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What’s in a mural?

Update:  Since writing this post, we sat down with 4 of the owners of Bartertown to discuss the community debate.  They admitted that they need to be better at Facebook and promise to try to keep up with it, and not censor open discussion.  They also asked us to wait until the mural is 100% complete before passing judgment, and think that people will feel differently once they see it in it’s entirety – we agreed to do just that.

Like a lot of vegans, vegetarians, and just plain foodies in Grand Rapids, we’ve been  anxiously anticipating the opening of Bartertown Diner and Roc’s Cupcakes. Anytime a new  business opens in West Michigan, it’s cause for celebration, and we get especially  excited about a purely vegan joint.

Our excitement was short-lived when we were saddened this morning to see a good friend upset over a picture of the new mural on the wall of Bartertown. The mural has many images, but one is the often seen depiction of a young Che Guevara. It’s not anything we’d ever thought about honestly, but we’re not of Cuban descent. Our friend is.

To hear the stories of our friend’s parents encounters with Guevara gives us the chills. To know those stories, and after doing our own research, it puts Guevara in a new light It gives us pause as to the point of that particular mural in a vegan diner.

Our friend expressed his discontent on his Facebook page. A discussion followed, where many people’s eyes were opened just as ours were. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of pulling the mural down, and there’s little reason not to. Guevara is no one’s hero, and you’d assume that once the proprietors of Bartertown understood the sensitivity, there would be an acknowledgment of ignorance and the mural would come down soon after. Bartertown had a chance to rectify the situation.

But that’s not what happened. Some people posted on Bartertown’s Facebook wall, asking them to reconsider the mural and some posted links with websites regarding Guevara’s atrocities. The comments were quickly deleted.

If that wasn’t enough, adding even more fuel to the fire, a statement has been made through another Facebook account which links over to the original Bartertown Facebook page – presumably to make it harder for comments to be posted. The statement disregards any concerns about Guevara, warns that anyone who voices their displeasure will be banned from their Facebook page and comments will be deleted (as were the one’s posted earlier today), and promises that the final and completed mural will somehow make it all better.

We hope the Bartertown team comes to two realizations:

1. If you’re going to be in social media, you have to deal with the good and the bad. If you want to defend your right to have Guevara on your wall, so be it. But don’t silence the conversation. Bartertown had the opportunity to discuss the mural with others in their community, and they chose to shut the door before we even had a chance to walk in.

2. The mural is in poor taste…no matter your “pacifist anarchist” views. Take it down.

Kolene & Jon

  • Odyfabregas

    Thank you so much for doing this. It helps a little with the healing of the atrocities this man did to our family and with our country. He is no hero and those that see him as one are either useful idiots for the same ideology or they are ignorant fools.

    • Spyralout

      Just to be sure, this is the same Ody who suggested that "sudan" shipped his WMDs to "sadi arabia" in a comment on Mario's FB post correct?

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for posting this. The more people speak out, the better. It is helping people to learn the truth.

  • I agree. Che is not a hero to me, but his image plastered all over dorm walls and such seemed relatively innocuous. I didn't realize before reading (and becoming briefly involved in) the Twitterstorm over it, that his image hits very close to home for many Cubans. A person I was talking to compared eating near a portrait of Che akin to a jew eating under a portrait of Hitler — quite a poignant analogy, and a connection I wouldn't have made without his message.

    • That would have been me, Tyler. The originator of the shit-storm. I'm glad that what took place today helped to educate some who may not have known of the horrors of Che Guevara. His nickname was "El Carnicero" or "The Butcher" at the La Cabana Prison where he murdered or gave the order to murder thousands of "political" prisoners. That's appetizing?

  • Lisa Rose Starner

    Interesting. Guevera was revered by the revolutionaries of Cuba. Detested by the elites. He was seen by many in Latin America (beyond just Cuba) as a freedom fighter against the tyrants in Cuba.

    In Latin America — one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. It's all a matter of perspective.

    If there was a poster of Batista on Bartertown's walls would there'd be the same outcry from this Cuban who takes such offense from the mural of Che???

