Where New England Won the Super Bowl

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Tim Rogers for TIME

Preprinted Super Bowl T-shirts proclaiming the New England Patriots as the 2008 champions are distributed in Nicaragua

There was something not quite authentic about the Super Bowl victory celebration here last week. The crowd was not rowdy football fans; it was a group of shy local women and children who are unlikely to have seen the game, but came anyway to get a free Super Bowl T-shirt or hat. And then there was the fact that the champions being celebrated on those T-shirts and hats were the New England Patriots.

The fact that the Patriots lost the Super Bowl may be why the celebration was being held in this small Nicaraguan village — because Boston's loss was definitely Diriamba's gain, in the form of the "Perfect Season, 19-0" Patriots T-shirts and hats that Brady, Belichick and Bruschi were supposed to have worn on the field after the game. Due to NFL regulations that prohibit the sale of the losing team's "championship" apparel, the T-shirts and hats were donated to needy Nicaraguans by World Vision, in conjunction with the NFL and Reebok.

Although most of the shirts had been made for six-foot-four, 310-pound tackles, rather than three-foot-eight, 45-pound elementary schoolers, no one complained about the tailoring. That's because unlike most of clothing worn in this part of the world, the Patriots gear was brand-new — a wonderful novelty, even if everyone in the village now has the same shirt.

Central America has, for years, been a dumping ground for unwanted used clothing from the United States, thanks to church giveaways, hurricane relief drives and other charitable and business endeavors. (See video below) The legacy of that goodwill has turned Nicaragua's streets into a living, if slightly tattered, scrapbook of pop culture memories: everything from "Avoid the Noid" and "Party Animal, Spuds Mackenzie," to "I'm Too Sexy for My Shirt."

Those wearing the tees are either unaware of or unconcerned by the meaning of the English messages they bear. It's not uncommon to see a man wearing a T-shirt boasting "World's Best Grandma," or a young girl wearing a shirt lamenting "Stripping ruined my life." I've seen an old woman in "I Love AC/DC," an indigenous grandmother with a shirt bragging, "My boyfriend is hotter than yours," and another disclosing that "My boyfriend is out of town."

Some of the clothing dumped on Latin America is in such poor taste that it's hard to imagine how it ever got made in the first place. Like the girl's underwear in a storefront window inscribed with the creepy message, "I love my uncle."

Sometimes, the message can be downright subversive. Once in Costa Rica, a friend and I were waiting for a bus when a group of tough-looking teenagers approached and gave us a hard look. But the leader of the pack was wearing a T-shirt that read: "I'm not a bitch, I just suffer from permanent PMS." I didn't know whether to hand him my wallet or a Motrin.

Once, in a tiny eatery on Roatn Island, Honduras, the young boy who came out to take my order was wearing a T-shirt from my hometown — a purple Wellesley softball shirt that looked identical to the one my family had recently donated to charity. Excitedly, I tried to explain to him in broken Spanish that he was wearing my sister's shirt, which he interpreted as an accusation that he had stolen it. The boy profusely denied my allegations, and when he reappeared with my fried chicken, he was wearing a different shirt to deter any further conversation on the matter.

Home to some 40 million mostly poor people, Central America is an enormous market for inexpensive clothing. Nicaraguan entrepreneurs often travel to Miami to buy used clothing in bulk, and ship it back home to sell for a hefty profit. According to an investigation by Nicaraguan economist Alejandro Arauz, most such apparel is imported into Nicaragua as "donations" to skirt commercial taxes, then resold for a 200 percent profit. To further cut costs, the used clothing purchased in the U.S. is bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, the garments picked over and left behind at Goodwill and then sold by the bale at a clearance price of 10-15 cents a pound.

But in some cases, there may be a commercial opportunity in reversing the used-clothing flow: Diriamba is awash in victorious Patriots T-shirts that should fetch a handsome profit in the Boston black market.