When thrifty shoppers in Boston and Miami pick through secondhand shirts at local Salvation Army outlets or estate sales, they are as likely to meet Haitians as hipsters. Some of the immigrants will simply be collecting clothes to mail back to family in Port-au-Prince, but others are part of a large global network trading in used American goods. Haiti's enormous, informal, and largely unregulated market in pepe—used items imported from abroad—plays an important role in the least developed country in the Americas.
In 2002 The New York Times reported that of the approximately 2.5 billion pounds of clothes donated to charity in America each year, as much as 80 percent is shipped globally. The Times article inspired filmmakers Hanna Rose Shell and Vanessa Bertozzi to research the history of recycled clothing. From 2003 to 2007 they visited rag yards in Miami, dug through archives in London and Washington, D.C., and traveled to Haiti to see the international secondhand markets for themselves. The result is the recent documentary Secondhand (Pepe), which explores the global trade in used clothing.
In the United States, demand for secondhand goods spiked during the Great Depression, but after World War II peddlers found themselves with excess supply. So the business went global. Third World countries arranged deals with U.S. thrift shops for items that otherwise would end up in the trash.
Haiti started receiving shipments in the early 1960s. With the benefit of cheap items came the cost of serving as a dumping ground. Shell has described the city of Miragoane, which receives new pepe nearly every day, as "blanketed, literally, by a downy coat of secondhand clothing. It grows out of the ground and into the street, onto every surface, a sartorial network—buildings, barrows, man and machine-made structures, everywhere."
When you see a photo of Haiti, it likely depicts a street riot or some similarly violent situation—the island at its worst. Secondhand (Pepe) spends a great deal of time documenting the country's landscape in more peaceful times: a spectacle of colors, rags strewn for miles all over the dirt roads like a college dormitory on laundry day. It is at once beautiful and messy, a reminder that the country has far worse problems to deal with than litter. Haitians, we learn, are extremely resourceful, finding new uses for items that might seem like rags to us but can be refashioned into tents or used as stuffing for upholstery.
They're repurposed in other ways as well. A seamstress laments, "Pepe makes it hard to sell my garments." But she also proudly displays the alterations she made to her blouse—darts in the front and shorter sleeves. Costing about 13 cents, her shirt looks like something that could be sold in Manhattan for $40.
"It's all pepe, all the time," one Haitian explains in the film. Almost everything they wear comes from the north. Pepe is sold on virtually every street corner in Haiti, yet it isn't a free-for-all. Some vendors purchase goods by the bales for resale. Usually they have an agreement with an American charity shop, which sorts the items before making the sale. (Coats, for example, go to countries with colder climates.) Other dealers rely on relatives and friends in the United States and run off-the-books enterprises. One person combs the thrift stores for certain items, and another returns to Haiti several times a year to make the exchange. Some sellers specialize in a certain kinds of goods—just soccer jerseys, just sneakers, just bikinis.
The film interweaves the story of Haiti's pepe dealers with the memoirs of Bernard Schapiro, a Jewish Austrian immigrant who worked as one of the once-ubiquitous shmatte zamlers ("rag collectors") of a century ago. In 1907 Schapiro's father, arriving in Baltimore and speaking little English, got an old pushcart and started selling used clothes on the streets. Bernard took over, managing a warehouse for sorting and distribution. Now his grandson is president and CEO of Whitehouse & Schapiro, a major global business operation that trades used clothing.
In Bernard Schapiro's time, "fancy people" avoided the area around his warehouse. "In those days, it was believed that immigrants and their rags were contagious with all kinds of disease," he explains. In Haiti, similarly, there is spiritual apprehension about the goods, fears that the previous owners are dead or even that they died in the clothes. As one woman explains in the film, "Women have had to face and dismiss a lot of very long-held beliefs that you couldn't wear clothes that had been used before, that they had bad aura, had someone's spirit…whatever it was that they carried with them. Especially if it was bad, because it was on their own shoulders when they did that." To get over this fear, many buyers soak or dry clean the clothes (a wise procedure for secondhand shoppers in any country).
In Miami and Boston, both of which are home to large Haitian immigrant populations, the pepe market is intergenerational, with children of workers who started in President Kennedy's day now responsible for sorting or arranging the shipment of the clothing. Schapiro's grandson employs Haitians in his Miami warehouses. While their history and political situation is vastly different from those of the Jewish peddlers of the early 1900s, Shell told me she met Haitian factory workers in Miami who were "very ambitious." Perhaps the grandchildren of Haitian immigrant pepe dealers may achieve the same success as Bernard Schapiro's grandson.
It's difficult to be as optimistic for the workers inside Haiti. During the food crisis of last spring, the Associated Press reported that some Haitians were surviving on cookies made of dirt and vegetable shortening. But a little industry is better than none. Those rags for sale on the streets of Port-au-Prince might pave the way for more trade and opportunity.
On March 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2008 (HOPE II), relaxing tariffs on Haitian textile exports. The legislation isn't perfect; it's bogged down with a provision requiring the amount of Haitian-made fabric to equal the amount of fabric woven in the U.S. But the initiative will create jobs and draw on the island's great tailoring skills, acquired from years of altering secondhand clothes.
The seamstress in Secondhand (Pepe) had trouble selling her unique designs in her own country, but judging from what she did with an old shirt, she could find buyers in the U.S. And then, perhaps, her clothes will one day find their way back to Haiti.