    Check both sides of the story — that of the elites and that of the revolutionaries. Neither has a clean record.

    • Lisa, after calming down, I apologize for being so accusatory in my previous response to you but you must understand that freely throwing the word "elite" at people who have actually LIVED a situation is pretty incendiary. I don't have the stamina today to re-type the reasons behind all of this, but my Facebook page is public and you are more than welcome to hop over and read the hows and whys of this situation and why it is extremely personal. Feel free to comment there as well. The point is, this man was a murderer of thousands of innocent people. Some who were personal to me/my family which was in no way "elite", there's that offensive word once again. His mural has no place in a dining establishment. It's like expecting Jews to dine under a mural of Hitler. Not only offensive, but BAD business. Especially at a vegan establishment. So meat is murder, but an actual murderer of thousands of men, women (and from all accounts one child) is NOT murder? Seriously, can this have ANY defense?

  • Actually, Rose, I was that "elite" who started it and I would be more than happy to sit down with you and talk about REAL life as opposed to what you've supposedly read or seen in a movie. Name calling is ridiculous when it comes from someone who has no idea what they're talking about. I think it is YOU who should check both sides of the story, or better yet, live any ONE side of it before you spout that rhetoric. Did YOU ever come face to face with Che Guevara? How about Hitler? Maybe you should go talk to some Jews and tell them they should not be spouting off. Your "elite" language is offensive when you don't even know the people you are talking about. Who is the ELITE then?

    • Lisa Rose Starner

      Just saw this Mario as I've been traveling today.

      My commentary was directed at the authors of the post re: lacking content: No indication as to why – who around the core issues of this boycott. As someone that just stumbled upon it – It seemed extremely one-sided, and spent a good deal criticizing the owner of the business (whose response I do not condone — but would hope they'd reconcile it in a way that's positive for everyone).

      There was little context, and it did not bother to illustrate the varying degrees of gray between what I frankly pointed out as black and white using the terms Elite and Revolutionary.

      And as a Jew – the telling of the stories of the Holocaust and other times of persecution help my people and others understand and remember. Which is what I think you want to do, non?

      Your story is meaningful. As I said in a personal message to you requesting a moment to listen to your experiences, I rather hear it straight than from an impassioned GR GrapeVine that this has all become.

      I sincerely apologize to you for my choice in language and hope you find some peace (and others who may be struggling with this business owner) in this matter.

      We are being asked to *rally* by this page, but really, how can one rally if there's no willingness to bring others in with the full story?

      I hope to hear it.

      • Anonymous


        I'll take the hit for not providing enough context of Mario's story and I am glad he chose to let people know how to find it through his comment here. We certainly could have posted his comments I suppose.

        However, we never called for a rally, and we purely posted our thoughts about the issue. It wasn't meant to sway you, as a potential patron. I really don't care what you choose to do. As someone who supported the Bartertown effort (I wrote a story on their plans for the Rapidian), I was disappointed in the mural and their subsequent handling of the issue on their Facebook page.

        • Lisa Rose Starner

          Jon — the context of Mario's stories (and others that I just caught up on over at Mario's FB page) is HUGE for understanding (mine, at least) that this isn't just hipster quibble (which honestly, thought it was until I looked deeper) but seriously impacting people in our community.

          So while if there was not enough context at the outset, this has catalyzed a discussion on the issue with the Restaurant and with the Cubans' stories of Che. No need to apologize.

          That said, while you perhaps hadn't intended it to be a rally other vegans have seen it that way claiming boycott, etc. And at first I found that quite trite, not knowing any of this backstory.

          But after strong thinking on this issue — I need to retract my snide remarks about the boycott as well as retract my favorable support of BarterTown for the lack of their engagement in this issue.

          I *do* hope they engage in a way that resolves these hard feelings and also works in their favor for their business.

          Thanks for the forum — it's been pretty helpful for me to understand.

