Sunday, March 29, 2009

A note on the use of bright colors in Mexico

Police officers patrol in Puerto Veracruz

Our use of color is just social convention, right? So why not make police uniforms in Veracruz light pink? Well, it may be convention, but it's hard to let go. Living in another country can mix up your associations with color, however. For instance, in the US, we strongly associate death with the color black, which is standard for funerals. In Mexico, they also associate bright yellow and gold with death however as xempasuchil (marigolds) are used to decorate graves on Day of the Dead. For Westerners, the color red can be tinged with shame - red light districts, the scarlet letter...but it is ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants here because it is considered a lucky color.
All westerners who travel in Mexico are immediately struck by the bright colors everywhere - the color of houses, products, even the food, hit levels of brightness and saturation rarely seen in anything but children's toys in the States and Europe. Westerners generally love the bright colors and walk around snapping photos of fuchsia bougainvillea against bright orange walls and rainbow-colored houses all tumbled together.

Colorful houses in Guanajuato
Homes in Guanajuato

My boyfriend (who is Mexican-American) and I were talking about colors after an unfortunate run-in with some nasty pulque that we bought in a market by his house.

Pulque sold at Mexican market in Norwalk, CA

True, I have tasted pulque before and he had not, but we took two very different impressions from the brightly colored cans. He was immediately drawn to the bright colors (note that most of the packaging in this market was distinguished by bright colors), where I immediately saw bright colors as a red flag. Especially in food stuffs. I think of food that is brightly colored and it is largely suspect: cotton candy, strawberry and orange soda, gumball ice cream, green chorizo...
I think the experience that really hit home that Latinos and Westerners have totally different orientations toward color is the first time I saw the Moncada barracks in Santiago, Cuba. The barracks are legend in the history of the revolution. Castro and his men stormed them, very unsuccessfully, in 1953 and the attack is considered the start of the Cuban revolution. About 120 rebels went in, over 60 were killed and another third were captured. When Castro was taken to court for his role, he delivered his famous "History will absolve me" speech.
I had only seen photos of the barracks in black and white, so imagine what I felt when I saw this legendary historic site for the first time in full color:

Moncada barracks
Yes, you can still see bullet holes in the building, but to a Westerner like me, the barracks look like an elementary school! Color is cultural. Case closed.

1 comment:

paulstaley said...

Vivid colors of Mexico! Me gusta!