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Clothing Line Wins Backers and Wearers : Placentia Firm's Sportswear Carries Slogans of Latino Pride

August 29, 1994|ISAAC GUZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sportswear maker Mike Rodriguez finessed his way past security at last year's Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona to press a T-shirt and hat emblazoned with his Mojado Brothers company logo on comedian Paul Rodriguez.

"At first, I thought 'Who are you calling mojado? ' I felt insulted," said the Latino comedian and actor in describing his reaction to the term, whose literal translation is wet, but also means the pejorative "wetback" in Spanish slang. "Then I thought about it and I said 'Hey, that's cool,' " Paul Rodriguez said.

Cool enough for him to pledge a $50,000 investment and help enlist other Latino celebrities to endorse the company founded nearly three years ago by Mike Rodriguez and Dan Calderon, both Mexican Americans who grew up in Southern California.

Rodriguez, who has been a silk screener and graphic designer in the garment industry for many years, teamed up with Calderon, who has a background in banking, to create a sportswear line specifically targeting Latino youth. In designing their clothes, the two took inspiration from the baggy pants, long shorts and loose fitting T-shirts favored by urban teens.

The founders also said they wanted to send a positive message about Latino identity and the commonality of Americans. They chose the term mojado , they explained, to "take the venom" out of a term that has long been an insult to Mexican Americans and immigrants from Latin America.

"Everybody had to cross some body of water to get here," said Calderon. "We are all mojado ."

But the provocative company name threatened to kill the young firm before it could even begin to reach its targeted market. The term mojado sometimes only appears on merchandise labels, but it is boldly incorporated into the design of many of the company's shirts and hats. J.C. Penney and Salt Lake City-based ZCMI department stores were among the first retailers to place orders, but they pulled thousands of the company's T-shirts from their racks when Latino employees and shoppers complained about the label.

Just a few months ago, offended Latino dock workers at Mervyn's refused to unload a delivery of Mojado Brothers T-shirts.

"We've had a hard time overcoming the expression mojado, " said Saul Grossman, whose Los Angeles-based Trans Color Co. distributes the Mojado Brothers line. "The artwork and concept have been very well accepted. The (store) buyers get hooked, but then they run away."

Grossman and buyers for many stores, including Mervyn's, J.C. Penney and the Broadway, have urged the young company to modify its label so that it will not offend. "Mo Bros" is the most common suggestion.

Why ignore the industry wisdom?

The partners "don't want to sell out like that. We like the provocativeness of mojado. We want the word to get people to think about what they're saying," Paul Rodriguez explained.

But a string of canceled orders forced the partners to realize they needed a strategy to persuade retailers that the merchandise was not too hot to handle.

They believed that they would have a wedge to get into stores if they could get Latino celebrities to wear their clothes and build a following among young Latinos.

With Paul Rodriguez's help, they got their clothes on the backs of Latinos such as musician Carlos Santana, members of the pop music group Los Lobos, actors Edward James Olmos and Jimmy Smits, boxer Jorge Paez (who razor-cut the Mojado Brothers logo into his hair for a fight) and comedian Cheech Marin.

Among non-Latinos, comedian George Carlin has worn the shirts, and even O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro has given news conferences wearing a Mojado Brothers baseball cap.

The strategy has had some success.

In a crucial test for the company, the Broadway has accepted an order of 2,000 T-shirts for 13 of its stores catering primarily to Latino customers.

Broadway buyer Danny Kim said the retailer was willing to take a chance on the line only after its own research concluded that the label would not offend Latino shoppers. The Broadway also asked that a tag explaining the Mojado Brothers' creed--supporting education, racial harmony and "positive change"--accompany each shirt.

"We were concerned about people not understanding," Kim said. "We want to make sure customers know it's a Hispanic-owned company. We didn't want the T-shirt out there without some explanation."

Kim said the Broadway decided to make an extra effort for the line because it believes the company's sportswear has potential. "We think it's a pretty unique concept in department store mentality where everything is usually done for the majority.

"Basically, there have not been a lot of things targeted specifically for the Hispanic community. We carry ethnically influenced stuff, but nothing specifically done by an Hispanic company geared for the Hispanic customer," Kim said.

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