In early 1952, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado embarked on a motorcycle journey throughout Latin America. Beginning in Argentina, they travelled to Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Miami, Florida, before returning home to Argentina. Along their journey, they encountered many different American Indian tribes, historical landmarks of previous empires, met with persecuted communists, spoke to doctors and met oppressed workers in the Chilean mines, among many other significant events. These events he wrote about in The Motorcycle Diaries act as a post-colonial memoir, while retaining his original intention of it being a travel diary. Latin America’s history is a mix of American Indian empires and European colonisation by the Spanish and Portuguese, which subsequently dominated the continent. Guevara, being of Spanish and Irish heritage, was an Argentine national; as he articulates in the book, Argentina was the ‘promised land’ in the eyes of many people he interacted with in neighbouring countries. Due to this stark difference in living standards (personal hygiene, health system differences and working conditions), he was shocked by the circumstances he saw throughout his journey and later advocated for a continent-wide liberation from the colonial capitalist order. This research project’s question is thus ‘how does Che Guevara's character influence his compassionate outlook towards the people of colonial Latin America?’
The literature for The Motorcycle Diaries book is overshadowed by the vast wealth of academic work on the better-known movie version. In the book’s academic literature, the articles pointed to two main themes: the Chilean situation and the theme of travel as personal change (Sampaio 2014). To understand how the situation in Chile occurred, it is important that I first describe the rationalisation of colonialism. Blaut (1989) describes, from a Marxist perspective, the link between and how the rise of global capitalism and colonisation occurred: through Europe’s diffusion throughout the world, which he describes as “Eurocentric diffusionism”. This process allows for Europe to first progress and modernise, while the rest of the world initially remains stagnant, traditional and unchanging. He says that the reason this “progressive cultural evolution” occurred was due to factors that are intellectual and/or spiritual. Progress then comes to non-Europe through a diffusion of European ideas, institutions and people. Since it was the Spanish and Portuguese that colonised Latin America, it was their ideas, faith and language that they brought with them and established over the indigenous culture. Uzozie (2003) explains that the reason why Spain and Portugal led Europe in exploration and interaction with West Africa and Latin America was due to their locational advantage. Their proximity to early civilisations like Egypt, Greece, Crete and the Moors of North Africa provided them their stimulus for exploration. Central Europe, the Northern countries and the British Isles were far from those centres because of the physical land barriers that the Alpine region presented them. But, during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors maintained a vast library on astronomy and navigation, which helped with teaching the Spanish and Portuguese that the oceans weren’t barriers but acted as “highways for sea power and commerce” (Uzozie 2003). This then empowered them to colonise parts of the world and form an empire.
Despite being of Northern Spanish and partial Irish heritage, it is understandable how Guevara would oppose the colonial legacy that Spain and Portugal have left on Latin America, as he was Argentinian by nationality. His Argentinian nationality and identity would partially remove his cultural connection to Europe, leaving him with his ethnicity, choosing instead to embrace his Argentinianness. This removed an acceptance of colonialism, as Latin Americans were the colonial ‘receivers’, not masters. Perhaps feeling some guilt, but mainly empathy for the situation his fellow Latin Americans were in, over his settler colonial paradigm, Guevara’s empathy during the motorcycle journey is evidently due to his medical background and middle-class family’s wealth. Speed (2017) articulates how the situation differed between the Anglophone north and the Iberian south’s colonisation: the north focussed on “land dispossession and elimination of the natives” through manifest destiny, while in the south, the focus was “resource extraction and the marshalling and control of indigenous [labour]”. In Wolfe’s (1999) divide between land and labour, Guevara’s family would have fallen on the side of land due to his Spanish heritage and middle-class wealth, as most of the oppressed workers he interacted with were either American Indians or Mestizos. This paradigm is echoed in Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin’s (2013) theory of imperialist binarism, where Guevara assumed the ‘human’, ‘doctor’, ‘coloniser’ and ‘beautiful’ roles and the people he interacted with were ‘bestial’, ‘patient’, ‘colonised’ and ‘ugly’.
Now that the historical context has been explained, this section will discuss what Guevara experienced in Chile, how it changed him and what the Chilean living situation was. Firstly, Pinto (2009) recalls how Guevara became a different person to himself before the journey. The themes that the literature discuss can be intertwined, since The Motorcycle Diaries’ (Guevara 1995) progression strongly indicate a change in perspective and an eventual radicalisation in the latter part of the book’s first half. Pinto (2009) explains this radicalisation and the adoption of the ‘Che’ persona by stating at the start of his trip, Guevara was just Ernesto Guevara, the 23-year-old medical student from Argentina, “training to enter the Argentine bourgeoisie” (Dosal 2006). The purpose of the diaries was a “description of two lives that … were together with a common aim”: to experience what Latin America had to offer and study leprology. The journey would soon change him into ‘Che’, the communist revolutionary. Pinto (2009) then compares Chile to Peru by saying, although in Chile they had a few free hospitals with poorly lit operating theatres, this was accompanied by “general dirtiness, no sanitation in the toilets and few [medical] instruments”, meaning their problems arose through infrastructure and organisation, also evident by observing the working conditions of miners. The situation in Peru was worse and fundamental—something that doesn’t get much attention in the academic literature—as it begun at the level of the individual. While he was travelling to Machu Pichu, Guevara had noticed that the indigenous population had poor hygiene which resulted in infections. He reasoned that this was the “main reason for the terrible living conditions in Peru” (Pinto 2009).
Critical Analysis & Evaluation
Ching, Buckley & Lozano-Alonso (2007) describe the irony of what Che Guevara’s legend has become; his character and silhouette have been romanticised and mythologised into a cultural icon on red t-shirts. Edgy teens who don’t know the truth about who Che Guevara was then purchase, consume and identify with it. In many ways, he is no longer a person of historical significance, but a commodity to be consumed and integrated into your identity. The beliefs that Guevara held and the neoliberal ‘rebel without a cause’ outlook teens who buy these shirts likely hold, are strongly at odds with each other, making them theoretical enemies. Yet this falsified legend persists. They further describe how in the post-World War Two period, Fascism and National Socialism were no longer additional anti-capitalist alternatives, as the Allied victory with the war-machine that was the Soviet Union over the Axis powers, came to dominate Eastern Europe and inspire change throughout the rest of the world. This change had reached Latin America in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the failure of populist nationalism on the behalf of former Argentinian President Juan Perón, among others in the region (Ching, Buckley & Lozano-Alonso 2007).
In an Australian context, I see a significant overlap between the mythologies of Che Guevara and Ned Kelly, as they were men of and for the people. Despite being politically polarised, the legend of Che Guevara became a consumer object to demonstrate your anti-establishment views and non-conformist attitude, while Ned Kelly’s legend has been sadly reduced to his final words ‘such is life’; a simple catch-phrase made into bumper stickers or tattoos. Moreover, his iconic bulletproof suit of armour which he wore in his final shootout against the police has become a costume and an easily recognisable piece of street art. This shows the sad transformation of society into an economic zone of consumption, instead of a nation with an identity, where we learn about our heroes and history. Neither men would appreciate their legacy being reduced to what they have become. Additionally, their legacies in the public eye don’t include their political philosophies or mention the struggles and triumphs they experienced before their fame. In this way, they both share an Irish connection, anti-colonial ideas and anti-establishment (thus anti-capitalist) sentiments. While Kelly advocated along racial lines for ‘Australianism’ against ‘Angloism’ (for the Australian working-class people, against the capitalist establishment from British colonialism), Guevara similarly, although holding a different political philosophy altogether, advocated along class lines for Latin American continentalism. This was underscored by Marxist theory, against European colonialism (for the Latin American proletariat, against European colonialist capitalism).
Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin (2002) outline how one of the main features of imperial oppression stems from a control of language. The standardising methods an imperial education system utilises can instil their metropolitan language; in Australia it was British English instead of the so-called impure variant of Australian English, as “to be colonial is to talk Australian slang; to be … everything that is abominable” (Praed 2004). In the Latin American context, the impure variants were the indigenous languages and cultures which Guevara tried to understand and appreciate, viewing them, instead of a new phenomenon waiting to flourish as was the case in Australia, but a lavish history of defunct empires. Moreover, he viewed the people as browbeaten and their empires and histories as snuffed out by Spain and Portugal’s domination on the continent (Guevara 1995). Ashcroft, Griffith & Tiffin’s (2013) theory of imperialist binarism is interesting to connect here to the standardising of language, with either men sitting on opposing sides of the binary. This is familiar to people like myself that advocate for nationhood and self-determination. Language becomes a “medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is perpetuated” and how “conceptions of ‘truth’, ‘order’ and ‘reality’ become established”. The effective post-colonial, anti-establishment or revolutionary voice thus rejects this power.
A New York Times best-selling book and subsequent adaptation into a revered movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, although it is overshadowed by the movie version, still functions as a book that is suitable to many genres. Maintaining a rating of 3.8/5 stars, with over 29,000 ratings and 1,700+ reviews, this post-colonial text helps the reader understand the man Guevara was and the man he became, effectively removing the veil of mythology that currently surrounds him (Goodreads).
In conclusion, Che Guevara’s high status in the eyes of his fellow Latin Americans as an Argentinian of Spanish heritage gave him the appearance of prestige, since Argentina was so prosperous compared to other Latin American countries. This became apparent to Guevara and does to the reader the further you get into his motorcycle journey, as he became politically conscious and became an activist and revolutionary for his people. Guevara’s Argentinian identity is partly responsible for his view of colonialism and capitalism and subsequent transformation through travel. The other factor is Guevara’s training as a medical student and the innate care that such an occupation denotes in a person. This unique character of his lends a hand to the development of a compassionate, sympathetic outlook for the have-nots of Latin American society. After his death, Guevara, like Ned Kelly, was mythologised and became a cultural icon for the uninformed, edgy, anti-establishment young adult demographic, who Guevara would likely view as enemies. This post-colonial text successfully shows us how legends either die young and become a mythologised, falsified version of their true self, or they become an evil boogeyman.
Ashcroft, B, Griffiths, G & Tiffin, H 2013, Post-Colonial Studies: the Key Concepts, 3rd edn, Taylor & Francis Group, ProQuest Ebook Central.
Ashcroft, B, Griffiths, G & Tiffin, H 2002, The Empire Writes Back : Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, 2nd edn, Taylor & Francis Group, ProQuest Ebook Central.
Blaut, JM 1989, ‘Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism’, Science and Society, vol. 53, no. 3, pp. 260-296.
Ching, E, Buckley, C & Lozano-Alonso, A 2007, Reframing Latin America : A Cultural Theory Reading of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, University of Texas Press, ProQuest Ebook Central.
Dosal, PJ 2006, ‘The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey’, Cuban Studies, vol. 36, pp. 159-162.
Goodreads, The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto Che Guevara, Goodreads, Goodreads, viewed 28 May 2020, <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/172732.The_Motorcycle_Diaries>.
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Praed, C 2004, Policy and Passion, Sydney University Press, Sydney, <https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Policy_and_Passion.html?id=1a50PwAACAAJ>.
Sampaio, S 2014, ‘Watching narratives of travel-as-transformation in The Beach and The Motorcycle Diaries’, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, vol. 12, pp. 184-199.
Speed, S 2017, ‘Structures of Settler Capitalism in Abya Yala’, American Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 4, pp. 783-790.
Uzozie, LC 2003, ‘Some Geographical Factors in the Interaction Between Iberia, West Africa, and Latin America During the Period of European Colonization’, Journal of Culture and Its Transmission in the African World, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 73-170.
Wolfe, P 1999, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology, Cassell, London, <https://books.google.com.au/books?id=36WvAwAAQBAJ>.