So I’m dreaming up a new television ad for Levi Strauss, for their late and little-mourned “What’s True” campaign. It’s February and I’m in El Paso, or to be precise on a road just east of the city. I’m riding with four guys in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler that has seen better days, and at the moment we’re heading none too quickly down Alameda Avenue, the commercial artery that connects the beaten-down towns of Ysleta and Socorro and San Elizario. With me are three middle-aged men who used to work in garment factories, and their driving instructor: he introduces himself as Jesús, but it’s “Chuy” he’s got stitched on the front of his shiny red racing jacket. It’s a very sunny, very cold day, and Chuy, whose relatively small face is half-covered by a relatively big pair of Porsche sunglasses, is sitting in the passenger seat while one of the students, Gilbert, drives the truck. Gilbert used to work at a Sun Apparel factory before it closed down. Now he’s almost done with the four-and-a-half-month trucking course, and Chuy hardly even watches him drive; instead he leans around toward me and just talks and talks, stopping every so often to say, “So, anything you want to know, ask away” — and then starting up again whether I ask anything or not. He’s telling me that it’s a tough adjustment, becoming a truck driver after working for years in a sewing plant, but one that many men in particular try to make, because there are plenty of truck driving jobs out there, and they’re some of the only jobs available to a former garment worker that pay as much as or more than his old factory wage of ten, twelve, fifteen bucks an hour. “Your whole style of life changes. It takes you away from home, you have to adapt,” says Chuy. “But hey, the garment factories are gone; they’re going to Mexico. Lee, Wrangler, the small ones like Action West. Levi, they’re gone. We’ve got to get used to it, those factory jobs are gone, and they’re not coming back.”
Chuy’s voice is the only sound in the cab besides the pneumatic wheeze of the truck. Gilbert is driving, and the other two guys, seated on either side of me on the back bench of the cab, are looking out the grimy windows. Neither speaks much English. One of them, Arnold, used to work at one of the Levi Strauss plants that shut down, while the other, César, worked for Lee until he injured his arm and couldn’t work there any more. When I ask about how it is to change jobs, they at first point out the benefits — you don’t have to stand in one place all day; instead it’s andar libre en el carro, you’re free and on the road, and if you work hard you can eventually buy your own truck, as Arnold’s brother has. “That’s where you start making the real money,” interrupts Chuy, who used to drive a truck himself until his wife insisted he work closer to home. He’s seen the trucking industry explode, thanks to the maquiladoras across the border, and several times he points out a passing truck from some other driving school. “Used to be, I couldn’t find no loads, I’d sit here for a week and then get a load. Now you’ve got trucks going in and out, all these different manufacturing companies, the maquilas — Ford, GM, Chrysler.” Just to the west of where we’re driving is the crossing point used by a lot of trucks going to and from Mexico, the Zaragoza Bridge, which most days is jammed by a long procession of unmarked rigs waiting to get into this country, lined up and inching through the inspection and weigh stations, each heaving its burden of goods across the Rio Grande — dashboard panels and coupon inserts and videotapes and underwear and spray bottles and strawberries and great huddled masses of perma-pressed pants yearning to break sales records….
We pass through Ysleta, where the Tigua Indian tribe has its casino, Speaking Rock, and Chuy mentions the fancy new houses members of the tribe are building. “They’re nice houses,” he says, shaking his head to show he’s impressed. “Some people criticize those guys, but not me. They make their money.” Farther down the road, Arnold points out “El Bronco” — a parking lot surrounded by lean-tos and marked on its roadside edge by a large and sickly-looking plaster horse’s head. The place is a swap meet and flea market on the weekends; as we drive by on a Thursday morning there are just a few people selling things out of the backs of vans and pickups: a walker that looks a little off-kilter, blankets, a pink bicycle. Some of his old co-workers from Levi sell stuff at the Bronco on the weekends, Arnold says quietly.
