Born in Mexico but Made in America
Not long ago I met a fellow Mexican graphic designer. I was unaware he was from Mexico, his English was flawless, he dressed American and, contrary to me, had no noticeable accent. Only after a couple of hours did I notice the tattoo on his forearm: Hecho en México (Made in Mexico). The official seal for products made in Mexico, stamped on anything from eggs to t-shirts to stereos–not upper limbs of the human body. I eventually learned he was made (read “born”) in Mexico, has lived in the United States since the age of 3, and led an American life–the only remnant of his origins boldly etched in his body rather than in his lifestyle. I suppressed my perplexity because mixing body art and immigration issues in a first-time conversation can prove uncomfortable. However, it left me thinking: when clients, peers, friends or strangers see the work I do, would they be able to tell I was made in Mexico? Without further discussion I know the answer is No. My accent and longing for good, authentic tacos show evidence of my origins but my work doesn’t. I have been in the United States close to five years and it’s obvious that, as a graphic designer, I was born in Mexico but made in America.
The first two decades of my life were dominated by Mexico City’s rich culture. I was brought up amidst colorful traditions, picturesque towns and a vibrant city that never lacked visual interest. Mexico’s vernacular language, which I relish to this day, is lush with naiveté yet full of charisma. Art (both high and low) in Mexico abounds; museums and galleries exhibiting the work of classics as well as contemporaries are plentiful. Anywhere you turn the craft of the indigenous people is at your fingertips. Sometimes it is all too much. In my case, it seems it wasn’t enough though, as none of it manifests in my work. Granted, its materialization might pigeon-hole me as a designer for the Hispanic community in the United States but what if I were able to translate my culture’s language and turn it into an exciting, novel form of design? Could I? Would I even want to?
My initial reaction to the inclusion of Mexican visual language into my work is to avoid it, as native idioms have the propensity to fall under stereotypical motifs like, in my case, Mayan patterns seen on nacho chip bags.
Once I get past that, I ask myself if there is room or even a necessity to bring a foreign idiom into American graphic design. I look around and see design flourishing with no apparent influence of external languages other than the occasional blip of unnecessary Asian characters. It is then that I acquire a state of complacency: Why bother? What would be the point when everything already looks good? And here is where I become idealist: Imagine how stronger and diverse the profession could be if new, exotic and unexpected accents were embraced and fostered or even if foreigners, like me, took a chance and opted to include, by reinterpreting and repurposing, our culture into our work. Just as spices add flavor to our favorite foods, our idioms–in the right quantity–could add interest to an already strong body of work. If Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Salma Hayek have proven anything, it is that this proposition is not far-fetched when the right balance is achieved.
The past five years have been full of adjustments and transitions: lunch at noon rather than 3:00 pm; inches instead of centimeters; pounds as an alternative to grams; English and not Spanish. Changes I expected to make. However, it is surprising–at least for me–that with them, my visual vocabulary shifted. My childhood, adolescence and precocious young adulthood years quickly and easily replaced by five years of immersing myself in America’s culture as well as starting what I hope is a successful career. In exchange, I have given up two decades worth of a visual richness that could be incorporated into my work if I found an appropriate equilibrium. Seeing this graphic designer’s tattoo made me realize I did not want to resort to body art to be reminded of my origins or to state that I was Hecho en México, something I could presumably achieve through my work...but then again, I need to remember that as a graphic designer, I am Hecho en Estados Unidos.
About the Author: Armin Vit is a graphic designer, observer and aspiring critic. Unafraid of public scrutiny, he has written for Emigre, Eye, HOW and STEP magazines among others. His work has been published in numerous publications around the world and has been awarded many times with much fanfare. He is founder of UnderConsideration and the (in)famous Speak Up. Feisty behind the keyboard, Armin remains timid at heart.