But this year, a politician from Mexico City issued an edict. Sandra Cuevas, mayor of Mexico City’s Cuauhtémoc neighborhood, said the street paintings that had come to characterize the city’s culinary diversity in rows of colorful stalls were incompatible with her vision of a modern metropolis. She ordered the designs to be removed.
“The cleanliness and beauty of the municipality is everyone’s job,” Cuevas said. She sees uniforming the stalls of Mexico’s capital as a matter of ‘order and discipline’.
Art historian Aldo Solano Rojas says the impulse is not new.
“Behind this is an evil association of rótulos as dirt and grime that needs cleaning,” he said.
With the edict, the city center underwent a drastic transformation overnight: hundreds of stalls, decorated with lavish rótulos, were covered in thick layers of white paint last month. Others simply had the colors scraped off their aluminum walls. Designs were removed at the expense of their owners and replaced by one institutional image: the municipal seal.
Giovanni Bautista’s family has had a rótulos workshop since 1983.
“Rótulos has played a huge role in Mexican gastronomy and street food,” he said. “Many of them advertise their products on the rótulos, but most have their name and identity there as well.”
There are precedents for this money laundering in Mexico City’s history. In the 1940s, the then governor of the capital banned the popular outdoor murals pulqueriasbars selling an alcoholic drink made from fermented agave popular among workers.
“Abundance of color has traditionally been associated with popular working classes,” says Solano Rojas. “And the working class is often associated with bad taste.”
Solano Rojas is a member of Re Chida, a group of artists and activists working to map and preserve the city’s rótulos. They plan to file a complaint against Cuevas with Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission, accusing her of endangering the human right to an identity and hindering graphic communication and freedom of expression.
To Bautista, the edict seems contradictory and sad. While international tourists visit his workshop and commission customers from Germany, Switzerland and the United States for his hand-painted work, they are erasing Mexican cultural heritage in his home town, he said. “Governors should be the first to protect it.”
The The Mexican philosopher Emilio Uranga wrote in 1949: “To erase or blur, even a little, our idiosyncrasies, to embrace others who are not ours but who more easily evoke the universal, does not appeal to us.”