Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Undocumented Apparel' takes on hipsters, privilege, and a controversial fashion ad

The beyond-hip Los Angeles clothing company American Apparel has long enjoyed a good measure of respect from the immigrant rights movement for its activism, notably the Legalize L.A. campaign. One might even say that its legally embattled CEO, Dov Charney, earned some street cred after the Obama administration audited the compañia rebelde (as a banner on its L.A. factory proclaims) in 2009 and made him fire 1,800 employees for lack of work authorization.

But there's that saying about roads paved with good intentions, and it was exemplified recently by one American Apparel ad that, well, took a turn south. The ad showed a tall, thin young blond woman posing with a "California farmer," i.e. a dark-skinned Latino in work attire and cowboy hat.

The ad triggered a spate of criticism that at best has been along the lines of ugh-this-is-what-happens-when-well-intended-white-liberals-go-too-far, or something like that. It's also prompted groans over the use of immigrant workers as marketing props, not good either.

Enter Julio Salgado, the cartoonist of "Liberty for All" fame, an undocumented Cal State Long Beach journalism graduate whose art has become a prominent part of the student immigrant rights movement in recent years. His spin? "Undocumented Apparel," a new series of posters that mimic the spare look of American Apparel ads, if minus the sex appeal.

Here's how Salgado described the inspiration earlier this week:

I initially started them as a response to American Apparel's use of a day-laborer as a prop in one of their ads. Sure, I appreciate the fact that the company has come out in support of undocumented immigrants. But the ad just seemed in such a bad taste so I felt the need to call them out. It was very, "see, white hipsters do hang out with the immigrants."

If you go to any Home Depot where day laborers are trying to get a job, you don't see people like the model just kicking it with them.

But beyond that, the images have become about paying homage to people like my mother, who had to stay in this country in order to save my sister's life.

No undocumented parent just wakes up one day and says, "you know, I am going to risk my life and my children's life to try and give them a better life." There are many reasons why people come to this country, and there are many reasons why some people have access to do it the "legal" way. It's easier to criminalize someone and point fingers rather than get to the root of the issue and figure out how to resolve it.

Bluntly, the copy in the faux ads gets at privilege, as in the kind that gets overlooked by those who have it, in spite of the best of intentions.

The "models" include fellow undocumented young people like UC Davis student Mandeep Chahal ("Hey hipster, you can use my identity all you want. But how about I borrow some of that financial aid?") and Salgado's mother, who overstayed a visa in the U.S. after his younger sister developed a serious illness ("You backpacked across Europe and they call you adventurous. I crossed a border to save my daughter's life and they call me a criminal.").

And Salgado, who makes it clear in his own poster that he takes no hipster prisoners.

An American Apparel spokesperson was recently quoted in the Bay Citizen about the "farmer" ads, whose two subjects are named Robin and Raul:

"Honestly, we're not sure what the problem is," said an American Apparel spokesperson in an e-mail. "Raul is a family friend and the photos turned out great, so we developed them into an ad and put it on our website. The whole controversy seems a bit contrived."

No word back yet from the company on its reaction to the "Undocumented Apparel" series, but I'll update this post with comment if there is a reply.