Undocumented Artist Gives American Apparel’s Farmer Ad a Political Twist

Undocumented 'artivist' Julio Salgado, who's been blowing up your Facebook with his parodies of American Apparel ads, talks with us about destroying the dangerous myth of the perfect immigrant.

By Channing Kennedy Jun 01, 2012

For Julio Salgado, telling the uncomfortable truth is its own reward — a way for disenfranchised folks to own their stories before someone else, ally or otherwise, co-opts them. He’s come out of the closet twice, as queer and as undocumented, to different groups of loved ones. His recent ‘Undocu-Queers’ poster series has shown in galleries across the country, each piece providing the name, face, and story of a person at his same intersection of two much-commoditized demographics. As co-founder of media activist collective Dreamers Adrift, he’s helped undocumented youth tell their whole story in all senses, whether that means sketch comedy or showcasing undocumented API experiences or both at once.

"I used to say ‘I want to be a voice for the voiceless,’" he says. "But that’s problematic because people have a voice! We just choose not to hear."

And when he saw American Apparel’s new magazine ad — in which a scantily-clad young white woman identified as ‘studying public relations’ clings gingerly to a dark-skinned Latino ‘farmer’ named Raul — Salgado didn’t bother pretending not to be pissed off.

"My first thought was, this is so unrealistic," says Salgado. "I did construction work for a couple of summers while I was in college, and I worked with guys who looked like that – you know, day laborers. And that image in the ad brought me back to one time when we were working on a hotel, putting in tile. Women who look like that model were walking by, and would pass by and totally not pay attention to us, would ignore us. The reality is, people like that usually are ignored.

"So what exactly is it that American Apparel is trying to say here? Is it, ‘See? There’s unity? We like you!’ That’s not how it happens, and American Apparel has always used people, especially women, as objects. Were they just doing this to get on the undocumented wagon?"

Though Salgado is a lot of things — an activist, a college-educated journalism major, a self-taught digital artist who actually draws with a mouse and seems not to know what a Wacom tablet is — the adjective that should really scare his adversaries is ‘prolific.’ Within hours of joking that ‘being undocumented is hot right now!’ Salgado started posting original ‘Undocumented Apparel’ satire images to Facebook and Tumblr. Each ‘model’ in the ongoing series is a real acquaintance of Salgado’s, accompanied by an acidic quote contrasting their lives to American Apparel’s upwardly mobile clientele. It’s meme-jacking at its best: the instantly recognizable American Apparel aesthetic, rewired to remind us what real concern for justice looks like.

Salgado meets me for boba tea at my neighborhood karaoke bar in Oakland; sadly, we didn’t have time to sing anything. He’s a busy dude. At every pause in our talk, he’s discreetly organizing an event via SMS under the table on what he calls his MetroPCS ‘undocu-phone.’ I have aspirations to play devil’s advocate about the original American Apparel ad, because I thought it had some potential as a conversational tool: American Apparel uses their own employees as models, so Raul’s presence in the ad could be seen as paying due acknowledgment to American manufacturing’s hushed relationship with low-wage immigrant workers. Isn’t that an interesting little point to discuss? Graciously, Salgado answers my point before I make it.

"I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post and asked my friend [fellow DREAM Activist] Prerna [Lal] what it’s like to be queer and undocumented right now, and she said, ‘it’s an academic fetish,’" he laughs. "For us, it’s not an experiment, you know? It’s not, ooh, let’s try to figure out – it’s our lives! And there’s definitely people who jump on that and who want to ‘explore’ us as if we’re an experiment.

Or this – it’s an ad for clothing, but it’s our lives."

In keeping with his command of narrative, Salgado is great at ad design. His sloganeering, detail-wiped aesthetic (reminiscent of the Black Panthers’ Emory Douglas) is a perfect fit for our era of one-click social shares. It’s easy for the viewer to see themselves in, but unlike advertising, it’s used as a vehicle for real stories told by folks who aren’t heard. And more often than not, his work has a knife-twist of delightfully contentious vitriol, ensuring that people will be forced to think and engage; while Salgado could easily frame himself and his family as "perfect story" immigrants, he’s got no interest in being anyone’s model citizen-awaiting-permission in an unjust, lethal system.

Salgado came to Los Angeles with his family in 1995, when he was 11; they came from Mexico with passports, in keeping with what the United States’ immigration system required at the time. But when his little sister’s kidney condition turned out to be life-threatening, her surgeon presented the family with two options: stay in the United States during her long recovery period, or risk her life by travelling back to Mexico.

