Tucked into Western Avenue among a sea of shoddy snowplow jobs in Chicago’s Little Italy, a yellow-gold awning jets from an edifice on the 1000 block as though its presence were summoned to make up for the sun’s negligence during winter’s early evenings. Emerging from the threshold, No Manches’ JesÃºs IÃ±iguez, decked in a smile and a “Kiss me, I’m Mexican” T-shirt, offers what anyone would love to hear while traipsing along the sidewalks in slippery rubber soles: the heat from his cafÃ© (Cedahlia’s) and something warm to drink. In light of the cold, his shirt’s proposition suddenly becomes all too tempting.
Sitting behind IÃ±iguez is his partner and childhood best friend Rolando Santoyo. His T-shirt, slightly more subtle, reads “As seen on immigration” in the style of one of those “As seen on TV” product-pitches in Walgreens. Though both are quite candid in their apparel and their company name (No Manches means “don’t stain” by raw translation, but its idiomatic use describes something as funny or out of the ordinary), the duo from Back of the Yards, a postindustrial neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, is strictly business. Fronting the company motto “Enjoy cultura,” No Manches really sticks to its guns in its endeavor to sell culture–not just T-shirts.
Founded in March 2006 after a couple years of talk, No Manches and the guys behind it had a pretty modest start. Comprising the first generation of their respective families to grow up in the States and receive their degrees (IÃ±iguez got his in psychology and Latino studies, Santoyo in multimedia/web design), their proposal to go into the business at first met with some conservative criticism on all sides–including from their families. “They [the family] can be short-sighted because their priority had always been survival,” IÃ±iguez explains. “It’s not that they weren’t supportive. They just didn’t want to see us disappointed, but we knew what it felt like to be poor and had nothing to lose.” Yet despite the limited resources, No Manches managed to bowl over its original inventory of one design and twelve T-shirts to somewhere around thirty-five designs and a thirty percent share of Pilsen’s OMD boutique’s sales. Quite frankly, the old pals make an excellent team: while Santoyo exercises his eye for design, IÃ±iguez sticks to research and PR, but in terms of material, they both share the same tread. “We both understand each other pretty well. I can tell him how I’m thinking it, and he’ll design it the way I picture it,” IÃ±iguez explains, gesturing over to his partner. With an advertising blitz including word-of-mouth, MySpace, banners they’ve put up at concerts (“like little hustlers,” as Santoyo puts it), and email blasts, No Manches eventually made their stain on the T-shirt industry, despite their company name. “People just wanted to help us,” he explains.
But the masses did more than just “help” No Manches; they plunged them into a nationwide Latino cultural phenomenon. California, Texas, Florida, New York–stores in all the big states have been buying up merchandise that had been inspired initially by the team’s “Chicago experiment,” which had mostly been fleetingly inspired or discussed light-heartedly over a beer. “There is no st sound in the Spanish language,” IÃ±iguez explains, which sheds some light onto why one of their shirts bears a stop sign with ESTAP plastered across it, but some of their other designs have invited some negative attention to the company, despite their actual intentions. “We’re not trying to be ignorant or provoke controversy with our shirts. We want people to start a dialogue about them,” IÃ±iguez adds in defense of their designs. Currently on the market is their “Chevrolet” shirt with a picture of Che Guevara centered in the Chevy logo, which, as one might imagine, might trivialize Guevara’s image; but given No Manches’ mission statement, the depiction was only meant to subtly underline his appeal to the greater Latino community within a place like the United States. Another design makes a similar appeal to our American capitalistic culture with the phrase “MGD: Mexican Getting Drunk,” which inspires more laughs than outbursts. The duo takes the classic stance that “it’s about being able to laugh at yourself,” but, at times, other cultural communities don’t really know what to make of their work. For the first time, this past holiday season the duo was asked to remove their tribute to “gringos” (spelled greengo set on a green shirt) from their kiosk in the middle of Chicago Ridge mall. Yet the two remain firm in their stance as “PG-13” in the face of their competitors based in places like California and Mexico. “For [our competitors], the Latino movement is more of an in-your-face, ‘power to the people’ sort of thing–like Black Power as opposed to MLK–but people love what we do. We make more [shirts] because people like them.”
But shirts are only part of the bargain. “We don’t want to keep all of our eggs in one basket,” says IÃ±iguez. “We have expanded a little by organizing musical events, fashion shows, and basically anything we can do to get the word out.” But “the word” doesn’t just apply to their designs; it goes for their culture above all. On February 6 the boys will be hosting a leg of their own concert series at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. “We wanted to give the guests a classy, family-oriented setting,” explains IÃ±iguez, but that certainly won’t be all that the guests, including Hoy Son Fandanguero, Rich Cantu, and Los Vicios de Papa (of which Santoyo used to be a member), will be getting. “We like to find local Latino acts on the verge and give them that extra push,” Santoyo explains, and among a stack of future endeavors that the duo hopes to accomplish–like expanding their inventory and perhaps investing in their own store–their gesture toward the community is pretty impressive.
But in the meantime the guys behind No Manches continue to experiment with new ideas and promote what they’ve got going on at the moment. Most of the time they can be found at OMD just hanging out. “I don’t want to be there and just sell shirts,” Santoyo adds. “It’s about explaining the designs, talking to people, and hearing what they have to say about them.” At times, these conversations have provided them with new insight and inspiration. The idea for their design “Mow your own lawn” came from one of their friends, but on the whole, their products have grown with them as they keep moving on into the future. “Times change and you’ve got to change with the times,” IÃ±iguez points out. “Even our designs change; they get smarter and deeper,” adds Santoyo. But at the end of the day, the goal is always the same: the promotion of their culture and its infiltration among other communities. Given how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time, the endeavor seems only too easy. “People come up to me all the time saying ‘I could have done that,’” says Santoyo, hiding a smile. His response? “But you didn’t!”