The American T-Shirt and Culture

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There are times when I wonder if the legacy that our generation leaves to the future will simply be t-shirt slogans. The National Endowment for the Arts never seems to fully grasp the value of cynical capitalists who want to sell t-shirts.
Mobile outdoor billboard advertisements (t-shirts) are big business in America and those shirts which aren’t sold here, are discounted and peddled in the Third World. Many times the wearers are unaware of the subtle nuances carried by the messages that they send – because there it’s just a shirt with some writing on it or a graphic of some sort such as this planned parenthood ‘ad’.
American culture, so-called “californication” must be carried to the world at all costs and I suspect that the vector for the disease will be identified by intellectual giants in the future as the surplus t-shirt.
I’ve been in a lot of third world hell holes in my life (and Chicago) and in every case, there will be some guy who speaks no English – or maybe they speak “Engrish”, wearing a t-shirt extolling some part of popular American culture that he has absolutely no understanding of. It’s like going to California to buy a “French Chicken Sandwich” or going to France where they sell a “California Chicken Sandwich” and you learn that they are the same damed thing. I blame t-shirts for this unhealthy cultural blending.
Or maybe the t-shirts aren’t surplus (but I know that they are). Maybe it’s that tourists leave the US for vacation destinations only to find that they are despised at that “paradise” with white sandy beaches and palm trees and they leave their shirts behind when they go back home?

Then there is the irony of the professional revolutionary Marxist leader, Che Guevara, made famous more by Che t-shirts that are worn on college campuses throughout North America as a symbol of protest than by his contribution to anything. Wearing a Che t-shirt is more like wearing a Hitler t-shirt than anything else, but you can’t convince college kids of that. They just like the shirt because it says that you’re a rebel and you’re not prejudiced because Che was Latino. Middle Class white kids wear Che t-shirts. You only see them in Latin America if they are bundled with the unsold (surplus) t-shirts that companies ship to there to sell at a discount.


I was in Mexico City last summer and wanted to buy a Jesus Malverde t-shirt* to bring home as a species of gag gift to a friend of mine who works in the USGOV. I went to three flea markets in different parts of the city including the particular flea market that sells the most deviant of Santa Muerte supplies in my search for a Jesus Malverde shirt. They kept telling me that I should go on-line and order it from the US. Though I was offended because (1) they thought that I was a gringo; and (2) because the only place that they area available are on US websites.
After blowing nearly an entire day and US$20 on cab fares, I ended up empty handed. 
I resolved to obtain a “genuine Jesus Malverde t-shirt” and when I flew from Mexico City to Culiacan, the capital city of Sinaloa State and home of the legendary Jesus Malverde, I got in a cab and asked the driver where I could get a Jesus Malverde t-shirt. He suggested that I go on-line and order one from the US. I stressed that I wanted one from Mexico and he took me to a flea market where, as it turns out, surplus t-shirts are sold from the US. I asked there about locally made Jesus Malverde t-shirts and a very polite lady told me that they are made in the US and are so popular with the Mexican narcos living there that they are never surplussed to Mexico – not even to Sinaloa. 

*Jesús Malverde, sometimes known as the “generous bandit”, “angel of the poor”, or the “narco-saint”, is a folklore hero in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. He is not recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

My thesis seems to be holding water.

16 thoughts on “The American T-Shirt and Culture

  1. Few other cultures understand the t-shirt and its message. Hey – that might make a good t-shirt!

  2. Just as Americans should be careful wearing t-shirts with chinese or japanese writing on them. Could say anything.

  3. When I was a teen, the first inkling I had that pop culture would slog out the basest ideals of the population was a sewn-on patch on the very short cutoffs of my biology lab partner. It said: "Sex, the Breakfast of Champions." (Mind you, at the time I absolutely didn't mind having her as a lab partner.) The more recent trend, however, seems to extoll vice as virtue and bad politics as mainstream.

    In one of my courses, we do cover Che Guevara, but as a Marxist radical, rather than as a saintly revolutionary. Once confronted with the facts of Guevara's life, most students don't seem so anxious to wear t-shirts with him on them.

  4. Che was a cur. Che oversaw Castro's execution squads and reveled in the blood of the innocent. But for a kid who wants to rebel, the t-shirt seems to scratch the itch.

  5. I can't say I'm too enamoured with the 'Support single Mums' or 'Planned pregnancy' t shirts. I quite like the sketch artist one though! We have them a plenty here too and also the ubiquitous 'Che Guevara' In fact I saw a particularly interesting one the other day saying "I've had up to here with dwarves" with a thick line falling just at his crotch, indicating exactly where he'd had it up to.

  6. I like that Che died like a whining bitch at the hands of Bolivian soldiers and CIA Officer whose father had been executed by the murderer Che. Why can't a movie to be made about that?

    When I see a hipster wearing Che's scummy visage, I get angry.

  7. Me too – I think – and when I have the opportunity, I say — You should have known Che… And the bastard got what was coming to him.

  8. Yes, some of the shirts are offensive. I put those up because they are. Some are clever like the dwarf/midget/little people shirt that you mention.

    I wear a t-shirt sometimes that says GUNS KILL in large letters and "hippies" in tiny letters after that.

  9. t-shirts in summer look cool and i think its best part of our culture to wear funky and trendy t-shirts 🙂

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