By Michael E. Miller
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Stone serious, the dapper elderly gentleman in gray slacks, a black and white tie, and a neatly pressed green shirt firmly gripped my shoulder from behind: "You'll have to leave."
"You can't sell things in the mall."
"What makes you think I'm selling?
"The T-shirts on your arm."
"We're just discussing Cuban politics," I responded, gesturing toward the trio with whom I'd been chatting — and discreetly tucking four tees into my bag.
It all began with Heroic Guerrilla, the famed 1960 photo rendering of Argentine-born, Bolivian-executed Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. You've probably seen it on dorm room walls, jewelry, and, of course, T-shirts like the ones I was shoving into my backpack before getting the boot. But you perhaps didn't know that controversy has bedimmed the image, particularly over the past few years. As supreme prosecutor during the Cuban revolution, Guevara likely ordered the execution of scads of counterrevolutionaries. He is despised for being a killer — particularly in Miami — and revered in places such as the People's Republic of Berkeley.
In 2000, the photographer who snapped Heroic Guerrilla, Alberto Korda, won copyright in a British court. He died the next year, setting off a family dispute over his work — including the famous photo. It raged for years, from Oslo to South Beach.
Since then, people have continued to peddle the pic. Che key chains, belt buckles, lighters, clocks, stamps, and wallets are for sale at TheCheStore.com. You can also pick up a chrome flask depicting a black and silver Ernie-boy for $34.99. If you're a hater, there's the anti-Che Guevara store (TrenBlindado.com), where you'll find T-shirts that don't include the image but declaim in bold type: "Che's dead, get over it." And "Proud member of the Miami Mafia."
Henry Gomez, a 38-year-old Miamian, launched the anti-Che site three years ago. His grandfather ran afoul of Guevara, who he says was a butcher. "If you put on a Hitler or a Himmler shirt, do you really think it would be okay?" he explains. "It wouldn't. People would say you are a friggin' Nazi."
Around the same time Gomez started the site, Cubans were finding their anti-Che mojo. Loud protests stopped Burlington Coat Factory from selling Che gear that included — believe it or not — babies' onesies featuring Korda's pic. The New York Public Library bowed to public pressure and gave up selling watches that December.
Cuban-Americans aren't the only ones trying to halt the image's use. Korda stopped Smirnoff vodka from using Heroic Guerrilla in ads and won a $50,000 settlement. French lawyers for Guevara's family recently contacted Jana Eggers, CEO of a Boston company called Spreadshirt Inc., to request that it stop selling tees — or at least halt adding sarcastic comments and drawings to the image. The company quickly complied. "We are probably selling a couple hundred T-shirts a year," Eggers says. "They didn't want to put things like 'Che was a rat' or 'I don't believe in Che.' We're not willing to compromise on that kind of thing, so we stopped selling it."
Last year, Val Prieto — the 43-year-old founder of BabaluBlog.com, perhaps the best-known Cuban-American website — persuaded Target to stop selling Che-emblazoned CDs. "I contacted executives, everyone," he says. "I didn't contact shareholders only because I didn't have their e-mail addresses."
Then this past February 29, someone named Maria Elena — no last name mentioned — noticed the Macy's store in Dadeland Mall was selling the T-shirts on the second floor. She sent out an e-mail call to action. "In the name of all people Guevara ordered killed and killed himself, we must protest — protestemos!!!"
Five days later, Prieto — who had received the message and forwarded it to Macy's management — received a response from someone named Wanda Mainella. "Our intent was not to offend customers or members of the community. We have removed all remaining T-shirts from the selling floor."
Prieto was delighted. "You can probably go somewhere like Tampa or somewhere else and find the shirt. But don't sell it in my house, not in Miami." (Mainella declined to expound on the decision.)
All of this made me wonder: What do people in our exile capital think of the sucker? So I shopped around on the Internet and bought five T-shirts with the image captioned "Sueño Rebelde" ("Rebel Dream") for $12 each. Then last Thursday, I headed for Dadeland to peddle the big boys.
"No, I'm all set," said the first guy I approached outside the mall, a nasty character whose chest was covered with a dragon tattoo.
"I have no idea who that is," responded a second fellow, who was about 20 years old and dressed in black. "I'm kinda late for work, so ..."
"I would like one," a third man answered in a Lebanese accent. One side of his head was shaved, and he was munching on a Whopper. "But I have no money."
So I headed inside the mall. Five more people curtly denied me before a 27-year-old gent named Pedro José Narbais expressed interest. Raised in Nicaragua, he and his family experienced Sandinista rule. Though he finally demurred from buying, he chastised Cuban-Americans for stopping the sale of Che merchandise. "I think there should be freedom of expression," he said. "The Cubans in Miami won't let people express themselves, just like the Nicaraguan Communists."
Of course, that wasn't the only opinion. A 19-year-old student named Adrian, who's half-Venezuelan, responded to my offer a of a T-shirt by saying, "Why would I support a killer?"
It turns out he and his lunch companion, Guatemalan-born Vivian, had visited Cuba with a church group last summer. They didn't talk politics there but left with the impression that Che was evil. Macy's was right to stop selling the shirts, said Adrian, who didn't want to give his last name. "Through the propaganda of allowing people to see a killer, you're making it normal. Che wasn't normal."
Then, just outside Macy's, I ran into three high schoolers who would be my undoing. When I offered the shirt, one of them, a handsome young fellow, responded, "If I wore that at my house, I'd get killed."
"So you're Cuban-American?"
However, his two female friends couldn't identify Che. Told that Macy's had stopped displaying the shirts, one of the young ladies gave the day's most insightful response: "I don't think they were making major profits. If they were, they wouldn't have stopped selling it."
That's when the security guard collared me. I tried to sell him a shirt on the way out. ("You know better than that.")
So I headed home, having determined that Guevara was a hard sell in Miami.
But I was wrong. As I passed through South Miami, I turned the wheel right and headed into another megamall — the Shops at Sunset Place. After grabbing a few capitalist knickknacks, I headed for Urban Outfitters to buy a little something. There a pretty young store clerk named Mary Savage appeared and guided me to the T-shirts. Several had politically sketchy phrases such as "Jesus is a crappy scientist."
Then I spotted them. There in the pile were five gray T-shirts with the famous likeness of Che, whose face was partially covered in a chic outlaw's bandanna. Price: $28 apiece — more than twice the amount I paid on the Internet.
"Oh, we sell lots of those," Mary explained. "My best friend bought one."