Today is the birthday of the man whose image has adorned more college dorm room walls than Elvis, Albert, and Marilyn combined.
It's the birthday of Ernesto "Che" Guevara who was born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. But the photograph that would make him famous to generations of college wasn’t taken until March 5, 1960, seven years before Guevara’s death.
Che had been at a funeral for workers killed in an explosion in a Cuban port that Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government blamed on the Americans. Guevara, a general in the revolution and the intellectual heavyweight of Castro’s regime, looked on as Castro delivered his fiery funeral oration. For about thirty seconds, he stepped to the front of a crowd near Castro’s rostrum, into the view of newspaper photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, also known as Alberto Korda. Korda snapped two shots of Guevara, his face resolute and his long hair flowing from under his trademark beret, before Guevara retreated back into the crowd. Perhaps due to his background as a fashion photographer, Korda took a liking to one of the images and cropped it into a portrait, even though the newspaper La Revolución declined to use it.
For several years, the now-iconic photo remained nothing more than a personal favorite of the man who took it. Korda named the picture Guerrillero Heroico—“Heroic Guerrilla Warrior”—and hung it on his wall, occasionally handing out copies to guests. It was not until 1967 that the public would first see the image, which appeared in the magazine Paris Match alongside an article about Latin American guerilla movements.
Guevara was killed in October of that year, captured while fighting with Bolivian revolutionaries. During his memorial service in Havana, an enormous print of Guerrillero Heroico was hung over the façade of the Ministry of the Interior. The service marked Che’s canonization as a martyr of global revolution, as well as the ascendance of Korda’s image as an icon of rebellion.
The following year the image of Guevara went viral. It appeared on the cover of a copy of Guevara's memoirs, published in Italy. It was also used as the cover of a literary journal advertised on the New York City subway. In the same year, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick created a stylized version of the image, setting a black-and-white Guevara against a red background, and distributed it as widely as he could to honor Guevara’s legacy. A poster bearing Fitzpatrick’s image was shown at the Arts Laboratory in London. 1968 was a year of upheaval across the world, and Guevara's image featured prominently during the student riots that swept France in May, the populist protests of Italy’s “Hot Autumn” and the nonviolent, surrealist-inspired demonstrations of the Dutch “Provos.”
In addition to being held aloft at protests or hung in the homes of his admirers, Guevara's image has become popular as a fashion statement, adorning t-shirts and posters wherever counterculture is revered. Rage Against the Machine used a modified version of the image as the cover for their 1993 single “Bombtrack,” and Madonna referenced it on the cover of her 2003 album American Life. Korda succeeded in stopping Smirnoff Vodka from using his photo in one of its campaigns, but it has appeared in countless other advertisements, including ads by Nike and a campaign by Taco Bell which featured a Chihuahua in revolutionary garb.
In real life, Che suffered from asthma, but he was athletic and also a good student. He took a year off from college to travel around South America by motorcycle with his friend Alberto Granado, and he recorded their adventures in his journal, which was later published by his daughter as The Motorcycle Diaries (1993). He was disturbed by all the poverty and oppression he saw among the Indian people of Latin America, and he came to believe that the only solution was violent revolution.
He graduated from medical school in 1953 and went to Guatemala, which is where he got his nickname, based on the Argentinean habit of interjecting the word "che" into their speech. He supported the progressive regime of Jacobo Arbenz, but when the regime was overthrown by a CIA-sponsored coup, Guevara became convinced that the United States would never support any leftist government. He became radicalized in 1954, writing, "I will perfect myself and accomplish whatever may be necessary in order to become a true revolutionary."
In Mexico, he met the Castro brothers, Raúl and Fidel, and joined them in their plan to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Their forces landed in Cuba in November 1956, and were almost wiped out by Batista's army; the survivors fled to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and formed a guerilla army, which eventually overthrew Batista and established a Marxist government in 1959. By now, Guevara was Castro's right-hand man, and he held several top government posts. He visited New York to speak at the United Nations as the head of the Cuban delegation, and appeared on the news show Face the Nation. He traveled to China, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East on a speaking tour. He was ill suited for diplomatic work; his nature was confrontational and uncompromising.
In 1965, Guevara dropped out of the picture. In an undated letter to Castro, he renounced his Cuban citizenship and resigned from his government positions, writing, "Other nations of the world summon my modest efforts," and that he had therefore decided to go and fight as a guerrilla "on new battlefields." He tried to effect revolution in the Congo, but failed, and traveled to Bolivia. While leading a guerilla army against the Bolivian regulars, a glimmer of his medical calling remained; he treated and released enemy soldiers. He was eventually captured and executed.
According to a popular but apocryphal story recounted on History.com,
Moments before he was shot to death by a soldier of the Bolivian government, the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara told his executioner, “Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!” Guevara died a short time later, on October 9, 1967 at the age of 39, but he was correct in his assertion that this would not be the end of his legacy. Today, that legacy almost always takes the form of that single photograph, Guerrillero Heroico, which some have called the most famous photograph in the world.