The year was 2004, and while Von Dutch trucker hats and Juicy velour tracksuits were the It items for Paris and Ashton wannabes at the time, it was another ubiquitous piece of clothing that took a large swath of pop culture-obsessed Americans by storm. No street, no mall, no Red Robin waiting area was safe from a Vote for Pedro t-shirt, popularized by the quirky indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite and its story of two weirdo teens and a race to become student-body president at a high-school in rural Idaho.
With its white cotton fabric, navy trim, and bright red, equally ubiquitous Cooper Black lettering, the Vote for Pedro shirt was everywhere in the mid-aughts—and then, after a period that felt like a few years but is hard to exactly pinpoint, seemingly nowhere. Though the shirt had become a staple of our regular lives, it seemed to fade into obscurity without a second thought, vanishing without a trace into Goodwill bins, dumpsters, and Buffalo Exchange resale piles across the U.S.
To paraphrase early aughts singer-songwriter Paula Cole: Where had all the Vote for Pedro shirts gone? Recently, after the film came up in conversation with a friend, I started wondering if anyone out there still owned their tee, and maybe even wore it from time to time. With an extremely high-stakes election of our own just days away, I wanted to know what the shirt meant to them, and whether they shared my inkling that this film from 16 years ago has something to teach us about the present.
The film, which sprung from a bizarre short made by director Jared Hess in film school, starred an unknown actor named Jon Heder as Napoleon, a gangly, awkward high schooler who is tragically unhip and often bullied by the cool kids. Eventually, he befriends Pedro (played by another then-unknown, Efren Ramírez), an equally lonely teen who is new to the school and the lone brown kid in a sea of Midwestern whites. Together they do bike jumps, participate in unpasteurized milk tastings, and, ultimately, lead Pedro's campaign for student body president against popular girl Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff). At the film's dramatic (and endearingly goofy) climax, Napoleon clinches Pedro's presidency after he performs a now iconic dance to Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat" in front of the whole school, while wearing the seminal tee.
Napoleon Dynamite was a run-away success, grossing $46.1 million, turning Heder into a star, and launching the sale of an inestimable number of Vote for Pedro shirts. In a year defined by an election that gave us four more years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the infamous Malice at the Palace Pacers-Pistons-fan brawl in Detroit, and the launch of a small social network called The Facebook, the shirt felt like a symbol of levity and underdog spirit in a bleak and confusing, post-911 world. In addition to proudly informing the world that we had seen the movie and loved it, wearing a Vote for Pedro tee felt like an opportunity to celebrate our inner dweeb in a world that didn't always understand us.
Even so, many of the people I spoke to couldn't recall what happened to their once-coveted shirt. Kevin Beaty, a 31-year-old photojournalist for Colorado Public Radio, thinks his shirt "ended up in a trashcan."
Some people I spoke to remembered the shirt as just another jokey collectible in the era where the ironic t-shirt reigned supreme (I personally wore the shit out of the Urban Outfitters Idaho? No, Udaho! tee during this time). "I had other shirts, like the I Do All My Own Stunts shirt and the I Think You're Pretty Gangster shirt," said Josh Kessenich, a 27-year-old engineer and former owner of a Vote for Pedro tee. "I just found them to be like a joke that could be told multiple times. Like Hey, here's a shirt that tells us that joke and we're both in on the joke now." He recalled being a middle schooler, sitting in class and being one of three kids wearing the Vote for Pedro shirt, an occurrence he said they didn't think too much of back then.
Robin W., a 40-year-old behavior specialist in San Diego, said the shirt came into her life at a bar in 2005, when she won a game of pool against a cute stranger who was wearing one. "He had to walk around the bar for a little bit trying to find another shirt to wear," she told VICE. "I wouldn't have asked him for his shirt if it wasn't a Vote for Pedro shirt. I love that movie."
Robin said she held onto the tee for some time. "I was very proud of that shirt," she said. "It's not often you get to say 'I won the shirt off a guy's back.'" But she, too, got rid of it eventually.
Just like I do at Goodwill, I kept digging until I discovered the gems. Eventually, I found them: two proud owners of a Vote for Pedro t-shirt, one of whom still wears it to this day.
Cori Simmons is a 31-year-old project manager in Seattle. She was an enormous fan of the movie as a teen and still remembers the day when she got her shirt. "I absolutely lost my mind," she told VICE. "My mom had actually brought it back from Preston, Idaho, the actual town where the movie is set! And this is completely true and feel free to verify it with my mom: her colleague sent me a potato from an actual potato field in Preston. And last but not least, on the same day I got the Vote for Pedro t-shirt, I also got a sweatshirt from Preston High School! It was a big day!"
For Simmons, the shirt became "the epicenter of so many good times." She was 14, and thinks she must have watched the movie every weekend of her freshman year of high school. It became such a staple in her household that her parents let the whole family do a Napoleon Dynamite-themed Christmas card. (It might have helped that her dad was from Idaho.)
