The horoscope was confounding. If Ernesto “Che” Guevara had been born on June 14, 1928, as stated on his birth certificate, then he was a Gemini—and a lackluster one at that. The astrologer doing the calculations, a friend of Che’s mother, repeated her work and got the same result. The Che who emerged from her analysis was a gray, dependent personality who had lived an uneventful life. But this was in the early 1960s, and Che was already one of the most famous people in the world. He had been on the cover of Time magazine. He was a highly visible, charismatic figure renowned for his independent spirit.
When the puzzled astrologer showed Che’s mother the dismal horo-scope, she laughed. Then she confided a secret she had guarded closely for more than three decades. Her son had actually been born one month earlier, on May 14. He was no Gemini, but a headstrong and decisive Taurus. The deception had been necessary, she explained, because she was three months’ pregnant when she married Che’s father.
Immediately after their wedding, the couple had left Buenos Aires for the remote jungle backwater of Misiones, 1,200 miles up the Paraná River, on Argentina’s northern border with Paraguay and Brazil. There, as her husband set himself up as a yerba mate planter, she went through her pregnancy away from the prying eyes of Buenos Aires society. A doctor friend falsified the date on the birth certificate, moving it back by one month to help shield them from scandal.
When their son was a month old, the couple notified their families. They said that they had tried to reach Buenos Aires, and that Che’s mother had gone into labor prematurely. A baby born at seven months, after all, is not unusual. There may have been doubts, but their story and their child’s official birth date were quietly accepted.
It seems fitting that a man who spent most of his adult life engaged in clandestine activities and whose death involved a conspiracy should have begun life with a subterfuge.
In 1927, when Ernesto Guevara Lynch met Celia de la Serna, she had just graduated from an exclusive Catholic girls’ school, Sacré Coeur, in Buenos Aires. She was a dramatic-looking young woman of twenty with an aqui-line nose, wavy dark hair, and brown eyes. Celia was well read but un-worldly, devout but questioning. Ripe, in other words, for a romantic adventure.
Celia de la Serna was a true Argentine blue blood of undiluted Spanish noble lineage. One ancestor had been the Spanish royal viceroy of colonial Peru; another a famous Argentine military general. Her paternal grandfather had been a wealthy landowner, and Celia’s own father had been a renowned law professor, congressman, and ambassador. Both he and his wife died while Celia was still a child, leaving her and her six brothers and sisters to be raised by a guardian, a religious aunt. The family had conserved its revenue-producing estates, and Celia was due a comfortable inheritance when she reached the age of twenty-one.
Ernesto Guevara Lynch was twenty-seven. He was moderately tall and handsome, with a strong chin and jaw. The glasses he wore for astigmatism gave him a clerkish appearance that was deceptive, for he had an ebullient, gregarious personality, a hot temper, and an outsize imagination. He was the great-grandson of one of South America’s richest men, and his ancestors included members of both the Spanish and the Irish nobility, although over the years his family had lost most of its fortune.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when Argentina was controlled by the tyrannical warlord Juan Manuel de Rosas, the male heirs of the wealthy Guevara and Lynch clans fled Argentina to join the California gold rush. After returning from exile, their American-born offspring, Roberto Guevara Castro and Ana Isabel Lynch, married. Ernesto, who would become Che’s father, was the sixth of Roberto and Ana Isabel’s eleven children. The family lived well, but they were no longer landed gentry. While her husband worked as a geographical surveyor, Ana Isabel raised the children in Buenos Aires. They summered at a rustic country house on the slice of the old family seat she had inherited. To prepare Ernesto for a working life, his father sent him to a state-run school, telling him, “The only aristocracy I believe in is the aristocracy of talent.”
But Ernesto belonged by birthright to Argentine society. He had grown up on his mother’s stories of California frontier life and his father’s terrifying tales of Indian attacks and sudden death in the high Andes. His family’s illustrious and adventurous past was a legacy too powerful to overcome. He was nineteen when his father died, and although he went to college, studying architecture and engineering, he dropped out before graduation. He wanted to have his own adventures and make his own fortune, and he used his modest inheritance to pursue that goal.
