|Che Street Art, Cuba|
“Do you know who Che Guevara is?” The TSA officer checking our boarding passes points his question and finger at my 10-year old son. It is Milo’s T-shirt that inspires this conversational interrogation. “Che Guevara was Fidel Castro’s Chief of Staff. Did you know that?”
“Yes,” Milo stares at the guard. I can tell he’s intimidated by his authority.
I’m annoyed and unimpressed. How dare this man pose political questions to my child?
“How old are you, young man?”
“Ten, huh? Are you old enough to dress yourself?”
I narrow my eyes. And bite my tongue. The guard is more quirky and loud-mouthed than aggressive. Regardless, he’s holding my driver’s license, boarding passes and the power to obstruct our departure.
“Yeah, well…” he goes on increasing his volume for the benefit of other travelers, “Castro told Che Guevara to spread his ‘revolutionary message’ in Mexico… but he did such a lousy job, that he killed people and robbed a bank just to get enough money to survive. Did you know that, young man?”
The T-shirt is a child’s size, Asian-knock-off of the ubiquitous Che icon saturated in backpacker tourist shops across Latin America. The irony, of course, is that it is being worn with no political voice whatsoever. On our last educational adventure to Vietnam, I bought the shirt for one-dollar in Saigon’s equivalent of an American Wal-Mart store. For the global traveler on a budget, the T-shirt represented a suburban-moms’ bargain-find, a cartoon character superhero printed on cotton. Cheap. Stain resistant. It was also the only clean shirt left at the end of our vacation; I had asked Milo to substitute it for the filthy “I Support Haiti” fund-raising Tee he had initially donned. Of all the silent horror stories our clothing betrays, the emotional agitation this child’s Che T-shirt has generated in this Travel Security Administrator proves instructive.
My boy doesn’t answer the man, but instead, crosses his arms and looks down. I place myself physically between him and the guard’s inappropriate questioning, and retrieve our documents. I choose to say nothing. We usher ourselves through the intrusive survey of our belongings. Shoes off. Conveyor belt. Cameras. Body scans.
“A real loser,” the man keeps spewing after we’ve turned our backs on him. “That Che Guevara guy was a real loser. He was a terrorist. You should think about that next time you get dressed in the morning.”
“Is it true, Mom? Was all that stuff he said true?” Milo’s eyes are wide and darting about nervously. Suddenly vulnerable, he clutches the Che decal on his T-shirt, an effort to conceal it from itinerant passengers marching across the concourse. I’m a mix of irritation and pragmatism, compelled to fortify him against the awkward experience of an authority figure exercising undue power.
“Honey, you know that Che is a hero to a lot of people. Cubanos think he’s a good guy. He’s the symbol of resistance against oppression.” When I lead educational community service programs for American students and teachers, we discuss the many depictions of the Argentinian Martyr throughout Havana: Che adorns street graffiti, statues, museums, silhouetted iron facades, body tattoos, paintings, magnets, baseball caps, photo books, earrings and infant “onesies.”
What does this well-fed, middle-class, American airline cop know of a people’s pride in a nationalist struggle for sovereignty?
To Cubans, Che is a unifying force, an imaginary hope of the social utopian vision upon which the Revolution is based. Like all ideologues, his biography has its blemishes. For his admirers, the fact that Che exercised the use of violence (Malcolm X-style “by any means necessary!”) in his signature zealotry for justice (“Patria o Muerte!”) contributes to bolster his appeal. For his critics, Che represents social disruption, chaos and a frustration with the failure of US policy to end Fidel Castro’s 50-year tyranny. Neither side feels apathetic towards Che’s image. Except those who have not yet drawn their lines of battle; today, in the airport, the indifferent provocateur is merely a boy.
As I provide explanations for why it’s ok to wear the T-shirt, struggling against the urge to give this TSA guy a swipe of my Mama Bear claws, I have an “aha!” moment. This is precisely why we are passionate for educational travel in the countries of our former adversaries: to provide civil opportunities for kids to master cross-cultural dialogues of differences. It is through these experiential “teachable” moments that we may sharpen our investigation of warfare.
Like every conscientious parent and teacher, I’d like to spare all children from targeted and misdirected hostility. And yet, as we increasingly value “global competency” in our youth, I celebrate opportunities to empower kids to investigate the complexity of human conflict through student travel. We need to explore why an icon may serve to represent both evil and good for different cultures. It’s the essence of perception. It’s the beginning of understanding. It’s a necessary step towards peace.
These opportunities are sometimes found in the confluence of our not-totally-globalized-not-always-free-speech of fashion. How can one person feel nothing, another a surge of pride and yet another uncontrollable rage at the sight of an American flag? What emotional freight does a symbol hold for different cultures? Ideally, the messenger may soften the message: adding a reasoned voice of clarification. Here’s how can we teach our kids to communicate with authority figure who has introduced a contentious dialogue:
We want our kids to know and be able to articulate the facts:
“Che ‘Ernesto’ Guevara was a medical doctor, a military strategist, and a Marxist who helped overthrow the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Bautista in Cuba, 1959.”
Assess the facts through comparison, contrast and analogy:
“Many of our American national heroes have unsavory backgrounds that we ignore.”
Use the facts to make reasoned judgments:
“I think that the good things Che did for people outweighed the bad. I understand that you feel differently.”
Ask definitional questions that expose assumptions:
“Would you be telling me what a ‘loser’ I have on my T-shirt if it were a picture of an American flag?”
Speak truth to power:
“It’s inappropriate that you are discussing ‘terrorists’ and ‘politics’ with underage passengers in your purview as a TSA official. Please stop.”
The aptitude that our kids develop for understanding differences across cultures is a powerful source of conflict resolution and a measure of our continued civility as a species.
Why the image of Che Guevara’s caricature should arouse this man to such a breach of professionalism, directing disdain towards the wearer of a child’s T-shirt, is not something worth investigating. If he keeps it up— and we’re doing our job—someday, one of our kids will set him straight.