          • Anonymous

            Excellent points. If more people would have really explored the issue instead of just thinking it was a ploy to take down the business or be anti-hipster then this probably wouldn't have gotten so out of control. No one was really calling for them to do ANYTHING but understand that the images could cause some to feel uncomfortable and maybe a business should give that some thought as not to alienate potential customers. It was meant to be an honest discussion and no one I know thought they should not be allowed to have the mural or anything of the sort.

            Unfortunately by deleting comments and trying to police social media, I feel the Bartertown people made a mistake, which they have acknowledged. It's 2011. People take to the internet now with their opinions and feelings.

            I have been very encouraged by much of the dialogue surrounding this, despite some squeaky wheels that are not being civil or developing strange conspiracy theories.

    • Durruti

      Yeah, I'll buy that you've ever been face to face with Che Guevara when you buy that I'm the Sultan of Brunei, Mario. Come mierda, pedazo de mierda gusano.

      • I never said I came face to face with him. Members of my family did. Lovely and constructive language to call someone you don't know. Grow up,

  • Anonymous

    The point is what happened AFTER the revolution. If your answer to violence and tyranny because violence, murder and tyranny then anything that came before becomes discredited. The problem is that so little of the truth about Che Guevara is known so people don't realize that many rank him with Stalin, Mussolini, Chairman Mao and the like. When people glamorize what became a tyrannical movement in its own right, they tend to forget that people may be personally offended.

    We are fortunate to live in a free society where expressing these views will not have us jailed or killed. Political figures are very polarizing and many need a thicker skin, but in this case it is murders of thousands/millions being used as a "tongue in cheek" commentary on communism. Communism, in theory, was a lovely Utopia. In practice? Not so much.

  • Roberta F. King

    This is a thoughtful post by Kolene and Jon. This is an important issue and one worth taking a stand about.

  • Guest

    Don't like it? Don't eat there. If you truly support free speech, you support free speech for views you don't like.

    • Guest

      But why would a business that's open to the community–and hoping to earn some of the community dollars–want to alienate members of that same community through hate and ignorant free speech?

      • Gustavo

        That's their decision. I'm sure they'll get a lot of business regardless. I find it funny that an unfinished tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Che has a few people up in arms demanding its removal. "yes we are for freedom of expression, except for the ones we don't like" No one is asking you to like it or eat there. If you feel alienated then find somewhere else to eat that will support your views.

        • Guest

          I wouldn't eat there anyway since, unlike my vegan friends, I find most vegan cuisine inedible. I was primarily thinking in terms of business and marketing.

      • I have to defend them here as at no time have they used actual "hate speech". Ignorance possibly, but hate speech definitely not.

  • Gustavo

    "doing research" by only checking out one side of the story on one website? interesting. I also find it interesting that you link pacifist anarchists with a news story about vandalism. bias much? what are you trying to get at? I was looking forward to this blog, unfortunately I will not be recommending it to my fellow vegans.

    • Anonymous

      We did lots of research, but only sited one site. I can send you a list if you like. And believe me, we didn't come to this conclusion lightly, in fact Jon is the one that promoted them in an article on the Rapidian after interviewing Ryan. When the Facebook admin started deleting any unpleasant posts and basically told people that anyone trying to start a conversation about the mural would be banned, well… that was the nail in the coffin for me. I still have hope that they will wake up and talk about things and we can work this out.

      As far as posting to the link to the news story, I think it's important for people to try to understand Ryan's point of view, and since he isn't talking, that's all we have to inform our readers.

      • Durruti

        I think I'd probably take what you have to say a hell of a lot more seriously if you could at least put for the minimal effort of running a spell check before posting things. In your first sentence, you should have spelled it "cited," not "sited," dumb ass.

  • Spyralout

    So I guess all the Chinese people in GR should also be up in arms about the part of the mural with the retro cultural-revolution era propaganda on it?

      • Spyralout

        I guess I just find it funny that of all the research you did you choose to post a link to a poorly designed, obviously stilted and one-sided website.

        To be sure there are parts of Che's history that are ghastly, and Mario's family's personal history within that context are heartbreaking and I have no doubt about why he feels the way he does. As well he should.

