The life, activism, and death of Che Guevara have solidified him as a cultural icon. A prominent communist figure of the Cuban Revolution, he went on to become a guerrilla leader in South America and was responsible for the spread of communist ideas around the world before his eventual execution at the hands of the Bolivian army in 1967.
Today, he is remembered for his leftist radicalism and anti-imperialism. His commonly referred to name, Che, reflects his status as an icon so famous that he is recognised by his first name alone. Similarly, a photograph of Guevara has become globally celebrated, adorning endless T-shirts and posters worldwide, and becoming a symbol of resistance during times of war.
Beneath Guevara’s cult of personality, however, was a man who was a doctor, chess player, father, and poetry lover. Here are 10 facts about Che Guevara.
1. His name wasn’t Che Guevara
Che Guevara’s birth certificate lists him as Ernesto Guevara, though he was also sometimes recorded as Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna.
The short, memorable, and unpretentious name ‘Che’ is an Argentine interjection that is generally used to call attention, in a way that is similar to ‘dude’, ‘mate’ or ‘pal’. He used it so frequently that his Cuban compatriots, who perceived the word as foreign, branded him with it. The word is almost always used in informal settings among friends and family.
No stranger to nicknames, at school Guevara was nicknamed ‘Chanco’, meaning ‘pig’, due to his scruffy character and reluctance to wash.
2. He was part Irish
Che’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Patrick Lynch, emigrated from Ireland in the 1700s to what we now call Argentina. The other side of his family was Basque.
Guevara’s brother Juan stated that their father was drawn to the rebellious nature of both sides of the family tree, but particularly appreciated the Irish love of a rowdy party. Indeed, Che’s father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, once said, “the first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels”.
In 2017, Ireland’s postal service, An Post, issued a stamp commemorating Che which incorporated the famous red, black, white, and blue image of the revolutionary.
3. He loved rugby, chess and poetry
Che had a range of hobbies. He played scrum-half in the San Isidro rugby club in his youth, then published his own magazine dedicated to the sport, called Tackle, in 1951. Though he suffered from asthma which hampered his playing, Che once told his father, “I love rugby. Even if it kills me one day, I am happy to play it”. He also entered chess tournaments as a child and played the game throughout his life.
Owing to his asthma, he was home-schooled, which is where he was first introduced to poetry. Upon his death, he was carrying a well-worn green book of poetry he’d copied by hand, featuring work from Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, and Nicolás Guillén. He also enjoyed Whitman and Keats, amongst others.
4. He studied medicine
Che’s medical problems influenced him to later enrol at Buenos Aires University to study medicine in 1948. He graduated as a physician with a specialism in leprosy in 1953, then did an internship at Mexico City’s General Hospital where he carried out allergy research. He left in 1955, however, to join Fidel and Raul Castro’s Cuban Revolution as their doctor.
5. He had 5 children
Che married Peruvian economist Hilda Gadea in 1955 after she revealed that she was pregnant. They had a daughter, Hilda Beatriz, in 1956. Che revealed that he had fallen in love with another woman, and requested a divorce in 1959. A month after the divorce was granted, Che married Cuban revolutionary Aleida March, with whom he had been living since 1958. They had four children: Aleida, Camilo, Celia and Ernesto.
Che’s daughter Aleida later remarked, “my father knew how to love, and that was the most beautiful feature of him – his capacity to love. To be a proper revolutionary, you have to be a romantic. His capacity to give himself to the cause of others was at the centre of his beliefs. If we could only follow his example, the world would be a much more beautiful place”.
6. Two journeys shaped his early political ideals
Che went on two trips through South America at the time that he was studying medicine. The first was a solo journey on a motorised bicycle in 1950, and the second was an 8,000-mile trek that started on a vintage motorcycle with his friend Alberto Granado in 1952. It was after witnessing intense poverty and the exploitation of workers and farmers that he became determined to make a change.
He published a book in Cuba in 1993 called The Motorcycle Diaries which was about his second journey, and became a New York Times bestseller which was later adapted into a critically acclaimed film.
7. He viewed the United States as an imperialist power
Che lived in Guatemala in 1953 in part because he admired the way the president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, redistributed land to peasants. This angered US-based United Fruit Company, and later the same year, a CIA-backed coup forced president Arbenez from power. A ruling junta then elected the right-wing Castillo Armas to the presidency and restored United Fruit Company’s land.
This event radicalised Che, who saw the US as an imperialist power. This was also the first time that he directly participated in revolutionary activities, fighting with a small group of rebels to (unsuccessfully) retake Guatemala City.
8. He was head of the National Bank in Cuba
After Castro’s revolution, Guevara was appointed into various positions which related to the economy. This included being named president of the National Bank in 1959, which gave him the power to effectively direct the country’s economy, which he used to reduce Cuba’s dependence on sugar exports and trade within the United States, instead increasing trade with the Soviet Union.
Keen to mark his disdain for money and the systems which surrounded it entirely, he simply signed Cuba’s notes as ‘Che’. He was also later appointed the Minister of Industry.
9. He hugely increased Cuba’s literacy rate
According to UNESCO, before 1959, Cuba’s literacy rate stood at around 77%, which was the fourth highest in Latin America. Access to education in a clean, well-equipped environment was hugely important to Guevara and Castro’s government.
In 1961, which was dubbed the ‘year of education’, Guevara sent out workers, known as ‘literacy brigades’, to build schools and train teachers in the countryside. By the end of Castro’s tenure, the rate had increased to 96%, and by 2010, Cuba’s literacy rate for those above the age of 15 was 99%.
10. A picture of Guevara has been named the most famous of all time
A picture of Guevara, known as ‘Guerrillero Heroico’, was named the most famous photo of all time by The Maryland Institute of Art, while the Victoria and Albert Museum has stated that the photograph has been reproduced more than any other picture in history.
Taken in 1960, the picture captures a 31-year-old Guevara in Havana, Cuba, at a memorial service for the victims of the La Coubre explosion. By the end of the 1960s, the image, combined with Guevara’s political activity and execution, helped solidify the leader as a cultural icon.