And then Chuy is talking about trucking again. “It’s hard on these guys, though they don’t admit it because of pride. It’s hard for them and their families, you have to adjust. It’s hard for the wives. We have a seminar where we bring in the wives and explain to them what it’s going to be like, with their husbands away for weeks at a time.” It’s hard, he says, for anyone to switch not just his job but his line of work: after he quit trucking, Chuy took a job as a groundsman for one of the local school districts. “It wasn’t the same, it’s not my line. I wasn’t happy, wasn’t comfortable. I don’t feel like I’m doing my part, my self-esteem goes down.” At least now he’s in a truck again, he says.
Arnold’s wife doesn’t work, and so he’s trying to support her and their two young children on the trade-adjustment assistance he gets from the government, about $272 a week. “It’s very hard, a change of work all of a sudden,” he admits. But, he says, no hay otra: there’s nothing else.
So here’s my idea for a Levi’s commercial: these guys lurching down Alameda Avenue in the eighteen-wheeler, looking out the window and wondering who will hire them and how their marriages are going to hold up. Pan to Speaking Rock casino, where weary seekers of fun and profit are pouring money into the slot machines. Pan to the Bronco Mart: shot of a woman trying to sell her old clothes. Back to Interior: Truck Cab, and start in with some music, like maybe “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” The last shot could be the Zaragoza Bridge, truck after truck after truck after truck: yes, commerce!
Fade to black, with the Levi’s red-tab icon at the bottom of the screen, and big white letters for the slogan — No hay otra.
Hipster Teens Destroy Company — Thousands Fired!
Okay, so it’s too easy to point out that no such advertisement will ever be made, that ads for, say, blue jeans don’t have much to do with the lives of garment workers: of course they don’t. This seems almost beneath observation. Our daydreams, after all, rarely feature bus drivers, or clogged toilets — fantasy over here, quotidian fact over there. And heaven forbid some Freudian demon spirit should arrive on the scene and ask what relation the two things might have, whether there is in fact any connection between the visions of commerce and its humble agents. In what context could you possibly consider (for instance) both a spate of ads about hip alternateens who happen to be wearing Levi’s, on the one hand, and the laying-off, on the other, of over 10,000 American Levi Strauss workers?
Last month, I traveled to El Paso and Amarillo and spoke with ex-Levi’s employees, most of them laid off in the company’s second round of closings. (The layoffs to date have been accomplished in three phases: the first in November of 1997, when Levi’s announced it would shut ten sewing plants and can 7,400 workers; the second, much smaller phase last summer, when the company said it would close two finishing plants in El Paso and Amarillo, and then the most recent wave of closures, announced February 22, which hit 11 plants and 5,900 more workers.) Though I don’t presume to know the minds of the thousands of people who lost their jobs, those people I did talk to seemed to share the sort of stoic resolve you might expect from hurricane victims. They did not convey any great sense of anger against the company, or of powerlessness — they were, with the help of a decent severance package and government assistance, planning what to do next — but, naturally, there was equally little sense among them of having much actual control over things. Once they finish their retraining, the majority will earn significantly less than they did at Levi’s — in their new jobs as nurses’ aides, or warehouse workers, or “small business” proprietors. Although you hardly need to leave home these days to be struck by this lack of control, of people tossed this way and that by the uncertain forces of economy ex machina, there’s nothing like a mass layoff to remind you how profound this sense has become, looming behind the fig leaves of “retraining” and “skills development.”
Given such a predicament, baroque arrays of consumer goods, along with the ethos of buyer liberation conveyed by advertisements, start to seem as good as designed to distract us from the not-so-liberated nature of workaday reality. Yet there’s no top-down conspiracy determining the content of advertisements; quite the contrary. Ads are the product of an incredible amount of research: demographic datamongering, the convening of focus groups, and increasingly elaborate sorts of buyer anthropology.
