The Man Who Shot Che Guevara: With Korda in the City of Women
Perhaps the world’s most famous photograph, and certainly one of the world’s most ubiquitous graphics, is the portrait of Che Guevara, chin slightly raised, beret on his head, scruffy mustache and beard hinting at a social piracy we still admire even as we troop into Starbucks and Whole Foods and poison, cent by cent, any personal desire for revolt. In the actual picture, Che is standing next to a palm tree, bored by some official event. The photographer was a Cuban named Korda, and the story below is about my very odd interaction with him.
It looks as if I will be teaching photography at Boston University’s Digital Imaging Arts campus in Georgetown, starting next month, and I needed to provide a resume during the hiring process. A resume! I haven’t made one of those in two decades. In the middle of trying to create it, Mark calls to see how the process is coming and I tell him: “I have to leave the truth out of my resume to make it more believable.”
This story about Korda and me and Sueraya Shaheen in the City of Women is one of the truths of my life that I do not advertise. I’ve been waiting for the perfect moment, like all the other perfect moments in my life that I have already ignored, to gather up all my pieces on Mexico into a book that I can self-publish and distribute to 7 friends.
In the Restaurant Casagrande in the town square of the city of women, the man who took Che’s picture looks at my friend Sueraya as she walked to my table from the bathroom. He looked at her butt, craned to see her face, as men do. My radar set at that moment, not with hostility, but caution.
(Why do they do that? asks Sueraya in a whisper, as the man who took Che’s picture peers from the shadows. Not that she minds, she says, but what is so interesting about my ass? I am about to explain the hard wiring of a man’s brain and the relationship between his eyes, his testicles, her hips and her waist when the man who took Che’s picture calls out to us in perfectly manicured English, “Have a very good evening” as he leaves, lingering, hoping for introductions, and he is annoyed when I answer him in my perfectly mangled Spanish. He leaves, we do not know he is the man who took Che’s picture, and Sueraya isn’t interested in my explanation of the wiring of the male brain because she’s very excited to meet the man who took Che’s picture at the reception we are to attend in an hour. She has come with me to shoot my adventures in the City of Women, the world’s only matriarchy, only to find we have come at the same time that the local casa de cultura will fete the shooter of one of the world’s most iconic images, of Che Guevara pensively exploring ways to kill the rich: “Typical, Sean, you sell me the matriarchy, and we run into the maker of the hero.”)
At that reception for the man who took Che’s picture a Cuban poet stood up and pointed at me and said, I imagine you grew up in a meadow, in yellows and greens, a fawn from Hollywood, and no harm happened in your world until you decided one day to leave the meadow, am I right? Except she said it in the flower of Cuban poetry, and Sueraya was flirting elsewhere so the video was turned off and we had a tiff, tiny, about it later. At the end of this odd declaration, the poetess began a bawdy song about the phallus and mescal, scandalizing the polite Zapotecans and Mexicans, and the Cuban party steadily erupted further while the owner of the restaurant pulled up a chair next to me and whispered, Would you like to have a baby, and the man who took Che’s picture sat in his cigar smoke, pale eyes aglitter, staring at me, thinking: Who is this guy, ruining my party?
The Velas (or fairs) began that night, and so did the rains. The city of women filled in a slow flood. Sueraya saw the pictures taken of the town’s transvestites by the restaurant owner and said, Okay let’s go home no point in me staying, because the pictures were luminous black and whites, shot on the restaurant owner's vintage Leica, but the restaurant owner shook her head, No, you can’t go, not while Korda is here because he would like to meet you.
Korda took the picture of Che. Never made a penny. Taught him right for sticking with Fidel. You know the picture, on stickers and t-shirts everywhere, maybe the world’s most common photograph, stolen by an Italian publisher and then stolen from the Italian publisher a gazillion times. Not even Bob Marley or Ali have a signature image as powerful as that shot of Che Guevara.
