10 Facts About Ernesto 'Che' Guevara

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Far more than just an image on a dorm room wall, Ernesto Guevara was a 20th-century Renaissance man. He was a doctor, political philosopher, diplomat, military strategist, and best-selling author who challenged the capitalist status quo with words and gunfire.

Born into middle-class comfort on June 14, 1928, Guevara was introduced to left-wing theories at a young age, thanks to his parents and the radical books in their home library. His Marxist thinking was also profoundly shaped by his encounters with abject poverty throughout South America, and he would eventually convert those thoughts to revolutionary actions in Cuba and beyond. Here are 10 facts about the man known as Che.

1. HE WAS PART IRISH.

Che’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was Patrick Lynch, who emigrated from Ireland to what is now Argentina in the 1700s. His father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, has been quoted as saying, "The first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels." The other side of the family was Basque; according to Guevara’s brother Juan, their father was drawn to the rebellious elements of both sides of the family tree, but particularly appreciated the Irish love of a good party. In 2017, Ireland’s postal service, An Post, issued a stamp commemorating Che using Dublin artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic red, black, and white image of the revolutionary.

2. HE WAS PASSIONATE ABOUT PLAYING RUGBY.

His parents were members of the San Isidro rugby club, for which Che played scrum-half in his youth. In 1951 he published his own magazine dedicated to the sport, called Tackle. The only problem with playing? He suffered from asthma his entire life. His father tried to convince him to quit the sport because of it, but Che responded, “I love rugby. Even if it kills me one day, I am happy to play it.”

3. HE LOVED POETRY.

Because of his asthma, Che was home-schooled, and it was there that he was first introduced to the poetry he would come to love for the rest of his life. At his death, he was carrying a weathered green book of poetry that he’d copied by hand, featuring work from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. He was also a fan of Walt Whitman, John Keats, and more.

4. HIS NICKNAME COMES FROM A DIALECTICAL TIC.

Short, sharp, and memorable, Che is also an Argentine interjection that Guevara used so often his Cuban compatriots branded him with it. It’s a filler word, something like saying dude, mate, or pal. If he’d been Canadian, his nickname might have been Eh.

5. HE STUDIED MEDICINE.

Influenced by his struggles with asthma, Che enrolled in Buenos Aires University to study medicine in 1948. After graduating as a physician in 1953, he did an internship at Mexico City's General Hospital, where he carried out allergy research, but left in 1955 to join Fidel and Raul Castro’s Cuban Revolution as their doctor.

6. TWO TREKS SHAPED HIS EARLY POLITICAL IDENTITY.

During his time studying medicine, Che embarked on two trips through South America—a solo journey in 1950 on a motorized bicycle and an 8000-mile trek that started on a vintage motorcycle with friend Alberto Granado in 1952. On these trips, he saw intense poverty and the exploitation of workers and farmers. After witnessing “the shivering, flesh-and-blood victims of capitalist exploitation,” Che was determined to fight the system. His account of his second journey, first published in Cuba in 1993 as The Motorcycle Diaries, became a New York Times bestseller and a critically acclaimed 2004 film.

7. A COUP HARDENED HIS VIOLENT STANCE AGAINST THE UNITED STATES AS AN IMPERIALIST POWER.

Che settled in Guatemala in 1953 partially because he approved of the way the country’s president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, had redistributed land to peasants—a move that angered the country's elite and the powerful U.S.-based United Fruit Company. That same year, a CIA-backed effort forced the democratically elected Arbenz from power. A ruling junta elected the right-wing Castillo Armas to the presidency, and then restored United Fruit Company’s land. Che was radicalized by the event, and it was the first time he participated directly in revolutionary activities, fighting with a small group of rebels (unsuccessfully) to retake Guatemala City.

8. HE WAS HEAD OF THE NATIONAL BANK IN CUBA.

Che Guevara during the battle of Santa Clara
Che Guevara during the battle of Santa Clara in Cuba
Keystone/Getty Images

Following Castro’s revolution, Guevara was given important positions related to finance and the economy, and named President of the National Bank in 1959. That gave him an unparalleled amount of power to direct the country’s economy, which he used to try to reduce Cuba's dependence on sugar exports and trade with the United States in particular. He also made his disdain toward money itself known by signing Cuba’s notes simply as Che.

9. HE ASSISTED IN ARMED REVOLUTIONS IN THREE COUNTRIES.

Che is most famous for his central role in the Cuban revolution, but he also worked to export their model to other countries. In the cases of Bolivia and the Congo, that involved engaging directly in armed revolution in the mid-1960s. He also traveled to the United States, and addressed the United Nations in 1964 in an hour-long speech that criticized the UN itself as well as the United States’ treatment of black Americans.

10. HIS REMAINS WERE MISSING UNTIL 1997.

Che was captured by CIA-assisted Bolivian troops in 1967 while trying to foment revolution in Bolivia, and was executed the next day on the orders of that country's president. They cut off the revolutionary's hands post-mortem to prove his identity before dropping his body in a mass grave with other guerrilla fighters. It wasn’t until 28 years later that Bolivian General Mario Vargas told biographer Jon Lee Anderson that Che’s body was buried near the airstrip in Vallegrande, prompting a massive search. A corpse was uncovered in July 1997 that experts said matched Che's description, in part thanks to its lack of hands and the pipe tobacco found in a jacket pocket. Che was reburied in Santa Clara, Cuba, at the base of a giant statue depicting his likeness.

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

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