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MEXICO CITY — For decades, they’ve been a bright and crucial part of Mexico City’s identity: Street food stalls decorated with colorful, exuberant paintings of sandwiches, bright-eyed shellfish or smiling pigs simmering in pots of boiling broth. The designs are called rótulos, public art painted by hand with gothic, geometrical lettering to draw in customers.

But this year, a Mexico City politician issued an edict. Sandra Cuevas, mayor of the Mexico City borough of Cuauhtémoc, said the street paintings that had come to characterize the city’s culinary variety in strings of colorful stalls were not compatible with her vision of a modern metropolis. She ordered the designs to be removed.

“The municipality’s cleanliness and beauty are everyone’s task,” Cuevas said. She sees making the stalls of Mexico’s capital uniform 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 grime and dirt to be cleaned,” he said.

With the edict, the city center underwent a drastic transfiguration overnight: Hundreds of stalls, which had been emblazoned with luscious rótulos, were covered last month with thick coats of white paint. Others simply had the colors scraped from their aluminum walls. Designs were removed at their owners’ expense and replaced by a single institutional image: the municipal seal.

Giovanni Bautista’s family has operated a rótulos workshop since 1983.

“Rótulos have played a huge part in Mexican gastronomy and street food,” he said. “A lot of them advertise their products on the rótulos, but most of them also have their names and identities there.”

There are precedents for this whitewashing in Mexico City history. In the 1940s, the capital’s then-governor prohibited the popular mural paintings outside pulquerías, bars that sell an alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave popular among laborers.

“Abundance of color has been historically associated with popular, working classes,” said Solano Rojas. “And the working class has often been associated with poor 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 present a complaint against Cuevas before Mexico City’s human rights commission accusing her of jeopardizing the human right to an identity and impeding graphic communication and freedom of expression.

To Bautista, the edict seems contradictory and sad. While international tourists visit his workshop, and clients from Germany, Switzerland and the United States commission his hand-painted work, in his own city “they are erasing Mexican cultural heritage,” he said. “Governors should be the first ones to protect it.”

The Mexican philosopher Emilio Uranga wrote in 1949: “Erasing or blurring, even a little, our peculiarities, to embrace others that do not belong to us but that more easily evoke the universal, does not appeal to us.”


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