(Levi’s, according a report in The New York Times, has divided the hip teens it hopes to market to into seven “tribes,” based on information gathered from a network of with-it urban contacts.) As American society is increasingly split by the widening fault line between the haves and the have-nots, armies of market topographers are out there with tape measures, sizing up consumer tastes and determining how best to appeal to them. In fact, if you believe Levi Strauss C.E.O. Bob Haas, this peculiar process of converting consumer soundings into media images has at last become the company’s primary function. That insight accompanied the Times’ report of Levi’s latest round of plant-closings in late February: “Mr. Haas said closing the plants would essentially allow Levi Strauss to become a ‘marketing company’ that would focus mostly on shaping and maintaining its brand image. It would make money by licensing its name.”
How strange a notion — the company that does nothing but promote the company! Unable to hack it any longer in the pants-producing profession, Haas, the great-great grand-nephew of that long-ago Bavarian immigrant Mr. Levi Strauss himself, will secure the family legacy by encouraging the world’s citizens to have positive feelings toward little red and orange and silver fabric tabs attached to their back pockets. No longer will Peace Corps-alumnus Haas have to confront the knotty dilemmas that were once the stuff of magazine profiles, as in a 1997 Fortune piece that questioned whether Levi’s tradition of “social responsibility” could survive in the badass global economy. All those worries can be subcontracted away while America, swept by corporate Suprematism, becomes a desert of pure branding.
Yet even the land of brands has its woes, as anyone at Levi’s could tell you. The company’s falling sales over the past couple years have been everywhere attributed to the Decline of the Brand. Increasingly, it is the shifting tides of teen opinion — as filtered and shaped by the marketologists — that determine brand value, and Levi’s jeans have apparently become less cool among the junior-high and high-school set, as more and more kinds of jeans flood the market. (According to surveys conducted by the Illinois firm Teenage Research Unlimited, the coolness of Levi’s took an inexplicably severe hit sometime during the summer of 1997.) The courting of the teenage consumer has become intense; while young people have always been targets of marketing efforts, they are now the reigning demographic, at least in the jeans world.
Thus Levi’s, the venerable old Dad of blue jeans companies, feeling suddenly distanced from its mercurial hipster adolescent children, started attempting to figure out what music they listen to and where they like to hang out. Trying to get cool never works for real dads, and it hasn’t gone so well for Levi’s. The company, whose jeans account had been handled by the same ad agency for years, invited other firms to pitch for the $90-million contract; it was awarded to TBWA/Chiat/Day after the agency’s team showed up early on pitch day, in a large van that contained not only the middle-aged white ad executives but a deejay “spinning hip-hop music at top volume,” according to Adweek — an image positively poignant in its uncoolness. Then last year the company restructured, shifting to a “brand management” system organized around the Levi’s different lines (rather than around functions like merchandising and operations). And finally, over the past sixteen months the company has announced over 10,000 layoffs, resulting from the closing of U.S. plants, plus additional layoffs in Europe.
Just about any newspaper or magazine article on the first announcement of shut-downs, back in November of 1997, provides a fine example of how reporters portray corporate actions as inevitable, as the necessary consequence of “market forces.” In Business Week, for instance, the writer claimed that Levi’s “core problem” was “teenage indifference” resulting from the company’s neglect of the whims of young people, and then explained the plant closures in one sentence: With shrinking teen sales one of the key factors in the erosion of its once dominant market share, Levi Strauss was forced to announce on Nov. 3 that it would shutter 11 of its U.S. plants and lay off one-third of its North American workforce. Or here’s Time magazine: fierce competition and a leveling off of demand forced [the company] to announce last week a round of belt-tightening measures. It is never revealed what decisions the company made (to scale back overall production? move operations overseas? discontinue teen-oriented lines?). Doubtless shrinking sales are related to why the company fired thousands of people, but in these locutions it is the actual cause — market data “forced” the layoffs. This sort of symbolic, agency-free explanation abounds in the media, a cumulative effect of all that consumer research and trend ana-lysis: the social picture conjured by the marketers, the sum of their demographic tribes and buying patterns and market forces, has been granted reality status.
