams that would lead to their becoming full-fledged doctors.
Guevara had enrolled in medical school mainly to study his own illness, asthma, but later became interested in leprosy. One of the goals of the trip was to visit the leper colony in San Pablo, near Iquitos, Peru.
The film shows Guevara and Granado puttering along one-lane dirt roads, stopping at small villages, where they work for food and a place to sleep. The two men exhibit humor, comradarie, and a few disputes as they wrestle with the harsh conditions they experience, especially high in the Andes, when they try to maneuver the unwieldy bike through snow and ice. Their clothes become ragged and hunger forces them to scrounge for food.
Before long, La Poderosa II gives up the ghost. They sell it for scrap and are reduced to having to continue their journey like hobos, carrying everything they own on their backs.
One gets the sense of Ernesto’s burgeoning revolutionary mindset when they encounter sharecroppers, who tell them of being forced off their land by greedy landowners, or talk to work-worn, jobless miners, who sit stoically on rocks beside the desolate road, waiting hopefully for jobs. Mine foremen pull up in a pick-up, choose a few men, leaving many behind. As the truck takes off, Guevara tosses a rock at it.
Once he and Granado arrive by boat at the leper colony, welcomed by Dr. Bresciani, Che witnesses the division between doctors and nurses housed in comparable luxury on one side of the river, and the leprosy patients on the other, living in squalid, one room shacks. He endears himself to the patients by refusing to wear rubber gloves, knowing that leprosy is not highly contagious.
They assist the staff for three weeks. On his 24th birthday, which he celebrates with the staff in their headquarters, dancing to Prez Prado mambos, Ernesto impulsively jumps into the river and swims across to party with the patients. They shout encouragement from the bank as he gasps hoarsely, paddling to shore.
Still more insights into Che’s revolutionary stirrings were caught in a beautifully photographed scene of their visit to Machu Picchu. He wonders how the highly advanced Native American culture gave way to the ugly sprawl of Lima. The answer? The Spanish had guns. Some argue that the film shows little of the fiery revolutionary that Che would become—the man who, only a few years after his trip, hooked up with Fidel Castro and fought in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra as a guerrilla. They forget that the film is based on the diary of a 23-year-old Che Guevara, fresh out of medical school.
Should one bother to read his diary—an expanded, comprehensive reprint, including photos, with a forward by his daughter, Aleida March (named for his second wife), is now available from Ocean Books—one would learn that Che later added to his diaries thoughts and philosophies based on what he observed and what it would take to right the injustices and social inequities of the world.
Alberto Granado was no less committed. He followed Che to Cuba eight years later and joined the revolution. After Che left Cuba, Granado stayed behind in Santiago and established a hospital. He lives there now, at age 82, with his wife.
As for Ernesto Che Guevara, a year after their trip, he traveled again around Latin America, visiting Bolivia after the 1952 revolution. In Guatemala, Che met Antonio (Nico) Lopez, one of Castro’s lieutenants. Che was in Guatemala in 1954 when the CIA-backed coup overthrew the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz government. A radicalized Che, convinced that revolution could be made only by armed insurrection, escaped to Mexico, where he joined the exiled Cuban revolutionaries.
In Mexico City, while working in the General Hospital with Hilda Gadea, a Marxist of Indian stock with whom he lived, and Lopez, he met with Castro and his brother, Raul. He joined Fidel, becoming part of the guerrilla group training to overthrow Batista. He sailed with the group in 1956 as the ship’s doctor on the yacht “Granma.”
After the success of the Cuban Revolution, Che became second only to Castro in the new government, serving as Minister of Industry and as President of the Bank of Cuba. He held many other positions in the government, even addressing the UN General Assembly in 1964 as Cuba’s representative, where he criticized the UN for their “greedy and merciless imperialist activity in Latin America.”
Later, in 1965, he wrote in “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” “Man really attains the state of complete humanity when he produces, without being forced by physical need to sell himself as a commodity.” After an unsuccessful attempt to launch an anti-imperialist guerrilla war in the Congo, in 1965, Che returned to Cuba, where he soon disappeared for months. He was preparing for a clandestine trip to Bolivia, arriving there in 1966 in disguise.
The following year, he and several others were ambushed. Che was wounded and captured. The next day, under orders from the CIA, he was murdered by Bolivian forces. His remains were buried in an unmarked grave and lay undiscovered for 30 years. In June 1997, they were found near Vallegrande, Bolivia, and returned to Cuba, where they rest in a memorial at Santa Clara. Che was more than the pretty face depicted in “Motorcycle Diaries” and on t-shirts and posters. His youth and good looks, and the revolutionary fervor evident in his writings, along with his dedication to daring action, appealed to the disaffected youth of the 1960s and ’70s, and rendered him a legend whose ideals continue to resonate today.