Port au Prince’s Fifth Avenue is a waterfront road, just off the harbor, where mountains of second hand clothes bake in the tropical sun. The market, Croix-des-Bossales, is where the slaves used to be sold. Now it is not strong men from Africa that the merchants receive, but containers loaded with skirts, pants and shirts from the US. These second-hand garments are called “Pepe” and it is increasingly difficult to see a Haitian wearing something that has not been previously worn by an American.
A t-shirt produced for Wal-Mart in the sweatshops of Port au Prince will be sported by a Texan and then returned to the sender, who, at last, will be able to wear it. This back and forth gives us a peek into the workings of the globalization of the textile industry.
The majority of “Pepe” that arrive on the island have been donated by Americans to charities and collection centers, rejected by Thrift shops, and have gone through the sorting warehouses run by Haitians in Miami that discard the winter clothes and other unmarketable items from the lot. But the worst T-shirts, those that would barely be sold in the cheap gift shops of Times Square, those with the dumbest slogans, reappear, thanks to a free-market miracle, in remote provinces of Haiti where nobody has taken the effort of translating such poetry into Creole.
It is said that the T-shirt, along with the bumper sticker, is America’s favorite place for self-expression, a kind of personal billboard, where political, philosophical and religious beliefs are condensed. Paolo Woods went on the hunt for the perfect T-shirt.
All of this would be amusing and ironic if the “Pepe” trade had not put out of business thousands of Haitian tailors.
“Pepe”, or how lousy T-shirts exemplify fifty years of a North-South relationship.