The restaurant owner is married, and her husband is a very nice fellow. Or he was, until he died a year after this story occurs. I spent an evening talking to him, interviewing him about the first public concert of Zapotecan music on the shores of the river, which the town cleaned up for the event. He asks if I have seen Korda’s original photo of Che hanging in the Casa de Cultura. No? Che is standing next to a potted palm, and the picture shows him bored and stiff, out of his element since there is no dirt to stand on or busty broad to hang onto. Korda didn’t even notice Che when he snapped a wide shot of the event. When he developed the negative, he didn’t notice Che, either. Because Che was nobody, not somebody you would notice. The asthmatic son of a rich doctor, a notorious womanizer who took indefensible liberties with his father’s female house staff, Che accidentally grew into a rebel. It was his wishy-washy phlegmatic persona trapped in difficult conditions that eventually proved to his comrades his worth as a revolutionary: He must have longed for a revolution in Sweden, because his career was spent in matted jungles, gasping for air and swatting mosquitoes, but he made no concession when his wealth and connections could have kept him comfy and cooled. Determined to survive the elements, he became the quiet glue binding his peers. If some rich brat can slog through this, well, then we have to do so as well, admitted the guerillas. But Che wrote nothing in flames, spoke only in private, and was not a noticeable profile.
Until the Italian publisher cropped Che's face out of the picture after Che and a guy named Willy got shot up in a shack in Bolivia. I am surprised to hear this, because that image of Che makes it seem as if he is the center of the Universe, but now the restaurant owner's husband has something much more important to tell me: And my wife, says he, is the greatest singer of Zapotecan music in existence, and one day she will be a star, bigger than Lila Downs. “You should help my wife,” whispers the husband, “She needs a Yankee to market her voice, and I have already seen that you could sell me a snake.” Something to this effect, to my surprise. “Che Guevara’s time is finished, the revolution has been won, but my wife has a future, and she sings in the voice of the only people who have not been defeated by the European. She just needs some marketing. Lila Downs, in her songs, who do you think plays that electric guitar? A Mexican? A Zapotecan? No, my friend, the guitar player in Lila Downs’ band is from Hollywood. And you are from Hollywood, I can hear it in your accent, and you must be the secret of my wife’s success!” Something like this, but more mellifluously spoken.
The husband a year later was poisoned by the wife, according to town rumors. And when I am standing in the restaurant, years later, in the city of women looking at his picture hanging on the wall, next to it is a picture of Korda hugging him, and then another of Korda laughing loudly while the husband kisses him on the cheek. Korda, too, has died in this time, less than a year after this story occurred. And the wife has moved to Oaxaca with a new baby from some stranger, opened up a bar and sings there for the tourists from time to time. The police will soon go to investigate, say the rumors. Except the wife, Zapotecan chanteuse, leaves Oaxaca behind, too, and takes the baby she offered to have with me to Munich or Hamburg, where she sings Zapotecan songs to the one group of people on the planet who can never understand her words. (This is hell to the urbane Dane: the beer is brewed in Sweden, the food is cooked in Norway, and the Germans provide the entertainment!)
The Zapotecan singer steps out of the swimming pool the day the fair started, but not before asking me to hold up a towel to hide her see-through bathing suit. Wolves around the pool, drawn to the fair, are looking at her and waiting for her emergence. As she stepped out, she tells me later, she liked the way I looked at the wolves instead of at her skin, and that’s when she decided I was “either gay or a gentleman” and if it was the latter she had a proposition to make. Would you like to have a baby? “I don’t need a father or a husband, since I already have both,” she would tell me as she bustled the tables at the popular restaurant, speaking in daggered whispers each time she passed me, “But I will do anything for a baby.”
Korda liked the Zapotecan singer, too. Some anthropologists came from Germany and wrote a book about the city of women and its custom of raising every last boy in the family as a girl, and they met Gabriella and made her the focus of their studies, because she was smart and shrewd and dressed like Frida Khalo but looked like Salma Hayak. But the Zapotecan singer, the Queen of the Zapotecs, as Gabriela came to be known, was only half Zapotecan, the only child of her mother, who mated with an outsider, a cowboy from Michoacan. And more than liking Gaby, Korda loved women. All he wanted to shoot was a woman as an object, and he looked at them the same way, and he is looking at Gaby as she is whispering in my ear in her restaurant on the night of his reception.