        I don't really know what I'm getting at here beside that I don't really sympathize with either party here all that much about the mural debate though.

        Mario and his friends called some people some nasty names based on one sentence, inferred a whole lot about what Ryan even thinks about Che, and then attacked a guy who really only wanted to learn more about Cuba based on the idea that their personal experience trumps everything.

        Ryan, on the other hand, royally dropped the ball on the handling of the whole thing too.

        There's just way too much righteous indignation swelling up around a mural for my taste.

        • Points well taken. Thank you for your honest thoughts on both sides of the issue.

      • Spyralout

        We should also send outraged letters to Threadless.com apparently.

  • Gustavo

    Let's hope that Kolene and Jon start to rally against other food establishments that have images of of US Presidents and Politicans who can be considered war mongers and murderous. Otherwise they're just hypocrites to me

    • Spyralout

      Fact: Cubans as a voting demographic overwhelmingly vote Republican, due to the right-wing support for the embargo on Castro. Which basically means two things, Cuban-Americans largely support the party that has not only kept Cubans in Cuba under economic sanction for half a century, but also the same party that gave us the Iraq war. They also voted 90% for Ronald Reagan, the man whose administration aided the Contras in Nicaragua, fueling a bloody civil war in that country that Nicaraguans are still quite sore about to this day, as well as funding what would become the Taliban in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, etc. Reagan's hand in Central America makes Che look like a teddy bear.

      These are, apparently, the kinds of people Cuban-Americans choose to support instead of Che.

      • I voted for Obama.

        • Spyralout

          Hence why I said, "largely support". It's a very well known pattern that Cuban-Americans tend to vote for Republicans due to their anti-Castro policies. Sometimes more so, sometimes less so. You personally may or may not vote Republican, but that wasn't really the issue. The issue is the overall trend within Cuban-Americans as a voting block. They call Che a murderer and terrorist, and also loved Ronald Reagan. I'm just pointing out the rather comical nature of that general trend.

          Interestingly, from what I know, for most Cuban-Americans, the strong support for Republican policy ends at the anti-Castro stuff, and the support for social issues, etc, that Republicans tend to support varies greatly, and yet, they still reliably vote for Republicans as a general demographic.

          Also, voting for Obama, regrettably, does not seem to count for a whole lot these days in the context of ending violence and such, and that's a damn shame.

          • Anonymous

            Actually, I believe that the younger generations of Cuban Americans tend to skew way more to the center/center-left than the older generations….which tends to be the trend in general of course. But a lot of Cubans under 35 or so voted for Obama in the last election. Interesting. And I agree that a lot of the Republican votes were knee-jerk reactions based on posturing the GOP used to look pro-Cuba when really they couldn't have cared less after the fall of the USSR. We don't need sugar badly enough…too bad there's no oil there.

  • Tsukae

    Guevara is a hero to anyone that isn't a Batista supporting dickbag. It was a fucking revolution, of course he killed people. Best of all he killed rich supporters of a military dictatorship. Cuba is much better off now than under Batista rule.

    • Yes, absolutely a hero to anyone who views him as an ideology and a shirt. Not to anyone who has to deal with the after-effects of his actual legacy. And of course Cuba is better off now. I suggest taking a luxurious vacation there. You could start at the deluxe Hotel Nacional in Havana and work your way to the beautiful Varadero Beach resort, but don't plan on seeing any actual Cuban citizens there. The government only allows them there if they're WORKING serving your ass. An island of slaves…paradise.

  • Antonio

    I also love how Che is called a mass murder for killing state officials during a time of revolution when the Cuban public strongly supported his actions, but George Washington who was called "town burner" by the natives and crushed anti-tax rebellions is some hero for patriotic idiots.

