By Cristina M. Molina
Pop culture icons have been around as long as I can remember. They can be anything from a real person to a character or symbol. Some of the most well-known pop culture icons on the human side include Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, and Pee-wee Herman. People find ways to identify with these icons and they proudly display them on t-shirts, hats, bracelets, etc. This is a common and acceptable practice, right?
Now picture yourself walking down the street and you see a guy coming towards you. He is wearing a t-shirt with someone’s face on it. As he gets closer, you realize that the “icon” he has chosen to display on his shirt is Adolf Hitler or maybe Osama bin Laden. What do you think now? Is this just another famous pop culture icon or has this person crossed the line? Chances are you will feel shocked, confused, and offended by this ignorant display of bad taste.
Cuban Americans, many of us who live in the San Fernando Valley (especially in the cities of Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena), are shocked, confused, and offended regularly by one of the most mass-produced pop culture images: the image of Che Guevara. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, just think of a bearded man in a beret and at the top of the beret, a red star. Yes, that guy, made popular by bands like Rage Against the Machine and worn everywhere across the various Occupy movements in the country. To those proudly displaying his face on their clothing and hats who don’t know any better, he is a symbol of the revolution and he is a hero.
Let’s talk a bit about Ernesto “Che” Guevara and let’s discover who he really was. He was born to a wealthy Argentinean family and as a child, he loved to read. He began reading the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, which influenced him greatly in his adult life. He studied medicine, but was considered a failure because he never actually became a doctor nor did he ever open his own medical practice. He joined forces with Fidel Castro and helped him launch the revolution in Cuba, which overthrew the Batista regime. The Cuban people believed the message they had been sold by Castro and Guevara, so they initially lent their support to the cause. Sadly, they soon came to realize that everything they had been promised was a lie.
Ernesto Che Guevara did not believe in free elections, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, press, assembly or any other rights granted to us here in the United States. He was a homophobe, a racist, and had no tolerance for anyone whose beliefs differed from his. He was a mass-murderer who led firing squads that killed innocent men, women, and children simply because they did not share his ideology. He believed that a “…revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”
Is this the kind of guy whose image someone really wants to proudly wear on a t-shirt? Are these Che t-shirt-wearing “rebels” really aware of whom the real Che was, or do they simply not care? This is the Land of the free, the United States of America, and thank goodness we have the right to wear what we want and believe in what we want. The purpose here is not to impose censorship by any means; it is to educate and open the eyes of those who probably do not know. If more folks were educated about who Che really was, then maybe parents would hesitate before buying their kids merchandise with his face on it. Maybe even adults would think twice before walking around with a red-star clad beret. Ultimately it is your choice, but if you wouldn’t walk around wearing a Hitler or bin Laden t-shirt, then why would you walk around in a Che t-shirt?
I recently purchased a t-shirt displaying Che’s face with a big red circle and slash across his face (as in “Say No to Che”). While walking with my daughter in Old Town Pasadena on Jan. 2, a man in a wheelchair began to yell at me. He screamed, “Viva Venezuela!” and then he yelled for me to kiss his rear end. (Of course he used a much more colorful word.) What could I do? Here is this man in a wheelchair and I would really look like a big jerk if I stood there and engaged in a full-scale argument with him. I simply acknowledged his remarks as trash and kept on walking. Trust me; it took everything to hold back from engaging, but I did not want to expose my daughter to further insults. This man knew who Che was and he chose to verbally attack me for wearing my anti-Che shirt, as it was his right to do so. (I can only imagine what would happen to him in Venezuela if he tried to exercise the same freedom of speech!)
On Jan. 3, I was at Disneyland with my mom, daughter, and niece. Since my dad proudly served in the United States Army, I wanted my mom to experience the daily flag retreat ceremony. (If you haven’t experienced the flag retreat at Disneyland, you are missing out — it’s a treat!) During the ceremony, members of the Armed Forces, past and present, are invited to stand around the flagpole as the flag is lowered. As the hymn of the United States Marine Corps played, an elderly woman was helped out of her wheelchair by her son. She stood there with great difficulty, but she held her head high with pride as she saluted the American Flag and tears streamed down her face. After the ceremony I approached her and I thanked her for her service. She was a WWII Veteran and had met her husband in the Marine Corps. Before I could thank her any further, she looked at my shirt and said, “I really like your shirt! A lot of people don’t know who he really was, but you know! Good for you! Thank you for wearing that!” I could not believe that this American hero was thanking me for wearing my shirt. I asked to take a photo with her and in turn, her son requested if he could take a photo with me because she wanted one with me in that anti-Che Guevara t-shirt. My mom could only look in amazement. It’s not very often that she actually tells me that she’s proud of me, but she sure let me know how impressed she was with me and how proud she is that I stand up for what I believe in.
Now that you know, will you stand up for what you believe in? Or will you choose to follow the sheepish masses as they continue to idolize a mass murderer and Communist icon? Food for thought….