April 11, 2005

Cubans enraged at Che as T-shirt icon

Miguel Perez. The Record (Bergen County, N.J.), Monday, April 11, 2005.

HACKENSACK, N.J. - Some people consider Ernesto "Che" Guevara the ultimate Latin American revolutionary leader, a man who gave his life to free the people of the Americas from U.S. imperialism.

Others see him as a cold-blooded killer, the man who ran Fidel Castro's firing squads after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

Thirty-eight years after his death, new generations regard Guevara and his familiar beard and beret as mostly a fashion statement.

Guevara's image has appeared on T-shirts and other garments for years, but his status as a cultural icon has taken on new significance since the 2004 film "The Motorcycle Diaries," which followed the Argentinean's journey around South America before the revolution.

Generations at odds

Increasingly, when young Latinos wear his image, older Cuban Americans are offended - to the point of shouting matches that threaten to erupt into fistfights.

One recent afternoon, 73-year-old Carlos Barberia was waiting for a bus in Union City, N.J., when he spotted a Guevara T-shirt on a sidewalk rack. He bought the shirt - and promptly set it on fire with a burning newspaper.

"Che Guevara killed my father," he told a police officer, explaining his outburst. "He had my father shot by a firing squad in Cuba."

The officer turned out to be Cuban American, too. "He told me, 'I have not seen anything' and he walked away," Barberia said.

But the shopkeeper who sold the T-shirt said he thinks Cuban Americans like Barberia are "crazy."

Jorge Posadas, who is Mexican, said he's had many confrontations with Cuban Americans who ask him to stop selling Guevara merchandise at his Flamingo's Boutique.

"They tell me he was an assassin, and I tell them that was his problem and I don't care," he said. "I tell them this is a store, not a political party or a government, and that I sell whatever people want to buy."

He said if his clients were interested in Osama bin Laden shirts, he would sell them, too.

Another Union City merchant was more sensitive. Sang Lee, manager of the Young Star boutique, removed all Guevara merchandise after Cuban Americans complained.

"My boss was under the misunderstanding that the Cubans would like those shirts," Lee said. "We depend on the community and if they are offended by something we sell, we're not going to sell it."

Young Star's response was appreciated.

"They showed us respect," said Sergio Alonso, a Cuban American. "So next time we buy a shirt, where do you think we're going to go?"

Despite the Cuban wrath, Posadas' business seems unlikely to suffer. He said he has many young customers, a good number of whom "don't even know who Che was, but they have seen people wearing it and they buy it because they think it looks cool."

Sending a message

For others, wearing a Guevara garment is more than fashion. It's a statement.

"El Che is a revolutionary symbol," said Douglas Fuentes, 38. "And I consider myself a revolutionary."

Fuentes' apartment is a gallery of Guevara paraphernalia - posters, photos, coins, medals, refrigerator magnets - all with Guevara's face. He drives a van covered with Guevara's likeness. Almost all his clothing has some representation of Guevara. When he takes off his shirt, the image remains - on his tattooed back.

Fuentes said he has idolized the guerrilla leader since his youth in El Salvador. His favorite slogan is "Seremos como El Che" - We will be like Che.

His hair down to his shoulders, Fuentes admits he even tries to look like his hero, who was killed while trying to start a revolution in Bolivia in 1967.

Just eight miles away, the walls of the Union City headquarters of the Association of Former Cuban Political Prisoners are covered with very different images: the photographs of Cubans executed by firing squads under Guevara's command.

Here, the Cuban old guard ridicule Guevara fans as "useful fools," a vintage Communist term that described gullible people who fall for the romantic appeal of leftist firebrands.

"There is something wrong with a society in which people wear shirts with the image of someone who preached hatred and enjoyed killing," said Armando Alvarez, of West New York, who was at the hall for a meeting of anti-Castro organizations.

Compared to Hitler

"It's like wearing a Hitler shirt," Alvarez said. "Che always said that to be a good revolutionary, you had to hate. And so when they wear the image of Che, they wear the image of hatred."

On the subject of Che Guevara, Fuentes and Cuban Americans are like oil and water. Fuentes tells of the countless times he has been confronted by Cubans who feel offended by his clothing, from "the woman who shouted at me from her Mercedes" to "the Cuban judge who insulted me because I brought Che's image into his court."

He said that when Cuban Americans get too combative, "I ask them why they are fighting with me, why don't they go fight in Cuba."

Cuban Americans counter with stories about the firing squads under Guevara's command at La Cabaqa, the imposing Spanish fortress overlooking Havana Bay, where "enemies of the revolution" were executed in early 1959.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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