Response to Martha Sonnenberg’s Kaddish for Che

March 6, 2017

Reader response to Martha Sonnenberg’s Kaddish for Che:


Querido Che: Che está Presente

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes


The spiritual and political afterlife of Che, like the afterlife of Jesus of Nazareth, begins with their brutal torture and deaths at the hands of ignorant soldiers, colonizing forces, and local collaborators. Both faced their capture and deaths with equanimity, gentleness, and love. Both were given opportunities to surrender and save themselves, but  both acquiesced to their fate, remained true to their beliefs, and faced their executions with words of comfort and of love. Che: “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man… please, tell my wife to remarry and try to be happy.” Jesus: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.

The gospel narratives of described a man whose death shook the earth and left his own executioners fear and regret that they had killed a son of God.  Jorge Castaneda’s biography, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (Knopf) and Michael Casey’s Che’s Afterlife: the Legacy of an Image refer to an iconic photo of the dead Che

that ignited a fierce political and spiritual loyalty to the memory of the revolutionary hero.  Freddy Alborta’s photo of Che’s lacerated body, laid out on a concrete slab surrounded by gloating Bolivian soldiers and CIA operatives, one callously pointing to a mortal wound, became a global symbol of a spiritual socialist revolution. Che’s restful body, his gentle eyes and peaceful countenance radiated forgiveness and love.  John Berger noted the resemblance of the photo to Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ. (John Berger, 1975).  Alborta’s photo, sometimes referred to as “The Passion of the Che” ensured that the Argentine revolutionary would live on forever as a symbol of the spiritual socialist cause. Displayed at meetings or rallies the image  is often accompanied by cries of “Che está Presente”-  Che is here with us, a real existential presence’ similar to the “Real Presence” of Jesus, here, present in our own bodies, minds and spirits.

While in Havana in January 2000 I met with Jorge C. González Pérez, a formidable revolutionary forensic pathologist in the basement of Cuba’s Medical-Legal Institute (state morgue). I had learned that Dr. Pérez, had led the team of Cuban, Argentine, and Bolivian bio-archeologists who were commissioned to find and exhume Che’s body and to repatriate it to Cuba.  Dressed in army fatigues,the doctor spoke hesitantly at first, given the  role of the CIA in the ambush and murder of Che and his compnaheiros  in the Bolivian highlands.  The forensic pathologist presented himself as a dedicated  medical scientist and a proudly atheist Marxist. The search took two years to accomplish and his narrative was filled with precise details of the archeological, geological, biotechnological techniques, including DNA testing , that were used to identify Che’s remains.

But when Dr. Jorge Pérez, spoke of the moment when his  shovel unearthed a skull  and he was designated to reach  down into the earth to feel and to bring up the bones, Jorge’s military reserve was put to the side and his voice broke:” Yes, now I was absolutely sure that it was  him. I knew immediately by the feel and the shape of his  brow which was very distinct, very prominent.”

“What were you thinking at that moment after so many months  of futile   searching?” I asked.

“Well”, he said, bringing himself  back to his military posture. “Of course I was trained to be objective in my work and not to jump to rash conclusions before the confirmatory tests were completed. But I already knew in my heart who it was we had found. And that knowledge gave me a great sense of spiritual tranquility and a great feeling of relief and also of reverence and deep gratitude. As a man of science you feel   one thing but as a revolutionary and as a human being you feel something else.We were  uncovering  and were about to bring home the body  of our beloved hero, our querido Che. He pointed to a poster image of Che, one similar to the image gracing Sonnenberg’s  beautiful “Kaddish for Che” but with a halo around his head.

Devout Catholics display their faith in Jesus by making the Sign of the Cross on their body or wearing a cross around their neck, or carrying pair of  rosary beads with its dangling crucifix. But the point is not that spiritual and political dedication to radical faith and belief in political action in everyday life, is rooted in death, as an end point but but rather, as Martha Sonneberg explains, in rituals that bring death back into life. The kaddish invites the mourner to integrate the dead into one’s own life, to use grief to affirm the lives of others and to “continue the evolution of thought and action that Che [ and Christ were] unable to achieve at the time of his death”   Amen – So be it.


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