…or how does a city turn pink?
The world presents itself to me in a constant series of mysteries. Each prompts me to wonder about the stories behind them. These mysteries are everywhere: the people I meet, the music I listen to, the buildings I see on the side of the road, the food I eat . . . so many stories to discover! Sometimes these stories can be uncovered but when they cannot, I’ll often make something up to fill in the blanks. My mind creates a sort of “story gestalt”. Some mysteries stick with me, though, and can’t be satisfied simply by my imagination.
One example of this was when my family recently went on our first visit to Mexico City. We traversed the City from one side to the other, North and South and everywhere we went, we kept seeing . . . pink. It was so ubiquitous that I knew it couldn’t be random or just the whim of a single designer. I was sure there was a deeper story as to why Mexico City was pink.
We traversed the City from one side to the other, North and South and everywhere we went, we kept seeing . . . pink.
It is sort of a magenta-pink, to be precise. Anyone who as been there may recognize what I mean. One of the first things you see on arrival is the profusion of pink Taxis. They are all branded with similar designs, a large, Gotham-font “CDMX” in white and Magenta. So what? Mexico City has Magenta taxis, London’s are black and New York’s are yellow. No big deal.
But then I started seeing it in many other places: on bus stops, on building facades, in souvenirs, and in clothing. You can’t really go too far without seeing it. It gives the city a chromatic character that we don’t have here in Los Angeles. Our LA colors are typically used more timidly and without uniformity. Not surprisingly, one of the few exceptions to this is is Pershing Square in DTLA designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. It is too bad its physical experience is so poor that it will be replaced soon.
It is obvious and well-known that Mexico is filled with vibrant colors. We had visited Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul during the trip and in a trip to the Teotihuacan pyramids we saw many houses painted a variety of bright colors that you rarely see in the US. This magenta color was clearly the most popular of them all. So I began to wonder, what was the story behind this color? It must be meaningful.
As a designer, colors are often meaningful. We are taught that red should be used carefully. Some posit that because our blood is red, it signifies danger in a very primitive part of the brain. There are many other cultural associations with color as well. Understanding the meaning and knowing the stories behind colors makes designers better able to use color more intentionally. This is why I wanted to know more.
There are a few of what you might call “natural” origins of this color in Mexico. Some of the most visible examples are the bougainvillea flower or the flower and fruit of several types of cactus.
Although these colors occur in the environment, in order for this color to be used and propagated by the people of Mexico and not simply observed, they also need a way to create with it, i.e., a source of dye or pigment for clothing or artwork.
This brings us to the lowly cochineal insect that, amazingly, when dried, crushed and cooked with sodium carbonate and mixed with alum creates a deep pink dye that has been used since before the 15th century by the Aztec and Maya for pigmenting clothes and art. (There must be a whole other amazing story about who discovered this). Perhaps this is the true origin of this color in Mexican culture.
But there is one more peculiar story that seems to be at the root of the modern, ubiquitous magenta color. It points to a single fashion show. Ramón Valdiosera, a Mexican polymath who was well known as a cartoonist, filmmaker, painter, author and fashion designer, may have rediscovered the color and bound it forever with Mexico’s identity. In the 1940s and 50s Valdiosera was pursuing a true and unique Mexican fashion identity.
During this time he traveled through Mexico collecting costumes from a wide variety of ethnic groups and synthesizing what he saw into the Mexican identity he envisioned. Eventually this research led to a clothing line with the label “Maya de Mexico”. Around the same time he developed a friendship with the soon-to-be President of Mexico, Miguel Alemán, who encouraged Valdiosera to embark on what was basically a marketing campaign for Mexico. Valdiosera went on tour to several major cities with his fashion line, including Paris, Chicago, and Philadelphia. In 1951 the tour included a fashion show at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York where Valdiosera featured the bougainvillea color that he had seen used for many purposes throughout Mexico. International press inquired about the color and as Valdiosera explained that this color was used in toys, indigenous costumes, sweets and architecture throughout Mexico, a journalist replied, “…so it is a Mexican Pink”. This moment, at least as the lore goes, was the birth of Rosa Mexicano, or Mexican Pink.
Skip forward to approximately 2012 and the ongoing governmental efforts to market Mexico City that also coincide with Mexico City changing from a Federal District or “DF” (similar to Washington D.C.) to a region closer to a statehood: Ciudad de Mexico, or CDMX for short. In making the change, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera and his government developed a new brand for CDMX that included the minimalist logo (basically a couple of weights of the Gotham font) and the liberal use of Rosa Mexicano, or Pantone Hexacrome Magenta C (#FF149B). The most visible signs of this, as I mentioned previously, are the 140,000 taxis that were re-painted between 2015 and 2017. We passed hundreds of them as we traversed the city in our Uber (there was no Lyft in CDMX). Here is a link to the comprehensive governmental graphics standards for the use of the design (if anyone knows who created this standard, please include it in the comments).
Now Mexico has a new President and Mexico City has a new Mayor, which may mean yet another new marketing campaign for Mexico City. The fate of Rosa Mexicano or the “CDMX” designation is unsure. There are ongoing efforts to solidify this hue, including the designation of the color by paint manufacturer Comex as “Rosa Chilango” as a tribute to the City being designated “World Design Capital” by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Comex plans to paint “15 thousand square meters at various points in the city”.
Who knows though? With the global visibility of Frida Kahlo and her Casa Azul (Blue House), it isn’t impossible to imagine a change in the signature color for Mexico City as a way for some politician to make their mark. I hope not. The longevity of a city campaign is important to a city’s identity. Changing a city’s image is not only expensive for the taxpayers (and taxi companies) but it will erode the longer-term identity needed to continue the critical mass that Mexico City seems to be creating these days.
Los Angeles Gold
I’d been thinking about writing this since my visit to Mexico this past spring, but I didn’t get around to it until the summer. In the meantime, tragedy struck Los Angeles. Our beloved food critic Jonathan Gold died of pancreatic cancer in July. Later that month, in honor of the critic’s birthday, the city “turned to gold”. Many buildings throughout the City, including the City Hall, the Broad Museum and the Music Center, changed the color of their building wash lights to hues of gold — and it suited the City.
Jonathan Gold not only wrote about LA, but he mapped it too. No matter where I went in the LA region (and it is massive), I would think of him. “Where would Jonathan eat in this neighborhood?” is probably one of the most shared thoughts in all of Los Angeles. Jonathan Gold’s favorite places to eat are kind of an overlay onto the city streets. As I consider Rosa Mexicano and the ubiquitous magenta of CDMX, I wonder if and hope that in 50 years Los Angeles will be known officially as the “City of Gold”.