'Ernesticos' keep the cult of Che alive in Cuba

 03 Oct 2017 - 8:31

'Ernesticos' keep the cult of Che alive in Cuba
Cuban Lazaro Ernesto, one of the so-called 'Ernesticos' -named in honor of Argentine-Cuban guerrilla fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara- visits the Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara, Villa Clara province, on September 29, 2017. AFP / YAMIL LAGE

By Alexandre Grosbois | AFP

Santa Clara, Cuba: Santa Clara has been associated with Ernesto "Che" Guevara ever since he won the final battle of the Cuban revolution here. Now, 50 years after his death, the boys who bear his name carry the torch of perpetuating his legacy. 

Every year on June 14, a special honor is bestowed on the first boy born at the town's Mariana Grajales maternity hospital.

The proud parents are asked if they assent to give the revolutionary hero's name to their boy.

Thus, 24 little Ernestos or "Ernesticos" have been baptised without ever the honor being declined. In Santa Clara -- which Che's forces captured in a decisive battle in December 1958 -- it's an offer you can't refuse.

"'El Che' is emblematic here. He is in us, and drives us," said Noris Cardenas Martinez, director of the city's Che Guevara Memorial.

The 1958 battle cemented Guevara's status as a hero of the Cuban revolution and effectively meant the end of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. 

It was little surprise that when his remains were brought back from Bolivia in 1979, Fidel Castro dedicated a mausoleum to Che in this central city.

The site will host the main commemorative ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of his death on October 8.

Privilege and duties

Every morning across Cuba, schoolkids in the nation of 11 million take the oath of the pioneers, vowing to "be like Che." 

But for the Ernesticos of Santa Clara, the commitment takes on much greater meaning.

Lazaro Ernesto is only 12. But despite his tender age, he said he has taken pride in strict personal conduct ever since he became aware of the legacy he carries.

"I have to behave, study, be honest and be good with my classmates -- and my family," he told AFP in his parents' modest house under the watchful eye of his mother Mayelin Moran Contreras.

Shy, a fan of the soccer star Lionel Messi - born, like Guevara, in Rosario, Argentina -- Lazaro Ernesto said he is "proud to be named" for Che.

Buy he gets still nervous every June 14 when his classmates congratulate him on his birthday, thus reminding him of his special responsibility, he said. 

Daniel Ernesto handles his moniker more coolly. At 24, he is the oldest of the Ernesticos still residing in Santa Clara.

An IT technician at the town's pediatric hospital and a fervent collector of Che T-shirts, Daniel Ernesto is used to being recognized from articles in the newspapers or TV interviews. 

But he admits that "trying to live up to Che," known for selflessness and virtue, can be a burden.

Simple values

Young boys are regularly summoned for official ceremonies across the central province of Villa Clara and gather each June 14 in the city to honor their favorite guerrilla leader.

"The aim is to mark the legacy of Che over time. But above all it's about teaching new generations, based on the values Che left in our history," said Felicia Lara of Santa Clara University.

Currently in charge of the Ernesticos program coordinated by the university, Lara insists on the importance for these young people to emulate what she says are key Guevara qualities: honesty and humanism. 

Yet she says she is careful not to make too many demands on her young charges.

"They are the heirs, the young people who are distinguished by the name Ernesto and by their moral and ethical qualities. But they are not expected to be anything other than simple children, teenagers and young people," she said.

She does admit, however, never to have been "disappointed" by one of her young charges.

The Ernesticos are, by definition, all boys.

But Lara remembers the consternation of her university when one June 14, they realized that the first boy born at dawn had a twin sister. 

The dilemma was finally resolved when the parents agreed to call the girl Celia, in homage to the revolutionary Celia Sanchez, who died in 1980.

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