His parents made the obvious choice. And since they couldn’t extend their stay without returning to Mexico, they became undocumented, permanently altering their ability to cross the border safely. As with so many immigrants, a short-term visit was suddenly a whole new life; his parents, both professionals in Mexico, took whatever bottom-tier jobs they could get to make ends meet. Salgado remembers his mother registering him for seventh grade while he cried, and how she made him be her translator even though they’d been in the country the same amount of time.

Consciously bucking the sometimes-used Dreamer frame of good-kids-with-criminal-parents, Salgado paid tribute to his mother and baby sister by making them ‘Undocumented Apparel’ models, captioning their portrait with the quote "You backpacked across Europe and they called you adventurous. I crossed a border to save my daughter’s life and they call me a criminal." As of this writing, the image has been shared 800 times on Facebook and 1000 times on Tumblr.

Salgado doesn’t have a Facebook fanpage for his art; he posts directly to his personal account. But his work does very well for itself with old-fashioned friend-to-friend virality. And a few months ago, he moved away from Los Angeles for the first time to collaborate contemporary art-activist firebrand Favianna Rodriguez with her work at Stanford — an offer she extended after seeing his work shared on Facebook. "I follow the comments on shares of my pieces, and often people will just write ‘Real talk’ or ‘why aren’t we talking about this?’ On my mom’s portrait, I got a lot of messages from people saying ‘that’s my mom, right there.’"

Does he consider Facebook part of his medium? "Totally, yeah!" says Salgado. "It’s – I mean literally, it’s my wall. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I saw that movie Exit Through the Gift Shop, about the street artists, and all I could think was, ‘yo man, I totally want to do that! But… these are all just white dudes!’ If I tried that and got caught, I’d have so much more at stake than just getting a ticket or being arrested. I wouldn’t see my family again for a very long time. Again, the question is who has access to do what." As he describes it, street art is completely in line with his modus operandi: a way to call out a system in which corporate ads, like American Apparel’s woman-exploiting billboards, don’t ask your permission to be seen by you, but street art that doesn’t make money is illegal. It’s a dynamic he’s excluded from messing with.

Or, as Salgado says, "Facebook and Tumblr, those are my streets! Because I ain’t trying to get arrested."

He mentions another recent piece, inspired by the military-only iteration of the DREAM Act: a dark-skinned young man in cap and gown, middle finger raised to the viewer, with the caption ‘I’D RATHER BE UNDOCUMENTED THAN DIE FOR YOUR ACCEPTANCE.’

"I had Dreamers telling me ‘you’re portraying Dreamers in a really negative light.’ People don’t like us already! You’re thinking that by you being extra-good and not really showing how you really feel, you’re going to… it’s just not healthy. It’s not healthy to create this persona that’s not you, to try to be perfect to fit in.

"That used to be me too. And kids have taken their own lives because of these impossible standards."

He mentions the need to hold everyone accountable to the truth, including official allies — like mostly-progressive hipsters, or pro-legalization American Apparel, or the Democratic Party. "When students got arrested in DC, folks who were for CIR were talking down to DREAM Act students, saying, ‘you’re not doing what the Democratic agenda wants you to do, you’re acting out.’ Why can’t we? Why can’t we be who we are?"

Salgado talks about the piece he’ll be finishing later that night, a portrait of a young Muslim undocumented activist quoted as saying ‘Things don’t get better. We get stronger.’ I gather that the subtle jab at the colorblind marriage-and-military agenda of mainstream gay-rights movement is part of what Salgado likes about this piece.

"The DREAM Act hasn’t passed. Comprehensive immigration reform hasn’t passed," says Salgado. "But the fact that I’m able to sit in front of somebody and say I’m undocumented and you can use my real name? That’s because we’ve created a community that we know is going to be behind us. I’m so comfortable about being open about this because I know people are going to have my back. And this has happened because of people fighting at the forefront, even though people weren’t going to be on their side."

My last question for Salgado, before he runs to check out a gallery space in downtown Oakland: imagine he’s just been put in charge of all of American Apparel’s advertising. He can’t directly change anything else about the company – he can’t change the working conditions or Dov Charney – but he’s got carte blanche with every single billboard, magazine ad, and popup window across the world. Does he destroy the company from the inside out? Does he force it to take accountability? Does he promote his own art and ignore the company altogether? What does he do? He thinks for a minute, then laughs: "Am I forced to take this job?"

I offer to end the interview on a zinger, but Salgado continues. "Maybe it’s still too fresh and I’m still too angry to think about working with them on anything. But maybe I’d, you know… I’d do what I do. I’d portray people in a dignified light, and by that I mean, if I’m working with undocumented models, I’d ask them what they want to see, what they want to put in there. Which is essentially what I do: I ask people ‘how do you want to use me? What can I do better?’ That’s what I think art should be: if you have that access, it has to be a collaborative effort." For Salgado, in every scenario, listening is the real revolutionary act.

This article has been edited since publication.