It’s not hard to discover how this delusion functions locally. When Amarillo’s Levi Strauss finishing plant shut down last year, putting 609 people out of work, the Amarillo Globe-News explained the closing strictly in the evasive terms provided by the company’s public relations office. And as far as you can tell from the Globe News website, only one article featured more than a one-line quote from an actual Levi’s worker, while multiple others — “Local business, education leaders express dismay at plant closing,” etc. — attended to the opinions of bank vice-presidents, the Chamber of Commerce, school officials, and Levi Strauss PR people. (Business editor Max Albright told me there’d been a second article featuring a laid-off worker, but he was unable to locate it in his files.)
The one worker-related article on the website, originally published in November, opened with the line, “Camy Craine never thought losing her job of 11 years could be an opportunity to fulfill a dream.” As a part of its severance package, Levi’s offers up to $6,000 in “variable allowance” to workers who use it to start their own business, supplement government tuition grants, or move away, and according to the article, Craine was planning to use that money to start a business of some kind. Yet when I caught up with Craine last month, her plans had changed, as she’d realized that starting a business would be pretty difficult: “I can’t see that coming to pass in the next year.” In January, Craine had enrolled at West Texas A&M University with the intention of completing a bachelor’s degree, and she was taking liberal arts courses to fulfill general requirements. Years ago she’d studied commercial electronics at the local community college, she said, but had been unable to find work in the field and had taken a job at Levi’s instead, as a Dockers pants inspector. Now, Craine said, “I’m geared into electronics, from computers to stereos. I like to work on them. I’m not real good at it, but I’d like to be going into some kind of business in that field — even helping to design computers, I don’t know. I definitely want to be my own boss one day.” In the meantime, she, her husband, and their eleven-year-old son are getting by on the last of her severance pay and her husband’s salary. Their belts will stay tightened for the foreseeable future: “I know there ain’t no place out there that’s going to pay me eleven dollars an hour,” Craine said. “I’ll have to climb somebody’s ladder to get there.”
Encounter With the Big Purple Hat
Levi Strauss first came to Amarillo in the mid-sixties, when a previous generation of hip youth had begun to turn denim pants — once the uniform of workmen and cowboys — into anti-fashion fashion items, and the city of Amarillo, hit by two rounds of military base closings, was advertising its relatively cheap, non-union labor force to companies far and wide. Over the years Levi’s opened additional plants, at one point operating as many as five in Amarillo; the finishing plant that shut its doors in November was the last to close. (At a finishing plant, pants that have been sewn elsewhere are inspected, possibly mended, “finished” — bleached or faded or stonewashed or, in the case of wrinkle-free Dockers, baked and pressed — then packed and shipped off to a distribution center.) While the Amarillo Levi workforce was mostly white and black back in the sixties, that changed over the years, as Mexican farmworkers and Asian refugees settled in the area, and started working in the factories.
You don’t find too much about the city’s minority communities in the Globe-News, but you can drive out Amarillo Boulevard northeast of town and see how this stretch of old Route 66, with its last few motor courts and gas stations, has been revived by taco joints and Lao/Vietnamese groceries and the fairly shady-looking Gamboa Ballroom. The defunct Levi finishing plant is out this way too, a little to the north, and so are the Eastridge neighborhoods where many of the city’s Asian immigrants live, in unremarkable suburban clusters of small but solid houses. If these houses seem to mark the survival of the good old American dream, the stories some of their owners tell suggest that the dream is becoming more and more surreal — or that the achievement of it is fleeting.
Phou Kham Souvannascacd, who worked for Levi’s for almost five years as a packer until the shut-down last November, bought his home here in 1996; from his dining-room window you can see, in the distance beyond a grassy stretch of undeveloped land, the finishing plant itself and the big blue Levi’s logo painted on its exterior. Sitting in his living room, which is tidy and carpeted in deep white pile and dominated by a gigantic television, Souvannascacd told me he harbors no grudge against the company. “They gave us a good package,” he said, referring to the eight months’ notice, three weeks of severance pay per year of service, and the variable allowance. (The Levi severance package is the best ever received by American garment workers, according to Jo-Ann Mort of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees — UNITE — which represents some U.S. Levi workers, though not in Amarillo.) “Levi Strauss is a good employer. I don’t blame them,” said Souvannascacd. “It’s a business decision, and they have many competitors. They have to do what’s best for them.” He does, however, fault NAFTA and Bill Clinton: “When they send jobs elsewhere, Americans don’t have jobs.”
