Guevara Also Known As Che

Guevara Also Known As Che

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312206529
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/19/1999
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 704
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.54(d)

About the Author

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a historian and writer. The winner of seven international fiction prizes, including the coveted Moritz-Planeta Award, he lives in Mexico City.

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1. Little Guevara: Childhood Is Fate

A Photograph taken in 1929 at Caraguatay, in the province of Misiones in Argentina, shows a fourteen-month-old Ernesto Guevara. He holds a small cup (possibly for mate), and he is wearing a little white overcoat and an awful colonial-style Filipino cap.

These clothes were the first of the sartorial disasters that were typical of Ernesto all his life. "Childhood is fate," the Mexican psychologist Santiago Ramirez said in one of his more inspired moments; impressions made on an individual's newly developing mind would shape his actions in the future. Was Ramirez right, or is childhood an accident, simply the prehistory of a person whose character will be molded by his own will and self-determination?

If childhood is fate, it is not simple to interpret the symbols of the future. There is a photograph from 1932, showing Ernesto on a little donkey. Our leading player is four years old. He sits very straight, wearing on his sleeve his love of that donkey--and of all donkeys, mules, horses, any four-legged mount, a love that would characterize him all his life. And if childhood really is destiny, then twenty-five years later, halfway through an air raid, leading Cuban rebels, the No. 4 Column commander, a certain Guevara known as Che, would advance mounted on a donkey called Balsana. He would look into the camera with the same perplexed expression: "Why am I the subject of history when the donkey deserves it more?"

The donkey is the ancestor of those providential mules that appeared during the invasion of the west of Cuba, and even of the little Bolivian horse he loved so much and ended up eating. It does seem evident that Ernesto Guevara was to be the last of our champions on horseback (or muleback, or donkeyback; it makes no difference to a man used to laughing at himself) in the heroic Latin American tradition.

In the Guevara's dim and distant past, there was a viceroy of New Spain, Don Pedro de Castro y Figueroa, whose stint, in the middle of the eighteenth century, lasted only a year and five days. He had a son called Joaquin, who fled with his wife to Louisiana and whose descendants joined the gold rush in San Francisco before their descendants ended up in Argentina a century later.

Relatives with absurd names turn up from the San Francisco period: Rosaminda Perlasca; Uncle Gorgono, who raised cattle to sell meat to the prospectors.

The Lynch branch of the family can be traced back to Argentina in the beginning of the eighteenth century, when they emigrated from Ireland. Is that how those ants got in Ernesto's pants, those wings on his feet? Anyway, they'd be there all his life.

There is not much more to say about the de la Serna side, apart from Grandfather Juan Martin de la Serna, a youth leader in the Argentine Radical Party, whose militancy was shared by one of the Lynches, Great-uncle Guillermo, and led both to take part in the failed 1890 revolution.

In any case, it seems that as time went by, Che no longer had much sympathy for the people he characterized as my forebears ... [who] were members of the great Argentine cattle-raising oligarchy. .As a child, though, Ernesto must have seen the exploits of his grandparents in the gold rush in California, the feats of his cattle-raising grandfather, as something out of a fascinating novel.

His father was a civil engineer who undertook a thousand projects and failed in most of them. His most notable act was slapping future writer Jorge Luis Borges in the face after the latter had reported him to a teacher, saying: "Sir, this boy will not let me study." For this he was expelled from the National College. Ernesto Guevara Lynch was a part-time adventurer, an architecture student who had dropped out to enter the small business world and got really lucky, as he himself admitted, when he married Celia de la Serna, taking her away from numerous suitors in her native Cordoba.

Che's mother, Celia de la Serna, a devout Catholic converted to liberalism, carried the strength of her convictions over from her early religion. One of her nieces later remembered: "She was the first woman (according to my mama) who had her [hair bobbed] like a boy's, who smoked and crossed her legs in public. She led the feminist vanguard in Buenos Aires." She was underage when she became engaged, which caused a breach with her family; she had to move into her aunt's house.

Young Ernesto's parents were cultured, a little bohemian, embarrassed inheritors of an oligarchy they felt was spiritless and timid, and they imbued their children with a sense of adventure, a passion for books, and the poise that Ernesto Junior would nail to his mast years later.

