Che Guevara was real. He existed. It’s true. He’s not just the face on a t-shirt.
But I didn’t know that. I mean, as with any bit of knowledge, none of us knew, until we learned it to be true.
My interest in the man was born of ignorance. I grew up in a small farming community in rural, northeast Iowa; the son of a very loving, but politically indifferent couple. My parents certainly made it to the polls during voting season, but I can’t remember a single time when discussions of politics entered into our home. By extension, my own interest in politics was all but non-existent. If I had learned about the controversial Argentinian named Ernesto Guevara during any of my social or political studies during high school, I’ve long since forgotten.
To be clear, my discovery of Che Guevara was not recent. Sometime around the year 1999 or 2000, I was watching an episode of Fox’s That 70s Show, on which the character Hyde (played by Danny Masterson) wore a t-shirt with the iconic Che Guevara headshot. At that time, I don’t recall having ever seen that image before, and I admit I was curious who the guy was. Hyde was the resident rebel on the show, indifferent to social norms, immune to pressure from his peers, so I knew the figure on his tee must have been someone deserving of his rebellious admiration.
That said, I may have forgotten about the t-shirt altogether had it not been for another TV show later that same night, also on Fox, called Dark Angel. This was the show that gave both Jessica Alba and Michael Weatherly their first real brushes with fame. Dark Angel took place in the not-so-distant, post-apocalyptic future, where a character nicknamed “Eyes-Only” (played by Weatherly) ran a pirate Internet feed that would randomly hijack the inter-web and reveal government conspiracies. The interesting thing about that night’s episode was, Eyes-Only happened to be wearing the exact same t-shirt that Hyde wore not more than an hour earlier (give or take forty years). OK, not the exact shirt; Hyde’s tee was military-green, while Eyes-Only’s was oxford-gray. But what are the odds? I was intrigued, to say the least; now I definitely needed to learn who this guy was (and not for nothing, but the character Jessica Alba played was named Max Guevara).
Enter the “new car” effect. You know what I mean; when you buy a new car, you suddenly start seeing that exact same model wherever you go. Same thing happened here. A few short days following my introduction to the guy on the shirt, I happened to be looking for a font online. During the course of my search, I stumbled upon a handmade set of dingbats that included an icon-sized image of the mysterious man. I called upon the resident outsider where I worked; an individual by the name of Guy (a man who looked and acted as though he were the character Tommy Chong was attempting to mimic in Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke). I learned very early, while at this particular job, that Guy was a walking encyclopedia, at least when it came to 60s and 70s trivia. I showed him the icon, and he immediately revealed the name I’d been seeking; Che Guevara. He even followed this up with a boisterous, “Viva la revolución!” Yeah, thanks, Guy. I have no idea what you’re going on about. (Yes, I know what it means, now. I was being the 1999 version of myself.)
With name in tow, I went about searching the web for information about the guy on the shirt. Among the first things I found were websites selling t-shirts, stickers, and banners featuring the iconic image; an image I now know was taken from a photo by Alberto Korda. I considered buying a shirt; if it was cool enough for Hyde and Eyes-Only, surely it was cool enough for me, the whitebread rebel that I was. But I still didn’t know much about the guy on the tee, and frankly, I didn’t want to be a poser.
It was a couple years later, after I moved to the Twin Cities, that I stumbled upon Jon Lee Anderson‘s book, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. I purchased it, and slowly set about reading it. The book was no quick read (at more than eight-hundred pages), though I found it difficult to put down. I entered it with only an inclination as to who Che Guevara was, but with that in mind, I was intrigued by the complex process through which Ernesto Guevara was transformed into the infamous symbol for the revolutionary spirit. The level of detail within the book was astounding; Anderson clearly did his research. And it didn’t read like a boring textbook, which was a bonus. Guevara led an extraordinary life, and that came across through Anderson’s words.
Did I walk away from the book liking the guy? Yeah, I kind of did. Anderson’s book was a very detailed examination of Che’s life, from the strong-willed youth, to the young, impressionistic doctor who took an incredible journey down the entire length of South America on a motorized bike. He was a powerful presence to all who encountered him; charismatic, charming, and even kind, if only a little sarcastic. He was well read and well educated; he sought knowledge wherever he roamed.
