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.
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.
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.