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Hugo Olivarez's T-shirts will make you uncomfortable, and not because of the fit. It's the messages on the front that inspire the kind of nervous laughter Stephen Colbert got recently at the White House correspondents' dinner, and like Colbert, they just keep getting more popular.
The first time the public heard about Olivarez's clothing label, Charro King, it was August 2005, and community leaders of all stripes were condemning its most successful shirt. The design features the words, "Welcome to Oak Cliff" and a stylized, road-sign-type image of a figure with a pistol putting a body into the open trunk of a car. The Charro King kiosk at Valley View Mall was doing a brisk business in the shirts, but mall officials suddenly decided to revoke the lease, saying customers had complained. Olivarez is convinced that the complaints came from above, not below. "The customer has to write down a complaint form, but they never gave us any of those," he says. "It was political pressure."
Univision, NBC 5 and even MSNBC ran stories quoting Oak Cliff residents outraged by the shirts. The Dallas Morning News condemned Charro King in an editorial, saying, "Any fool can make money exploiting ethnic, economic and cultural prejudices. And once that train gets rolling, where will it stop?"
In the two days of media coverage following the closing of the kiosk, Olivarez and his partner Jose Hernandez sold 1,167 shirts on their Web site, CharroKing.com. "I learned from that incident that there's no such thing as bad publicity," Olivarez says.
Out of the limelight, Olivarez continued dreaming up ever edgier designs. One uses the same traffic-sign graphics to depict people scaling a ladder over a fence. The text reads, "We can't jump, but we can climb." Another shows a chef wielding a knife next to a dog roasting on a spit. The legend: "Welcome to Mexico." Olivarez has gone through three suppliers because they can't print his shirts fast enough. Charro King has opened another Dallas kiosk, this time in Town East Mall in Mesquite, and now sells to seven other stores around the state. The Town East kiosk sells 450 to 650 shirts every week, Olivarez says.
The designs caught the attention of Roger Sosa, aka DJ Spin, promotions director for CASA 106.7, a Latin hip-hop station. "The first time I saw them, I was like, 'Damn, I want those shirts,'" Sosa says. Now Olivarez designs shirts for CASA promotions and Charro King shirts are given away at the station's events--but not the "We can't jump" shirt. "Personally I think it's funny, and I would wear it," Sosa says. "I told him to customize one that says 'I'm an illegal,' and I'll wear it. Politically, as far as handing them out, I wouldn't want that. It's not good PR."
Far from bad PR, Olivarez sees his company's success as a signal that Mexicans are finally taking their rightful place in society. "There's a new Mexican generation that's taking pride in being Mexican," Olivarez says. "They're not afraid to go into a restaurant and start speaking Spanish." The recent immigration protests inspired a new round of designs featuring doves and the words, "We are not criminals."
Olivarez doesn't try to pose as a political leader. "It's just a stupid shirt," he says. "You can buy it, or you can just leave it there." But he does say the fact that Latinos are at last willing to make fun of themselves has a greater significance. "I just want to show people we can be hip too...Believe it or not, we can do things other than cooking or mopping the floor."