Does Cuba’s revolutionary and pop icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara truly inspire those of us working for peace and justice in the 21st century?
A recent photo exhibit in East Los Angeles suggests yes, but I’ve got nagging doubts.
The photos depict moments from those historic heady days when Fidel Castro, Che, and a small army of Cuban revolutionaries overthrew corrupt (and U.S.-backed) dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed Cuban-style communism on the tiny island.
The Argentine Robin Hood
For many Latinos in North and South America guerilla leader Che is a symbol of fighting Yanqui Imperialism and winning. He represents Latin America’s Robin Hood, overthrowing the rich to give the wealth back to the poor. That this Argentine was killed a few years later fomenting revolution in Bolivia cemented his mystique and legendary status.
Of course it hasn’t hurt that Che was exceedingly and wildly handsome. Guerilla fighting and revolution are a dirty bloody business. But Che wore his world-renowned beret and fighting fatigues with such unique panache, you can almost forget he ordered firing squad deaths of Cubans opposed to communism.
Similar to handsome John Wayne fighting to conquer the Wild West, you can almost overlook pondering the movies’ moral premise that he had to kill a lot of Indians.
Where’s the blood?
My problem with most progressive takes on Che is that they are content with showing just the romantic pop icon side of the man. This recent L.A. exhibit “Che y Que ” was more of the same. Only photos showing Che looking movie-star fabulous were selected. Absent were pictures of Che and dead bodies.
I keep yearning for a more balanced view that shows the complexity of Che?a sincere desire for justice for the poor contrasted with a very violent means of getting there.
After all, Che is no Martin Luther King, no Gandhi, or no Desmond Tutu . These three men of faith were revolutionaries committed to justice through non-violent means. They won over their opposition by the power of their convictions, the moral stands they took for their people, and by showing the world they would withstand suffering.
Che was all about armed struggle. And his revolution installed state atheism on the Cuban island and made practicing Christianity a crime. For Cubans openly voicing disagreement with the tenets of communism and the transformation of churches into movie theaters, their lot was unemployment, imprisonment, exile, or death.
El Che or La Virgen?
So it’s perplexing to me that among many Latinos, the Virgin Mary and Che are both so revered. A mural on one East L.A. street of Our Lady of Guadalupe is followed by a mural on another street of Che. T-shirts of both abound.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of the ongoing internal battle and contradiction inside Latino culture. We want to stand for faith, peace, and justice. We want to oppose racism, discrimination, and oppression. We’d like for the struggle to be peaceful, but we’ll pack a gun just in case.