She says the following:
Are you gay? We’ve never discussed your sexuality. My husband is from another century. He has nothing to do with this, of course. But you should come here, and stay. The baby doesn’t have to be yours, but I need a little girl to go with the boy you have already met. My son likes you. He thinks you sound like the cinema. Don’t answer me now, but maybe before you leave tonight, you can grab my arm and kiss me on the cheek, but intimately, roughly, your hand high under my arm, so Korda sees you and you can look at him as you did at the men staring at my culo in the pool. And then you can answer me after the fair. What do you think? You can even ask Sueraya what she thinks, since she is your friend and will give you good advice.
In her hotel room later that night, I am in despair as I tell Sueraya about the turn of events. What am I going to do? Well, says Sueraya, you can’t do nothing or everyone will go berserk. I didn’t really hear this advice, which turned out to be a big mistake. Sometimes when you are consumed with a problem you do not see the larger picture in which the problem has multiplied into many other, new problems. Listen, if it helps you out, I’ll flirt with Korda, says Sueraya. What? What are you talking about? But Sueraya is smiling, her plan already hatched and not designed to be re-packed.
And the next day at breakfast I am talking to another character who will figure largely in this story when I continue it sometime in the future: Amaranta, the muxe, raised as a girl since she was a little boy to be her mother’s helper in the city of women, where every mother is judged by the gold thick on her wrists and chest and the genuine femininity of her youngest son, who will become part of a sorority of boys allowed into the market where no other male is welcome, the better for the women to mind their cash. I am talking to Amaranta about doing a shoot of mothers and their muxes, and Amaranta is insisting that I accompany her to the tent of the mother of the city’s federal judge, but that I had to make sure to walk into the fair with Gaby first, since I had long blonde hair and the big cameras and the assistant and speaking of this assistant I see Sueraya, made up like a Zapotecan, flirting with Korda, saying something as Amaranta is saying something and the fawn looks up at the slaughter to see Korda staring at me in surprise.
I practically drag Sueraya from her plate of melon and mango, and in the ladies’ room she tells me to keep cool, that she told Korda I took pictures of models or advised them or cast them into Hollywood or who knows what he does with them and if Korda played his cards right maybe I would cut him a piece of this action. But you don’t speak Spanish, Sueraya! What are you talking about? says she: Korda speaks English, fool, and he had no problem understanding when I pointed at you and said “foto” and “chicas.”
Back at the mango and melon, Amaranta raps her glass with a knife and calls for attention. Everyone might have noticed the Americans at the table, she says, and the Cuban poetess and her husband and Korda and two Norwegian photographers holding Leicas like limousine signs at the airport, and Gaby and Gaby’s second, Lucy, and half a dozen others stare at me and Sueraya as Sueraya adjusts her gold tiara and its fake roses. You may have noticed our American friends, here to do a documentary about the city of women and a stage show on Broadway where Gaby sings in Zapotec and I tell stories about becoming a girl in Spanish, and I ask of all of you to participate without censor in this production, because I am not sure about the rest of you, but I need a break.
Or something to this effect. Not sure of the exact words, since I was busy playing poker with the man who immortalised Che Guevara, two eyes against two eyes, except that I had the card every player dreads: While he tried to weigh what I could mean to him, I didn’t care.
Even if I knew then what I would know a year later, with Korda dead and the Zapotecan singer’s husband dead, and Gaby on the lam with an Italian photographer’s baby in her belly, and Amaranta in the hospital with her arm cu
t off after a gruesome accident on a bus before she ran for the Mexican parliament on basically the freak ticket and almost won, even so, I wouldn’t have cared.
Korda must have sensed this, and my lack of caring that he was the man who shot Che got under his skin and drove him crazy several days later, which Sueraya bless her soul captured on video somewhere on one of the tapes between 661 and 673, we don’t know which, because she can’t be bothered with sequence, and I can’t be bothered with research.
But before that meltdown happened, the next few days in the city of women were utterly amazing. I’ll write the rest of the story soon, I hope.
Thanks for reading, if you have got this far. I’ve been meaning to write some of this out since it happened 7 years ago, and I think this is the appropriate place – and time – to do so. Sorry for another busy post!