There is a photo, also from 1929, that seems to foreshadow the true nature of the man the child was to become. Ernesto, big-eared and fluffy-haired, is sucking the index and little fingers of his left hand with great concentration, a pose that makes his remaining fingers seem to be offering an obscene gesture to anyone looking on.

The child's first two years were spent in Caraguatay, where his father had a mate plantation. Young Ernesto's sister Celia was born toward the end of 1929 in Buenos Aires, where the family had recently moved. They lived a roving life back then, propelled from place to place by Ernesto Senior's unfortunate business ventures, one of which resulted in the theft of his plantation's entire output.

When Ernesto was almost two, his father moved the family again--to San Isidro, almost on the border with Paraguay. Here he became a partner in a shipyard whose finances were not going very well, but he did succeed in getting the business back on its feet.

In his memoirs, Ernesto Senior, like many biographers gifted with hindsight, found suitable anecdotes to reinforce the image of the man his son became. He writes:

Little Ernesto was beginning to walk. As we liked to drink mate, we would send him to the kitchen, some twenty meters from the house, to have our glasses refilled. There was a small ditch between the house and the kitchen, with a drainpipe running through it. Almost invariably, the little boy would trip there and fall with the mate in his hands. And he'd always stand up annoyed, go back for a fresh glassful, trip over the pipe, and fall down again. He'd fetch the mate time and time again until he learned to jump over the ditch.

This scene of the boy jumping over the ditch was like a film loop that would run repeatedly throughout the years, showing Ernesto and his dogged determination, his archetypal stubbornness, his firm belief in the importance of bring forceful. Was the image of the little boy, not quite two years old, a harbinger of things to come, or was it irrelevant?

As an infant, young Ernesto had fallen ill with a severe case of bronchial pneumonia. It almost killed him. His aunts Beatriz and Ercilia traveled up from Buenos Aires to help his young mother look after him, and there would always be ties of love between him and them.

In May 1931, the little boy began to cough as he emerged from a river where he and his mother had been bathing. When the cough persisted, a doctor diagnosed bronchitis; later, when the illness refused to go away, another decided he had chronic asthmatic bronchitis. Finally, one doctor identified the attack as asthma stemming from the pneumonia that Ernesto had suffered as a baby. All the doctors agreed they had never seen a child with such severe asthma attacks. Years later, his sister Ana Maria, salvaging a memory from the family storybook, said, "His asthma was so severe that our parents despaired. They thought he would die." They spent days and nights by his bedside, while the patient, mouth open and hands frantically waving in the air, gasped for breath. His breathing, as Don Ernesto recalled years later, sounded "like a cat mewing." One of the first words the boy learned to say was "injection," for when he felt an attack coming on.

Not only Don Ernesto's odd business ventures but little Ernesto's asthma sent the family back to Buenos Aires in 1932, where the third child, Roberto, was born.

But, as Ernesto's mother said: "Ernesto could not bear the climate in the capital. His father regularly slept sitting up at our firstborn's bedside, so that he could take Ernesto in his arms when an attack came on to try and ease his distress." His father added, "I laid him on my body so he could breathe easier, so I hardly slept, if I did at all."

In 1933, the Guevaras moved yet again, to Arguello, in Cordoba province, still trying to find relief for Ernesto's asthma. But it returned. Following medical advice, they decided to try a dry mountain climate; in June, they moved to Alta Gracia, a small town also in Cordoba. Ernesto's condition seemed to improve there, but the asthma never left him again. He was five years old, and he stayed in Alta Gracia until he was fifteen. Here Ernesto made friends who would accompany him throughout his youth. The closest, Carlos Ferrer, nicknamed Calica, was the son of a doctor who treated Ernesto for his asthma attacks.

Since the asthma kept him from attending school regularly, Celia taught him to read. To while away the long hours Ernesto had to spend in bed, his father taught him to play chess. Ernesto became angry if they let him win. I don't play that way, he'd cry.

Ernesto's sister Ana Maria was born in 1934.