Simmons wore the shirt into her 20s, when she worked as a bartender, and said it was a big hit even then, far past the height of the movie's popularity. The shirt almost left her life for good during her "KonMari phase," as she put it. But her mom stepped in before it ended up in the bin, offering to keep it safe in Simmons' childhood bedroom.
"It can feel weird to be in your 30s and hang on to something like that," she said. "But I was also a bit of a superfan."
To understand why anyone would want a Vote for Pedro shirt in the hellscape year of 2020, I looked to Amazon, which still boasts plenty of sellers hawking the tee. Most reviews pointed out the most obvious reason to buy one of the shirts: As one reviewer wrote, "Cheap quality, not worth what I spent but it served it's purpose as Halloween costume [sic]." However, it was another reviewer that led me to think about the film and the shirt in a whole new way. This person wrote, "My husband ordered this for me because of the election. He thought it would be funny for me to wear."
Looking back, it's possible to see the world of Napoleon Dynamite as a cross-section of what we would, come 2016, think of as Trump America—the white, low-to-middle income Middle American who saw Trump as a symbol of hope as they struggled with joblessness, feared socialism, and felt let down by entrenched politicians. The wealth, poverty, and race dynamics of the film, as Simmons put it, show "an element of hopelessness and lack of opportunity in the background" that was clear to her even as a teen.
By way of an example, she brings up Jon Gries' character Uncle Rico, a former football star who is living out of his van and constantly hustling to make some cash. "Him feeling stuck in a lost moment really resonated with me, because both of my parents come from rural, low-income communities," she said. "[They] left and built a life in a city, but their families very much remain in that place of, like, the window for opportunity closed." That economic depression and despondency seen in Uncle Rico and the world painted in Napoleon Dynamite, in retrospect, becomes a snapshot of the early Trump voter. "Like oh well Trump got elected because people hit a certain level of hopelessness," she said. The makeup of his base has obviously shifted quite a bit in the years of Trump's presidency to include more unhinged racists, white supremacists, capitalistic millionaire bloodsuckers, and domestic terrorists.
At its heart, Napoleon Dynamite is a sweet underdog story set in a depressed small town where there's a clear lack of resources for the film's protagonists and their families. Life is desolate and painfully boring. Napoleon lives under the care of his mostly absent grandmother and chatroom-obsessed brother Kip, who is clearly seeking an escape from the dreariness of their lives. Pedro, the rare immigrant in the area, faces flippantly racist insults from his opponent Summer during campaign speeches. "So, who wants to eat chiminichangas next year?" she tells her classmates during her final speech in the school auditorium. "Not me. See, with me it will be summer all year long. Vote for Summer." Wow. Fuck you, Summer Wheatley. Also, they're called chimichangas.
"I just remember [Summer] as being white and entitled," said Colleen Duffy-Smith, a 67-year-old semi-retired trial lawyer who is still a proud owner of the shirt. For her, that line recalled the racist dog whistle spoken by Latinos for Trump founder Marco Gutierrez, who warned Joy Reid during a 2016 MSNBC interview that, "My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.” Fuck you, Marco Gutierrez. (But also, still holding out hope this happens someday.)
For Duffy-Smith, who bought the shirt back in 2004, the Vote for Pedro shirt has become a way to brace herself through the brutal real-life elections we've gone through in recent years. "It was in regular rotation in the t-shirt collection," she said. "I would yank it out and wear it during election season a lot. It just represents a lot to me a lot about inclusion, and quirkiness, and acceptance, and humor."
The Vote for Pedro shirt is an emblem of those values, values Duffy-Smith believes will "never go out of style." "The world needs more inclusion and diversity and humor, and empathy, and caring," she said. "When you view the current election through that lens, particularly during a pandemic and everything that it has wreaked upon us, you need to focus on those ideals and vote for people that will attempt to achieve those ideals."
Duffy-Smith is, unfortunately, unable to wear her Vote for Pedro t-shirt during this election cycle; she's currently spending time in the desert, and it's at her home in the San Luis Obispo area. Still, she assures me she'd be rocking the tee if she had it with her to "highlight the absurdity of the intense divide that we have at the moment," and has no intention of ever getting rid of the shirt. "Oh heck no," she said. "I want my granddaughter to go, 'What does that mean?" And then we'll whip the movie on and then we'll have a little convo."
And even though the film has largely vanished from the pop culture discourse, it's easy to see why some people are still holding on to these shirts. The nostalgia they evoke and celebration of uniqueness they represent is something we all desperately need as we wade through a stomach-churning election that's got the entire country on a razor's edge, crossfaded on rage and crippling anxiety.
November 3 could spell disaster for people like Pedro and Napoleon while the Summer Wheatleys of the world maintain their racist, rights-stripping chokehold on the U.S. But 62 million people (and counting!) have already cast their ballot early, breaking records in counties across the country, all in the face of countless attempts at voter suppression. That's something to hold onto, even if you threw out that Vote for Pedro shirt years ago.
Alex Zaragoza is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE. She’s on Twitter.