My T-shirt: The Factory

I’m already living the next chapter of my quest so I figure I better wrap up the first. Below the cut you’ll learn what San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is like and how I was received at the factory that made my t-shirt.

Go here to read about the Honduras experience in its entirety

San Pedro Sula is known as the AIDS capital of Central America. It’s not the type of place I normally visit. There are gangs and drugs. It’s a big city with lots of poor people.

Today, is a sunny Sunday and people crowd the shaded areas of the central park people-watching. Every square-inch of shade is taken so I stroll.

People chat while sipping on plastic bags of fruit licuados through limp straws. Ice cream cones melt rapidly making knuckles sticky. A man selling plastic snakes has one of his snakes nibble at a passing pretty girl. He smiles like it is some brilliant strategy that should be documented in the annals of flirting: “Hey baby. I sell plastic snakes for a living. Wanna go out?”

Street merchants try to attract customers by playing their stereo louder than their neighbor. The songs clash in an irregular beat of chaos. One merchant in a van, selling snacks, yells into a microphone over the stereos. He says Coca-Cola a lot.

Photographers haunt the less non-scenic places like the sad little waterfall in the middle of the square and the City building’s steps. Girls primp themselves for their turn before the camera. Couples prom pose.

Families are in their Sunday bests. But groups of guys are suaved-up and groups of girls are hooched-out. It’s the job of any guy without a girl on his arm to hiss at every girl that walks by. One girthy girly has poured herself into a pair of bright red jeans and a tank top. She waddles with purpose. I dare not guess at how many hours of surgery will be required to remove the pants.

Money changers with fists full of Dollars and Lempira harass me one after the other. A beggar runs across the street smiling big to greet me. He repeats one word over and over again, “Money!” He looks at me as if he could pull on my ear and Lempira would fall from my butt.

I grow tired of the crowd and the attention I draw. I turn down a side street and within a few blocks I am alone – not a single person in sight. Too alone. No cars, no radios, no nothing. Just empty streets, empty sidewalks, and me.

San Pedro Sula is not a safe place. From the US State Department’s Consular Information Sheet:

Poverty, gangs, and low apprehension and conviction rates of criminals contribute to a high crime rate, including horrific acts of mass murder… Fifty U.S. citizens have been murdered in Honduras since 1995, with a very significant recent increase in the number… While crime affects everyone in Honduras, criminals have at times targeted persons, particularly those coming from airports and hotels, as well as wealthy-looking residents in San Pedro Sula…

San Pedro Sula scares me more than the Honduran jungle and more than any poisonous snake could. Wilderness and isolation present their own risks – small injuries can be big problems. But wilderness is not malicious. At no point is it desperate when unprovoked. Neither the jungle nor the snake care where I come from or how much money I may have. They don’t look at my sunglasses and think they would like to have them.

I double-time it back to the crowd.

A quiet internet café is an escape from it all. While typing emails home, a fellow gringo, the first I’ve seen in San Pedro Sula, sits down beside me. I don’t want to talk to him. Tourists don’t come here, at least they shouldn’t, and this lone man is likely up to no good. I prejudge. You have to in places like this.

“Oh, I just love Honduras. It’s the best place I’ve been.” Max, a missionary from Florida, doesn’t let me be. I respond to his question and comments as abrupt and uninterested as possible. He doesn’t get the hint.

As a missionary Max must be a god-faring man, right? I should be interested in talking to him about life in Honduras and in San Pedro Sula, but I’m not. Regardless of his faith or occupation, my gut doesn’t like Max.

He tells me his life story. He was a Chaplain in the Navy, he traveled the world, and eventually became a civilian engineer. It’s odd how many times he mentions his wife being dead. The first, I offer the condolences that one should in such conversation, but he mentions it again and again.

“My wife died and I’m all alone at 65.”

His skin is the color of cholesterol. His bags on his face have bags. His jowls are sloppy and move when he talks.

“My students are great. I’m taking one girl home with me. I haven’t told the other students yet. One girl who is 24, a beautiful girl, is going to be really upset. The girl I’m taking home is 20.”

Max begins to imply that he has sex with his students and that he looks forward to marrying the 20 year old girl he chose from his quasi-harem so he can continue to have sex with her back in Florida. He pauses in places where he wants me to interject. The reaction he waits for is a jolly-hearted slap on the back followed by a “Good job old man. Nailing a 20 year-old Latin Lolita in the name of the Lord…pretty good for 65.”

“We’ve got the papers in at the Embassy. Basically, it’s all over but the interview.”

I hate Max.

I’m sick of San Pedro Sula. I want to find the garment factory as quickly as possible and get the heck out of here.

The general consensus is that my quest is silly.

The lady at Delta Apparel, based in Atlanta, giggled when I told her my plans. She was happy to tell me that their Honduran factory is located in the city of Villanueva just south of San Pedro Sula. She even wished me good luck.

Now that I’m in Honduras the company doesn’t think it’s very funny. I’ve been trying to get permission to visit for the past few days and finally word has been passed down from the top: “If you come, you will be turned away.”

“Well, Kelsey what do you want to do?” Enrique, owner/operator of Explore Honduras, has been helping me make local contacts. We are in his office when the news comes.

“Let’s go.”

In Honduras a 15 passenger van can hold 30. On one such van that helped me get to San Pedro Sula I sat with chickens on my lap. It was floor to ceiling passengers. We were a jumble of sweaty limbs – twister without deodorant. I counted no less than three men’s crotches touching me and my left elbow was buried into the breast of an elderly woman. But now there are only 3 of us in the brand new white Toyota Hiace: Manuel the driver, Eduardo Junior, my translator, and me. Manuel and Eduardo sit in the front and I am comfortably sprawled out in the middle of the first bench behind them.

We head towards imminent failure.

The highway leaving San Pedro Sula is lined with spotless car dealerships, Pizza Huts, and Applebees. It is not unlike driving through the shopping centers outside of Columbus, Ohio.

Eduardo Jr., 17, is working for his Dad this summer between high school and college. He is wearing a Nike Dri-fit ball cap, pulled down just above his uni-brow, and a Livestrong bracelet on his wrist. He listens to Blink-182, can verse on the new features of the Jaguar X5, and has been to Disney World more times than he can remember. Eduardo Jr. is the wealthiest person I have met while in Honduras. He is nervous and I gather that this will be his first time acting as a translator.

I try to calm Eduardo’s nerves and my own with some small talk. We discuss his schooling, sports, music, anything other than how we are heading off to a factory where we are not wanted and have no idea how we are going to get inside to meet anyone. When I ask him what his mother does he comes to life.

“She sells chemicals. Wait…I think she sells to some of the garment factories.”

Enrique whips out his cell phone and we score out first big break. His mom does sell to Delta and she has a friend that works there. When we get there we should ask for her.

In their “don’t come here” correspondence Delta also mentioned that the factory is well off the highway and that there would be nothing to see from the gate.

D-E-L-T-A in big block letters is on the side of the building. I could throw a wiffle ball from the street onto the roof. Manuel pulls up to the black gate and we are stopped by some guards. At least I think they’re guards. They don’t wear uniforms, just street clothes. They stand in a half-circle before the gate and appear to be discussing, in depth, who has the largest belly. A couple of them have handguns stuffed down the back side of their pants.

I decide it’s best if I stay in the van out of sight. Eduardo speaks with them to no result. They dismiss him because he is just a KID. When I step forward to give legitimacy to his request, they laugh at me because I am a GRINGO.

The buildings behind the fence are all shaded in sensible Bahamian pastels and very well kept. The shrubs have been recently shaped and the grass trimmed. In the bright Honduran sun the factories are almost not unpleasant.

They are all members of a free trade zone, an area where international manufacturers are able to operate at minimum cost because of low worker wages and large tax breaks. All of the factories behind the fence assemble garments which are sold to large department stores in the USA at a very low price.

The guards direct us to a side entrance down a dirt road lined with lazing merchants selling CD’s, food, drinks, and trinkets. The various stands consist of rickety tables shaded beneath shanty roofs or tarps supported by random sized tree limbs. There are somewhere around 100 merchants and not one of them has a customer. They sit in the heat in silence. A mother fans her baby. We are the most exciting thing to happen in awhile and merchants wake their neighbors to watch us.

The side gate is locked with no guards in sight. Inside a prayer service is taking place made up of all women dressed in blue smocks with name tags. A truck unloads jugs of water.

I have tried to keep an open-mind about what to expect, but anytime I have heard about factories like this there is talk of human rights violations such as working children, abused women, ungodly hours, and peanuts for wages. I am relieved to find such a well-manicured factory that has taken steps to provide their employees with a comfortable working environment. The welcome we’ve received by the company up to this point has been less than warm and I feared that the working conditions were going to be not so great and that I would be perceived as a threat and not looked on kindly. I don’t fancy myself an investigative reporter. I don’t want to ask the hard-hitting questions. I’m just a tourist looking for a tour of a factory. Nothing more.

“You must understand this is a big factory and your request is…well…unique.”
Michelle from human resources sits across from me. She’s dressed for a casual Friday. It’s Tuesday. Her makeup is neat and she wears hoops in her ears. Michele lived in New York City for a few years and, to the relief of my nervous translator, her English is excellent.

We are sitting in a bare room at a bare table with a warm pitcher of water and three plastic cups in the middle. I lay my T-shirt on the table — tattoo smiling up at us — and explain my little quest to Michele. I tell her about how I received the shirt from my cousin Brice as a gift and how I get a lot comments on it.

She’s never heard of Fantasy Island or Tattoo and it registers on her face that she doesn’t think my shirt is very cool. I understand to some extent. If you don’t know who Tattoo is the shirt is kind of freaky. Why would anyone want to follow a seedy looking dwarf anywhere? And what would this tropical paradise be like? A land of low, easy to reach counter-tops?

She fails to see the humor in the shirt and in no way does she appreciate the fact that a T-shirt has brought me all the way from Ohio to this very table in her factory.

But she does recognize the shirt, “That’s an old shirt, maybe five years.”

Michelle hates me. She thinks I’m an idealistic journalist and she disapproves of the way I make my living because she thinks that I disapprove of the way she makes hers.

Michelle informs me that there will be no tour and due to the size of the company there may be questions that she is not authorized to answer.

“How long did it take to make this shirt?” I decide on starting with a nice simple question.

“Not long.”

“Ten minutes?”


“Seven minutes?”


“Five minutes?”


Apparently this number is some type of guarded industry secret that Michelle has sworn to carry to her grave. Only one question and things are already looking bad. I act like she gave the best answer ever and that I’m excited to be blessed with this new knowledge, “Wow, that’s not very long. Less than five minutes – geeze.”

“How many employees do you have?”


Excited that I actually got an answer, I continue, “I want to learn more about the workers who stitched my shirt. What is the average worker like?”

Silence. Michelle stares at me blankly. I repeat the question with no more success.

“Man? Woman? What age…?”

“We don’t discriminate.”

“So the average worker is a 35 year-old female?” I speculate.

Silence followed by blank stare, followed by more blank stare.

God bless him, Eduardo Jr. sees me foundering on the reef that is Michelle’s unwillingness to tell me anything and chimes in with a question of his own, “Does the factory operate 24 hours a day seven days a week?”

“Oh, no, that would be illegal.”

I try and explain that Eduardo Jr. was not talking about individual people working these hours but various shifts. She doesn’t care. She gave her answer and she is done with the question.

After ten excruciating minutes I have learned the following about my T-shirt: Eight humans of indiscriminate age and sex stitched it together in less than five minutes.

As we are shown out Eduardo turns to me and says, “I felt worthless.”

“Me too.”

It is 4:30 and the WORKERS are let out. They rush down the dirt road to catch their bus, merchants haggle, and vehicles push through the crowd. One mini-van knocks over a girl in her mid-twenties and then runs over her foot. She curses, is helped to her feet, and limps on to a waiting bus. It is CHAOS.

Honduras is a DEVELOPING NATION, which means they are trying to become a DEVELOPED NATION like the United States. There are many “developing nations,” and it may be impossible for them to all become developed, in fact, it may be in your best interest if they stay poor; if nations like Honduras, China, and India become “developed nations,” gas will be approximately a bazillion dollars/gallon.

Eduardo and I continue our mission. A thousand set of eyes stare at me, but when I approach someone I am largely invisible. It is almost as if they have been warned to stay away from the likes of me.

After a full day’s work the workers are taking home between $3 or $4 for helping assemble over 1,000 T-shirts, which will ultimately be priced at $19.99. In a country where over one in four people are unemployed, most of them are happy to have a job. Experts predict that in the coming years they may lose their jobs to Chinese workers who work for less than $2/day – CHEAPER LABOR

Finally we are able to stop one of the workers. Amilcar, 25, hesitantly steps to the side of the flowing mass of humanity. He lives in the nearby village of Villanueva with his parents, went to school until 7th grade, and likes to play soccer. With Eduardo’s help, I try with little success to lay out my reason for being here. I stare into Amilcar’s LOST brown eyes and he stares into my SEARCHING blue ones

As I pull my T-shirt over my head of sun-bleached white curls, exposing a chest full of dark hair, I can’t help but smile crazily. Amilcar is puzzled until I show him the label with his companies name on it. He nods in understanding wearing a genuine smile complete with dimples, a full set of teeth, and squinting eyes.

I give my shirt to Amilcar because he made it. He is a PRODUCER and I am a CONSUMER. When Eduardo asks him what he thinks of my coming all of this way to give away my shirt, Amilcar says that he thinks I am a LEGEND. As if my existence and place in the world is almost impossible to imagine, like it only exists in movies.

Ten years from now Amilcar’s children will ask him to tell them the story about his Orange T-shirt: The Legend of the OVEREDUCATED, WEALTHY, PALE, HAIRY, SHIRTLESS, GRINGO.

We all have our labels; I followed my T-shirt’s all the way to Honduras.

Add a comment
Isabella says:

I am doing a geography project on the travels of a t shirt. I need to know the exact steps that the average t shirt takes to get to the store, and I am having a lot of difficulty. Got any tips?

Kelsey says:


Patagonia’s website has a feature called the Footprint Chronicles. You can follow a polo shirt from design to production. Go here:

If you need more infor I would check out Pietra Rivoli’s book “Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy.”

Good luck. Let me konw if you need any more help.

Keren says:

Hi Kelsey,

I wrote an article about Delta Clothing. It was really difficult to find information about the manufacturing company itself. Are you aware of any news stories, or any other way I can get evidence about unethical labour practices at their factory in Honduras?

The article was already published; see the website link I posted. I’m just curious.

Warm regards,


Kelsey says:

Keren, I’ll send you an email.

Let your voice be heard!