MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — In early May 2022, as if an ill-fated storm swept through the neighborhood, raining white paint instead of water, downtown Mexico City lost its color.
Overnight, the colorful fruit that adorned the juice and smoothie stands vanished; the casserole dishes sporting cheery pigs and chickens disappeared. There are nearly 1,500 licensed food and beverage stands in the borough of Cuauhtémoc, the city’s historic and cultural center. Every day, more than 2 million people make their way through the area, often stopping at one of the stands for a morning green juice or a lunchtime torta, a type of Mexican sandwich. Last May, vendors say, borough authorities ordered that all stands be painted a uniform white.
“Remove it, by order of the mayor,” says Laura M., a student whose family has operated a stand for 20 years, recalling the directive. “And that goes for everyone.” Laura, who asked to remain partially anonymous out of fear of retribution, says they were given 48 hours to carry out the orders. “We painted it white, and a few days later, some people from the mayor’s office came by to put their logo and a blue stripe.”
“ALCALDÍA CUAUHTÉMOC ES TU CASA,” many stands now read. “CUAUHTÉMOC BOROUGH IS YOUR HOME.”
In April 2022, Cuauhtémoc mayor Sandra Cuevas launched a campaign, “Integrated Journey to Improve the Urban Environment,” whose stated objective is to encourage vendors to keep their working environment clean. The campaign is slated to last until 2024.
Cuevas’ office did not respond to requests for comment. In a May tweet, Cuevas stated that she had been approached by a vendor who requested her stall be painted white “to conform to the order and discipline of this new government.”
Colorful hand-painted signs, locally known as rótulos, gained popularity in the early 20th century and over the years became an iconic part of Mexico City’s street life. Their sudden and sweeping erasure across an entire borough, activists and residents say, is a blow to the city’s cultural identity. Vendors add that it is also affecting business.
“It hurts that they’ve taken it from us,” Laura says.
“They are trades learned at a very young age,” says Eduardo Nivón, a professor of anthropology at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, a Mexico City university, adding that the signage typically deploys a tone of playfulness and strives for originality. Grabbing attention on the bustling streets of downtown Mexico City is no easy feat.
“This was something very representative of our country and of this city’s creativity,” Laura says. “Now, it looks horrible, it looks dull, it looks gray.” Laura and other vendors say they were not compensated for the cost of repainting their stands — approximately 200 Mexican pesos ($10). It’s not much money, she says, but it has come with a loss in clientele. “We removed our identity. We removed the name, and now people aren’t coming to find us. I am certain that they damaged our sales with this.”
She says her sales have nearly halved since.
Antonio Álvarez Fernández, 36, a Mexico City resident who commutes on public transport, is dismayed. “It takes away the folklore of the city,” he says. “I like the signs to say what they sell — juices, cakes — but now they don’t say anything. They only have the logo of the borough; they don’t make you want to go there to buy.”
The signs counter the homogeneity of large metropolises like Mexico City, Nivón says. “They differentiate corners, businesses, buildings, which help us navigate the city,” he says. “They speak of the effort, of the family, of what makes the product offered unique.”
Nivón says the rótulos are a casualty of increasingly centralized governance, which leaves borough mayors like Cuevas with diminished powers. “Little by little, the possibilities of intervention in terms of security, services and budget are being taken away from them,” he says, noting that Cuauhtémoc has a large floating population — referring to temporary residents who are not included in the borough’s official census count — which further impacts the authority of local administrators. “Sometimes, in order to make their government visible, they make physical interventions that allow [people] to see that they are governing,” Nivón says. “Sometimes they intervene by creating programs to improve facades, lighting. In this case, the mayor had the idea of changing the urban image of the street stalls.”
The mayor’s action did not go unnoticed. The day before Cuevas posted on Twitter, the Instagram account for Red Chilanga en Defensa del Arte y la Gráfica Popular, a network of chilanga activists — as inhabitants of Mexico City are known — was already live, crowdsourcing a photographic archive of rótulos lost under the recent directive, mixed in with memes critiquing the mayor’s decision. The account, which has amassed over 19,000 followers since mid-May, receives messages of appreciation from vendors, says Yuriko, a self-described rótulo enthusiast who is affiliated with the network and requested partial anonymity due to fear of reprisal.
But organizing the vendors — to repaint their stalls in defiance of the order or lodge a formal complaint with the government — has proven difficult, she says. Some have asked them not to do anything because they say they received threats from the government, and they worry that further outspokenness may jeopardize their livelihoods even further. “There have also been people saying this hasn’t affected them — as long as they don’t take their stands away from them, their spaces of work,” Yuriko says.
After complying with the mayor’s directive for two months, one torta vendor fearfully approached a rotulista — a sign-painter. Now, his stand once again sports a colorful illustration of a sandwich, alongside a phrase once ubiquitous on the streets of the borough: RICAS TORTAS CALIENTES, HOT DELICIOUS SANDWICHES.
“Yes, we painted it white, but we just got out of a crisis — from the pandemic — and this has been yet another one,” says the vendor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his sales permit. “The people weren’t coming to buy anything.”
Laura says she asked government officials if her family could repaint their stand, but they refused.
“How do they expect us to have an income and be able to pay our bills if they take away our means to do so?” she says. She fears losing the business that has belonged to her family for two generations and employs three young people who are the primary breadwinners for their families. “I’m afraid to do this interview, but I’m doing it because I want people to see that it is really affecting us.”