TThe visual landscape of Mexico City is instantly recognizable in its streets filled with colorful food stands advertising tortas, tacos and others in bold letters with even bolder claims. Often these hand-painted characters or labels, include clever illustrations, fictional mascots, subtle wordplay, and even copyright-infringing renditions of popular cartoon characters. Each sign is designed and painted by hand and is tailored specifically to the niche of the stand. They are living testimony to the ingenuity and aesthetics of Mexican artists.
At the end of April 1961 role player artist Martín Hernández Robles saw over a thousand of these colorful, humorous paintings—including his own work—removed overnight throughout the Cuauhtemoc neighborhood as part of Mayor Sandra Cuevas’ urban beautification efforts. Not for the first time, Robles felt the heartbreaking weight of impotence and humiliation.
The Mexico City native, who learned the trade from his father, Robles, aka Don Rotulos on Instagram, has more than four decades of experience. He’s been in the game long enough to have his shop in Cuauhtemoc forced to close by the local government earlier this year and to be jailed twice for allegedly breaking traffic while painting and failing to pay related this fines. Authorities can — and do — crack down on rotulists and street vendors, he says, but this kind of mass neighborhood erasure is much different.
Cuevas’ decree threatens to remove the iconic designs from downtown entirely. As part of the “Cuevas Campaign to Improve the Urban Landscape” pushed through in late April, the colors that once flowed through the streets have been replaced with monochromatic patches of gray metal or bland paint.
For Robles, seeing all that painstaking art erased and replaced with the local government emblem, which includes the somewhat condescending phrase “This is your house” (“This is your home”), is akin to burying a long-standing expression of cultural identity.
“It was brutal because they didn’t give anybody a chance to do anything,” Robles said. “[Cuevas] erased the faces of the suppliers and their businesses.”
Beautification – for whom?
OOn April 25, Cuevas’ office issued a press release calling for “improvement of the urban environment.” Vendors saw their booths repainted in matte white and faded blue with the neighborhood’s logo, a measure that local reports said cost the vendors themselves 200 to 300 pesos ($9.80 to $14.80). The cost is significant in a city where more than 9 million people work in the informal sector and the minimum wage is just over $8 a day.
Cuevas, a member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) elected to the mayoral post in June 2021, is no stranger to controversy. As a leading authority on one of Mexico City’s most influential neighborhoods — home to the Mexican Stock Exchange, the Palace of Fine Arts and the famed Zocalo — she has generated headlines in local and national media before for comments including “I don’t like the poor” and for throwing plastic balls with money stuck to them from the balcony of Cuauhtemoc City Hall.
However, Cuevas’ attack on artists and street vendors has confused many art historians and advocates due to its controversial nature. In theory, efforts to “clean up” the neighborhood benefit tourists, but many tourists and artists are drawn to Mexico City precisely because of its rich visual culture and traditions in the graphic arts.
“This action is part of the district government’s own incompetence,” said Aldo Solano Rojas, a popular art expert and member of Rechida, The Chilango [Mexico City resident’s] Network in Defense of Art and Popular Design. The group was created in response to Cuevas’ measures. “Her government has such a low approval rating and poor relations with other political agents that she chose to make cosmetic changes aimed at those who are most vulnerable and easiest to humiliate,” Rojas said.
Rotulismo as an art form has been prevalent in Mexico — and most of Latin America and the Global South — for more than a century, especially in the more modern cities, according to renowned Mexican art curator Cuautemoc Medina. Although rotulism as a profession has been threatened by the advent of digital signage and the mass production of synthetic posters and banners in recent years, it is still a major art form in cities across the country.
“In Mexico City, the importance of street trading…helps maintain rotulism as [livable] profession,” said Medina, a former associate curator at Tate Modern. “Many of the signs of shops, tailors, workshops and especially those in the Zona Centro [in Cuauhtémoc] and even pubs and canteens, many of which are still made by rotulists.
Rotulists and similar artists have felt the pressure of the government’s thumb before. Medina and Rojas explained that local authorities in the 1940s tried to ban murals in pulquerries, or bars dedicated to pulque, the fermented juice of the agave plant. Similarly, in the 1970s, the authorities replaced the painted signs in the Centro Histórico with more standardized black and white elements.
In the past five years, Robles said, artists in neighborhoods such as Gustavo Madero in the northernmost part of the metropolis and in Xochimilco in the south have been harassed by the authorities. Patrol or police officers often ask for non-existent permits or invoke arbitrary laws to impose fines or receive bribes.
While rótulos are commercially endangered in Mexico City’s 16 neighborhoods, erasure is most apparent and visible in Cuauhtemoc. The neighborhood has seen rapid gentrification in the past few years, thanks in large part to the hordes of digital nomads migrating to Mexico City from the United States, Canada and Europe. These newcomers look to take advantage of the lower cost of living, while more and more businesses cater to dollar-earning, card-carrying patrons.