When he was nine, his asthma became seriously complicated by what the doctors diagnosed as "compulsive coughing." "When he felt an attack was coming on, he would lie still in bed and begin to bear up under the choking that asthmatics suffer from during coughing fits," his father remembered. "As the doctors advised, I had a large balloon full of oxygen at hand so I could give the boy a blast of the gas when the worst moment came. He did not want to depend on this treatment, and he tried to bear the attack as long as he could, but when he could no longer stand it and his face was turning purple from the choking, he would wriggle and point to his mouth to indicate that it was time. The oxygen relieved him immediately."

What sort of character was being forged by the disease? Enduring illness and reading books in bed is not a normal life for a nine-year-old. His personal war against the asthma's limitations began then. He developed a taste for danger. He would take walks without permission and play rough games.

To a certain extent he was like his mother in seeking risks and pushing things to the limit. There am dozens of anecdotes about the many times his mother came near drowning. Ernesto himself was present the time she plunged into the Parana River and was dragged off by the current. Celia, an excellent swimmer, was attracted to danger. Her more placid husband recalls, "Ernesto inherited that tendency to face danger, but with one important difference: he weighed up the danger very carefully first."

In 1936, the Education Ministry contacted Celia, asking why the boy had not been attending school. His parents decided that the time had come to send him, as he now enjoyed short breaks from the asthma attacks. He was enrolled at a public school, where he was surrounded by children whose parents were not well off. His brother said, "Our parents' friends were rich, and our own friends, the children who lived in the area, were poor, the children of campesinos and housekeepers."

Ernesto's asthma prevented him from being a normal pupil. "He attended only second and third grades with any regularity," his mother said. "He did what he could for the fourth, fifth, and sixth; his brother and sister copied down his work assignments so he could study at home."

Despite his illness, Ernesto did become the leader of a group of children who met in the backyard of his house. The group's greatest feat was setting fire to a canebrake while playing house.

Ernesto Senior worked on building a golf course. The family finances were rocky, and although the Guevaras were never penniless, they did suffer hardships. They were a middle-class family in crisis, living off the rent from a couple of plots of land. They had to use some of the money to pay for help with the children, as Celia could not cope with all four. Their money trickled out every which way--for schools, for clothes, for the exorbitant expense of Ernesto's medicine.

His father felt weighed down in Alta Gracia. Or, as he put it: "I felt as if I had fallen from grace and was imprisoned. I could not stand life among sick people or among those who treated them." He became more and more neurotic. Everything irritated him. His wife Celia showed greater strength in the face of adversity.

The family spent the summer of 1936 at the beach resort of Mar del Plata. The photographs from that holiday have a pathetic air. In one, Ernesto, doubtless suffering from an asthma attack, is wearing pants and a shirt. He is surrounded by children in swimsuits. Celia holds his hand as he dips his feet in the water he cannot enter. A family friend recalled that that summer people kept proffering infallible remedies for asthma, and Ernesto obediently accepted the most absurd advice his parents took--sleeping with sandbags, drinking all kinds of tea, and being plagued with inhalants and other medications. "We were so anxious over this disease that would not leave the child," his father said, "that we experimented with all kinds of ways to try and cure it. We followed the advice of doctors and laypeople. We used all kinds of homemade cures, and bought and tried out any panacea for asthma as soon as it was advertised in the newspapers. No sooner did I hear about this or that herbal or weed concoction than I was giving it to Ernesto."

In Alta Gracia in 1937, Ernesto listened wide-eyed as his father told after-dinner stories about the family, particularly about his grandfather, a geographer who traced the borders of the Chaco region of central South America, enduring terrible heat and Indian attacks. The latest newspapers, and broadcasts over the radio his father bought, reported on the Spanish Civil War, and the conflict made a strong impression on nine-year-old Ernesto. As well, the family took in the two sons of a Spanish Republican, a Dr. Aguilar, who had been forced to leave Spain.

For Ernesto, the victory of the Spanish Republic over the military and the Fascists became a personal matter. He began to follow events by sticking little flags on a map as the fronts moved. He also built a model of Madrid in the backyard and and re-created the siege of that city with his friends. They dug trenches in the dirt, where they held furious fights with slings, stones and rubble, and even nuts and bolts. Roberto almost broke his leg, and Ernesto limped for several days, but that did not stop him from learning the names of all the Republican generals by heart.