By the time he met Celia de la Serna, Ernesto had invested most of his money with a wealthy relative in a yacht-building company, the Astillero San Isidro. He worked in the company for a time as an overseer, but it was not enough to hold his interest. Soon he became enthusiastic about a new project. A friend had convinced him he could make his fortune by growing yerba mate, the stimulating native tea drunk by millions of Argentinians.
Land was cheap in the yerba-growing province of Misiones. Originally settled by Jesuit missionaries and their Guaraná Indian converts in the sixteenth century, annexed only fifty years earlier by Argentina, the province was just then opening up to settlement. Land speculators, well-heeled adventurers, and poor European migrants were flocking in. Ernesto went to see it for himself, and caught yerba mate fever. His own money was tied up in the yacht-building company, but with Celia’s inheritance they would be able to buy enough land for a plantation and, he hoped, become rich from the lucrative “green gold.”
Unsurprisingly, Celia’s family closed ranks in opposition to her dilettante suitor. Celia was not yet twenty-one, and under Argentine law she needed her family’s approval to marry or receive her inheritance. She asked for it, and they refused. Desperate, for by now she was pregnant, she and Ernesto staged an elopement to force her family’s consent. She ran away to an older sister’s house. The show of force worked. The marriage was approved, but Celia still had to go to court to win her inheritance. She was granted a portion of it, including title to a cattle and grain-producing estancia in central Córdoba province, and some cash bonds from her trust fund—enough to buy the mate plantation in Misiones.
On November 10, 1927, Celia and Ernesto were wed in a private ceremony at the home of her sister Edelmira Moore de la Serna. La Prensa of Buenos Aires gave the news in its ‘día Social’ column. Immediately afterward, they fled the city for the wilderness of Misiones. “Together we decided what to do with our lives,” Ernesto wrote in a memoir published years later. “Behind lay the penitences, the prudery and the tight circle of relatives and friends who wanted to impede our marriage.”
In the Argentina of 1927, political and social change seemed inevitable, but had not yet come. Charles Darwin, who had witnessed the atrocities perpetrated against Argentina’s native Indians by Juan Manuel de Rosas, had predicted that “the country will be in the hands of white Gaucho savages instead of copper-coloured Indians. The former being a little superior in education, as they are inferior in every moral virtue.” But while the blood flowed, Argentina spawned a pantheon of civic-minded heroes, from General José de San Martín, the country’s liberator in the struggle for independence from Spain, to Domingo Sarmiento, the crusading journalist, educator, and president. Sarmiento’s Facundo, published in 1845, was a clarion call to his compatriots to choose the path of civilized man over the brutality of the archetypal Argentine frontiersman, the gaucho. Yet even Sarmiento had wielded a dictator’s authority. Caudillismo, the cult of the strongman, would remain a feature of politics well into the next century, as governments swung back and forth between caudillos and democrats. Indeed, there was an unreconciled duality in the Argentine temperament. Argentinians were in a state of perpetual tension between savagery and enlightenment. At once passionate, volatile, and racist, they were also expansive, humorous, and hospitable.
In the late nineteenth century, when the conquest of the southern pampas was finally secured after an officially sponsored campaign to exterminate the native Indian population, vast new lands had opened up for colonization. The pampas were fenced in as grazing and farming lands; new towns and industries sprang up; railroads, ports, and roads were built. By the turn of the twentieth century, the population of Argentina had tripled, swollen by the influx of more than a million immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain, Russia, and the Middle East who had poured into the rich southern land of opportunity. A dismal colonial garrison on the vast Río de la Plata estuary only a century before, the city of Buenos Aires now had a melting pot’s combustive quality, epitomized by the sensuous new culture of tango. The dark-eyed crooner Carlos Gardel gave voice to a burgeoning national pride.
Ships carried Argentina’s meat, grains, and hides off to Europe while others docked, bringing American Studebakers, gramophones, and the latest Paris fashions. The city boasted an opera house, a stock exchange, and a fine university; rows of imposing neoclassical public buildings and private mansions; landscaped green parks with shade trees and polo fields, as well as ample boulevards graced with heroic statues and sparkling fountains. Electric streetcars rattled and zinged along cobbled streets past elegant confiterías and wiskerías with gold lettering on etched glass windows. In their mirrored and marble interiors, haughty white-jacketed waiters with slicked-down hair posed and swooped.
