By Charles Parrish
In 1999, Time magazine compiled a list of the twentieth century’s most influential people from around the world. Despite questions about the validity of such a list, few would argue with two individuals the publication did include: Brazil’s gift to world soccer, Pelé, and one of the world’s most known revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
While the literature on Guevara does provide fleeting glimpses into his childhood, much of what is written focuses primarily on his experiences in Guatemala and Mexico, the Cuban Revolution, his subsequent diplomatic roles as part of Castro’s new Cuban government, the revolution efforts in the Congo and Bolivia, and ultimately his assassination in Bolivia. Beyond Guevara “the revolutionary” and “government diplomat,” there has been a movement towards the study of Guevara as a popular icon. Printed on posters, t-shirts, key chains, and rock band apparel (among many other objects); the enduring image of Guevara has been commodified as a popular symbol of resistance, protest, liberation, and human rights movements around the world.
Perhaps the works that provide the most revealing account of Guevara as a human being, rather than the mythical figure and iconic symbol constructed after his death, are the memoirs written by friends and family members, Guevara’s own published diaries, Alberto Granado’s account of the motorcycle trip across South America and Walter Salles’ 2004 cinematic depiction of the journey. Specifically, the diaries and film offer unique insights into the evolving personality, beliefs, and identity of a young Guevara before his transformation into guerilla fighter. However, analytical projects of this sort are prone to criticism. Guevara, as an ambiguous adolescent being, clashes with critical prevailing notions of Guevara the Political and Cultural Icon.
Before Ernesto Guevara was “Che,” he was an inexperienced young adult, flawed, like any other, and sport and leisure played a tremendous role in his early life — and his development into a revolutionary and guerilla fighter. These early experiences influenced and, in some cases, altered the path of the ambiguous adolescent who would later become the iconic twentieth century Latin American revolutionary known around the world as Che.
Ernesto Guevara de La Serna was born in May of 1928 in Rosario, Argentina and after relocating on several occasions over the next two years, his family temporarily settled in the northern Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro. As biographer John Lee Anderson notes, the young family was initially financially privileged and spent much of their time at the beach of the San Isidro Nautical Club, which is located on the Rio de La Plata estuary. Guevara’s mother, Celia, was an avid swimmer and one day in the Argentine winter of 1930 she took her two year old son for a swim. That evening, young Ernesto suffered through an intense coughing episode and, despite medical intervention, the condition developed into chronic asthma. As a toddler, the future revolutionary
hardly had a say in his mother’s decision to include him as part of her leisure activities. Nevertheless, the asthma condition Guevara faced would remain with him for the rest of his life and significantly limit his mobility during the famed 26 of July Movement that overthrew Batista’s forces in Cuba nearly 30 years later. Given the prevalence of asthma in the family, it would be far-reaching to attribute Che’s chronic acute asthma to this isolated incident. After all, heredity is known to be one of the major risk factors for asthma in children. However, although this particular early leisure experience did not cause the asthma, it did trigger the initial severe asthmatic episode that would set the family in motion in search of treatment and relief.
Looking to stabilize young Guevara’s asthma, the family moved to the dry mountain climate of the Córdoba province in central Argentina. The Guevara’s were certainly not alone in their quest to seek a health cure in the sierras of Córdoba. Since the early decades of the 20th century, Argentineans had sought out the many spas and resorts in this region that specialized in caring for individuals suffering from a range of respiratory ailments, including tuberculosis. While Guevara’s asthma attacks became less frequent and intense in Córdoba, his condition continued to be a source of anxiety for the family. Initially, he did not attend school and his parents held him to a strict diet and physical activity regimen they thought helped control the severity of the asthma.
Ironically, Guevara’s asthma diminished after he swam, thus the family decided to join one of the local swim clubs. During the summer months throughout his childhood, he swam three hours per day as a treatment to relax his chest muscles.
Ernesto was not content to limit his physical activity to swimming and with the support of his mother, Guevara began to engage in a variety of outdoor leisure pursuits.
He continued to swim for leisure as a young adult and his motorcycle diary entries reveal that he frequently swam throughout his journey across Latin America. Beyond leisure, the diary also reveals Guevara leveraged his swimming prowess as a means to build rapport with some of the individuals he encountered on the journey. For example, the interns of the San Pablo (Peru) leper colony on the Amazon watched in awe as Guevara swam the width of the river. In total, the round trip feat lasted for over two hours. The accomplishment made a profound impression on the patients at the colony and served as a source of respect and admiration for the aspiring doctor.
Guevara’s father (Ernesto Guevara Lynch) was a ship builder by trade and he struggled to find stable work in the small town of Alta Gracia, Córdoba during the 1940s. Guevara Lynch eventually garnered a contract to expand and upgrade the local Sierras Golf Course Hotel and it is here where young Ernesto first became acquainted with the sport of golf. With the encouragement of his father, he began playing golf at the age of six and he practiced “as much as he wished as he would do so at times when no one was playing.” According to his father, Guevara loved golf and by age fifteen he was a good player who enjoyed showing off his skills at the golf club near the family’s weekend home in Villa Allende in the suburbs of the city of Córdoba.
