Married to Che
Che and Aleida in Havana in 1965 with their children, Ernesto, Camilo, Aledita and Celia. Photo: Ocean Press/Aleida March
It is quite a daunting task to describe my personal experiences with a man who, well before he was my partner, was already recognised as a remarkable individual.
The story begins with my first encounter with Commander Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara in the Escambray Mountains during the revolutionary war in Cuba. Che, an Argentine with an already well-deserved reputation, was the leader of the Eighth Column. I was active in the urban underground movement and was sent on a mission by local leaders of the July 26 Movement.
He thought I had been sent by the leadership to monitor him.
Our province was surrounded and closely monitored by repressive forces of the Batista dictatorship. My mission was to act as a courier, delivering money and documents to the rebels when they reached the Escambray Mountains. It was a dangerous mission and this was my first chance to have direct contact with the guerilla movement. On reaching the rebels' camp, I found they were observing me as much as I observed them.
Che and Aleida on their wedding day.
Some of the guerillas couldn't figure me out at all, wondering what on earth I was doing there. This wasn't particularly surprising because I hardly looked like a tough guerilla fighter. I was quite a pretty young woman, looking anything but a battle-ready combatant.
Some years had to pass before I learnt what Che had thought of our first encounter. In a letter he sent from the Congo in 1965, a letter full of nostalgia, he described how he felt torn between his role as a strictly disciplined revolutionary and as an ordinary man with emotional and other needs. He remembered me as a ''little blonde, slightly chubby teacher''.
In November 1958, I received the order to go to the Escambray Mountains with the aim of taking funds to the leadership to help finance the guerilla struggle.
Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara by Aleida March. Ocean Press, $24.95.
Although this was an important mission, for me it was just another assignment. I knew I would meet the famous commander Che Guevara this time. Che had reached the foothills of the Escambray during October, heading the ''Ciro Redondo'' Eighth Column.
Che was now leading the rebel force invasion of central Cuba. I was like any other combatant following orders. I had no expectations beyond that.
Of course, I had heard about the legendary exploits of Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara. Stories about him were related almost on a daily basis on the clandestine Radio Rebelde (the rebel radio station).
Batista's government had labelled him a communist. ''Wanted'' photos of him and Camilo Cienfuegos were posted around the streets of Santa Clara. My journey climbing up the Escambray was most uncomfortable because, in order to avoid being robbed, I couldn't tell anyone I was carrying money, which was taped to my torso. By nightfall we reached the guerilla commander's camp. This was my first close encounter with the much-admired troops of the rebel army.
Everyone was trying to get a look at the new faces, especially mine, as I was young and one of the few women to visit - a rare presence in the guerilla camp.
As was to be expected, Che first met with the [senior leaders] …
Finally it was my turn to meet Che. I was standing next to Marta Lugioyo, a lawyer and member of the movement, who had met Che on a previous visit.
After being introduced to the commander, she took me aside and asked me what I had thought of him. I replied somewhat casually that I thought he wasn't bad, and that I found his penetrating gaze rather intriguing. I saw him as an older man.
Marta, on the other hand, commented on his beautiful hands, something I had not noticed at the time, but did later on. After all, we were just two women meeting a rather attractive man.
When I had the opportunity to speak to Che, I told him I had come to deliver a package. The adhesive tape was still giving me terrible pain, and I asked him for help to remove it. So that was our first meeting.
I stayed in the camp for three or four days waiting to leave. I was constantly pestered by various guerillas trying to chat me up [but] I struck up friendships with some companeros who have remained dear friends throughout all these years. My new challenge was to become a soldier; at least, that was my intention. I planned to propose this to Che when we met to discuss my future. I met with him one evening and he proposed I stay on in the camp as a nurse. I responded bluntly, that I thought my two years of clandestine work gave me the right to be incorporated into the guerilla unit.
He didn't agree.
Years later, Che confessed that, at the time, he thought I had been sent by the leadership of the movement in Las Villas (largely made up of right-wing people) to monitor him because of his reputation as a communist. That was why he was [initially] reluctant to let me join the guerilla unit.
[Several days later in December, Aleida is in the town of El Pedrero still arguing that she be allowed to join Che's guerilla camp as a combatant. The revolutionary war is about to enter its final stages.] One day, Che turned up in El Pedrero at around dawn, and from that moment our common story begins. I was sitting in the street holding my travel bag on my knees when Che passed by in a jeep and invited me to come along with him ''to shoot a few rounds''. Without a second thought, I accepted and jumped into his jeep. And that was it. In a way, I never again got out of that jeep.
After Che's spontaneous invitation, there was no time to think about what this might mean on a personal level. I was committed to a cause I was confident would win …
Gradually, as the days passed, I became less in awe of Che's ''reputation'' and instead developed a tremendous admiration and respect for him. He was very intelligent and exuded a sense of security and confidence that made the troops he led feel supported even in difficult circumstances. He had no qualms in facing an enemy with vastly superior strength and, besides his incredible courage, the guerillas could count on a leader with an extraordinary sense of tactics and strategy.
