Brightly painted rótulos are deeply embedded in Mexican graphic culture, but they’re under attack in a politically charged effort to “beautify” a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood
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 sort of exhibition of the silly, profane, and endearing works that color the city. Many of her subjects are rótulos, hand-painted commercial signs that combine vibrant typography and witty illustrations to advertise all types of businesses, concerts, sporting events, and, especially, street food stalls. Rótulos have been a part of the urban landscape since the beginning of the 20th century. Though the art form has been losing ground against vinyl-printed and computer-designed ads for the last 20 years, it has thrived in Cuauhtémoc, a central district of CDMX (encompassing buzzy areas like Centro Histórico, Roma, and Condesa) where the streets are full of vendors proudly displaying rótulos depicting dancing, smiling, and otherwise ecstatic tacos, tortas, jugos, caldo de gallina, birria, guisado, and tamales.
Then, one day at the end of April, the playful rótulos were gone. Residents woke to see the colorful signs had been erased with white paint. In their place was the logo of the Cuauhtémoc district.
Food stands, with rótulos before the government campaign and district signage after.
Their disappearance was part of the district’s Jornada Integral de Mejoramiento del Entorno Urbano (Campaign of Improvement of the Urban Landscape), meant to beautify the neighborhood. The program, launched last April by district mayor Sandra Cuevas, establishes operational guidelines to police the appearance of street vendors, including maintaining clean work spaces, staying within a designated area, avoiding litter, adopting a small urban green space to garden, and, critically, displaying the official logo of Cuauhtémoc. “The cleanliness and beauty of the district are everybody’s task,” reads the official press release. If aesthetic peer pressure didn’t do the trick, the announcement also included a warning for anyone who didn’t comply with the new rules: “The permits to sell in the street will be removed.”
Since the beginning of the campaign, more than 1,500 street food stalls have been stripped of their graphic identities. According to multiple vendors — who declined to speak on the record for fear of retaliation or losing their permits — Cuevas’s administration charged them 200 to 300 pesos ($10 to $15) for the unwanted paint job and the new logo. Others were strongly coerced into purchasing a white tent printed with the logo to hang over their stall for a similar charge.
To De Anda, residents, street vendors, and rótulistas (sign painters) like Isaías Salgado, the move is an attack on a vital yet vulnerable art form of Chilango culture. Originally from Tepito (a neighborhood within Cuauhtémoc), Salgado has been painting rótulos for 35 years, along with 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. “Whatever Sandra Cuevas says, for me sign painting is also art and a part of our identity as Mexicans and Chilangos.”
Suddenly, De Anda’s work to immortalize street art has taken on new meaning. By the second week of May she had joined with 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 rótulo erasure was only 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 licensing and regulation. “We have to recognize street food as a culture and food system that lives and coexists in public space, but there is no regulation or city code that protects the rights of street vendors,” De Anda says.
Rechida started a campaign to convince residents and government officials of the importance of rótulos as part of Mexico City’s cultural identity. During the summer, the group set up hearings with Mexico City’s cultural department to ask for protection for the signs, and they’re petitioning Seduvi, the urban development and housing department, to preserve public spaces that have been painted by traditional rótulistas. Alongside other social media accounts such as PinturaFresca.mx and rótulos.chidos, the group has also called on locals to collaborate in documenting lost signs through a geotagged digital archive. Beyond protections for the artworks themselves, Rechida is also organizing legislation to protect vendors, guaranteeing their right to advertise and access to permits, and compensating those negatively affected by Cuevas’s program.
The debate over rótulos has touched a deeper social and economic nerve within the community, inflaming tensions around gentrification and class in Mexico City. At a public hearing on May 21, the media and community representatives questioned Cuevas about the development campaign. She explained the program was designed to unify the urban landscape, impose necessary order, and clean up the district. “And so, we removed the rótulos, which are not considered art,” she said. “[They] might 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 do not pay taxes, that street stands make public space ugly,” De Anda says. Cuevas, who was elected to office last year as the face of right-wing coalition Va por México, has left little doubt where she and her conservative party stand on food stalls and popular graphic culture in the streets: Rótulos do not qualify as “beauty.”
But many low-income and working-class residents feel solidarity with the taqueros and street food vendors. Some of them are the ones selling food in the street — from markets, stalls, bicycles, or carts — which is often the only means to secure a steady income. For millions more street food is an affordable way to feed a family. Street food sellers rarely have access to formal sources of investment or credit through banking or government programs; rótulos represent an accessible form of self-promotion and self-preservation. “Any business, in any form and scale, has the right to showcase its name and brand as they think is best. Why does the government think they can dictate what color and logo the street stalls should have? Why don’t they regulate the logos and colors of big brands like Starbucks and [convenience store chain] Oxxo?” De Anda asks.
While the battle over rótulos rages all over the city, it’s most visible in Cuauhtémoc, an area that has seen rapid gentrification in recent years, earning it the nickname “the white bubble” among Chilangos. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, residents have become acutely aware of rent hikes and rises in the cost of living. Many are also wary about 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 lively street culture, De Anda argues the government is attempting to whitewash the city in order to attract further immigration, real estate investment, and, with the white and blue Cuauhtémoc logo, visibility for her 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 worked on rótulos since he was a teenager, learning the trade from his father, Arturo Bautista, who established his workshop in 1983 in the city of Villa de Etla, in Oaxaca. “The rótulo communicates and gives an identity to a business. It is also part of the evolution and history of each street food stall. These types of graphic expressions form the identity of neighborhoods. They play a part in creating the history of each street in our cities and how we relate to public space,” Bautista says. “I do believe that Cuauhtémoc district authorities erased a part of the history of Mexico City.”
As 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, hand-lettering an inflatable mushroom cloud that appeared in Times Square.
In Mexico City, Chilangos have long coexisted with the beautiful chaos of street culture, including rótulos. They’ve also long lived under district and city governments with little interest in preserving cultural expressions that are unique to and characteristic of Mexico City.
“How boring and sad that everything is now plain white. Beauty lies in diversity, in color, in playfulness, in difference,” De Anda says. “When the street food stalls are allowed to have their rótulos again, we’ll promote the commission to traditional sign painters to gradually bring back the color to the streets of Mexico City.” In the meantime, it’s up to the vendors, artists, and the community to protect rótulos and the memories they represent. She adds, “Street food always finds its own ways of adapting and surviving.”
Natalia de la Rosa is a Mexican food writer, mezcal collector, and culinary guide based in Mexico City.