Souvannascacd, whose father was a banker in Laos, once dreamed of becoming prime minister — “or any kind of government minister, something in politics” — before fleeing the country in 1977 at the age of seventeen. He graduated from high school in Los Angeles two years later, and moved to Amarillo where his brother was living. He stayed put, got married, and now lives with his wife (who also used to work at the Levi’s plant) and their two children. When I spoke with him in February, Souvannascacd seemed neither optimistic nor particularly pessimistic about finding a new job. He was working a few hours a week at a business that makes pilot’s headsets — which he did as a second job while still at Levi’s — and thinking that he might get hired full-time there or that he might be retrained for another line of work, though he wasn’t sure what: possibly something with computers, possibly air-conditioning repair, possibly TV/VCR repair. The one thing that did seem to depress him was talking about his employment history. After he arrived in Amarillo twenty years ago he enrolled at Amarillo College, intending to pursue banking as his father had, and took a job as a shank boner at the local IBP meat-processing plant, to pay the bills. But it proved too difficult to do both. “I made a C,” Souvannascacd said, staring down at his knees, “and I quit going to school. After that, I got married in 1982, worked at IBP until 1986. Then I went to T.S.T.C. [Texas State Technical College] and got a degree in computer electronic technology. Then after that, I went to look for jobs, and it was kind of hard.” All the good job offers were in Dallas, he said, but he wanted to stay in Amarillo. “Finally I got a job with Dock Technology [an electronics firm]… and I worked there, until I was laid off in 1993. So again I was looking for a job, and again nothing…. In order to get unemployment, you have to look for a job, you have to take it. That’s why I took the job at Levi Strauss. It was a temporary thing. But I ended up staying until now.”
Behind every policy wonk’s optimistic program for “workforce retraining” lie stories like Souvannascacd’s, which make it clear how fragmented working life has become, and what absurdities result. Nowhere is this more evident than among the growing ranks of “outplacement” professionals and job counselors, whose function it is to purvey dopey motivational psychology to the downsized — or at least, this is how it seems in the Levi’s instance. For all the closed plants, Levi’s has hired the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning (C.A.E.L.), a Chicago-based nonprofit company, and an outplacement firm called Lee Hecht Harrison, to provide workshops and counseling for its laid-off employees. Souvannascacd had attended some of the workshops — one and two-day sessions with names like “What’s Next: Getting Started With the Rest of Your Life,” and “Mind Your Own Business! Is Starting Your Own Business Right For You?” “It was fun,” he said. “We were like babies again. They gave out crayons, had us draw our house, our car. It was better than laying around the house all day.” (I later met with the head of the Lee Hecht Harrison program at the Amarillo plant, Judy Gibbs, who also mentioned the coloring activities. Crayons aside, she said the upshot of the “What’s Next” seminar could be understood as a sort of Venn diagram, which she drew for me on notepad: three intersecting loops, representing a laid-off worker’s Interests, Skills, and Values. Gibbs pointed to the intersection of the three. “This is where they want to be,” she said.)
