Mexico’s Cart Ban Marks a Generic Shift

Rótulos — kiosks, which are ubiquitous on sidewalks and public squares in Mexico City, are small metal stands with panels that open to create shade for customers during the day, then fold down and lock at night to create a closed and secure box.

In April, the government of Cuauhtémoc alcaldía, or borough, in central Mexico City ordered that all of its rótulos – the hand-painted signs decorating street vendor kiosks – be defaced.

The colorful optical illusions, various typographies and whimsical portraits of sandwiches, juices and smoothies that have become a staple of the city’s built environment had to be washed or painted over, making kiosks nothing more than a backdrop for the sad, gray of the alcaldía. -and-white official seal.

The kiosks, ubiquitous on Mexico City’s sidewalks and public squares, are small metal stands with panels that open to create shade for customers during the day, then fold down and lock at night to create a closed and secure box.

The rule to homogenize them came within the framework of the Jornada Integral de Mejoramiento del Entorno Urbano, or Global Program for the Improvement of the Urban Environment, which among its objectives is to ensure that “the merchants of the public road maintain a clean workspace at all times”.

Sandra Cuevas, the borough’s mayor, said the program “will allow everyone to coexist in peace and harmony” and that “the cleanliness and beauty of the borough is a task shared by all”.

Apparently, despite the fact that rótulos have long been of interest to scholars and museums as part of the Mexican folk art tradition, the administration considers the hand-painted graphics to be at odds with their view of “cleanliness – and a threat to coexistence. in peace and harmony.

It is not the first time that the government of Mexico City has implemented measures to control images in its streets and public squares, and that the arbitrary motivations to do so have caused systematic losses of artistic expression and artisan jobs.

In the early 1940s, the city banned murals on the walls of pulquerías, establishments dedicated to the consumption of pulque, an alcoholic milk drink made from the fermented sap of agave plants. Murals, a staple of pulquerías across the city, combined text with imagery: the humorous names of bars appeared in huge letters alongside landscapes, figures of dancers and mariachis, or depictions of agave plants .

While the city viewed the murals as an eyesore, others thought differently. The walls of the pulquería “were places where Mexican folk artists made important murals”, famous painter and architect Juan O’Gorman said in his 1973 biography, and the rules prohibiting them were “in effect a regulation governmental effort to eliminate one of the most important forms of art expression in Mexico”.

Writing in Mexican Folkways magazine in 1926, Diego Rivera criticized the city’s bourgeoisie for considering the murals “one of Mexico’s chief disgraces” and seeking to erase them. Like O’Gorman, Rivera considered the murals to be markers of tradition and predecessors of his revolutionary and popular art. The images of the murals by American photographer Edward Weston were collected by the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) and the Center for Creative Photography.

Later, Ernesto P Uruchurtu, who served as head of the Federal District (the equivalent of mayor before Mexico City was incorporated as a city-state in 2016) from 1952 to 1966, made it his mission to get the signs out in the city ​​neon. . Uruchurtu hated neon signs as he often saw them near brothels and canteens, which offended his sense of morality. Thus, from the beginning of his mandate, he refused permits for new ones.

And in 1971, the government of Octavio Sentíes Gómez decided to standardize the signage in the historic center district, only allowing black and white lettering in the capitals and shop windows of the district, once filled with bright colors. Like the rótulos, all old signs had to be taken down, regardless of their age or artistic quality.

Now Ms Cuevas is going after the street vendor kiosks, which survived those earlier efforts to homogenize the city. This mandate is at odds with the priorities of most borough residents. Despite the space that kiosks take up on city sidewalks, despite the difficulty they may have in moving through our neighborhoods, they are part of our lives. Many of us chilangos, or residents of Mexico City, are loyal customers of specific stalls and have relationships with merchants.

Rótulos are bridges between customers and sellers that create empathy and affection. They make the city’s public spaces friendlier and more human, reminding us that graphic design and advertising beyond businesses is possible. (Interestingly, the borough does not cover painted signs with newspaper logos or trademarks. For some reason, officials resent the generic graphic design that has invaded neighborhoods with voracious gentrification — logos Coca-Cola and others — worth keeping.)

The Rótulos also attract tourists and are the subject of scholarly enquiry. The Sensacional de Diseño Mexicano exhibition, which brought together artistic advertisements from small Mexican businesses, traveled to 12 galleries around the world, and its catalog became the seminal text on popular advertising not only in Mexico, but throughout Spain. western hemisphere.

And anyone familiar with current trends in Mexican graphic design or contemporary art knows how high culture often draws on the visual language of rotulistas. In contemporary artist Francis Alÿs’ Sign Painting Project, for example, Alÿs has teamed up with three rotulistas to create paintings that appropriate the visual language of rótulos for works sold on the global art market.

In the weeks since the mandate was put in place, Cuauhtémoc residents shared photos of the borough’s rótulos on social media. These celebrations of intricate, inventive, painted designs continue to grow – manifestations of discontent with the borough government’s attack on our local folk art. And through the messages, we began to organize ourselves to create an archive of rótulos — to save them, if only in our memories. We call it the Chilango Network for the Defense of Popular Art and Design (Red Chilanga en Defensa del Arte y la Gráfica Popular, or RECHIDA, which also means “very cool” in Mexico City slang), on Instagram at @ re.chida.

The decision of the district of Cuauhtémoc accelerates the loss of an artistic profession and a form of popular art already in danger. This adds to a trend of public space in Mexico City becoming more bland and less appealing to everyone. The capital has already lost many of the traditions that once made it special: the Easter tradition of burning cardboard effigies of Judas in neighborhood squares, vendors selling hand-decorated balloons, the pulquería murals whose O’Gorman lamented the erasure.

All over the world, the intangible heritage of public space has been destroyed in favor of a generic appearance. Unique and eclectic playgrounds, benches, sidewalks, forms of advertising and even trees have been moved for a limited catalog of prefabricated objects designed for an ideal public sphere that does not actually exist anywhere in the world. .

Eliminating the rótulos not only insults the artists who painted them and depersonalizes the street kiosks. It also deprives everyone of the right to a city that includes all those who live there and who make it work: the patuliste and those who love his work, the sandwich maker and those who eat his food. With their elimination, Mexico City no longer resembles Paris or London. It just feels like a sadder, more generic version of himself.ZÓCALO PUBLIC SQUARE