It might just be an impression, but it seems like Mexico has never been so widely discussed as it is at the moment. For example, one thing that many people know about Donald Trump’s bid for the Presidency of the United States of America is his attitude to Mexico: first, there is the plan for the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico, to be paid for by Mexico, and second his views on the kinds of Mexicans who migrate to the USA. Mexican cultural icons, such as sombreros, feature in the news, with talk of a ban on their distribution by the students’ union at the University of East Anglia, whilst a frat house at the University of Texas faced a formal investigation because they hosted a ‘border patrol’ party, where guests wore ponchos and construction workers hard hats featuring Spanish-sounding names. More positively, the UK and Mexico are developing increasingly close diplomatic relations following the 2015 State Visit to Britain by President Pena Nieto.
A colleague recently found two posters in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle featuring six members of a Mariachi band, identifiable by their unmistakable costumes. The artist responsible for these posters is, according to his Instagram and Facebook accounts, known as Face the Strange, whose signature motif is the replacing of heads of human forms with foodstuffs, animals, and – in this case – Mexican semiotic resources. For this poster, Face the Strange adds a short caption, “Enfrentar el extraño”, or ‘Face the other’ or ‘Confront the other’.
As can be seen, the heads of the Mariachi band members are replaced by a range of commodities associated with an idea of Mexico, namely (from left to right) tequila, a burrito, a chilli pepper, a tortilla chip, a maraca, and a cactus. There are a couple of things to consider here from a socio-linguistic or semiotic perspective. To a British audience, the Mariachi band is, in all probability, relatively widely recognised, not least courtesy of North American culture (such as the 1986 Chevy Chase & Steve Martin film ¡Three Amigos!). The ‘Mexican’ items are possibly viewed as clichés of Mexican culture, especially those identified as material culture – the tangible things that we associate with a given community. There is a tension here that is more acute in places such as Western Europe than in the Americas. In Mexico, Mariachi bands have high value; they are widely enjoyed by people from the broadest spectrum of social classes, political ideologies, and education. On this side of the Atlantic, there is a perception of cheesiness around these musicians, whose performances are dismissed as trite and staged.
Where we encounter the overlap between sombreros and a Mariachi band – plus the tortillas, cactuses, maracas, and tequila – is the consideration of these aspects of material culture as, in some way, discriminatory or stereotypical language and imagery targetting a specific group. Face the Strange’s posters are art, and not presumably intended as offensive, but the reduction of a particular group – in this case, an entire nationality – to its material culture can be subverted, as feared by the students’ union at the University of East Anglia and the University of Texas. Of course, all of us can be represented elsewhere using symbols and signs that others ascribe to us – and Scotsmen in kilts springs immediately to mind. What is curious here is the use of a Spanish-language slogan at the bottom of the poster. Spanish is not a language in wide circulation in Liverpool, even in the hip Baltic Triangle, so the extent to which the public understand the caption is probably quite limited. To this end, it is more likely that the Spanish text reinforces the Hispanic nature of the image, rather than explaining the image to its audience.