Though no scorecards remain to validate the accuracy of his golfing legacy, Guevara was said to have became proficient enough to shoot scores below 90. Throughout his adolescence, Guevara intermittently worked as a golf caddy, and as a result he developed strong bonds with the other caddies. Perhaps more important than his passion for playing golf was the opportunity it provided for socialization. Many of Guevara’s friends growing up were the sons of miners, hired hands at the golf club, caddies or hotel waiters. Ernesto discovered, at a very young age, how the poor lived and what few prospects they had of improving their lot. While many scholars associate his desire to combat injustices of the poor and exploited with his motorcycle journey across Latin America in the early 1950s, Guevara’s father suggests his empathy for the poor started a decade earlier and credits, at least in part, his golfing experiences as his introduction to social inequalities.
In short, the socialization the golf club provided Guevara was not restricted to a cultural indoctrination of Córdoba’s high society. On the contrary, the most meaningful relationships he developed at the golf club were with individuals of modest means whose purpose at the club was specifically related to labor.
Interestingly, golf was one of the few sports Guevara Lynch condoned for his asthmatic son, given the risks involved with strenuous physical activity. However, young Guevara longed to participate in the same childhood games and activities as his comrades. Fortunately for him, his mother Celia was supportive and insisted Ernesto be permitted to have a normal childhood. Ultimately, Guevara Lynch was unable to impose his will on his son, who was carried home by his friends on more than one occasion in the midst of a severe asthma attack brought on by his participation in one of the many physical activities they enjoyed.
These experiences did not deter Guevara from engaging in such activities. Rather, they seemingly contributed towards his development of “a fiercely competitive personality.” He learned to cope with and persevere through the pain from participation in neighborhood ‘pick-up’ football games and other physical activities.
Guevara began to demonstrate a particular class affinity when organizing the informal football matches. Growing up, he and his brother Roberto played football with “teams of strays” and he and his golf caddie friends of modest means would test their virility on rudimentary grounds against boys from wealthy families.
Guevara’s indirect participation in football provides glimpses of early rebellious tendencies that in the end became a source of irony. Football has always been considered the most popular sport in Argentina and its popularity transcends the social classes (unlike golf, tennis, and rugby). Consumption of the nation’s professional football league dramatically increased following professionalization (1931) as print and media coverage made the sport accessible in even the most remote corners of Argentina.
Guevara leveraged the soccer skills he developed on the rudimentary open grass fields of Alta Gracia during his interactions with those he encountered while on his first journey across South America. Like swimming, soccer provided an opportunity to build rapport and gain the trust of those who looked upon the peculiar “traveling doctors from Argentina” with skepticism. As outlined in the diaries, Guevara and Granado organized informal soccer matches to engage locals upon arrival at Machu Pichu, Lima, and San Pablo in Peru and they both took part in a soccer tournament for the local side Independiente Sporting Football Club while at Leticia, Colombia prior to departing for Bogotá on 1 July 1952.
Guevara performed well as a goalie — the one position suitable for him because of his asthma limitations. The soccer matches served as a means of escape for the leprosy patients and ultimately provided a means for Guevara and Granado to establish common ground with the many people they encountered and treated while touring the continent.
Of the sport and leisure pursuits young Ernesto Guevara practiced, rugby was his favorite. After the family left Alta Gracia for the larger urban city of Córdoba, Guevara became acquainted with the Granado brothers (Gregorio, Tomás, and Alberto). Though Guevara was in classes with Tomás at the Deán Funes school, it was his relationship with the older Alberto that evolved into a lifetime friendship. Indeed, this friendship would lead the two across South America on Granado’s now famous 500cc motorcycle and eventually to Cuba where Granado would join Guevara post revolution and later become instrumental in developing the Cuban Rugby Union in the 1990s.
The Granado brothers, with Alberto being the rugby enthusiast, spearheaded an effort to put together a proper rugby team called Platense in lower Córdoba, but they rarely managed to get together the fourteen players required to form a rugby team. Alberto later organized and coached the Estudiantes rugby team and was openly reluctant to allow the asthmatic and frail fourteen year old Guevara to participate. Alberto eventually relented and in 1943 Guevara began practicing with the team twice per week, earning a reputation as a fearless attacker on the pitch.
Guevara’s passion for rugby blossomed and his practice of the sport spilled over into his daily life at home. As Guevara Lynch recalls, Guevara and his younger brother Roberto would practice on the paved patio at home “where they took some serious knocks on the hard ground.”
