On the Road to the Greater Self
Journeys often parallel the emotional and physical development of protagonists. Che Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries presents a romanticized view of Latin America where experiencing the different cultures causes the protagonists to lose themselves in the expanse only to regain a political perspective regarding their country. In this post, I will explore how the identity crisis of the protagonists mirrors the crisis of their retrospective cultures by examining: methods of transport, nationalism, and evolution of character.
The motorcycles in The Motorcycle Diaries enable the road protagonists to identify with “the means of mechanized transportation…which becomes the only promise of self in a culture of mechanical reproduction” (Cohan and Hark, 2, 1997). They also endorse their overall counterculture appearance as they reflect rejection of social norms and embrace with vastness of the road. The motorcycle, La Poderosa, is initially a means of escapism in the wake of adventure for Ernesto ‘Fuser’ Guevara and Alberto Granado. They also represent the loss of innocence and awakening of political consciousness that comes with being a voyager in your own country. This was exemplified when La Poderosa breaks down in the middle of the journey signalling the end of an era of passivity which forces the protagonists to re-root themselves with the rhythms of Latin America.
Che's Latin America portrays a nation equipped with the tools for reformation and individuals willing to wield them. Ultimately the roads connecting the nation become embolismic of the “competing discourses of counter-culture politics and American nationalism” (Cohan and Hark, 13, 1997) and how individuals cannot settle within abstract freedoms.
Accordingly, Fuser is an ambivalent form in mass culture who is alienated from his own nation and seeks to achieve cultural unity on the road and mirrors the state of the nation. Through the journey, he gradually discovers that “the people and places represented in that quest are evocative of different states of consciousness co-existing unpeacefully in [the] country and all over the world. Each stop on the road is an encounter with a different awareness of what is real and what is of value” (Cohan and Hark, 181, 1997).
On the other hand, Alberto and Fuser gain a pan national identity through the process of traveling through Latin America and referring to “local history and norms” (Stafford, 69, 2014). For Ernesto the newfound form of transport provides awakens his political consciousness that, once exposed to, cannot turn away from. The nature of their journey is transformed in Chile when the protagonists encounter a couple who were forced to venture on the road in order to find a way to survive since due to persecution for their Communist beliefs. This depicts the juxtaposition of traveling on the road due to necessity versus the luxury of traveling as a pastime and a means of escapism from order and domesticity. Fuser’s character evolution is reflected by the looming vast scenery that emphasizes the splendor and opportunities the nation holds. It can therefore be stated that the overall film pertains to the “derogatory extension of homogenizing colonial powers as a potential tool to increase interest in and exposure to other cultural forms” (Bermúdez Barrios, 2011).
Furthermore, Fuser’s character conveys a nationalized identity in crisis where he is forced to redefine himself through their “romantic expedition to explore a continent that becomes a journey of “self-discovery” (Constanzo, 387, 2014). During his journey, he examines the “theory of cultural distance, which refers to the differences between the culture from where the [traveller] originates and the culture of the host region” (Hudson, Wang and Gil, 187, 2010). Fuser’s newfound cultural identity brandishes the hope of a new era. This is because he and Alberto “can no longer stand out as unique agents against the space that surrounds them, but instead become inseparable from that space” (Hart, 107, 2004) that consists of Latin America.
Moreover, the landscape of Latin America provides great emphasis towards the transformation of the protagonist’s identities. Hence, the landscape in The Motorcycle Diaries highlights the grandeur of locations such as Machu Picchu against the smallness of the characters. The locations purposefully mark freedom as a form that can create a new society in a nation lacking social consciousness. For this reason, the landscape Fuser and Alberto's retrospective journeys establish a link towards the absence of ideals and enunciate a dream which promises both spiritual freedom and freedom from social norms.
However, the national landscape in Latin America shows the geographic boundaries as well as the social cast system imposed on citizens. The landscape of Latin America shows the literal and metaphorical divisions of society and lack of coherent identity. The flashback sequences to previous locations of the individuals throughout Latin America show the evolution of Fuser to Che. The newfound identity of Che was born from a national desire to forgo the system of caste and question the current government’s state of affairs and how they cannot ascertain their own personal virtues above the needs of the country. Ultimately, Fuser fortifies his new sense of identity as Che by embarking on his final journey across the river to the leper colony. Che’s socialist viewpoint after experiencing the real Latin America is shown to a great extent during his toast at his dinner party by saying:
“Even though we are too insignificant to be spokesmen for such a noble cause, we believe, and this journey has only confirmed this belief, that the division of American into unstable and illusory nations is a complete fiction. We are one single mestizo race from Mexico to the Magellan Straits. And so, in an attempt to free ourselves from narrow minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and to a united America” (Motorcycle Diaries, 2004).
In conclusion, The Motorcycle Diaries explores themes of finding ones place in their world and about all the roads that lead to your greater self and what we all want to aspire towards. The two men encountering the different cultures within their country which enabled them to shape their spiritual and national identities for as Che states “wandering around our America has changed me more than I thought. I am not me any more. At least I'm not the same me I was” (Motorcycle Diaries, 2004). While these films differ in generation, culture, and location, the road takes on a new meaning and upon reading The Motorcycle Diaries one thing is certain: “nostoros desde entonces ya no somos los mismos” (Neruda, 2010).
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Bermúdez Barrios, N. (2011). Latin American Cinemas. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press.
Cohan, S. and Hark, I. (1997). The Road Movie Book. London: Routledge.
Costanzo, W. (2014). World Cinema Through Global Genres.
Easy Rider. (1963). [DVD] America: Hopper.
Hart, S. (2004). A Companion to Latin American Film. Rochester, NY: Tamesis.
Hudson, S., Wang, Y. and Gil, S. (2010). “The Influence of a Film on Destination Image and the Desire to Travel: A Cross-Cultural Comparison. International Journal of Tourism Research.
Motorcycle Diaries. (2004). [DVD] Salles.
Neruda, P. (2010). Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada. Nueva York: Vintage Español.
Stafford, R. (2014). The Global Film Book. London: Routledge.