'Che' Guevara's Iconic Image Endures

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 23, 2006; 3:37 PM

CHICAGO -- There's something about that man in the photo, the Cuban revolutionary with the serious eyes, scruffy beard and dark beret. Ernesto "Che" Guevara is adored. He is loathed. Dead for nearly 40 years, he is everywhere _ as much a cultural icon as James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, perhaps even more so among a new generation of admirers who've helped turn a devout Marxist into a capitalist commodity.

Of all the pop culture images that surround us, it is Guevara's face _ immortalized in the photograph taken by Alberto "Korda" Diaz Gutierrez _ that often stares at us, from T-shirts and posters, refrigerator magnets and tattoos.

Part political statement and part fashion statement, the image sometimes overshadows the man, as one T-shirt wryly acknowledges. Below the photo, a caption on the shirt reads: "I have no idea who this is."

Panayiotis Lambropoulos, a young Greek immigrant who lives in Chicago, is someone who actually took the time to learn more about Guevara. He saw his first Che shirts a few years ago, and thought everyone who wore one must be a subversive rabble-rouser. Then the young investment analyst ended up buying one for himself.

Fascinated with Guevara, he began reading whatever he could about the man who helped lead the Cuban revolution and promoted armed uprisings in Africa and Latin America until he was slain in Bolivia.

"In a way," Lambropoulos said, "I've wanted to earn my T-shirt."

The photo's journey from Cuba to that shirt has been a lengthy one.

Taken in Havana on March 5, 1960, the shot captured Guevara _ eyes gazing off in the distance _ attending a memorial service for dozens who died in an attack on an arms freighter. Cuba blamed the incident on U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries.

Korda, a fashion photographer turned photojournalist, was on assignment for the Cuban newspaper Revolucion. The photo was used publicly in Cuba from time to time, eventually becoming a symbol of national pride and the basis for a drawing of Guevara on Cuban currency. But the outside world didn't see it until several years after it was taken, when Korda gave copies to Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Feltrinelli made posters with the photo and, after Guevara's death in 1967, used it as a cover for some of the revolutionary's published diaries.

As the photo's distribution widened, so did its fame, with several artists doing their own variations, including a famous black and red version by Ireland's Jim Fitzpatrick.

Jack Kenny, a photographer from Ann Arbor, Mich., met Korda in the late 1990s while gathering images for a book on Cuba and saw a copy of the famous original hanging on Korda's living room wall.

"He was very proud of it. But when he took it, I don't think he realized what he had," Kenny says. Korda died in 2001 and received little compensation for his photo until later in life.

Working its way from art to pop culture and back again, the image of Guevara is widely considered one of the world's most reproduced and emulated photographs.

Time and again, it surfaces _ on a Madonna album cover; on a T-shirt worn by guitarist Carlos Santana at the 2005 Academy Awards; in a New Yorker cartoon by artist Matthew Diffee that depicts Guevara wearing a T-shirt with Bart Simpson's face on it.

It also has inspired gallery shows worldwide, one of the most recent _ "Che Guevara: Revolutionary & Icon" _ at England's Victoria and Albert Museum.

"This portrait of Che is an ideal abstraction transformed into a symbol that both resists subtle interpretation and is infinitely malleable," curator Trisha Ziff wrote in an introduction to the British exhibit. "It has moved into the realm of caricature and parody at the same time it is used as political commentary on issues as diverse as the world debt, anti-Americanism, Latin-American identity, and the rights of gays and indigenous peoples."

Those who despise Guevara and his role in helping put Fidel Castro in power in Cuba also have created their own images and T-shirts.

There's the obvious one _ a red circle and line crossing out Guevara's face. Another features the Korda photo with Guevara wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

"The ultimate irony is the millions of dollars that capitalists and bourgeois merchants have made selling the image of Che. He's probably rolling over in his grave," says Henry Louis Gomez. A 36-year-old Cuban-American who lives in Miami, he sells T-shirts from his anti-Guevara Web site, including one that says "Che is Dead _ Get Over It."

Since creating the site a year and a half ago, Gomez estimates that he's sold 20 or 30 shirts _ a tiny number, he realizes, compared with the many worn by fans of Guevara.

Courtney Guertin, a 27-year-old resident of Bristol, R.I., is one of those fans.

She first learned about Guevara when she traveled to Cuba as a college student to study the country's tourism system and opportunities, or the lack thereof, for entrepreneurs. She still collects books about Guevara, along with pins, T-shirts and other memorabilia and considers him "a man of incredible brilliance" who had "faith in the common folk."

Pablo Garcia-Pandavenes, whose father was born in Cuba, also has artwork and posters with Guevara's image at his home in Oakland, Calif. Among other things, he credits Guevara, who was trained as a physician, with helping set up Cuba's socialized health care system.

As a way of honoring the man, he's gone as far as naming his dog Che. "He's very elegant and different than a lot of breeds," he says of his Doberman pinscher. "I hope Che would find it entertaining."

Garcia-Pandavenes, who is 34, learned about Guevara from his father. As an adult, he visited a monument in Santa Clara, Cuba, that honors the native Argentinian who became a Cuban citizen after Castro took over in 1959. True of many Che fans, Garcia-Pandavenes was born after Guevara was killed.

And yet, the man _ and that image _ still resonate.

"Guevara was the ultimate revolutionary because he fought to the death, and the ultimate poster boy because he was chic," says Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization based in Washington.

Such comments trouble Vargas Llosa, who authored the book "The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty." He questions whether Guevara's admirers really understand who he was.

Among other things, his detractors accuse Guevara of overseeing the executions of scores of people who opposed the Castro regime.

"As a Latin American, it puzzles me, fascinates me and makes me angry, all at the same time, that young Americans and Europeans should continue to idolize him, thereby reinforcing the notion that revolutionary socialism is the way to combat underdevelopment," says Vargas Llosa, a native of Peru.

"Perhaps my consolation is in the fact that people do not tend to associate Guevara with the Castro revolution but with an abstract idea of revolution that does not and will never exist."

Others wonder if Guevara's cultural longevity has more to do with a modern-day wariness of politicians and a quest to find someone to believe in _ or if it's just a lemming-like wish to be trendy, sending a vague message of coolness without much depth.

"While former generations expressed themselves with protest posters, our own generation seems to believe that a T-shirt says it all, or enough _ and when they're bored, it's on to the next one," says Rachel Weingarten, a Gen Xer who tracks pop culture trends at her New York marketing firm. "In other words, I care enough to wear a T-shirt, but not quite enough to actually rouse myself to make changes in my community or the world."

Back in Chicago, Lambropoulos says he's trying to maintain a balanced view.

"I realize the dark side. I've read about it. People talk about it," he says. But he's still keeping his Che T-shirt, even if he's not "a 100 percent fan."

"He chose to fight on. I don't think you really see that today," he says of Guevara. "I know at his age, I wasn't changing the world."

Already, he's had Argentinians, proud of their native son, stop him on the street when they see his shirt. "Do you know who that is?" they ask, excitedly.

He's also prepared for the inevitable angry response.

"If somebody came up to me and said, 'My uncle was executed,' I would ask questions," he says. "I would welcome a conversation.

"Teach me."


On the Net:

V&A Museum: http://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/past_exhibs/index.html

Kenny's site: http://www.cuba-photo.com/

Gomez's site: http://www.trenblindado.com


Martha Irvine is a national writer specializing in coverage of people 30 and under. She can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org

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