Cuevas is likely trying to capitalize on the influx of foreign money by standardizing the look of Cuauhtémoc’s mobile stands, ironically taking away the signature art that has been part of Mexican culture for decades and attracts visitors from all over the world. The mayor said the whitewashing of the street stalls was simply for “cleanliness” and “order”.
In mid-May, Cuevas doubled down on his stance, saying rótulos “are not art” and adding that it’s about reducing “visual pollution.” Cuevas’ actions and rationalization raise important questions, especially at a time when foreigners are flocking to the neighborhood.
Medina stressed that the erasure of rótulos was the result of a bureaucracy led by people “with values aligned with urban whitewashing,” calling the measure class-based because it targeted working-class sectors of the population.
“It’s very strange that they didn’t take into account the long-standing appreciation of this kind of art,” Medina said. “It is very difficult to understand the decision of the city hall and why they think that this kind of uniformity is beneficial.”
Attempts to reach Cuevas’ office were unsuccessful and requests for comment went unanswered.
The community is fighting back
IIt took only a few days after Cuevas’ decree changed the face of Cuauhtemoc to respond to artists and citizens. Rechida and other organizations were established within days and their efforts were reported in stories by prominent international media.
Rojas acknowledges that support has been so vocal in Cuauhtemoc in large part because of the neighborhood’s middle-class status and its appeal to foreigners. “[Cuauhtémoc] there is much more cultural and political capital and our grievances have expanded even further – it’s also a class issue,” said Rojas, a doctoral student at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM).
While the government has previously attempted to censor art or certain types of expression in other neighborhoods, the pushback in Cuauhtemoc has become the focus of the news, something rarely seen in poorer, more marginalized areas.
Rechida, artists and activists want the culture minister to recognize Rotulism as Mexico City’s cultural heritage and demand that Cuevas’ office withdraw what it considers “ennobling” measures.
On a practical level, the organization wants the neighborhood to compensate rotulists whose artwork was erased. The group also works to prevent City Hall from harassing artists and vendors, who are typically among the neighborhood’s lowest middle-class incomes and who often commute from poorer neighborhoods to set up shop during the day.
Abigail Navalos Hernandez, 30, is among the younger generation of rotulistas. Growing up, Hernandez accompanied his family to the Central de Abastos, one of Mexico City’s and the world’s largest supply markets. Exposure to a world of color, advertisements, art and sardonic caricatures ignited Hernandez’s artistic passion.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic, I started designing letters. I started with small signs and then bigger ones and shortly after that I started painting much bigger exteriors,” said Hernandez, who is a member of Morras Chidas Rotulando [Cool Girls Sign Painting].
Although she only became a professional rotulist in the past few years, Hernandez has also seen authorities harass vendors and other rotulists. While painting rótulo at a food stand earlier this year in Gustavo Madero, Hernández said local police harassed vendors into paying fines for not having work permits. Although the food vendor Hernandez worked for had a permit, police pushed the vendor away, threatening to detain her.
“Many of the rotulists [involved in advocacy efforts] are young people who also need this as protection to practice their profession and I think that’s a positive thing,” said Robles.
While the city hall of Cuauhtemoc has refused to budge so far from the so-called “urban improvement”, the Rotulists have found ways to circumvent the decree. Some have made adhesive rótulos — quick enough to put on and take off — while others have resorted to painting either texts or caricatures.
These small acts of rebellion are part of a community-wide effort with a palpable international appeal to preserve an art form that is, as noted Mexican writer Deborah Holtz recently wrote for El Pais, “synonymous with our way of being and communicating.”
Rotulismo gives small and medium-sized businesses in Mexico, from the most inconspicuous stand in Central de Abastos to some of the older businesses in Cuauhtémoc, a part of their identity. That rotulism has maintained such a presence in Mexico City—despite the local government’s attempt to purge it—is a testament to how iconic this particular form of expression is in and outside of the nation’s capital.
Since the spring, Rechida’s efforts and community pushback have provided the rotulists with a spotlight they hope to use to preserve and promote their art as more than a calling.
“What happened in Cuauhtemoc will hopefully help us recover rotulism,” Robles said. “It gives us validity and legitimacy as professional rotulists, a profession that is very much alive today.”
Umberto J. Rocha is a reporter currently covering the European carbon market and working as a freelancer focusing on politics and culture in Latin America. Born in Mexico City and a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Humberto writes for local, national and international publications.
Madeline McSherry is an environmentalist and visual artist currently based in Mexico City. A graduate of McGill, she has spent the past decade working on conservation projects around the world and has lived and worked in Panama, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic.