How the life of a contested hero inspired an American student to ask questions and seek answers.
Story by Lizzie Falconer
Illustration by Paul Raglione
“Comunista,” my friend Ivan hissed, snatching the book from my hands and pulling out a lighter. With a flick of his thumb the corner of my beloved book curled into smoke. My mind ran in circles, trying to figure out if something had been lost in translation; the Argentine accent was still so difficult for me to understand.
“He was a killer, Lizzie. Don’t you get it?” Ivan said in Spanish, handing the book back to me, the singed corner still warm. I avoided his gaze, afraid of confrontation, and shoved the book quickly into my bag.
It was my second week in Rosario, Argentina, and my first time in South America, but I had read plenty to prepare myself. “It’s so Western!” the guidebooks yelled at me, “Like the Paris of South America!” Cafes dotted every corner and marble statues perched in parks and on the tops of buildings. The main street, Cordoba, was lined with designer stores, upscale restaurants, and flower stands blooming with whatever was in season. But there was a side of the city the guidebooks forgot. Just one block down from Cordoba, the city felt as if it would collapse at any moment. The sidewalks were scarred with gaping cracks, trash bins overflowed with litter, and buildings were blemished with spray paint and bullet holes. Rosario obviously had a more complex history than I had been led to believe.
Most of my classes addressed standard study abroad subjects, language and grammar, but one focused on something I didn’t expect: Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Our first morning of class, the room was freezing as my professor dropped an 800-page book down in front of us. More copies followed, thumping menacingly against our wooden desks. My peers and I glanced at each other, eyes wide with fear. Studying abroad was not supposed to involve books this large. I had envisioned sunshine, beer, Argentine boys, almost anything except homework loads that included a book bigger than the Bible. The smooth, black cover was embossed with the outline of a face I had seen on so many T-shirts. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its weight; Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, the spine read. Our professor, Julieta, was petite with high cheekbones and piercing eyes. Her pregnant belly bulged, emphasized by her small frame. Standing in front of our nine-person class, one hand perched on her stomach, she asked:
“So, what do you know about Che Guevara?”
“He was born in Argentina?” the blonde next to me offered. Julieta nodded.
“He fought in the Cuban Revolution,” a boy with shaggy hair said. Another nod.
“He was murdered by the CIA,” I suggested, unable to remember if I had read that on Wikipedia or not. She darted her eyes toward me, raised an eyebrow and said:
“We have a lot to learn.”
The truth is, I had a lot to learn in every aspect of my Argentine life. My Castellano, the Spanish dialect spoken in Argentina, was stilted and stuck on my American tongue. I was constantly forgetting the proper way to drink Mate, the staple beverage of locals. I would often tell my host family a story about an adventure from the day and they would cry out in shock. “Ojo, Lizzie!” My host mother said, pulling her eyelid down warning me to keep my eyes open. “You shouldn’t be out by yourself/ talking to those types of people/ eating from there/ holding your purse that way/ touching dirty street animals.” There were rules to this country, and I had yet to learn them.
In my frustration to understand Argentina, I focused my attention on my class on Che. Maybe I didn’t know how to live there, but I knew how to study. The book became my companion. I carried it in my backpack, reading it in cafes, in the park, and on the bus rides I took to visit the far corners of the country. I had a pen permanently tucked behind my ear, marking passages to transcribe into my black Moleskin journal. Suddenly, Che stopped being just the subject of my class. I began examining his life, his words, and how he dealt with the things he saw on his travels in South America. He was no longer just a historical figure; I started seeing him outside the classroom walls.
Che Guevara was born in Rosario, about four blocks from the apartment where I was living. Each day, I would stumble out into the bright morning light, turn a corner, and bump straight into a 20-foot-tall portrait of him. Several feet past the mural, I would walk by “Hasta la victoria siempre,” (Onwards toward victory always) his famous mantra spray painted on three different buildings. Down the street was the “Che Hostel.” Before this trip I never cared about Che, but now I couldn’t get him out of my head.
Shortly after starting school, my friend and I traveled to Mendoza, a city famous for its wineries and spectacular scenery at the base of the Andes Mountains. We chose to do a bike tour of the wineries, all located in a dilapidated rural town called Maipú, which lies neglected outside of the manicured city center of Mendoza. Our bikes were both in various states of disrepair, but they seemed to match the rundown buildings perfectly. Almost sarcastically, the saying “Maipú, el mejor lugar para vivir” (Maipú, the best place to live) was painted across sanitation vehicles and partially torn down buildings. Bricks and pieces of rock lay abandoned, as if someday a work crew would come back and finish the job. On the other side of the road, the Andes rose like ancient watchmen with snow still perched on their rocky shoulders. Below, the only things in sight were the twisted hands of thousands of grape plants reaching for the sunlight. It was a contradiction I couldn’t ignore — the poverty of the people juxtaposed with the glory of the scenery. I had seen something similar in Rosario: the broken, dirty homes combined with the immaculate wineries. I couldn’t shake the feeling, the gut instinct that tragedy and perfection couldn’t exist together. But they did, and like my first impression of Rosario, the contrast left me feeling lost. I didn’t know what to do with this new point of view that was emerging in my head.
