Mexico’s Hand-Painted Signs Inspire Class Conflict— But Not How You Might Think

Posted inGraffiti and Street Art

Photography by Sophie Greenspan

Last month, to the horror of many of her constituents, Sandra Cuevas, the now-deposed borough president of Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, ordered her district’s street food stand owners to cover up or remove about 1,500 colorful hand-painted advertisements and replace them with her administration’s logo. She called it an effort to improve the urban environment.

The signs, known as rótulos are joyful. They are often tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes they are crude but mostly they are painted with precise techniques passed down master-to-apprentice through generations.

The highly-guarded methods combine know-how from muralism, typography, calligraphy, and color theory. Many are the result of scarcity and ingenuity. They include tricks like mixing car paint and white gas to get paint that glides smoothly or cutting paint brushes into specific shapes for certain types of lettering. Before graphic design services were widely accessible, business owners with few resources would go to rotulistas for a visual identity. They are ubiquitous in Mexico, a staple of the urban fabric, part of what earns Mexico its reputation for being so colorful.

It is fairly inexplicable that anyone would want to get rid of rótulos. But Hernan Cortés did not conquer Tenochtitlan alone and Sandra Cuevas did not decide to destroy the rótulos out of nowhere. Cortés’ right-hand woman––his enslaved, trilingual, indigenous translator––was known as La Malinche and her legacy has everything to do with the destruction of the iconic advertisements.

The erasure of rótulos can be found at the intersection of fascism, racism, and classism. People on social media have been lobbing these charges at Cuevas for weeks. She has basically responded, “no I’m not.” Either way, she is neither the beginning nor the end of the existential threat facing rótulos.

 “This is a question of cultural identity,” says Dayron Lopez, a designer, muralist and longtime scholar of Mexico’s identidad grafica popular. “The field of design can help us understand this well. We create visual languages as identities.” So the erasure of a visual language is the erasure of an identity. And when the government forcibly erases a culture’s identity… we call that… fascism.

And if we needed proof that Sandra Cuevas is a fascist…a City court decided this month to depose her for multiple counts of corruption and abuse of power, a surprise because you have to behave REALLY badly in Mexican politics to face any consequences. In one complaint, two policemen accused Cuevas of bringing them into her office, stealing their phones and radios, pushing and slapping them, calling them homophobic slurs, and then holding them hostage in her building where she had a group of men beat them for insubordination. She has so far refused to step down, first saying that she hadn’t been notified of the court’s decision and later that they’ll have to kill her to get her out of office. As justification for her white-paint campaign, she said it was an important measure toward “order and discipline.”

But it takes looking beyond Sandra Cuevas’ fascist tendencies to understand why the rótulos are gone.

While rótulos come from popular (as opposed to elite) culture in Mexico, the cultural elite loves rótulos. Within days of the destruction of the signage, art historians, muralists, journalists, comedians, designers, and others formed a group called Re.Chida (Red Chilanga en Defensa del Arte y la Gráfica Popular or “The Chilanga Network in Defense of Art and Popular Graphics”*) to fight the Cuevas administration on the issue. A media storm ensued. So many people in the creative sphere were posting about rótulos that there were memes about how many people were posting about rótulos. Many privileged people in and outside of the organization called for the protection and respect of arte popular and identidad cultural.

Critics have tweeted that hipsters fetishize the rótulos and that the activists rallying behind them are merely concerned with the kitschy aesthetic of their neighborhoods. There certainly is a lot of Instagramming going on––but plenty of activism that seems genuinely rooted in a deep love for rótulos and a desire to protect Mexican culture, too.

Still, the charismatic megafauna (i.e. save the pandas while the whole ecosystem is collapsing around them) phenomenon is at play here. While Mexico’s middle class and lower classes are experiencing rapidly accelerating precarity in all areas of life, why rally behind rótulos? (I was losing my shit about the rótulos on Instagram for weeks. I also direct this question at myself.)

I cannot speak for the people who produce and consume the most rótulos––la gente popular. There is no public opinion data about rótulos. I did not conduct a survey for this essay. But I can say from almost a decade of reporting and market research that in Mexico, the middle class more often grasps at a global culture than a Mexican one.

There’s a name for this in Mexico: malinchismo––named for the aforementioned La Malinche’s betrayal of her people to help the Spanish conquer Mexico. It means a rejection of what is Mexican and a preference for what is foreign. The legacy of colonization, of economic and cultural imperialism is white supremacy.

Malinchismo is why so many middle class Mexicans hate cumbia music and why there’s a discount department store here called Suburbia. It is why you’ll find Starbucks locations in places where most people live in self-constructed homes. It’s why my first roommate in Mexico asked me not to display Mexican crafts in the house.

And almost certainly, it is why rótulos are undesirable to Cuevas: they are too Mexican. Rótulos have been disappearing for a long time and while it’s in part because printed plastic signs are cheaper, that’s not the only reason. Sandra Cuevas is not an anomaly. She pointed this out herself in a press conference, showing images of government-destroyed rótulos in another borough and asking “Where were the classism charges then?” The difference was that the cultural elite lives in Cuauhtémoc. You usually need a lot of cultural capital to exist outside of and reject malinchismo or to have a working discourse of arte popular and identidad cultural.

In response to criticism that she destroyed arte popular, Cuevas has insisted that the rótulos are “not art… definitely not art.” Mexico’s tendency to look down on its own traditions is classist. But it is also classist to look down on people for their malinchismo. It’s a wound nobody should be blamed for having. Not even the very detestable and majorly creepy Sandra Cuevas. Cuevas is indefensible but she did not invent her politics.

The real threat to rótulos is the enormous gulf between those with cultural capital in Mexico and those without it. It would be nice to think that if Cuevas goes down, the rótulos will be saved. In reality, people who want to preserve rótulos are up against the entire legacy of colonialism. Mexico’s lower and middle classes outnumber its cultural elite by a lot. Mexican cultural identity won’t be safe until white supremacy and malinchismo are in check.

All over the world, cheap street markets sell the exact same clothes. Global capitalism ravages local identity everywhere. The more generous reading of the story of La Malinche is that she was a genius political strategist who was working to free herself and her people from the violent rule of the Aztecs. In the fog of war, it’s easy to misidentify the enemy. In the fight to save the rótulos in Mexico and local graphic identities globally, I hope we don’t make the same mistake.

*I worked with this group peripherally for a short time, but what I’ve expressed here does not represent their views.

By Sophie Greenspan