We’ve all heard the narrative of a woman standing in front of her closet exclaiming “I have nothing to wear!” while looking at hangers full of clothing. At a time when the president has sparked hate crimes against Latinx people (among other groups of color), the question so many people of color have to ask themselves is, “What do I wear to feel safe?” When violence against people of color is so widespread, it can seem safer to blend into the crowd rather than stand out by wearing a hijab or a “Brown ‘N Proud” shirt.
Even clothing choice can lead to violence in such a fraught time. Take for instance the Zoot Suit Riots, in which pachucos and pachucas wearing the iconic style were specifically targeted. For many of them, the style was a way to show their pride and the attacks were a direct result of hatred toward Mexican Americans. When 15-year-old Mariah Havard wore a “Black Lives Matter” shirt to school, the vice principal claimed it was “disruptive to the school’s educational environment.” Havard also said that she was “verbally attacked MANY times” while wearing it.
Clothing can also be used to invoke violence. At a New Jersey political rally, a man wore a “Make America Great Again” shirt and pepper sprayed a protester who was demonstrating against hate speech.
Now everyday items such as t-shirts have turned into acts of resistance. Rapidly growing female-owned brand Bella Doña’s “Brown N Proud” shirt encourages Latinx people to hold their heads high—even while 45 says Mexico isn’t “sending their best.” In 2016, Annie Cardelle posed with Eric Trump while wearing a homemade shirt that read “Latina Contra Trump,” or Latina Against Trump. The irony in seeing Trump’s smiling face in the same photo as the shirt didn’t escape the Internet, and the photo quickly went viral. Other brands are also taking clear stands against discrimination with shirts that read “I just look illegal” and “Nadie es ilegal,” which translates to “no one is illegal.”
In 2016, a group of Latino students were initially prohibited from wearing “Dump Trump” t-shirts, though the school eventually allowed them wear the shirts after some deliberation.
In a recent Vogue article, contributor Maya Singer predicted that New York Fashion Week designers would incorporate slogan tees on the runway, but she cautioned: “I sympathize with the impulse, but to all the designers out there reading this, I have a suggestion: Don’t do it. Don’t do it unless you’ve taken a good, hard look at your business and can say to yourself, in all honesty, that you practice what you preach.” Citing designer Katharine Hamnett’s work, she also argued that specificity is key to creating slogan tees in order for there to be a clear through line to action.
But sometimes the action is simply taking up space. For people of color who are often stereotyped and disenfranchised, feeling empowered and visible is often an important first step.
Latinx small business owners are creating brands that showcase their own personal histories. This isn’t the work of major companies or designers—it’s the work of Latinx makers who want their voices to be heard. Estefany Arias started Gentle Riot about a year and a half ago to give women of color “a safe space” to express themselves through t-shirts. One of her most popular shirts is the “sin miedo” shirt, which translates to “without fear” and refers to Arias’s memories of her grandfather encouraging her to do things “pero sin miedo, mija, sin miedo,” or “but without fear, darling, without fear.”
“I just wanted to make something small and simple, like a basic, but really have that powerful message, especially with the political climate,” says Arias. “It’s important to continue to walk through and be unafraid and take up space in spaces that you feel like you’re the only person of color.”
Arias also noticed that some of her shirts have recently taken on a new meaning. The elote shirt, for example, started as a nostalgic expression. After seeing so many concha items—not that she doesn’t like conchas, because “who doesn’t love pan dulce?”—she decided to create an homage to the elote. She remembers trying to find enough money for an elote and racing after the cart. But the elote shirt—which features a yellow elote on a stick with butter and chili on top of it—became even more symbolic after a recent incident in Los Angeles where a man violently knocked over a street vendor’s cart.
“I think in the last few months when people see it, you know, it’s like a form of resistance almost,” says Arias. “It’s like that nod to what happened in L.A. with the guy and his cart. I remember seeing that video and feeling very like, I don’t know, I couldn’t watch it…. It felt like a personal attack, an attack on a community instead of just an attack on one person.” Arias noticed that “people saw the shirts and were like, it’s an act of resistance right now to have this t-shirt.”
For many people of color, creating a small business allows them to build something outside of the mainstream capitalist space that gives them full creative control. For Latinx shoppers, putting your money toward small businesses can be a form of solace, but also a way to support other POC makers so that a variety of narratives can be highlighted. As an educator, Sabrina Alicea often couldn’t find books that represented children of color, so she started The Educated Latina blog and shop as a way to amplify those stories.
“The whole purpose of this was just to show the different things we can do as Latinas, seeing us in these different roles,” said Alicea. “I know when I was a little girl, I didn’t really know any jobs I could do when I was older and so I started seeking out Latinas doing really interesting jobs with or without a degree. The whole premise is to follow your dream, to follow a career.”
Her t-shirts, emblazoned with the words “Educated Latina,” serve as a way for Latina women to be proud of their own accomplishments, whether they attended a highly regarded institution or not. The slogan also challenges prevalent stereotypes about Latina women.
“It makes people really think about that term and what it means,” says Alicea. “And it makes them think about how we are being portrayed. So when you have administrations saying certain things about Latinos or any person of color, it kind of makes people think twice about it when they see people wearing shirts like this.”
Bella Doña, which has garnered a significant social following, came to life when co-owners Natalia Durazo and Lala Romero felt a similar need. They based the name of the brand on María Felíx, also known as La Doña. Romero told HelloGiggles that she was frustrated that there weren’t enough stories about Latina role models: “Where are our stories? Where’s our perspective in the picture? That’s basically what we’re trying to do. We’re just looking to inspire more girls to tell their stories.”
Adrian Mandujano, owner of The Movement Brand, felt disconnected from his own culture when he was younger. Through learning about ballet folklorico and danza Azteca, he started to focus on “preserving the culture” and decided to start his own clothing brand.
“I figured this was the best outlet to preserve the culture and influence for others who are like me, who aren’t too familiar with where they came from or even the traditions,” says Mandujano.
One of his designs include an “adelita,” another name for the soldaderas in the Mexican Revolution. But instead of holding a gun, Mandujano altered the image to show the adelita holding a diploma instead. He hopes the design encourages Latina women not to succumb to “any negative influence” and to focus instead on “better[ing] themselves through higher education and understanding the background.”
The shirts become even more impactful when you take into consideration not only who wears them but when they wear them. Mandujano says that many women wear the adelita shirt to graduation. Alicea says that one customer purchased a shirt to wear to a DACA rally. We live in a time where you can wear a shirt with the word feminism on it and pose for the perfect Instagram photo without actually taking any action to help further women’s rights. You can spend more than $30 or even $100 on a shirt, but that won’t guarantee that are being intersectional when arguing that women should be equal to men.
The onus ultimately falls on the shopper to practice what their t-shirt preaches and to seek out small businesses that do the same. As Arias explains, the community that has been created by small business owners of color is invaluable. It’s about taking agency back in both political and commercial spaces—one shirt at a time. Rather than “What do I wear?” the question has become “What do I wear to show people I’m proud?”