That night, I stayed up late reading my book again. I discovered Che was not born a revolutionary. Ironically, he spent most of his youth weakened by a case of asthma so terrible that it inspired him to go to medical school in hopes of finding a cure. Restless from his constant studies, he hopped on an old motorbike and traveled across South America. He spent months viewing the poverty and oppression that racked his homeland. When he returned to Argentina, he was changed. “The person who wrote these notes died upon stepping once again onto Argentine soil,” he wrote in his book Notas del Viaje. “‘I,’ am not I; at least I am not the same I that I was before.”
This quote stayed with me. I returned to Rosario and began looking at my adopted home with new eyes. Why weren’t the buildings getting fixed? Why were all the poor people pushed to the outskirts of the city? Was no one else wondering the same things I was? One night, I sat at the kitchen table reading my Che book. My host aunt, Norah, was bustling around the kitchen. Her long, mahogany hair swayed like a pendulum as she moved between tasks. As she swooped to check the oven, I wondered how she thought Argentina could be helped.
“What I don’t understand is why you’re not studying San Martin,” she said, ignoring my question. She was referring to the general who helped most of South America gain independence in the late 1800s. “He helped Argentina, but Che just left and went to Cuba. What did he ever do for our country?”
Ivan had said the same thing. Che left Argentina. Che was violent. What did Che really do anyway? These questions might seem strange to ask sixty years after his death, but I discovered that Argentina was still searching for a way to survive. While the U.S. hasn’t fought a war on its own soil since the Civil War, Argentina is still recovering from “The Dirty War,” a six-year period of government-sponsored murder and terror from the late seventies to the early eighties. Thirty-thousand Argentines “disappeared” from the streets to never be seen again. And then, in 2001, an economic collapse sent the country into a deficit that led to its current situation. Forbes Magazine charges the Argentine government with having “rampant corruption,” while 50 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. In a country like this it’s easy to understand people’s anger. Since Che left, who would help Argentina?
I asked this question to Theo, a nineteen-year-old Argentine with thick brown hair and braces that glinted in the afternoon sunlight. He ran a hand through his hair and said, “Have you heard of Grameen Bank? You should visit.” He made a phone call and two days later I was seated in a circle of Argentine women, in a community center on the outskirts of the city. To my left was a middle-aged man who was sweating profusely in the late afternoon heat. He held a cigarette in one hand, the other wildly gesticulated to the women as he emphasized the importance of community and support in paying back their loans. His name was Raul Bianciotti, the leader of the Rosario branch of Grameen Bank, a nonprofit that gives out microloans to poor women to help them start a business. The women form a support group and rely on each other for advice as they pay back their loans. It’s a program started in India but has enjoyed monumental success all over the world.
In Rosario, 99 percent of the women pay back their original loans and can raise their family to a higher income status. Sol, a thirty-year-old woman with coral lipstick and a baby on her hip, kissed me on the cheek and said, “Thank you for coming to hear our stories. Grameen has saved my family and the lives of many of my friends.” Maybe fighting poverty didn’t just have to come through the ideals of one person. Maybe it could be fought through the ingenuity of many.
I landed in Argentina with a two-dimensional understanding of the social landscape. Before the trip, I conjugated Spanish verbs, typed “Che Guevara” into Wikipedia, and peered at the map of South America dreaming of what was to come. But since I’ve returned, the map seems superficial. How can a piece of paper hold my memories? How can it represent the smell of the Rosario summer air, the glimmering rays of the sunset over the river, or the ebbs and flows of Castellano? Looking at the outline of South America, its borders forming the shape of a bleeding heart, it’s easy for me to understand the passion Che had for his land. Wherever I went, my study of Che ignited conversations and controversy. He pushed me to think about topics that are ugly and difficult, and to address my own involvement in these problems. As he famously stated, “If you tremble indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.” His words, which I studied during my three months in Argentina, forced me to confront the mystery and struggle of his country.
I had imagined study abroad like the photos you see on Facebook. Smiling, young, handsome people holding drinks in front of a foreign background. I soon discovered that my study abroad reality existed in the contradictions, in the experiences that were difficult for me to understand and explain. I learned the most about life in Argentina in the moments of apprehension, of shock and guilt. Che enlivened my experience and his life gave me context and motivation to search for the true reality in Rosario. My unlikely hero, a dead Argentine communist, helped me realize that the answer to poverty can only be found by being brave enough to ask questions.