But while Buenos Aires’s porteños, as they called themselves, looked to Europe for their cultural references, much of the interior still languished. In the north, despotic provincial caudillos held sway over vast expanses of cotton- and sugar-growing lands. Diseases such as leprosy, malaria, and even bubonic plague were still common among their workers. In the Andean provinces, the indigenous Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians known as coyas lived in extreme poverty. Vigilante justice and indentured servitude were features of life in much of the hinterland.
For decades, two parties, the Radical and the Conservative, were in power. Hipólito Yrigoyen, the Radical who was reelected president in 1928, the year Ernesto and Celia’s first child was born, was an eccentric, sphinxlike figure who rarely spoke or appeared in public. Workers still had few rights, and strikes were often suppressed by gunfire and police batons. Criminals were transported by ship to serve terms of imprisonment in the cold southern wastes of Patagonia. But—with immigration and twentieth-century political changes—feminists, socialists, anarchists, and now Fascists were making their voices heard. New ideas had arrived.
With Celia’s money, Ernesto had bought about 500 acres of jungle along the banks of the Río Paraná. On a bluff overlooking the coffee-colored water and the dense green forest of the Paraguayan shore, they erected a roomy wooden house on stilts, with an outdoor kitchen and outhouse. They were a long way from the comforts of Buenos Aires, but Ernesto was enraptured. With an entrepreneur’s eager eye, he looked into the jungle around him and saw the future.
Perhaps he believed he could restore the family fortunes by intrepidly striking out into new and unexplored lands. Whether or not he was consciously emulating his grandfathers’ experiences, it is clear that for Ernesto, Misiones provided an adventure. It was not just another backward Argentine province to him, but a thrilling place full of “ferocious beasts, dangerous work, robbery and murders, jungle cyclones, interminable rains and tropical diseases.” He wrote that “in mysterious Misiones . . . everything attracts and entraps. It attracts like all that is dangerous, and entraps like all that is passionate. There, nothing was familiar, not its soil, its climate, its vegetation, nor its jungle full of wild animals, and even less its inhabitants. . . . From the moment one stepped on its shores, one felt that the safety of one’s life lay in the machete or revolver.”
Their homestead was in Puerto Caraguatá. A caraguatá is a beautiful red flower in the Guaraná language. This puerto, however, was just a small wooden jetty. Caraguatá was reached by a two-day river journey up from the old trading port of Posadas. They traveled on the Ibera, a Victorian paddle-wheel steamer that had done prior service carrying British colonials up the Nile. The nearest outpost was the small German settlers’ community of Montecarlo, five miles away, but the Guevaras found they had a friendly neighbor, Charles Benson, a retired English railway engineer who lived a few minutes’ walk through the forest. Benson was an avid angler, and just above the river he had built himself a white, rambling bungalow with an indoor water closet imported from England.
For a few months, the couple had an enjoyable time settling in and exploring the area. They fished, boated, rode horses with Benson, and drove into Montecarlo on their mule-drawn buggy. To eight-year-old Gertrudis Kraft, whose parents ran a little hostel on the Montecarlo road, the Guevaras appeared to be, as she recalled many years later, “rich and elegant people.” Their rustic home by the river was a mansion to her.
The Guevaras’ honeymoon idyll, such as it was, did not last long. Within a few months, Celia’s pregnancy was well advanced and it was time to return to civilization, where she could give birth in greater comfort and security. The couple set out downriver. Their journey ended in Rosario, an important Paran” port city of 300,000 inhabitants, where Celia went into labor and where their son Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born. His doctored birth certificate, drawn up at the civil registrar’s office, was witnessed by a cousin of his father who lived in Rosario and a Brazilian taxi driver evidently drafted at the last minute. The document says the baby was delivered at 3:05 A.M. on the morning of June 14, in his parent’s “domicile” on Calle Entre Ríos 480.*
The Guevaras remained in Rosario while Celia recovered from the delivery of the baby they called Ernestito. They rented a spacious, three-bedroom apartment with servants’ quarters in an exclusive new residential building near the city center, at the address given on the birth certificate. Their stay was prolonged when the baby contracted bronchial pneumonia. Ernesto’s mother, Ana Isabel Lynch, and his unmarried sister Ercilia came to help out.