With the democracy of childhood, Ernesto, Calica Ferrer, and the Figueroa children found their friends among the children of porters at the summer villas, Decades later, a waiter at the Alta Gracia hotel would remember: "Ernesto was a kid from the neighborhood, he hung around with us rather than the preppy kids." A townsman, Juan Minguez, said, "If we were playing soccer and there were just five of us, Ernesto would want to play in goal against the other four." This seems to be a pre-Che myth, however; in the words of his friend Cesar Diaz: "He played goalie because he couldn't run too much with his asthma."

What was clear is that he was active and always disheveled. His tenacity made up for the times his asthma held him back. For months on end he came in second in the table tennis competitions at the Alta Gracia hotel, behind the local champion, Rodolfo Ruarte. Then one day Ernesto told Ruarte that he was taking a short break from playing. He meanwhile built a Ping-Pong table in the privacy of his home and practiced on his own, then surfaced to challenge the champion--and beat him.

On Sundays, he would go with his father to target practice. He learned how to handle a pistol when he was five and he could shoot bricks to pieces. And he read and read, all the time--Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Emilio Salgari, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Miguel de Cervantes.

The family moved to another house in 1937, and Ernesto became enchanted with dressing up. He was, in turn, an Indian, an ancient Greek, a Gaucho, or a marquis. He acted as a boxer in a school play. According to his sister Ana Maria, "everything was going very well until a fairy with a magic wand came on stage and the kids who were standing stiffly, like dolls, were supposed to come to life. Roberto and Ernesto were dressed as boxers and the fairy asked: 'Ye dolls, what can ye do?' to which they answered: "Wait thou a moment, and thou wilt be astonished." The two boys began to playact, to shadow-box, until Ernesto hit Roberto harder than normal, and little brother hit back for real. "The teacher began to cry; even the fairy's magic wand couldn't stop them."

The asthma persisted, on and on. Ernesto Senior recalled: Our despair was such that we even tried faith healing, and worse: I remember someone telling me that sleeping with a cat in bed could do a lot to help asthma. I didn't think twice. I fetched a stray cat and put it in bed with him. The outcome was that the cat was smothered and Ernesto was still laid low with asthma. We changed the stuffing in the mattresses and pillows, changed the cotton sheets for linen or nylon ones. We stripped all kinds of draperies and carpeting from the rooms. We cleaned dust from the walls, kept dogs, cats, and poultry out of the yard. But it was all useless, and all we got was disappointment and discouragement. The asthma persisted and all we knew was that it could be brought on by anything, at any time of the year, and by any type of food, and the sum total of all our efforts was the sure knowledge that the best thing for his illness was dry weather and altitude ... and to do breathing exercises, especially while swimming.

Cold water, however, proved to be a powerful trigger of asthma attacks.

The Guevaras moved to a bungalow in Alta Gracia in 1939, when Ernesto was eleven. New friends entered his life. The Aguilar children introduced him to Fernando Barral, a Spanish orphan who had taken refuge in Argentina with his mother. Barral later remembered Ernesto well: "I must confess that I was somewhat envious of Ernesto. He was decisive, audacious, and self-assured, and above all, he was fearless. I remember that as being one of the most genuine of his character traits.... Danger held no fears for him, or at least not that you could tell." Ernesto would test himself. He'd jump from a third-floor attic room to make his friends blanch. His friend Dolores Moyano lucidly got to the real roots of Guevara's early adolescent behavior: "Ernesto's dicing with death and his Hemingway-style flirtations with danger were neither rash nor showing off. When he did something dangerous or forbidden, like eating chalk or walking along the edge of a fence, he was doing it to see if he could and, well, to see what was the best way. The underlying attitude was intellectual, the hidden motives were experimentation."

A year later, while World War II was raging, Ernesto Senior joined Accion Argentina ("Argentine Action"), an antifascist organization sympathetic to the Allies. The twelve-year-old Ernesto proudly showed off father's membership card and even volunteered to look into Nazi infiltration among the Germans living in the Alta Gracia area.

