[url=http://www.HispanicOnline.com]http://www.HispanicOnline.com[/url] | By Teresa Dovalpage
We Pioneers want communism. We’ll be like Che!” Until I was 15 years old, that was the slogan I repeated every morning at school, before the beginning of classes. I didn’t really want to “be like Che” and now I suspect many of my classmates didn’t either, but we had to shout it at the top of our lungs.
It was expected, after all. We were in Cuba, the country where Che Guevara had bravely fought to build communism, then bravely helped destroy the country’s economy when appointed president of the National Bank, and finally—bravely too, of course—had left, to be defeated and killed in Bolivia.
He was our hero, we were told. Posters with the famous Alberto Korda photo—black beret, burning eyes, solemn face—were everywhere: in elementary and high schools, universities, hospitals, parks, cafeterias, and funeral parlors. We had to revere him, or at least give the impression that we did, in order to avoid being classified as “ideologically deviated” and consequently punished.
It was a matter of survival. Understandable, right?
In 1996, when I came to “La Yuma,” as many Cubans call the United States, the last thing I expected was to hear again about Che Guevara. I wasn’t (thank God and all the orishas!) in Cuba anymore. The guy had been dead for 37 years. He had hated the United States and fought against all that it represents. And he had beenóaccording to worldly standards, at leastóa loser.
This country loves winners. No one in “La Yuma” would care about Che Guevara, right? Wrong! In my first visit to an American campusóit was the University of California at San Diego, I believeóI happened to spot a young man wearing a T-shirt with an image that seemed oddly familiar. Taking a closer look, I discovered that it was that Korda photo againóblack beret, burning eyes and, naturally, solemn face. I was in shock. Che Guevara in “La Yuma”? How was that possible?
It was surely a coincidence, I thought. But in fact it was just the first of many subsequent meetings with Che Guevara in the United States. Endless times I have run into his Kordaesque incarnation, proudly displayed on T-shirts, caps, key rings, posters, books, murals, documentaries, films, and even on a car door here in Albuquerque. We have crossed paths in elementary and high schools, universities, hospitals, parks, cafeterias, and (alas, yes!) funeral parlors, too.
Perplexed by such ubiquity, I have asked the Che-bearers, “Why him? What makes a 37-year-dead Argentinean guerrilla so appealing to today’s Americans?” Reasons ranged from a pompous “He fought for the rights of the oppressed people” (after all, why notójust as an exampleówear a T-shirt bearing Martin Luther King’s image? Is an exotic leader more appealing than a national one?) to a curt “I just like him.” One preppy quinceañera believed he was a Star Wars character. Aged hippies, on the other hand, regard Che as a cherished token of their forgotten youth.
But frankly, I don’t get it. Maybe I’m still suffering from culture shock. Partly to exorcise the omnipresent Che ghost, I wrote a novel about a teenager’s struggle to really “be like Che” in Cuba, and my experience at a school-in-the-field camp in Cuba. During the 80s, Cuban high school kids were sent for several weeks to the tobacco fields so as to get training in regimented communist work. This often resulted in (unplanned) pregnancies, accidents, and loss of valuable tobacco crops.
All this appears in A Girl Like Che Guevara (Soho Press, April 2004), a Cuban tale of coming-of-age, sex, politics, and Santería. On the coveróbehind the main character’s portraitóthere is a photograph of Che Guevara: The burning eyes, the black beret, and, you guessed it, the solemn face.