The winning emoji pack features an axolotl wrapped in a snake and holding a cactus, a reference to Mexico City's founding myth.
The winning emoji pack features an axolotl wrapped in a snake and holding a cactus, a reference to Mexico City's founding myth. Courtesy of Laboratory for the City

Meet the emojified salamander who’s the new face of Mexico’s capital, thanks to a civic design contest.

What digital icon best sums up the culture of Mexico City? For Itzel Oropeza Castillo, it’s an axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, eating tacos or posing as Frida Kahlo. Castillo has just been revealed as the winner of the Emoji CDMX contest, which asked residents to design 20 emojis best representing the megalopolis.

An emoji from the winning set by Itzel Oropeza Castillo (Courtesy of Laboratory for the City)

The contest was organized by Laboratory for the City, an experimental arm of the city government that organizes projects bridging academia, nonprofits, private businesses, and the public sector, and Zoe Mendelson (who also designed the contest). “One of the small contemporary graphic revolutions has been the use of emoticons,” says the laboratory’s director, Gabriella Gómez-Mont. “We thought it would be interesting to ask designers to create an emoji package that speaks to the icons that best represent the city. Not only its jewels, but also the local idiosyncrasies.”

The second-place winners, Eduardo Camacho Mayén and Pedro Rodrigo Grajeda Ortega, designed emoji versions of the famous Xochimilco boats; a corn cob covered in cream (elote); and the Mexican eagle wrapped in a snake, a reference to an Aztec legend. In third place, Ivonne Andrea Torres and Martin Robert Cook made emojis of a quinceañera stepping out of a limousine; a dog walker; and the well-known bus that picks up old appliances and mattresses around the city.

A Xochimilco boat in emoji form, from the second-place emoji pack (Courtesy of Laboratory for the City)

The popular street food elote, from the second-place winners (Courtesy of Laboratory for the City)

Every city has a visual vernacular that represents its environment, but this is more pronounced in a city with an aesthetic tradition as rich as Mexico City’s. From the murals at the UNAM library depicting the pre-Hispanic past to Lance Wyman’s iconic logo and signage for the 1968 Olympic Games, to the more recent CDMX campaign (in which the DF, or Distrito Federal, was rechristened CDMX, or Ciudad de México, following a series of reforms aimed at devolving power), visual culture has had a central place in city politics and identity. However, even as branding has steadily sought to position it as a global city, Mexico City’s relationship to its own graphic representation is complex.

For example, Mexico’s logo for the 1968 Olympics does not just connote its proud hosting of the Games (or the memorable moment when Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute). It also came to be associated with the Tlatelolco massacre in October 1968, when hundreds of student protestors were gunned down by soldiers and police in a Mexico City square. Similarly, the recent rebranding of the city has been criticized as commodification of its visual culture. (“CDMX” is now a registered trademark, used by the city government for tourism and business purposes.)

Entries to Emoji CDMX were evaluated by an international panel of artists, designers, and communication experts: Zoe Mendelson, Federico Jordan, Óscar Estrada, Jenny 8. Lee, and Fred Benenson. The criteria were which symbols best represented the city and which would be most widely used. Some of the unsuccessful entries “were very interesting, but they didn’t represent daily chilango life,” Mendelson says. (Chilango is a slang term referring to city residents.)

The winning designs—plus honorable mentions and a few others handpicked by Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera—will be available to download for free on Google Play and the Apple App Store. In addition to being able to see the emojis they designed on their phones, the three winners will also receive prizes (roughly $1,700 for first place and smaller amounts for second and third place).

Not long after Mexico City announced the emoji contest in June, chilangos took to Twitter with criticism. Some denounced the use of public resources (although it was entirely funded from private sources), while others mocked the city’s sense of priorities. “We don’t have new public transport, but we do have new emoji. Cosmopolitan Mexico City,” one Twitter user remarked.

Gómez-Mont says she realizes that emojis don’t come at the top of a city’s to-do list. “The initiative does not claim to, nor has it ever intended to, solve the problems of the city,” she says. Unfazed by Twitter jabs, she says the public debate sparked by the contest is healthy. “I don’t think that an exploration of these icons, so central to our city’s identity, resolves negative feelings,” says Gómez-Mont. “On the contrary, it’s often a way to put them forward, to speak also of our pains and frustrations—usually with a certain sense of humor that characterizes many Mexicans.”

This post also appears in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

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