¿Ché Pasa? The Resurrection of Ché Guevara

Nov. 11, 2004, midnight | By Katy Lafen | 16 years, 2 months ago

Commercial revival of Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara makes its appearance at Blair

He has made public appearances with rappers Missy Elliot and Jay-Z and escorted supermodel Gisele Bundchen down the runway in a bikini fashion show. The band Rage Against the Machine uses his image every chance it gets: on posters, album covers and band clothing. His experiences from his famous motorcycle trip throughout South America have recently been made into a motion picture playing in theaters across America. And he can be spotted making his way down Blair Boulevard every day. Ché fever is spreading.

That is, on the clothing, hats and bags of Blazers. These days Ché Guevara's mysterious face, wispy black hair, upturned eyes and solemn expression can be spotted every day at Blair.

Although Ché Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary involved in the overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba, died in 1967, his image is experiencing a major commercial revival throughout America today. Fashion Victim, an Atlanta apparel and accessory company, makes a "substantial portion" of its $4 to 5 million in yearly sales from Guevara items, according to an article by The Washington Times. The Motorcycle Diaries, the film about Ché's famous trip through South America, has grossed more than $3.5 million since it opened in September. This growing trend, however, does not guarantee that current Ché enthusiasts know much about Guevara's life and significance, or that it is fully appreciated.

Junior Brian Arias joined the Ché craze when a shirt with Ché's famous close-up picture, taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, was given to him as a gift last year. He liked the shirt's appearance, and the fact that Ché was becoming so fashionable didn't hurt. Arias does not wear the shirt to make a statement or to show support of Ché's ideals; he says, "I just like the way [the shirts] look."

Similarly, junior Christian Perdomo does not wear his Ché shirt to support Socialism or Communism in any way. "I just bought my shirt to match with my shoes," he says. Perdomo is like many Blazers who do not understand the revolutionary actions of the man whose image they so commonly display.

A stirring story

Ernesto (Ché) Guevara was born in 1928 and raised in a middle class Argentinean family. At age 23, the young medical student decided to take a motorcycle trip throughout South America. On this trip, Guevara first came into contact with the poor native workers of South America and spent time working in an institution for patients with leprosy. He began to call himself Ché, the Argentine nickname for "buddy." After seeing firsthand the oppressed people of South America, Guevara knew he would never be a doctor; instead, he got involved in the Socialist movement in South America.
Guevara later met Fidel Castro and joined him in the overthrow of the oppressive Batista regime in Cuba. After five years of holding high-placed administrative positions in the new Socialist government of Cuba, Ché left to try to begin revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia. Neither attempt succeeded, and Guevara was captured and executed during the latter effort by a Bolivian army unit in 1967. His last words are reported to have been, "Shoot, coward; you are only going to kill a man."

Now, 37 years after his death, Ché Guevara is coming back to life.

¡Viva Ché!

This time, however, it is the pop culture industry that is popularizing Ché's image in the U.S. According to John Trigiani, owner of an online store that sells a wide array of Ché gear, sales have increased over the past two years since celebrities like Jay-Z have been seen wearing Ché shirts and since The Motorcycle Diaries was recently released.
According to University of Maryland History Professor Barbara Weinstein, consumers are attracted to the Guevara of The Motorcycle Diaries, where he is portrayed as "idealistic, young, handsome, adventurous and sympathetic towards the poor and downtrodden," says Weinstein.

For senior Andrew Spence, who first became interested in Guevara after seeing Jay-Z wearing the shirt on MTV, the attraction to Ché lies in his personal characteristics, not his political views. "I admire that he was a voracious reader, played lots of chess, was a great writer and had bad asthma problems but still was very active. However, politically, I don't agree with his socialist ideals," says Spence.

Spence first saw Ché's face on television and decided to learn more by reading a biography. He believes that those who wear the shirts without knowing the full story of Ché Guevara are missing the whole point. "Not that it's disrespectful, but it's ignorant—the fact that people can take time to keep up with the trends but can't find out who it is that they're wearing," says Spence.

Some students do, however, wear the shirts to show support of Guevara's political ideas. Senior Will Timpson bought his shirt in El Salvador, where Ché paraphernalia is sold on almost every street corner. He wears it to show his common political ideals. "I appreciate his revolutionary fervor. I feel he had a lot of good ideas and concepts for society and was a good symbol for positive thought and work," says Timpson.

A controversial character

However, Ché's popularity as a fashion accessory is not universal at Blair. Math teacher and former sponsor of the Young Republicans Club Peter Engelmann believes that Guevara does not deserve all the attention given to him. "Ché Guevara encouraged change through violence," says Engelmann. "Peaceful change is the best way. I'd rather see students wearing Gandhi on their clothing."

In selling the Guevara gear, Trigiani has encountered many people who are outraged at the profits being made off of Guevara's image. "I've had people e-mail me whose grandfathers were shot by Ché directly. I get some people loving what he did and some equating him to Hitler," says Trigiani.

Weinstein believes that Ché's method of achieving equality for the people of South America was just as violent as some of America's own historical figures. "Some call him a murderer because he was involved in violent struggle, but do we call George Washington a murderer? They are ‘murderers' in same exact way," says Weinstein.

What would Che say?

No matter how much controversy the current Che fad may cause, one can't help but wonder what he would think of this craze if he were still around to see it.

Trigiani argues that although the commercialization of Che's image is benefiting the system of capitalism that he fought so hard against, the revolutionary leader would be pleased to see his ideas reaching students today. "Che wouldn't like some parts of it, but he would definitely like that it is drawing more attention to his ideology and what he believed in and fought for," he says.

Indeed, says Weinstein, if it weren't for all the publicity Guevara is getting, many people would not know anything about him. And although many consumers do not know every detail in Guevara's life story, the shirts are worn for the ideals Che has come to represent. "Che's life is romantic," Weinstein says, "and for people unhappy with the way the world is going today, he has become an all purpose symbol of rebellion and revolution."

Katy Lafen. Katy Lafen loves the Beatles, the Rutles and Spinal Tap. More »

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