Che and the Jesuits

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Saturday, June 18, 2005

It might be considered a toss-up as to which of Alta Gracia's two main attractions are of most interest to its many visitors - Che Guevara or the Jesuits. For us there was no question, as we just happened to arrive in the small, colonial mountain town during "Che Week 2005" - immediately apparent due to the profusion of red and black banners of the famous 1960 photo by Alberto Korda. Although he was born in the city of Rosario in 1928, Che's parents moved to Alta Gracia when he was just four years old, hoping that the dry mountain air would alleviate his severe asthma and allow him to lead a more normal life.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna - better known to his family and friends as Ernestino or Teté - spent his childhood and adolescent years in Alta Gracia. The family's relatively modest residence was Villa Nydia, and in 2001 it was purchased by the town and transformed into a museum containing artifacts and a comprehensive photographic display of Che's life. With a well-written guide in hand, we were able to discover something about the many aspects of this famous revolutionary's complex personality as we explored each room of the house.

Among the museum displays was a replica of the 1930s vintage Norton 500 cc OHV motorbike on which Che spent several months in 1952 with his med student buddy Alberto Granado travelling through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. How appropriate that the "Che week" activities included a showing of "Motorcycle Diaries", the recent movie that described in graphic detail the adventures and misadventures of their epic trip on their oil and smoke spewing machine - rather fondly, but inappropriately named "El Poderoso II" (The Mighty One). During visits with the miners of northern Chile and the campesinos of the Peruvian altiplano, and while working in an Amazonian leper colony hospital, Che's eyes were opened to the plight of South America's indigenous people and poorer classes. Already in training as a doctor, his interest clearly shifted during the trip, from healing the sick to emancipating the poor - a vocation that he pursued with real passion for the rest of his life.

Alta Gracia's main Plaza was abuzz with excitement on Sunday afternoon as dozens of Che Guevara "look alikes" and "wannabies" lined up their ancient but proudly maintained motorcycles in preparation for the scheduled parade. Onlookers were clearly torn between following the motorcycle activities getting underway in front of them, and the initiation of the mass in the Iglesia Parroquial Nuestra Señora de la Merced behind them. Most decided that Che should take precedence, as they would have plenty of opportunity later to visit the expansive Jesuit estancia. We also elected to follow the Che route, keen to acquire more insight into his legendary exploits and his idealistic beliefs that armed combat was the only way to overthrow the aristocratic ruling classes and gain rights for the poor.

Back to the Jesuits. Although expelled from the country in 1767, the Jesuits definitely left a legacy of architectural magnificence. Considered one of the finest Jesuit estancias in the province, the spacious structures overlooking the Plaza continue to service the religious needs of the community, as well as providing quarters for a museum and a public school. On a rainy afternoon's walk of the area, we noted that the Jesuits were also responsible for constructing a complex system of irrigation, visible still in the Tajamar - one of Alta Gracia's 17th century dams - which still serves as a central feature of the town. Many other residences, workshops, chapels and monuments are evidence of the vigorous activity and remarkable success achieved by the Jesuits over a period of only a hundred and fifty years.

Our walk next took us past the crumbling ruins of the Sierras Hotel which for years served as the place in Alta Gracia for the social elite to meet and be seen. How interesting to hear that Che learned to swim in the hotel pool while he and his family indulged in the affluent activities offered within the walled grounds. Was it his own privileged family background that led him to reject his past and join Fidel Castro in overthrowing the Cuban Batista dictatorship? Did he then become disillusioned with his subsequent bureaucratic responsibilities in Cuba? Did this lead him to leave Cuba and his family - two wives and five children - to join the revolutionary movement in Congo? His luck subsequently ran out when lending support to the radicals in Bolivia, and he was captured and summarily executed by government forces in 1967. Definitely an intriguing story, and one that became very real to us through our exposure to "Che Week 2005".
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