Che who?

The baby boomer generation is mostly well aware of the legendary figure that Che Guevara was. In fact, more than a few women who have taken our bicycle tours in Cuba have admitted to me that they probably would have thrown their panties at him if they’d crossed his path in the 60’s. Not only was he a great thinker and a mover and a shaker for social justice, but he acted and ultimately sacrificed his life to make a difference in the world. Of course, there are many versions to his story. In Cuba the children in primary school are endoctrined to say “Seremos como el Che” – they’ll grow up to be like Che (which, by the way,  was a nickname bestowed upon him in Cuba due to his frequent use of the word meaning friend in his native Argentina). I remember one night quite a few years back I was cooking dinner and my stepdaughter was watching television in the living room. Here on the north coast of Havana, depending on weather, we sometimes receive signals from Florida television stations. That night there was a political commentary on from Miami. The female host of the program was going on about Che the murderer and my stepdaughter was aghast. I told her that now she could see for herself how twisted and manipulated the media can actually be.

Although you won’t see Fidel’s image in many places in Cuba (except for the cherished photographs in people’s homes), Che’s face is everywhere, including on the $3 bill and coin. Tourists snatch up T-shirts with his image, and many stroll about wearing a beret like his with the Communist star that you can buy in just about any craft market here. They say that the image of his face captured by Alberto Korda is possibly among the most famous 10 images in the world.

Che’s youngest son is a member of one of the motorcycle clubs we are in. I met him for the first time several years ago at one of the local mechanic’s garages. He was working on making a new part for his bike and was dressed in old gympants, full of grease just like any other guy in the club. Ever the gentleman, my husband told me who he was before we got to the door. I suppose he does that so I don’t risk sticking my foot in my mouth, and I thank him for being so considerate. I didn’t grow up here, so unlike most Habaneros, where “casi todo el mundo sabe quien es quien” (line from a song by Cuban singer/songwriter Carlos Varela) I am sometimes blissfully ignorant of who I’m talking to when I meet someone new. Ernesto’s a nice guy, affable and down to earth. Shortly after meeting him I returned to Canada and happened to mention to my best friend that I’d met one of Che Guevara’s sons. Instead of being impressed, she just hit a blank. I thought maybe that was just random, since she’s been raising a family for more than a decade and hasn’t had the opportunity to travel much. So the next day I called up another friend of mine who’d been to Cuba before and had even stayed at my apartment and roamed around the streets of Havana with me. I asked her if she knew who Che Guevara was. Nope, but she called out to her husband to ask him, and he was just as befuddled with the question as everybody else. Could it be true? Did nobody in my generation in Canada even know who this man was anymore? I was saddened by this for awhile, thinking that my friends would have a hard time relating to a lot of my experiences if they didn’t even have a clue to who this huge figure in Cuba’s revolutionary history was. They must have all missed “The Motorcycle Diaries” when it came to the local theatres.

This past summer our company had a booth at the Wharf Rat Rally in Digby, Nova Scotia, and a young guy was walking by with a Che shirt on. I asked him if he knew who was on his t-shirt, and he said no, that his sister was in Cuba and all she brought him was a lousy t-shirt. I took out one of my picture books and showed him a picture of Che’s son, hoping it might make it more real for him.  I don’t think though, that the young man can relate to social injustice, revolutions, poverty, or anything close to that. Most of his generation and my generation are more interested in what the new fall television programming will be. They’re purely wrapped up in entertainment. Many of them are apolitical, most don’t think it matters if they vote. They don’t have a clue about what socialism means. Someone here once commented to me that as long as you live in the developed world, and you’re not among the oppressed, it’s easy to carry on that way. I was largely ignorant of politics when I arrived here in my early 20’s and don’t consider myself an expert on political matters now, but I do think that I’ve been exposed to a lot of other sides of important worldwide issues than if I’d spent most of my adult years insulated in a comfortable middle class society in Canada watching America’s Top Model, Extreme Home Makeovers, or reality tv instead of the Mesa Redonda, Telesur and multiple other international news channels that are broadcasted on Cuban television.

Hasta la Victoria Siempre.


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