After a whirlwind round of visits with their families in Buenos Aires to show off their infant son, the Guevaras returned to the homestead in Misiones. Ernesto now made a serious attempt to get his plantation off the ground. He hired a Paraguayan foreman, or capataz, named Curtido, to oversee the clearing of his land and the planting of the first crop of yerba mate.
Loggers and owners of yerbatales in Misiones usually hired itinerant Guaraná Indian laborers called mensu, who were given binding contracts and advances against future work. It was a form of labor bondage. Mensu received not cash but private bonds, valid only to purchase basic essentials at the overpriced plantation stores. Their wages were low, and the system virtually ensured that they could never redeem their original debts. Armed plantation guards called capangas kept vigilant watch over the work crews to prevent escapes, and violent deaths by gunshot and machete were frequent occurrences. Mensu who escaped the capangas but fell into the hands of police were invariably returned to their patrones. Ernesto Guevara Lynch was horrified at the stories he heard about the fate of the mensu, and he paid his workers in cash. It made him a popular patrón. Many years later he was remembered by local workers as a good man.
While Ernesto worked his plantation, his young son was learning how to walk. Ernesto would send him to the kitchen with a little pot of yerba mate to give the cook. Whenever he stumbled along the way, Ernestito would angrily pick himself up and carry on. Another routine developed as a consequence of the pernicious insects that infested Caraguatá. Every night, when Ernestito lay sleeping in his crib, Ernesto and Curtido crept quietly into his room. While Ernesto trained a flashlight on the boy, Curtido carefully used the burning tip of his cigarette to dislodge the day’s harvest of chiggers burrowed into the baby’s flesh.
In March 1929, Celia became pregnant again. She hired a young Galician-born nanny, Carmen Arias, to look after Ernestito, who was not yet a year old. Carmen proved to be a welcome addition to the family; she would live with the Guevaras until her own marriage eight years later, and she remained a lifelong family friend. Freed from having to mind her child, Celia began taking daily swims in the Paraná. She was a good swimmer, but one day, when she was six months’ pregnant, the river’s current caught her. She would probably have drowned if two of her husband’s axmen clearing the forest nearby hadn’t seen her and thrown out liana vines to pull her to safety.
Ernesto Guevara would recall, reprovingly, many such near-drowning episodes involving Celia in the early years of their marriage. Their very different personalities had already begun to collide. She was aloof, a loner, and seemingly immune to fear, while he was an emotionally needy man who liked having people around him, a chronic worrier whose vivid imagination magnified the risks he saw lurking everywhere. But while the early signs of their future marital discord were in evidence, the couple had not yet pulled apart. The Guevaras took family excursions together: horseback rides on forest trails, with Ernestito riding on the front of his father’s saddle; and river excursions aboard the Kid, a wooden launch with a four-berth cabin that Ernesto had built at the Astillero San Isidro. Once, they traveled upriver to the famous Iguazú falls, where the Argentine and Brazilian borders meet, and watched the clouds of vapor rise from the brown cascades that roar down from the virgin jungle cliffs.
In late 1929, the family packed up once more for the long trip downriver to Buenos Aires. Their land was cleared and their yerbatal had just been planted, but Celia was about to give birth to their second child, and Ernesto’s presence was urgently needed at the Astillero San Isidro. During his absence, business had gone badly, and now one of the company’s investors had withdrawn. They planned to be away only a few months, but they would never return as a family to Puerto Caraguata.
Back in Buenos Aires, Ernesto rented a bungalow on the grounds of a large colonial residence owned by his sister María Luisa and her husband, located conveniently near his troubled boatbuilding firm in the residential suburb of San Isidro. They had not been there long when Celia gave birth, in December, to a little girl named after her. For a time, while Ernesto went to work at the shipyard, family life revolved around outings to the San Isidro Yacht Club, near the spot where the Parané and Uruguay rivers join to form the Río de la Plata estuary.
