Revolutionary Road

A black woman goes in search of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

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I’ve tried to avoid the hype. I don’t wear Che T-shirts, and there are no pictures of Che Guevara on my walls. Although I spent 10 years researching the Argentine doctor-turned revolutionary, I don’t know if I’ll go see Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour biopic, Che, based on the real-life adventures of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

I know how this story ends. I also have some idea of the process and frustrations the filmmakers might have gone through. I spent thousands of dollars of my meager savings to do a documentary titled From Ernesto to Che.

I was less interested in the hero or icon and more interested in Ernesto the man. I made it my goal to cut through the romantic idealism of revolutionary aspirations, hammered during my college years in the 1980s, and peel away to reach the human being inside the icon; “Che” (which in Argentine Spanish, in his time, translated into “Hey, you!”). At the end, I did not have a completed movie but a clear picture of Ernesto that was infinitely more complex than a Hollywood-fueled mythology.

When I first decided tackle the project in 2000, I was working in television programming, a voyeuristic job that doesn’t provide the hands-on excitement of production. I was also in my what-next 30s, and I was restless. During one of my annual sojourns to Los Angeles, an actor friend showed me his driver’s license photo. He was totally bearded, which he never wore on screen. He said it was his “Che Guevara look.” Something went off in my head.

I had recalled my college years, when debates raged on and off campus about divestment from South Africa to end apartheid, “U.S. Out of El Salvador,” the King holiday, as well as the Reagan Revolution, Evita the musical and Che. It had been over 25 years after his execution, but somehow his legacy was sticking it out with the rest.  

When I decided to pursue the documentary, my first stop was Cuba. I stayed 10 days at the Havana International Film Festival of Latin American Cinema. Afro-Cubans I met of revolutionary age (that’s 50 years ago this year) gave glowing testimonials toward Ernesto. Many of them attributed their education, exposure and personal uplift to encounters with the revolutionary Che. These were wonderful stories, but still, I felt the human being was all but lost in a larger-than-life figure.  

My lack of fluency in Spanish was a hindrance. But I was able to pass for Afro-Cuban. In the heavy tourist areas, I had access to “backdoors” for natives but was restricted in the airport and in public areas of exclusive hotels if I didn’t have a proper guest escort or ID. I also got disapproving looks from waiters when I sat down to eat with white American or European tourists. I had little to no personal experience with this kind of regulated segregation or explicit racism. One day, I found myself crying on a bench on the patio of the Hotel Nacional. 

I decided to turn this situation to my advantage. By spending more time with native Cubans, I realized I could go where tourists couldn’t and could choose to have an authentic cultural experience. But that yielded little in terms of what I was seeking for my documentary project. A trip to Ernesto’s native Argentina was necessary. A year later, I contacted an Argentine anthropological filmmaker I met in Havana, Ana Zanotti. I proposed paying for her expenses in exchange for her assistance as an interpreter and guide in Argentina. Thankfully, she agreed.  

It was Celia who set the bohemian tone in the houses the Guevaras lived in. Due to their precarious financial situation, they moved around a lot. The Guevara children played with the richest and the poorest children in the neighborhood. She invited any and everyone into their home and treated them like guests. As his brother, Juan Martin said, “There were no rules and no limitations.”  

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