Larry Rohter | New York Times
Che Guevara is widely remembered as a revolutionary figure. To some he is a heroic, Christ-like martyr, to others the embodiment of a failed ideology and to still others a commercialized emblem on a T-shirt.
But for Latin Americans now coming of age, yet another image of Che is taking shape: The romantic and tragic young adventurer who has as much in common with Jack Kerouac or James Dean as with Fidel Castro.
The phenomenon began a decade ago with the publication of his memoir, known in English as “The Motorcycle Diaries.” It has become a cult favorite among Latin American college students and young intellectuals. But it is being catapulted ahead now by the release last month of a film version that was enthusiastically received both in Latin America and at the Cannes Film Festival.
Predictably, traditional leftists in Cuba and elsewhere in the region, who view themselves as the guardians of Che’s legacy, have not welcomed this development. Others argue that it reflects not only the malleability of Che’s own character and experience but also the need of each generation to fashion an image of Che to suit its needs and circumstances.
Very few young people today would subscribe to Che’s belief that power can be seized through guerrilla warfare. But they are disillusioned with the wholesale embrace of capitalism that occurred across the region during the last decade. They see it as having aggravated economic and social inequities that Che railed against, and they are looking for alternatives.
He provides that because he is “a figure who can constantly be examined and re-examined,” as Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” puts it.
“To the younger, post-Cold-War generation of Latin Americans, Che stands up as the perennial Icarus, a self-immolating figure who represents the romantic tragedy of youth,” he added. “Their Che is not just a potent figure of protest, but the idealistic, questioning kid who exists in every society and every time.”
Both the memoir and the movie retell the eight-month, 7,500-mile odyssey across five South American countries that Guevara, then an asthmatic 23-year-old medical student, began in this city in December 1951.
Traveling first on a rickety motorcycle named “La Poderosa,” the powerful one, and then as hitchhikers and stowaways, he and a friend crossed the pampas, traversed the Andes and navigated the Amazon before arriving in Caracas, Venezuela, and going their separate ways.
Che was simply Ernesto Guevara then, and his account of the journey is a classic coming-of-age story: a voyage of adventure and self-discovery that is both political and personal.
“We were just a pair of vagabonds with knapsacks on our backs, the dust of the road covering us, mere shadows of our old aristocratic egos,” he writes when the pair reaches Valparaiso, Chile.
His companion, Alberto Granado Jimenez, is living in Cuba. At 82, he traveled recently to Brazil for the premiere of the film and immediately noticed the change in Che’s image. He said he found himself “surrounded by young people asking beautiful things, not just about the movie, but about what Ernesto and I were feeling back then,” he said.
“Practically nothing was asked about politics,” Granado recalled, somewhat wistfully. “They were more interested in the human aspect, in the story of how two young men, two normal people but dreamers and idealists, set out on an adventure and with optimism and impetuosity, achieve their objective.”
Having grown up with Che as a brand name advertisement for protests of any sort, Latin Americans under 40 may have trouble regarding him with the same reverence as their elders. So while Che continues to be a universal point of reference, some recent artistic treatments of him have also been tinged with sarcasm.
In that vein, a Brazilian film comedy released last year imagines that Che never died but escaped to the Amazon jungle, where he runs a business selling T-shirts stamped with his own image. Here in Che’s homeland, a popular singer-songwriter, Kevin Johansen, has a song called “McGuevara’s or CheDonald’s.”
For an even younger generation, Che is perhaps becoming an even more remote figure who has already faded into history.