Guevara developed into a gifted rugby player and his aggressive physical approach to the game prompted Alberto Granado to bestow the “Fúser” nickname on him. The name, aside from being original, was shorthand for the combination of the words “Furibundo (Furious)” and “Serna” (Guevara’s surname). Due to his fearless tackling ability, Furious Serna played in the back, though the scrum cap he wore on the field was likely the brunt of many jokes.
Guevara Lynch enrolled both Guevara and his younger brother Roberto as members of the San Isidro Club (SIC), of which Guevara Lynch himself was a founding member. At SIC, Guevara
began to play rugby with more regularity and at a higher level than he had previously with Alberto Granado’s Estudiantes team in Córdoba. Playing with the reserve team, he found creative ways to mitigate the limitations brought on by his asthma, like recruiting a friend to run along the line with his inhaler so that if he felt seriously out of breath, he could ask the referee’s permission to stop for a moment and take a puff.
Realizing his son was putting himself needlessly in danger, Guevara Lynch pleaded with him to abandon rugby, but his efforts only prompted the young Guevara to pledge that he would continue playing even if it killed him. Guevara Lynch talked his brother-in-law (Martín) Martínez Castro, who was the club’s president, into removing Guevara from the team. Perhaps offering a glimpse into the resolve and rebellious nature that would later give rise to the Che legend a decade later, Guevara continued playing rugby for the Atalaya Polo Club.
Guevara’s enthusiasm for rugby soon intersected with his passion for literature. As a teenager in Córdoba, Guevara had already become versed in a number of classic pieces of literature, including works by Freud, Dumas, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Zola, Marx, Stalin, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and, of course, Sarmiento, among many others. He also enjoyed writing poetry and on occasion penned short stories throughout his youth.
Frequently using his father’s rented studio on Paraguay Street in Buenos Aires as a study,
Guevara also briefly used the space as an editorial office for the rugby magazine Tackle. The publication began as an in depth review of select rugby matches from the previous week and Guevara, along with his brother Roberto and ten of his friends, provided the content under pseudonym names. Guevara’s contempt for the class divisions that exist in Argentinean rugby soon spilled out into its pages. He chastised the exclusive nature and bourgeoisie make-up of its practitioners as well as the Anglophile nature of the sport’s demographics. After the police paid him a visit and accused the young medical student of spreading communist propaganda, which was punishable in Perón’s Argentina, and due to a lack of funds the magazine was abandoned.
Nevertheless, Guevara’s early involvement in rugby further made apparent the class divisions that exist in society at a crucial point in his maturation process. This buttressed his evolving philosophical and ideological position that scorned the societal structures that created class divisions. Perhaps equally important, his participation in rugby provided an opportunity to channel his aggression as well as a practical learning experience that emphasized the importance of teamwork, discipline, and respecting the opponent while cultivating a sense of courage and perseverance.
Rugby had two lasting implications for Guevara. On the one hand it entailed an exceptional physical challenge that resulted in the development of willpower. On the other, rugby’s cerebral component allowed him to develop his skills as a leader and strategist.
Both of these implications proved paramount during the Cuban Revolution and contributed towards his enduring legacy.
The development of self-discipline, perseverance and willpower, leadership, an appreciation for teamwork and cooperation, respect for the opponent, loyalty, courage, as well the ability to strategize and cope with adversity that Guevara developed via his youthful participation in sport would prove significant during the successful campaign that overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
For Costañeda, willpower was the key attribute and guiding principle in the making of Guevara and this trait evolved directly from his battle with asthma during physical activity throughout his adolescent years. “From his youthful rugby days in Córdoba to his execution in the jungles of Bolivia, he always started off from the premise that it was enough to want or will something for it to happen. There was no obstacle too great for willpower,” he said.
Through his participation in sport and his affinity for playing chess at the González Aguilar family home and playing in neighborhood football matches with ‘teams of strays’ of all social classes, Guevara was routinely in touch with the realities associated with the oppressed and poor at a young age. While some seemingly attribute the beginning of his fight for social justice to his motorcycle trip with Alberto Granado in isolation of the context of his childhood, this position unjustly marginalizes the influence his childhood sport and leisure experiences likely had on the future revolutionary.
Guevara also leveraged his love of sports during his trips across South America. By organizing football matches and demonstrating his swimming prowess, he was able to build rapport and establish a sense of solidarity with those he and Alberto Granado met on their journey, particularly the patients at the various leprosariums they visited along the way.
The enduring legacy of Ernesto Guevara is firmly grounded in his revolutionary efforts, as it should be. These are certainly his enduring contributions and claim to fame (or infamy). But Guevara’s sport and leisure experiences, more than simply “forming a bitter sense of humor,” contributed towards his development and revolutionary accomplishments. Through swimming, golf, soccer, rugby, and even chess, young Guevara developed important character traits, mainly a will to persevere. Further, the opportunity for socialization through some of these activities shaped his political position and passion for social justice.