Friday, January 23, 2009

Read the Teeshirts

Throughout my travels in Mexico, it finally dawned on me that I've seen Mexican folks wearing teeshirts almost exclusively with American--not Mexican--phrases, brands, and logos. It finally struck me, "what's up with that?" It's as though walking around Phoenix or Chicago or St. Louis, we see Americans wearing Spanish-language teeshirts. (We don't.) First of all, no one could understand what it says.

One teeshirt I saw this morning was "Hope College Baseball Team." Well, I happen to know Hope College. I've been there. It is a Dutch Reformed college in Holland, Michigan. Little school, little town. But there it was, walking around (in of all places, Tepic, Mexico). How do these American walking billboards get here?

The answer: they're hand-carried back from the U.S. A staggering percentage of the Mexicans I've talked to have themselves, or a member of their family, lived in the U.S. It's called "going up North" (El Norte). And, boy is it even common! The cab driver who took me to the bus station this morning said he had a legal tourist card, but had used it to work in Los Angeles, North Carolina, San Antonio, and a couple of other places. I met one guy last fall who wanted to know where I was from.
"No, no...what part of Arizona?"
"Well, what part of Phoenix...Scottsdale, Mesa, what?"
"Downtown Phoenix."
"What street?"

This guy had lived right in Phoenix for a dozen years. And now he's back in Veracruz. All this puts a very human face on undocumented immigration to the U.S. These were all working Mexicans--cab drivers, laundry workers, hotel clerks, etc.

Teeshirt Theory #2:
Maybe there is a kind of cachet in wearing "English-speaking" apparel. Maybe it's sexier or a sign of higher class status. Sure, in the U.S. we bask in the reflected cool of owning a Swiss watch, a German car, or a French purse. European good, right?
But how many Americans have you seen walking around your city wearing teeshirts that advertise "this teeshirt is from Mexico"? No, I didn't think so. It's kind of a reverse classism...European imports cool; Mexican, not so much.

Isn't it amazing what you can read--and read into--a teeshirt?