Cigars and pipes upstage yerba mate!
A few weeks ago I saw an early screening of the newest movie about an Ernesto Che Guevara starring Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro. In the movie Bernicio was smoking either the stereotypical Cuban cigar or a pipe in almost every scene. Meanwhile, yerba mate was only granted token acknowledgement just two scenes out of a total running time of 257 minutes. That’s a butt-numbing 4 hours and 18 minutes and there was a half hour intermission to boot!
For the record: I love motorcycles and I’m a shameless movie buff in addition to my passion for yerba mate. I was already a yerba mate devotee when I saw the 2004 Che movie The Motorcycle Diaries. The movie about a young Ernesto Guevara exploring South America on a motorcycle with his friend, Alberto Granado, garnered much critical acclaim and even won an Oscar for its music.
The foremost attraction of Motorcycle Diaries to me however was the motorcycle – not Che. He was nothing more than a T-Shirt Icon from the late 1900′s. As a Life Member of the Harley Owners Group, I was curious about the two bikers’ adventures. I wanted to vicariously travel the Andes, the Gran Chaco, the pampas and jungles of South America on a motorcycle! That was the extent of my interest. Imagine my surprise to see Che sipping yerba mate on the big screen. I was suddenly curious about Che too.
To satisfy my curiosity, I read the two books the movie was based on: The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, by Che Guevara and Traveling With Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary by Alberto Granado. Each man wrote his own story, offering two different perspectives on the same trip. Both accounts had plenty to say about yerba mate and nothing I can recall about cigars or pipes!
Next, I got Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson; although I have to admit I didn’t finish that one. The 800-plus page book is considered the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Guevara to date because Anderson had been given unprecedented access to family members, documents and photos. That was where I learned the real connection between Che and yerba mate.
Che Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1928. At that time, his parents owned a yerba mate plantation in the Misiones Province of Northeastern Argentina. Che’s father was speculating in the yerba mate craze that had swept Argentina at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the plantations that started during that time still exist, but the Guevara family plantation never succeeded commercially.
Throughout his travels, whenever Che wrote home to Argentina, he would ask family members to send him some more yerba mate. Obviously, yerba mate plays an important role in the Che story. Downplaying or ignoring a yerba mate-Che connection would be the same as painting a portrait of a clean-shaven man that has never been seen without his mustache.
The current plan is to release the new Che film as two separate feature length movies in January and February 2009. Part 1 is titled: The Argentine and is about the Cuban Revolution. Part 2 is titled: The Guerrilla; it’s about guerrilla warfare in Bolivia. The films are considered historically accurate because they are based on Che Guevara’s own first person diaries.
Both films are bilingual with Spanish as the predominant language. The subtitles came too fast for me to follow in some of the scenes; nevertheless, this film is already being recognized as an excellent portrayal of the historical events. The combined version (that I saw) won a Best Actor award for Del Toro at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 – a certain boost to the career of the 41 year-old co-producer/star.
Click on this link to IMDb.com to view a scene where yerba mate is a significant prop. Look for the thermos and mate gourd on the table.
Following the special screening of the new movie, Bernicio Del Toro came to the stage for a special Question & Answer session. He was serious and forthright as members of the audience asked him questions about the movie, its historical significance and his thoughts on the portrayal of the legendary Che. He talked about the long (seven-year) process of developing and making the movie and how intently he had studied Che’s writings and pictures.
Del Toro was born in Puerto Rico and yerba mate is not a custom there, so I assumed that if he hadn’t tried it before making the movie, he certainly tried it as a part of learning about the title character. When my turn came to get Bernicio’s autograph, I asked him if he learned to drink yerba mate as a part of making the movie.
“Yah man, I did” he said as he broke into his first big smile of the evening. We talked about yerba mate for a few minutes until I finally made room for the long line of fans behind me. His comments about yerba mate were adequate, but they did not give me the “fuzzy feeling” that Benicio was now a true yerba mate aficionado. Maybe Che’s pipes and signature stogies have more sex appeal than bombillas?
Here is a picture of the program he autographed for me. To each his own; but I’ll take the good nutrition of yerba mate over tobacco anytime.