But he was also sympathetic to the indigenous peoples of the lands through which he traveled. He witnessed their oppression first hand, and more often than not, the root of said oppression was corporate greed. He saw no good coming from capitalism, at least not for the people who’s blood and sweat provided the goods for their corporate masters. We all have skewed perspectives of the political climate as a direct result of our unique vantage points. Personally, I’m quite content living in Midwestern America, land of the free, home of the entitled. But had I grown up during the 50s and 60s in Central America, I’m certain my perspective would differ greatly from present-day me.
Of course, there were the “murders” he committed. I put that in quotations because, as documented in Anderson’s book, the men he condemned to death were far from innocent. There has been much said about this point; search the web now and you’ll find countless sites decrying Guevara as a murderous racist, the killer of innocents. But, in Anderson’s own words (and following more than five years of extensive research), “I have yet to find a credible source pointing to a case where Che executed an innocent. Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason or crimes such as rape, torture or murder.”
I’m not justifying the murders, myself. Personally, I’m not a fan of killing. Just not my cup of tea. There’s at least one author, Humberto Fontova, who claims that Ernest Hemingway had been invited on more than one occasion to witness the executions while enjoying daiquiris. I don’t know that I believe this; Fontova’s source reads like, “I heard it from a guy who knows a guy…” Furthermore, I’ve read other articles suggesting that Hemingway was barely an acquaintance of Che or Fidel, having met them just once on a well-publicized fishing trip. But this is hardly relevant to my story about the guy on the shirt. Digression will get you nowhere.
And so back to the tee. After completing Anderson’s book, I sat down to sketch my own version of the iconic Che Guevara posterized portrait (yes, the sketches included here are original Mike Powers illustrations). Once completed, I had it screen printed onto a shirt of my own, so I could finally wear the design I’d seen on Hyde’s tee roughly four years prior. I knew, now, who this man was and what he stood for. My reason for wearing the shirt was not about the rebellious, counter-culture vibe it exuded, and it certainly had nothing to do with revolutions or uprisings (nor did it involve Rage Against the Machine). But I did respect the impact Che had, and continues to have, on the history of this shrinking world of ours. That’s why I wore the shirt. That’s why I continue to be fascinated by the man.
Shortly after my illustration was printed, I wore the tee to the Minnesota State Fair. At one point I was resting on a bench while my wife and mother-in-law were using the facilities, and a guy walked past me, taking notice of my shirt. He stopped and asked if I knew who the guy on my shirt was. He clearly assumed me ignorant of such knowledge. I explained to him that I knew quite a lot about the man, and with the fresh knowledge at hand from Anderson’s book, I went so far as to say that I probably knew more about him than your average joe; he was less than impressed. This stranger went on to explain how he, himself, was an immigrant from Cuba, and he recounted a time as a child when Che Guevara visited his classroom. He didn’t necessarily speak ill of Che, though there was no warmth in his tone; he clearly did not revere the man in any way. But I believe he was content to learn that I wasn’t some misinformed, young punk (I can call myself young–this was ten years ago), rather someone who merely held a perspective that differed from his own. It was an interesting encounter. How many people do you know who have actually met the guy on the shirt?
Earlier in this post I indicated that I didn’t wish to wear the tee without first gaining some knowledge of the guy who’s face adorned it, for fear of being called out as a poser. This was an unfair judgement. If someone wants to wear the tee, they aren’t required to know who Che was or what he stood for. Nor should political or historical aficionados hem and haw about the nature of Che’s legacy being debased as a pop-culture trend. The truth of the matter is, the shirt has kept interest in the man alive in ways no book or biopic ever could. My own interest in him was born of the tee. I can practically guarantee I never would have picked up the book had I not first witnessed the dual instances of the shirt on Fox in a single evening. The shirt sparked my interest. And if it takes a blissfully ignorant youth wearing the shirt to inspire more people to pick up a book or do a little research online, so be it. You don’t have to walk away loving the man or agreeing with what he stood for, but educating yourself regarding the shared history of Cuba and America is definitely a positive thing. And if you are so inclined to read up on the guy on the shirt, you might as well start with Jon Lee Anderson‘s book.