Love for the poor, football and Latin America. It was in Rosário, 186 miles to the north of Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, that Ernesto Che Guevara and Lionel Messi learned all three.

Mauricio Savarese

An Interactive Journalism MA at City University. Freelancing football and politics junkie. FourFourTwo’s Brazil correspondent and an expert on all things Brazil and Latin America.

Twitter: @msavarese

Published

May 14, 2014

One chose to become a guerrilla and a communist official who played to improve his chemistry with outcasts from native Argentina to Caribbean Cuba. The other silently donates to charity a part of his huge pay at Barcelona, a club that could have made him play for Spain if he felt for that nation the same passion he has for the gauchos he left behind at age 13. In that city, they mean more than Diego Maradona.

Only the Paraná River, which is to Rosário’s east shore, is more important to the third biggest city in Argentina. Its waters are arguably more relevant in this part of the globe, not far from the border with Uruguay, than overthrowing a corrupted government in Cuba with a tiny group of soldiers. It is more touching than winning the Ballon D’Or record four times. People of that region need the Paraná to show they are different from the college students and tourists that come and go year after year. Which doesn’t mean the pride they have for Che and Messi is any smaller.

Swimming from one side to the other of the Paraná is a challenge that you need to overcome to become an adult here.

The Rosário that pre-motorcycle diaries Che knew wasn’t so different from the one Messi grew up in, and the one from which he left to receive growth hormone treatment in Europe at the age of 13. It is still a charming college city of 1.2 million people in the province of Santa Fé, a place much less cosmopolitan than Buenos Aires, but with the beauty of the gaucho countryside and a lifestyle that revolves around the Paraná River. It is also a place where industry has established in Argentina, a country much more powerful in agricultural production, with its vast cattle dominated countryside. But not in Rosário.

”Swimming from one side to the other of the Paraná is a challenge that you need to overcome to become an adult here,” Mauricio Guzman, a waiter in a tiny bar, tells me. “Che swam the Amazonas and became a myth. Messi, in his way, crossed the river by going to Europe so early and became another myth. You can’t hide from the Paraná in Rosario.”

As Big as the Sea

You only learn about the river and its implications by talking to locals – which is not an easy task in a city crowded by students. To tourists, it may seem as if walking along the banks of the Paraná is just a convenient pathway to the National Flag Memorial, a 10,000 square meter complex that symbolises the first time the national flag was hoisted in Argentina. It is there where the remains of the flag’s creator General Manuel Belgrano lie, along with a monument built out of Andean stones. The magnificent view is notable to anyone walking down Belgrano Avenue, Córdoba St. and Santa Fe St. At the eastern end of the complex, the river looms into view.

The importance of the Paraná is a little clearer in the Rosário Beach Florida, a public beach on the banks. Though it looks like an average place for a city so far from a proper sea, “this is where Che learned how to swim,” Magdalena Burgos, my 70-year-old hostess in a cheap hotel, tells me. I look around for some kind of signal of his presence, but there is nothing.

Che swam the Amazonas and became a myth. Messi crossed the river by going to Europe and became another myth. You can’t hide from the Paraná in Rosario.

“We know because we are from here. It is impossible to be different in a city where so many people come and so many people go every year,” she says. “You know who else came here? That Barcelona coach, Tata Martino. Have I seen him? No. But I know he is from Rosário, so that is enough to know he came here. Our lives and the river are well connected.”

Rosário is so entwined with the river that going to one of its main cultural attractions shows how not being close to the Paraná can change the attention you get. Che Guevara’s birthplace, between Urquiza St. and Entre Ríos St, is now a building occupied by a Spanish company. Not even a plaque. Only enthusiastic marxists make that effort – I didn’t. It was just over a mile east of the river and certainly close enough to walk, but that is enough for many people to give the visit a miss. Buses aren’t the most convenient mode of transport in Rosário, and everything by the river calls much more attention.

Gone but not forgotten

The same goes for the Che Guevara square, a place to the south of the city centre inside Yrigoyen Park. There is a statue of the communist leader, some graffiti, but not many people visit these days. After all, it is nearly two miles to the south of the National Flag Memorial. “There is nothing to see in his birthplace or in his memorial in the square,” Magdalena says. “Che is more important in our minds rather than for what he has touched in our city.”

His importance in the minds of the people of Rosario is why the city created in 2011 a multidisciplinary centre of ​​research, exchange and dissemination of the thoughts and ideals of Che Guevara. What they want is to study his ideas about Latin America and the Caribbean. That is rather curious for a country where a leftist in office is, at best, a centrist.

Che is more important in our minds rather than for what he has touched in our city.

About Messi there is a little less. An altar was built in his neighbourhood, in a street named Ayacucho, to the south of the city. A few metres away is the house where the best player in the world was born. There is also a huge graffiti of him in Rosario Central – one of the two big clubs in the city. Strangely, the footballer and all his family are identified with Newell’s Old Boys, their arch rivals.

Messi and Che share the love for football from an early age. Although they lived in different regions of the city, it is sure they went for a kick about at Parque de España, the most lively one in the city (less than a mile to the north of the National Flag Memorial). Of course, it is by the river, but this park is special: it is more of an urban complex, with a cultural centre inside and beautiful views to the islands off the coast of Rosario. It is also where many locals like to have their barbecue – an Argentine must.

There is a notorious contrast between the city centre and the kiosks, the nightlife and the fun that can be found on the margins of the Paraná. In the busiest part, it is like a bucolic Barcelona (ironic to think that’s where Messi has spent the second half of his young life so far). A few metres away from Parque de España is the Plaza 25 de Mayo, where the city’s main historical buildings are concentrated. This area will put you in mind of an old version of Paris, with the analogy troubled only by some modern buildings. It is as if they were glassed scars that have little to do with Rosário or its history.

It is as if they were glassed scars that have little to do with Rosário or its history.

Those who enjoy walking by the beach will not only endure, but perhaps even enjoy, the 2 mile journey north of the flag memorial to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art known as MACRO. It is nothing like the fashionable museums of Buenos Aires. MACRO is designed to keep alive the memories of the brutal military dictatorship that governed the country between 1976 and 1983.

Paraná river – the lifeline of Rosario

Although Che and Messi seem to have left for good, Rosarians don’t bother themselves about not sharing a neighbourhood with them anymore. These two did well in crossing the river to distant lands, their fame in turn bringing even more people to the shores of the river. As to those in this college city, at least they will always have the Paraná to swim whenever they want.