Further insight into the theory of retraining came from Lynne Schroeder, the C.A.E.L. Center director in Amarillo, who worked last year for a C.A.E.L. Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, also at a closed Levi’s plant. A short, broad-shouldered woman with the forthright carriage of an ex-jock and a quick, wincing half-smile that she uses to punctuate her sentences, Schroeder certainly knows what it is to change careers: she’s worked as a counselor, as a marketer for a publishing company, and as a Chamber of Commerce official, all in different cities. Everything she learned in her past jobs, she told me, she uses in her current one — “everything from being a good hugger, to knowing when to say hey, don’t go there.” Schroeder seemed to take a kind of aggressive pride in her job, and as she led me around the center, which occupies a former lunchroom and part of the former trucks department at the plant, she kept pointing out all the little things she’d done that were “not in the job description,” like putting up bulletin boards, and going to Wal-Mart on the weekend to buy motivational posters (“The Road To Success Is Always Under Construction”). Those posters, along with the linoleum floors, chirrupy staff members, and “welcome” signs made from colored paper, gave the center the feel of an elementary school, and to judge by Schroeder’s descriptions, it is not unusual for the laid-off workers to be treated like children. “We teach basic, real world skills, like time management,” said Schroeder, showing me a folder. “Like, here’s a little tool for you, keep your things in this big colored folder.” Later, Schroeder led me to her small office at one end of the center. On the wall beside her desk hung a huge purple foam cowboy hat, two or three feet wide and equally tall, which she had bought at Amarillo’s roadside-tacky attraction, the Big Texan Steakhouse. “Sometimes,” she said, her tone confiding as she reached for the hat, “people come in, and they’re upset about something: ‘My advisor said I can’t be a brain surgeon.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to do a budget [for a small business proposal.]’ I find that sometimes, humor helps.” Quick half-smile. Schroeder put on the huge purple hat. I stared, bewildered, into its purple recesses. “Here’s me being a Big Texan!” she said with a ta-da flourish.
Schroeder tossed around phrases like “redefinition of self” and “opportunity to grow” in talking about the retraining process; part of her job, she said, was “letting them [former Levi’s workers] know, you’ll never have an opportunity like this again.” By encouraging people to view being laid off as their big chance to better themselves — despite the fact that for most people the plant closing will mean a significant drop in earnings, even after they are retrained as nursing assistants or repairmen — the center promotes both a coping strategy and a means of letting Levi’s off the hook: it becomes the ex-worker’s responsibility to go forth and re-tool and eventually earn once more, and the worker’s fault should he fail. Like “retraining” in general, the C.A.E.L. program has the potential both to benefit the individual and to contribute to a collective fog in which individuals plus the job listings pretty much equal the economic picture, and the structure of wages or the actions of companies are neglected.
Of course some kinds of information won’t fit into that picture. Another former Levi’s employee I spoke with in Amarillo was Liz Creel, who had worked for the company since the seventies. At one point we got on the subject of the city’s “boom” of the past few years: “It’s amazing,” she said wonderingly. “I look at the way the city’s growing, all these huge homes going up — are they all doctors, all lawyers? I have no idea, I wish I knew where they were getting this money. There’s no openings, nobody’s really hiring, so where are they getting it?”
It isn’t easy for a middle-aged former garment worker to start a new business. Of those who have applied for and received the Levi’s small-business “allowance,” many are investing it in sideline work they did in the past (cake-decorating, party rentals); few will actually dedicate themselves to full-time entrepreneurship. There’s a pathos to the modest incentive Levi’s has dangled before its workers, like a “Be Your Own Boss!” ad in the back of Popular Mechanics — and yet plenty of people are trying to at least supplement their earnings through small-time sales. Given how hard it is to find decent-paying jobs, this is understandable.
In Amarillo, you can see such entrepreneurs in action at Western Plaza, a flagging shopping mall that’s been colonized by a cluster of little Hispanic stores and food stands. Margarita Gutiérrez, a laid-off Levi’s worker who used to sell jewelry at a flea market on weekends, now splits a kiosk at Western Plaza with a woman who sells CDs, and she’s there every day, although most days there are very few customers. (A 41-year-old single mother of three who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and came to Amarillo twenty years ago, Gutiérrez worked the past five years for Levi’s as an inspector, making $10 an hour. It’s clear that she won’t make anything like that at the kiosk.) She and the other Hispanic vendors all began renting space at Western Plaza last summer, thanks to the efforts of a hard-headed local woman named Socorro “Coco” Medina, who along with her husband owns a Spanish-language radio station, “La Picosita” (“The Cockatoo”), and a translation business. Medina will talk your ear off if you let her, particularly about the old-school racism that still surfaces in the Panhandle region, and you quickly sense there must be people in Amarillo who wish she could be run out of town — and that they have long since recognized the impossibility of such a task. It’s Medina’s mission to help the local Hispanic population cut itself a larger share of the economic pie, and last year it occurred to her that Western Plaza, where the translating business operates, could be transformed into a center for Hispanic commerce. So she cut a deal with the mall owners, who offered a reduced rental rate for a large chunk of space that includes a number of storefronts and a central, recessed ring of food stands.
Western Plaza was largely empty then, and still is; with people smoking inside, and a storefront church, and a large number of elderly mall-walkers versus a small number of actual shoppers, the mall still has the eerie, limbo feel of one of capitalism’s sinkholes. Yet Medina has brought both stores and a cluster of smaller, flea-market-style stands (grouped together as “Los Mercados”) to Western Plaza, which is now decorated in places with serape-style banners and large piñatas, and according to her they’re doing good business on the weekends — though not without encountering opposition from some of the mall-walkers, one of whom tacked up a sign reading, “If you want to speak Mexican, go back to your beloved Mexico and eat beans and take siestas with your homeboys.”
Medina, who hopes to recruit more ex-Levi’s workers to Los Mercados, is critical of the way the company has handled the $6,000 variable allowance — “they [Levi’s] are just counting on people not to take advantage of it, and then when they don’t, well later those people will feel like it’s their fault that they failed.” She’s been helping people fill out the complex business-proposal forms that C.A.E.L. requires from ex-workers who want the small-business startup money, and she plans to invite a small business expert from Lubbock to come to town and speak to prospective entrepreneurs. “A person like Margarita, she’s been doing this for years, she knows — but the others, who don’t know anything about business, they can’t fill out these business plans.”
While Gutiérrez’s kiosk and some of the other full-fledged businesses are open every day, Los Mercados is open only on weekends. Medina led me through the deserted flea market on a Thursday afternoon, pointing out the goods at each stand. Many of the items for sale come from Mexico, and while it used to be that each vendor would have to go himself to Juárez to fetch his haul, Medina explained that she’s helping the tenants collaborate and develop contacts with Mexican suppliers. “A lot of these are fakes,” Medina said, indicating a rack of imitation designer-brand clothes, “but you can do it so it’s still legal,” pointing out a pseudo-Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt. Other goods at Los Mercados are made by the vendors: large, colored floor vases that look heavy but are actually made from papier-mâché and decorated with crushed and painted eggshells; lampshades cleverly constructed out of styrofoam cup halves and ribbons; decorative fans cut from wallpaper remnants. At Los Mercados, as at El Paso’s Bronco Mart and other such places, one sees the American grey market in action: while the large trucks on the Zaragoza bridge carry in loads of designer clothes destined for chain stores, they are shadowed by old sedans with trunks full of knockoffs; and if service-economy workers can’t exactly afford durable home furnishings, they can buy styrofoam lampshades.
“I always tell people, look at the parking lots and see how many new cars you see there,” says Robert Briseño , a former Farah garment worker who now works for UNITE in El Paso. “You don’t see many, because people can’t afford them.” In El Paso, laid-off workers have a more extensive support apparatus than in Amarillo — but that’s because the city has been so devastated by garment factory closures ever since NAFTA went into effect. The Department of Labor awarded $45 million to the city, to be dedicated to retraining and other services for some 4,000 workers, the bulk of them monolingual Spanish-speakers. (The old Levi’s plant on Lomaland Avenue has been turned into a layoff-services factory, with cubicle after cubicle of government-funded counselors who receive and discharge a steady stream of ex-garment workers.) There have been serious problems so far with worker retraining efforts: schools that don’t really teach anything, and workers who stay enrolled in them so as to keep receiving government trade-adjustment aid, which requires them to be enrolled in a training program. Union leaders and worker advocates have argued that the money has so far benefited the retrainers more than the retrainees, and that eighteen months just isn’t enough time for a middle-aged person to learn English and acquire new job skills. Looming behind all these specific criticisms is the fact that El Paso has lost some 9,000 manufacturing jobs since 1994. English lessons and computer skills classes can’t make up for this. “I see a two-tier society ahead; we’re becoming more and more like Juárez,” says Briseño. “America is becoming a third-world country.”
You might think downward mobility would be a cause for concern if, say, you were a big company trying to sell lots of $45 pairs of pants to the middle class. But marketology doesn’t really admit ideas of class, at least not through the front door. Instead, it’s all about demographics, and class conflict is replaced by generational antagonism, often framed lately in “Adult” versus “Teen” terms. (“Adults” are the square dupes who make hip, alternative commercials possible, while “Teens” are strange, tribal consumers who indulge in all sorts of violent and immoral behaviors they learn n television.) This otherwise fairly bogus conflict comes in handy when it comes time to market to the emerging teen consumer.
Unfortunately for Levi Strauss, the accepted procedure for marketing to teens is to try to appeal to what the targeters call “edge teens” — the hipsters, the rebels. Levi’s jeans commercials, by contrast, have for years relied on invocations of all-American authenticity and standard-issue sexiness: people “acting natural” for a distant camera, or handsome men removing their jeans in a laundromat, or just plain folks hanging out somewhere in America. So when it came time to join the crowd and pitch images of rebellion to the teen market, Levi’s had to figure out how to do not just rebellion but really authentic rebellion. The solution was natural enough: get some honest-to-god fringe types onscreen. The folks at TBWA/Chiat/Day hired director Errol Morris to film young lifestyle radicals, and then sifted through his footage to select the “advertisements.”
Hence the “What’s True” campaign was born, and quickly became one of the most disliked ad campaigns around. The resulting brief portraits had little to do with pants, or with anything. Here were kids saying dumb things, and while dumbness is hardly a rarity in advertising, the fact that these were real kids made it particularly depressing. You had, for instance, two hippychicks standing in a grove somewhere, with a bird chirping in the background, and talking about the “Tibetan friendship tattoos” on their stomachs. (“I don’t know it’s a friendship tattoo, in Tibetan — I mean I don’t know how to read Tibetan or anything.”) In another ad, a girl rises to the defense of capitalism (“I don’t believe in equality,” she says); in another, a goofy guy with a Big-Boy hairdo implies that he might have inadvertently told his father that he is gay and uses drugs; in another a band member alludes to a road-trip ménage à trois with two groupies.
So that was, briefly, the new Levi’s — one short-lived version of the future for the jeans that had been adopted over the years by “Western pioneers, factory workers, hippies at Woodstock and Hollywood screen idols” (as noted in Adweek). Probably no product could better symbolize what Thomas Frank has called “the tradeoff between lifestyle and labor” than Levi’s jeans, the worker pants that went to Woodstock. Only now the tradeoff has become more immediate. “It’s hard not to imagine that these two features of contemporary American life — one triumphant, one in total eclipse — aren’t connected in some cosmic fashion,” Frank wrote. “It’s as though the revolutionary legacy of the Sixties somehow effaced the revolutionary legacy of the Thirties; as though workers had to be put back in their place so that rebel lifestyles could take their pleasure properly.”
These days, you don’t need too much imagination: workers are being put in their place in the hopes that teenagers will buy more SilverTabs and Hard Jeans. And the traditional idea of work itself, the identification between a person and his labor, is eroding in an economy defined by transience. Man becomes the sum of his brands, and inquiring as to “what’s true” is as irrelevant as asking what someone happens to do for a living. You are what you consume: your car, your TV shows, your music, your books and magazines. Your drugs, your Tibetan friendship tattoos. Even your pants.