Reading remained the great passion of Ernesto's early adolescence, a comfort when he was laid low by asthma attacks. Ernesto Senior says that "when Ernesto turned twelve, he was as well read as a boy of eighteen. His shelves were piled high with all kinds of adventure stories and novels about travel." Years later, Ernesto filled up one of his many notebooks listing the books he had read, with written comments on some of them. He called it "Catalogue of Books Read in Alphabetical Order." Under the Jules Verne heading, he recorded twenty-three novels.

In 1942, at fourteen, Ernesto was admitted to the Colegio Nacional Dean Funes, in Cordoba. It was a liberal public school, as opposed to the private schools where the children of high society studied. He commuted twenty miles a day by train from Alta Gracia.

In Cordoba, he met the Granado brothers: Tomas, his classmate, and Alberto, who was six years older. Tomas, who was captivated by his new friend with the crew cut and unusual aggressiveness in sports, introduced him to his older brother so he could join the students' rugby team. Alberto, who was studying medicine, was not impressed. He noticed "his panting, which indicated some respiratory disorder."

They gave Guevara a test: he had to jump over a broom handle set between two chair backs four feet high, and land on his shoulder. "Skinhead" Guevara began to jump and had to be stopped before he made a hole in the yard. He began training several days later, and was playing shortly after. Sometimes he had to go to the touchline halfway through a game to use his inhaler.

He would run down the field scattering players and yelling Out of the way, here's El Furibundo--"Fu-ser" [mad Serna]! was to become his nickname. He played as if his life depended on it, but did not let the game take over his existence. He was still a teenager, switching between throwing himself body and soul into life by taking risks and pushing the limits, and warring against asthma.

And still with a passion for reading. His teammates often saw him opening a book and reading in his spare moments before a game, anywhere, under a lamppost or on the touch line. He would take a book out of his jacket and drift away. He read intensively and hastily, but doubtless he had some method, some sort of strange scenario. He enjoyed adventure and action stories, books on travel and Latin America, and books by Horacio Quiroga, Ingenieros, Pablo Neruda, and Jack London. He read Boccaccio's Decameron and, once his mother taught him French, Baudelaire in the original. He was particularly interested in psychology, and read Jung and Adler. Jose Aguilar's father, the exiled Spanish doctor, was surprised to see him reading Freud and commented on the fact to his children, suggesting that it was perhaps "he was a little young" to be reading the great doctor. Albert Granado just could not believe Ernesto had read so much; they discussed Steinbeck and Faulkner. They were both very keen on Faulkner's "Sanctuary". Where did Mad Serna find the time?

Look, Mial ["my Alberto"], every time I have an asthma attack, or I have to stay indoors breathing in the incense they prescribe for me, I spend those two or three hours taking the opportunity to read what I can.

In 1943, when Ernesto was 15, the family moved into a large house in Cordoba, where his sister Celia had enrolled in a girls' school. Guevara Senior went into business with a Cordovan architect. On May 18, 1943, Juan Martin, the youngest of Ernesto's brothers, was born.

Ernesto's interest in literature continued; he read Mallarme, Baudelaire, Marx and Engels, Garcia Lorca, Verlaine, and Antonio Machado. He discovered Gandhi, who made a big impression on him. His friends remember him reciting poetry--Neruda, of course, but some Spanish poets, too. One quartet in particular haunted him: "It was lies / lies become sad truth, / that his footfalls were heard / in a Madrid that exists no more."

Ernesto's first biographer, Cuban writer Aldo Isidron, made it clear that Ernesto was not a typical Argentine: "He did not have a ear for music. He couldn't even identify a tango. He had to learn dance steps by rote," and in order to be able to dance, even if it was only now and then, he had to have his friends tell him whether the tune was a fox-trot or a tango. According to his cousin, "La Negrita," "even though he was tone-deaf, he would dance, and would always ask the ugliest girls to dance, so they would not be left out."

In Cordoba, he lost Negrina, the dog who had been with him since Alta Gracia. An employee of the city dog pound found her wandering the streets and threw cyanide on her back; the dog died of poisoning almost immediately after licking herself. Ernesto got his friends together to look for the murderer, but in vain. Frustrated in his plan for vengeance, he organized a funeral with all the trappings, including the coffin.

Meanwhile he kept playing rugby with the Granado brothers. His friend Barral remembers him as the toughest of the group, and he still needed his inhaler on the sideline. It was then he earned the rude nickname he was very proud of.