The yacht-building company was on the edge of bankruptcy, purportedly because of the incompetence of Ernesto’s second cousin and business partner, Germán Frers. For Frers, who was independently wealthy and a sailing regatta champion, the shipyard was a labor of love. Such was his enthusiasm for nautical works of art that he had poured money into fine craftsmanship and expensive imported materials, which often cost the company more than the agreed-to selling prices of the boats it produced. Ernesto’s investment was in serious risk of evaporating. Then, soon after his return, a fire destroyed the shipyard. Boats, timber, and paint all went up in flames.
If the shipyard had been covered by insurance, the fire might have been a fortunate event. But Frers had forgotten to pay the insurance premium, and Ernesto lost his inheritance overnight. All he had left from his investment was the launch Kid. As partial compensation, Frers gave Ernesto the Alé, a twelve-meter motor yacht. The Alé was worth something, and Ernesto and Celia still had their Misiones plantation, which Ernesto had placed in the hands of a family friend to administer in his absence. It was hoped that they would soon see annual revenues from its harvests. In the meantime, they had the income from Celia’s Córdoba estate. Between them, they had plenty of family and friends. They weren’t going to starve.
In early 1930, Ernesto certainly didn’t seem unduly worried about the future. For some months he lived the sporting life, spending weekends cruising with friends aboard the Alé, picnicking on the myriad islands of the delta upriver. In the hot Argentine summer (November to March), the family spent the days on the beach of the San Isidro Yacht Club, or visited rich cousins and in-laws on their country estancias.
One day in May 1930, Celia took her two-year-old son for a swim at the yacht club, but it was already the onset of the Argentine winter, cold and windy. That night, the little boy had a coughing fit. A doctor diagnosed him as suffering from asthmatic bronchitis and prescribed the normal remedies, but the attack lasted for several days. Ernestito had developed chronic asthma, which would afflict him for the rest of his life and irrevocably change the course of his parents’ lives.
Before long, the attacks returned and became worse. The boy’s bouts of wheezing left his parents in a state of anguish. They desperately sought medical advice and tried every known treatment. The atmosphere in the home became sour. Ernesto blamed Celia for imprudently provoking their son’s affliction, but he was being less than fair. Celia herself was highly allergic and suffered from asthma. In all likelihood, her son had inherited the same propensity. His siblings also developed allergies, although none was to suffer as severely as he did. Exposure to the cold air and water had probably only activated his symptoms.
Whatever its cause, the boy’s asthma ruled out a return to the damp climate of Puerto Caraguatá. It was also evident that even San Isidro, so close to the Río de la Plata, was too humid for him. In 1931, the Guevaras moved again, this time into Buenos Aires itself, to a fifth-floor rented apartment near Parque Palermo. They were close to Ana Isabel, Ernesto’s mother, and his sister Beatriz, who lived with her. Both women showered affection on the sickly boy.
Celia gave birth for the third time in May 1932, to another boy. He was named Roberto after his California-born paternal grandfather. Little Celia was now a year and a half old, taking her first steps, and four-year-old Ernestito was learning how to pedal a bicycle in Palermo’s gardens.
For Ernesto Guevara Lynch, his elder son’s illness was a kind of curse. “Ernesto’s asthma had begun to affect our decisions,” he recalled in his memoir. “Each day imposed new restrictions on our freedom of movement and each day we found ourselves more at the mercy of that damned sickness.” Doctors recommended a dry climate to stabilize the boy’s condition, and the Guevaras traveled to the central highlands of Córdoba province. For several months, they made trips back and forth between the provincial capital of Córdoba, Argentina’s second-most important city, and Buenos Aires, living briefly in hotels and temporarily rented houses, as Ernestito’s attacks calmed, then worsened again, without any apparent pattern. Unable to attend to his affairs or get a new business scheme going, Ernesto senior became increasingly frustrated. He felt “unstable, in the air, unable to do anything.”
Doctors urged them to stay in Córdoba for at least four months to ensure Ernestito’s recovery. A family friend suggested they try Alta Gracia, a spa town in the foothills of the Sierras Chicas, a small mountain range near Córdoba. It had a fine, dry climate that had made it a popular retreat for people suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments.
Thinking of a short stay, the family moved to Alta Gracia, little imagining it would become their home for the next eleven years.