Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in Rosario, Argentina, the eldest of five children in a family of Spanish and Irish descent; both his father and mother were of Basque ancestry. One of Guevara's forebears, Patrick Lynch, was born in Galway, Ireland, in 1715. He left for Bilbao, Spain, and traveled from there to Argentina. Francisco Lynch (Guevara's great-grandfather) was born in 1817, and Ana Lynch (his grandmother) in 1868. Her son, Ernesto Guevara Lynch (Guevara's father) was born in 1900. Guevara Lynch married Celia de la Serna y Llosa in 1927 (one of her non-lineal ancestors was José de la Serna e Hinojosa, Spanish viceroy of Peru), and they had three sons and two daughters.
Growing up in this leftist-leaning déclassé family of aristocratic lineage, Ernesto Guevara became known for his dynamic personality and radical perspective even as a boy. He idolized Francisco Pizarro (c. 1471 – June 26, 1541, he was a Spanish conquistador, conqueror of the Inca Empire and founder of Lima, La Ciudad de los Reyes, capital of Peru) and yearned to have been one of his soldiers. Though suffering from the crippling bouts of asthma that were to afflict him throughout his life, he excelled as an athlete. He was an avid rugby union player despite his handicap and earned himself the nickname "Fuser" — a contraction of "El Furibundo" ("The Raging") and his mother's surname, "Serna" — for his aggressive style of play. Ernesto was nicknamed "Chancho" ("pig") by his schoolmates because he rarely bathed, something he was rather proud of.
Guevara learned chess from his father and began participating in local tournaments by the age of 12. During his adolescence, he became passionate about poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973, Chilean writer and communist politician; he is considered one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century). Guevara, as is common practice among Latin Americans of his class, also wrote poems throughout his life. He was an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests ranging from adventure classics by Jack London, Emilio Salgari and Jules Verne to essays on sexuality by Sigmund Freud and treatises on social philosophy by Bertrand Russell. In his late teens, he developed a keen interest in photography and spent many hours photographing people, places and, during later travels, archaeological sites.
In 1948 Guevara entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. As a student, he spent long periods traveling around Latin America. In 1951 his older friend, Alberto Granado, a biochemist, suggested that Guevara take a year off from his medical studies to embark on a trip they had talked of making for years, traversing South America. Guevara and the 29-year-old Granado soon set off from their hometown of Alta Gracia astride a 1939 Norton 500 cc motorcycle they named La Poderosa II ("The Mighty One, the Second") with the idea of spending a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo Leper colony in Peru on the banks of the Amazon River. Guevara narrated this journey in The Motorcycle Diaries, which was translated into English in 1996 and used in 2004 as the basis for a motion picture of the same name, directed by Walter Salles.
Witnessing the widespread poverty, oppression and disenfranchisement throughout Latin America, and influenced by his readings of Marxist literature, Guevara decided that the only solution for the region’s inequalities was armed revolution. His travels and readings also led him to view Latin America not as a group of separate nations but as a single entity requiring a continent-wide strategy for liberation. His conception of a borderless, united Ibero-America sharing a common 'mestizo' culture was a theme that would prominently recur during his later revolutionary activities. Upon returning to Argentina, he expedited the completion of his medical studies, completing his education as a medic in order to resume his travels in Central and South America and received his diploma on 12 June 1953.
On 7 July 1953, Guevara set out on a trip through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. During the final days of December 1953 he arrived in Guatemala where President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán headed the second fully democratic and modern government in the whole Latin-American region that, through land reform and other initiatives, was attempting to bring an end to the U.S.-dominated latifundia system (pieces of landed property covering tremendous areas). In a contemporaneous letter to his Aunt Beatriz, Guevara explained his motivation for settling down for a time in Guatemala: "In Guatemala", he wrote, "I will perfect myself and accomplish whatever may be necessary in order to become a true revolutionary."
A map showing Che Guevara's movements between 1953 and 1956; including his trip north to Guatemala, his stay in Mexico and his journey east by boat to Cuba with Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries.
Shortly after reaching Guatemala City, Guevara acted upon the suggestion of a mutual friend that he seek out Hilda Gadea Acosta, a Peruvian economist who was living and working there. Gadea, whom he would later marry, was well-connected politically as a result of her membership in the socialist American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) led by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, and she introduced Guevara to a number of high-level officials in the Arbenz government.
Guevara briefly left Guatemala for El Salvador to pick up a new visa, then returned to Guatemala only a few days before the CIA-sponsored coup attempt led by Carlos Castillo Armas began. The anti-Arbenz forces tried, but failed, to stop the trans-shipment of the Czechoslovak weapons by train. However, after pausing to regroup and recover energy, Castillo Armas' column seized the initiative and, apparently with the assistance of US air support, started to gain ground. Guevara was eager to fight on behalf of Arbenz and joined an armed militia organized by the Communist Youth for that purpose; but, frustrated with the group's inaction, he soon returned to medical duties. Following the coup, he again volunteered to fight but his efforts were thwarted when Arbenz took refuge in the Mexican Embassy and told his foreign supporters to leave the country.
The overthrow of the Arbenz regime by a coup d'état backed by the Central Intelligence Agency cemented Guevara's view of the United States as an imperialist power that would implacably oppose and attempt to destroy any government that sought to redress the socioeconomic inequality endemic to Latin America and other developing countries. This strengthened his conviction that socialism achieved through armed struggle and defended by an armed populace was the only way to rectify such conditions.