Since 2004, Tamara De Anda, a Mexican social activist and TV host, has been photographing street art in Mexico City and sharing the images on social media as a kind of exhibition of the silly, profane and endearing works that color the city. Many of his subjects are rótulos, hand-painted business signs that combine vibrant typography and witty illustrations to advertise all types of businesses, concerts, sporting events and, most importantly, food stalls. of street. The Rótulos have been part of the urban landscape since the beginning of the 20th century. Although the art form has lost ground to vinyl-printed and computer-designed advertisements over the past 20 years, it has thrived in Cuauhtémoc, a central district of CDMX (encompassing bustling areas like Centro Histórico, Roma and Condesa) where the streets are packed with vendors proudly displaying rótulos depicting dancing, smiling, and otherwise ecstatic tacos, tortas, jugos, caldo de gallina, birria, guisado, and tamales.
Then, one day in late April, the playful rótulos disappeared. Residents woke up to see the colored signs had been wiped away with white paint. In their place was the logo of the Cuauhtémoc district.
Their disappearance was part of the neighborhood’s Jornada Integral de Mejoramiento del Entorno Urbano (Urban Landscape Improvement Campaign), intended to beautify the neighborhood. The program, launched last April by District Mayor Sandra Cuevas, establishes operational guidelines to control the appearance of street vendors, including maintaining clean workspaces, staying in a designated area, avoiding litter, by adopting a small urban green space for gardening and, above all, displaying the official Cuauhtémoc logo. “The cleanliness and beauty of the neighborhood is everyone’s business,” reads the official press release. If aesthetic peer pressure didn’t do the trick, the ad also carried a warning for anyone who didn’t comply with the new rules: “Permits to sell on the street will be revoked.”
Since the start of the campaign, more than 1,500 street food stalls have been stripped of their graphic identities. According to several vendors – who have refused to speak publicly for fear of reprisals or losing their permits – Cuevas’ administration charged them 200-300 pesos ($10-15) for the unwanted paint job and new logo. . Others were strongly pressured into buying a white tent printed with the logo to hang above their stand for a similar charge.
For De Anda, locals, street vendors and rótulistas (sign painters) like Isaías Salgado, the move is an attack on a vital but vulnerable art form of Chilango culture. Originally from Tepito (a district of Cuauhtémoc), Salgado has been painting rótulos for 35 years, as well as work for brands, galleries and exhibitions. “I used to know over 200 sign painters and now I only know four or five people who are still in the business,” he says. “No matter what Sandra Cuevas says, for me, sign painting is also art and part of who we are as Mexicans and Chilangos.”
Suddenly, De Anda’s work to immortalize street art took on new meaning. By the second week of May, she had joined other artists, graphic designers and activists to form Rechida (Chilanga Network in Defense of Art and Popular Graphics), a collective that seeks to protect works across Mexico City. The erasure of the rótulo was just the latest attack on Mexico City’s street vendors, who historically suffer from discrimination, marginalization and economic exploitation in the form of bribes and corrupt government licenses and regulations. “We need to recognize street food as a culture and a food system that lives and coexists in public space, but there are no regulations or municipal codes that protect the rights of street vendors,” says From Anda.
Rechida launched a campaign to convince residents and government officials of the importance of rótulos as part of Mexico City’s cultural identity. Over the summer, the group held hearings with Mexico City’s cultural department to ask for the signs to be protected, and they’re asking Seduvi, the urban development and housing department, to preserve the public spaces that were painted. by the traditional rótulistas. Along with other social media accounts such as PinturaFresca.mx and rótulos.chidos, the group has also called on residents to collaborate in documenting the lost signs through a geolocated digital archive. Beyond the protections for the artworks themselves, Rechida is also arranging legislation to protect sellers, guarantee their right to publicity and access to permits, and compensate those negatively affected by Cuevas’ program. .
The rótulos debate has touched a deeper social and economic nerve within the community, stoking tensions around gentrification and class in Mexico City. At a public hearing on May 21, media and community representatives asked Cuevas about the development campaign. She explained that the program was designed to unify the urban landscape, impose the necessary order and clean up the neighborhood. “And so, we removed the rótulos, which are not considered art,” she said. “[They] may be part of the customs and traditions of Mexico City, but they are not art.
“There is still a perception among [mostly affluent] Chilangos that street vendors don’t pay taxes, that street stalls make public space ugly,” says De Anda. Cuevas, who was elected last year as the face of the right-wing Va por México coalition, has left no doubt about her and her conservative party’s stance on food stalls and popular graphic culture in the streets: the Rótulos are not called “beauty.”
But many low-income and working-class residents feel solidarity with taqueros and street food vendors. Some of them are those who sell food on the streets – in markets, stalls, bicycles or carts – which is often the only way to secure a stable income. For millions more, street food is an affordable way to feed a family. Street food vendors rarely have access to formal sources of investment or credit through banking or government programs; The rótulos represent an accessible form of self-promotion and self-preservation. “Any business, regardless of shape and size, has the right to present its name and brand in the way it sees fit. Why does the government think it can dictate the color and branding? street stalls logo Why don’t they regulate the logos and colors of big brands like Starbucks and [convenience store chain] Oxx? asks De Anda.
While the battle of the rótulos rages throughout the city, it is most visible in Cuauhtémoc, an area that has seen rapid gentrification in recent years, earning it the nickname “white bubble” among the Chilangos. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, residents have become very aware of rent hikes and the rising cost of living. Many are also wary of the arrival of wealthy digital nomads from the United States, Canada and Europe. Despite the fact that people from other countries come to Cuauhtémoc in part for its bustling street culture, De Anda argues that the government is trying to whitewash the city in order to attract more immigration, real estate investment and, with the white and blue Cuauhtémoc logo. , visibility for its political coalition, which shares the colors.
As the neighborhood changes, rótulista Giovanni Bautista fears that losing the rótulos means losing the collective memory of the city as it was. Bautista has been working on rótulos since he was a teenager, learning the craft from his father, Arturo Bautista, who established his workshop in 1983 in the town of Villa de Etla, Oaxaca. “The rótulo communicates and gives an identity to a company. It is also part of the evolution and history of every street food stall. These types of graphic expressions form the identity of the districts. They play a role in creating the history of every street in our cities and our relationship to public space,” says Bautista. “I believe that the authorities of the Cuauhtémoc district have erased part of the history of Mexico City.”
While the rótulos are under attack at home, the culture has survived by going global. Bautista has created rótulos for taquerias and food-related businesses located abroad, and his hand-painted rótulos have traveled to Germany, Argentina, the United States and Peru. In May, Salgado collaborated with Mexican contemporary artist Pedro Reyes on the Zero Nukes installation in New York, handwriting an inflatable mushroom that appeared in Times Square.
In Mexico City, the Chilangos have long coexisted with the beautiful chaos of street culture, including the rótulos. They have also long lived under district and city governments with little interest in preserving Mexico City’s unique and characteristic cultural expressions.
“How annoying and sad that everything is now white. The beauty is in the diversity, in the color, in the game, in the difference,” says De Anda. “When street food stalls are allowed to have their rótulos again, we will promote the order to traditional sign painters to gradually bring color back to the streets of Mexico City.” In the meantime, it is up to vendors, artists and the community to protect the rótulos and the memorabilia they represent. She adds: “Street food always finds its own ways to adapt and survive.
Natalia de la Rosa is a Mexican food writer, mezcal collector and food guide based in Mexico City.