They called me the Hog. Because you were fat? No, because I was filthy.

His fear of cold water, which sometimes brought on asthma attacks, led to a less than wholesome attitude toward personal hygiene. His aversion to bathtubs and showers would stay with him for the rest of his life.

In those days, he developed not only his bad hygiene but also his antimilitarism. After a military coup had taken place, he spoke out about it in class: The military don't let the masses be educated, because if the people were educated, they would not accept their rule. A small uproar broke out in the room. The teacher took fright and expelled Ernesto from class.

At the end of 1943, Granado was in jail because of a university strike against the military, and Ernesto used to go and visit him. Granado asked that his friends speak out and demonstrate at rallies. Ernesto answered that he would not take to the streets unless they gave him a pistol.

He was not overly interested in political action, neither then nor two years later, although he was caught up in activities from time to time. He did go with a friend, student leader Gustavo Roca, to a demonstration that was broken up by the police. But the myth of teenage militancy is dismissed by his own words: I had no social concerns as a teenager and took no part in political or student activism in Argentina.

In 1943, then, Ernesto was a fifteen-year-old whose face was losing its childlike look. His grades at the Colegio Nacional Dean Funes matched his interests: very good in literature, terrible in English; very good in philosophy, awful in music; good in history, lackluster in mathematics and natural history.

The following year, in another attempt to turn chaos into order, Ernesto began to draw up a philosophical dictionary from his reading; he kept up the effort for two years. The habit of recording his reading matter and making notes on the books he read would stay with him. As time went by, and circumstances and rereading changed his outlook, he would make notes on notes. Only a chaotic person can be so orderly.

Elections held on February 24, 1946, ratified the presidency of Juan Domingo Peron, but Ernesto was not yet old enough to vote. He volunteered for military service, but was declared unfit because of his asthma.

He graduated from the Colegio Nacional Dean Funes and decided to study engineering. Why did he not choose literature or psychology, which seemed to be the greatest interests in his youth? Was he developing a practical approach that was overriding his youthful passions?

Ernesto went to Buenos Aires, where he moved in with his aunt Beatriz and his maternal grandmother Ana, to whom he had always been close. He enrolled in the school of engineering at the university.

As the son of a middle class family that could not afford many luxuries, he spent his vacations studying to qualify as a laboratory technician in soil mechanics, along with Tomas Granado. Both passed and were assigned jobs. Ernesto worked on highway plans and public works projects in small towns between Cordoba and Rosario. Toward the end of the year he wrote to his father

the boss was telling me I was the only lab technician he had known in ten years who would not accept the [gifts of] food, and one of only two or three who didn't take bribes. You may be afraid that I was too considerate with them, but I made them stop and redo a good part of the highway.

While struggling with builders who were used to making their jobs easier by greasing palms, he heard about the assassination of Gandhi, his childhood hero, which deeply upset him.

He decided to continue working rather than return to school, and to study engineering in his own time. He wrote to his father: If I can study an open university course [i.e., the Engineering topics, for which he had requested programs] I will stay all winter, as I estimate I would save between 80 and 100 pesos a month. I earn 200 a month and have a place to stay, so I spend on food and a few books for entertainment.

But the best-laid plans ...: Ernesto's grandmother Ana was taken ill. He quit the highway department and went straight to Buenos Aires to look after her. She had had a cerebral hemorrhage and suffered a subsequent hemiplegia--one side of her body was paralyzed. He spent the next seventeen days by her bedside, feeding and caring for her, until she died.

Without doubt, those long days he spent at the deathbed of his beloved grandmother--as well as, perhaps, his own experience as an asthma sufferer all those years--led him to a change of direction. He would drop engineering and study medicine. He started on a radically different course.

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Guevara Also Known As Che 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this book should be read by anyone who has ever wanted an unbiased and sincere look at the life of Che Guevara. This bio reads like a fictional wonder tale more than it does the usual unimaginative,uncreative, non-fiction ennui. Fiction lovers who either fear or adore Che should read this book for an accurate, entertaining, and well researched account of a very storied individual who shook the boundaries of capitalism and gave revolution a new meaning.