Guevara lives in Mexico's memory Inspiration: The Argentine guerrilla who was a leader of the Cuban revolution died 30 years ago, but remains a role model for Mexican activists.

Sun Journal

January 05, 1998|By Catharine Allen | Catharine Allen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- When Cuauhtemoc Cardenas took control of the Mexico City government last month, crowds packed the downtown streets, trying to touch, talk to or at least get a glimpse of the new mayor. Jubilant citizens swarmed so close that Cardenas, who had planned to make the ceremonial trip to his new offices on foot, had to give up and duck into a car.

Also out in droves were Mexico City street vendors, hawking banners and hats with the insignia of Cardenas' party, but also pins, posters and T-shirts honoring a man who was not even Mexican -- Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine guerrilla who was a leader of the Cuban revolution.

As recent biographies emphasize, Guevara was no saint. He was an idealist, but also a man of violence who authorized hundreds of executions after the Cuban revolution. But 30 years after the CIA-advised Bolivian army killed him in 1967, Guevara may receive more media attention than any Latin American politician, popular leader or rock star. His cult only grows in appeal and mystique.

One photo in particular has become the center of Guevara idolatry. Reproductions of the picture, taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, have hung in university campuses from Havana to Buenos Aires for the past 30 years.

Now they have become posters, placards and T-shirts in Mexico City, where, in 1955, Guevara met Fidel Castro and joined his small rebel army training to topple the Cuban government. Enthusiasm for the rebel here is as high as anywhere in Latin America. Mexicans cannot seem to get enough of the man who dedicated his life to justice.

"Guevara was noble. He fought on behalf of the people, defended them against the government," says Veronica Calderon. Behind her, Guevara's face, printed on about 30 fliers, flutters in the wet winter wind that cuts across the Zocalo, the plaza at the heart of the city.

Calderon is part of a group collecting signatures to demand the release of Eli Homero Aguilar Ramirez, who, she says, was arrested and imprisoned by the Mexico City government after he took the side of poverty-stricken residents in a land dispute.

On the imposing columns of the government buildings that surround the plaza, the group has plastered fliers of Guevara with the slogan "Freedom for Eli!" printed across the bottom.

On any given day, members of the Zapatista rebel front are also in the Zocalo. They hawk shiny, black-and-red enamel pins of Guevara to passers-by while they attempt to enlist sympathy for their armed uprising in Mexico's southernmost state.

A mile away, in a different section of downtown, a poster of the rebel's face is peeling off the side of a print shop. Its faded letters announce an art exposition that has come and gone.

Outside the National Library, a university student is buying a Guevara T-shirt from a street vendor. In the check-out line of an inner-city grocery store, a housewife is wearing a similar T-shirt. The city's central book shop sells seven new books on Guevara, and a movie on his life and death, the third in the past few months, plays in shopping malls across the metropolis.

Guevara's silk-screened face embodies the quiet yearning for revolution -- or at least for simple justice -- in Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, with smog, crime and political corruption to match its size.

A strange fiction has sprung up around Guevara here. He has become a posthumous participant and hero in the student movement that sprang up here in 1968, a year after his death.

"Guevara fought on behalf of the students in 1968," Calderon explains, when asked about his importance.

A cabdriver has the same impression. "Guevara? He was here in 1968, during the student movement, wasn't he?"

"I don't know much about him," says a high school student working at a trendy boutique in one of the city's posh residential neighborhoods. "I just know the basics -- who he was, how he was with the students in '68."

The student movement of 1968 was a turning point in modern Mexican history. Enraged when the government closed branches the national university and sent the army to occupy the campus, students held protest marches throughout August and September. They occupied the Zocalo on the night of Aug. 27, but were forcibly evicted from the plaza the next morning.

Protests continued through the next month, culminating in a gathering in a plaza in the north of the city Oct. 3. A SWAT team, accompanied by troops with machine guns, opened fire on the students in the plaza. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed. While the massacre has never been officially investigated, it is branded in the consciousness of Mexicans as the moment their government was revealed as an oppressor.

"1968 gave shape to an entire generation of middle-class children," says Paco Ignacio Taibo II, one of Guevara's biographers and an adviser to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. "It made them commit to the idea of a lifelong struggle for certain values that still seem, 30 years later, just as important."

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