  • DeLeon

    Che Guevara assumed the responsibility of overseeing the executions of some several hundred Batista loyalists. Charges against these people were as follows: Raping, killing, torturing, putting hot irons into women's vaginas, mutilation.. All of these acts were done towards people who were not supportive of the U.S. backed Batista regime. Because Batista supported the use of market trade, was authoritarian, and did not represent the interests of Cuban citizenry at the time(who were vehemently anti-US)– he was optimal for U.S. instatement. Naturally, the people of Cuba hated the idea of imperialism and domination in South America because they had witnessed the throwing out of elected leaders and the instating of right-wing military leaders because it was politically convenient for the West to do so during the Cold War. So its ironic that people find Che a mass murderer, when he simply executed those who committed war crimes under the guise of U.S./Batista approval and against the will of the public.

  • tim p

    i would imagine Bartertown's thinking behind putting up the mural is the same as the thousands of punk/hardcore records with images of bombed out cities, mutilated bodies and tortured animals – images within that insular culture tend to not have any historical context beyond the one that is already understood within that culture – i'm not defending it, i'm just trying to understand their logic because i'm surprised by their response to all of this. they could have easily used images of Victor Jara, Joe Hill, or IWW stuff to illustrate their agenda, but then maybe no one would recognize it

  • the guy that painted

    im damn near positive that the mural itself was more commentary on youth culture appropriating revolutionary figures in attempts to appear fashionable than to give a thumbs up to political butchery. any political figure that has led any nation is in some way complicit in death. all leaders do horrible things. but that is not what the mural was done for. mostly it was just commentary on commercialization of revolutionary or political figures in an attempt to up the edgy cool of those that buy it. at least half of the college age population that have read chomsky probably have a che t-shirt rattling around their closets. the images are made to look silly. there are (were?) plans for other political figures in various resaurant work roles to be painted. within the confines of a commercial and capital based society the images of these figures are reduced to product. and that was all that was intended in the painting…using an edgy image-product and reducing it to foolishness.
    im sorry that people got angry. not my intent. i just wanted to mock young faux-revolutionary types.

    • And that is all fine and good, but if that was the case, then why when I simply posted a COMMENT saying that I had been looking forward to their opening but found that image unappetizing, veganly hypocritical and offensive, the response was "Thank you for the positive comment. Sorry 'are' politics clash". And then when others came in to voice their opinions we were ALL deleted and told to shut the fuck up or we would be banned. I've also got the private messages to prove it. Sounds like the middle finger to a potential customer to me. Your explanation would have been much better and merited had this actually been the "planned" motif. Backtracking is going on all over the place. Sorry but, with all due respect, that's just the way I see it. If we are going to do polarizing shit, we must OWN it, explain it and move on or not bother being the big ol' statement maker and backtracking when the titty is in the big ol' wringer. Know what I mean? That being said, your work and execution as an artist are commendable.

      • the guy that painted

        im sorry you got that kind of a reply. outside of painting the mural i dont have anything to do with the restaurant and had no idea that there was a ruckus about it until the day i replied on here. i dont live in around grand rapids so i really had no idea what was happening until ryan told me.

  • Ryan

    Hey vegan GR, so whats the deal you only exist on the net? I sat down this after noon with the wonderful Denise Chang and had coffee. You know the same girl who is upset about the mural? Thats right we talked in person. Then I gave you my # I heard nothing! Then I gave Mario a time I would be home yes I got a call back that i have not returned yet. We have lives we have families we have jobs. Your post makes this site look really bad, and thats coming from someone who has been involved with the vegan community for many many many years in this area. So too bad a cool site has just become a reactionary debacle!
    All in all people like Denise Chang are going to make this world a better place through talking, and not playing these social media games. You got my # call it. Lets make veganGR a cool site for all to enjoy. Bartertown fucked up by bullshit censorship. One of the people from the collective made a mistake, but so did you. Telling us to take it down, what the hell is that?
    The mural is not done, and you have to come in and see what it look like when we open. We are not looking to cater to the entire world. Come if you like or don't, it's that simple. Bartertown went public on Mlive this morning and on our site http://www.bartertowngr.com that we made a mistake so it's time you do the same!

    • Jon

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for the note.

      We are currently out of town for the weekend and we just were unable to call you during the hours you suggested to us in our email exchange.

      Glad to hear you've connected with Denise, and will be soon with Mario.