Events developed at hurricane speed. We became machines focused almost exclusively on combat. My admiration for Che transcended even the bounds of my growing romantic attachment to him.
After capturing Fomento, Che proposed we take Cabaiguan. So that is where we headed. From a farm just outside the town, we could see a camp of soldiers. A couple of scouts were sent off to check it out. We then continued our march into the town, where we found no soldiers. We stayed in a tobacco factory on the edge of town; in preparing for a battle, we established our headquarters and radio communication base there.
Che chose this tense moment to recite a poem to me. This was one of the most beautiful ways he knew to express himself.
I was standing in the doorway of the factory and suddenly, from behind, Che started to recite a poem I didn't know. Because I was chatting with others at the time, this was his way of attracting my attention. I suspected he wanted me to notice him, not as a leader or my superior, but as a man.
As part of the guerilla unit, I slowly overcame any doubts that I could be a useful member of the troop. The focus of the war then shifted to Placetas, and we immediately transferred there. At first, we stayed in a food supply store in that town, huddling between sacks of grain to protect ourselves from aircraft bombing raids.
We made our way to Las Tullerias hotel where, with remarkable energy, Che threw himself into preparing for what later became one of his biggest military feats, the Battle of Santa Clara.
He gave me instructions to copy the passwords to be sent to Sinecio Torres in Manicaragua. From then on, I acted as Che's personal assistant, which meant I was hardly engaged in any combat but was always at his side.
[On December 28, the vastly outnumbered rebels are still fighting to take control of the city of Santa Clara. Che and Aleida have been back to the now-secured town of El Pedrero to attend a funeral and visit injured fighters, and are heading back to Santa Clara.]
At sunset, something most unexpected happened. I don't know if it was because of the time of day, or because of a deep need he had, but for the first time Che spoke to me about his personal life. He told me about his marriage to Hilda Gadea (a Peruvian economist) and his daughter, Hildita. At the time I wasn't sure if he had said Hildita was three or 13 years old. He told me that by the time he left Mexico he had already separated from Hilda … I can see myself in that car in the fading afternoon light, in the company of a man who is relating the story of his life to a fellow soldier. She, aware of what is going on around her, is looking out for the safety of her commander. But Che is interrupted and we continue on our way.
We had some most enjoyable times within the maelstrom of the war, and those moments brought us all closer together. They helped us get to know each other as we really were. Some of us were naive, others, very clever; we were all young and full of hope for a future victory. We took every chance to have fun. I remember Che later wrote: ''At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.''
On the night of December 29, Che and I went out for a walk along the highway. He scrutinised everything and I took notes like a good assistant. He told me we had to locate a ''Caterpillar'', a bulldozer, in order to lift the railroad tracks to derail the dictator's armoured train that was expected to arrive.
Che had a deep, guttural voice and because it was late at night he spoke in a whisper. I didn't understand what he had said. I had no idea what a Caterpillar was - he used the word ''Caterpillar'' in English - so I noted down what I thought he had said in Spanish: ''catres, palas y pilas'' [beds, shovels and batteries]. Realising I was confused, he asked to see what I had written. He jokingly remarked, ''A teacher, eh?''
Years later, when I told our children this story, they enjoyed taunting me, chanting: ''Beds, shovels and batteries!''
[By January 1, 1959, Che's ''suicide troops'' have captured Santa Clara, Batista has fled Havana and Che and Aleida are making their way to the capital.]
We made our first stop to refuel at dusk. I think this was in Los Arabos, but it might have been Coliseo. It was a place I knew, having passed through there during my time in the clandestine struggle. But what I could never have imagined was that this place would become so special to me for the rest of my life. In that small, apparently insignificant town, Che first declared his love for me.
We found ourselves sitting alone in the vehicle. He suddenly turned to me and told me he had realised he loved me that day in Santa Clara when the armoured car suddenly came up behind us. He said he was dreadfully afraid that something might happen to me. I was exhausted and half asleep, so I was hardly listening to what he was saying. I didn't even take it very seriously, as I still saw him as much older than I was. He might have expected some kind of response from me, but at that moment I couldn't utter a word - I was so tired. Also, I thought perhaps I hadn't heard him correctly and I didn't want a repeat of the ''Caterpillar'' incident.
Looking back, I think Che didn't exactly choose the best moment to declare his love, and I felt a bit upset later thinking he didn't get the response he might have hoped for. But that was it. The others piled back into the jeep, and we were soon on our way again. But the ice had certainly been broken.
[On June 2, 1959, Che and Aleida are married.]
Extracted from Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara by Aleida March, and translated from Spanish by Pilar Aguilera, to be published by Ocean Press next month, RRP $24.95. Text and photos © Ocean Press and Aleida March.