Before the first Aguascalientes opened its doors, before the first taco truck in Cardinal Valley popped up on the block, before the first tortilleria, there was only one place to get a bag of maize tortillas in Lexington — and that was La Unica. This small convenience store at the corner of Village Drive was the first store to sell a selection of Mexican products. And the selection was very limited. They sold food out of their kitchen and offered money transfers for families back home as these services became a necessity.
My grandparents came to America in the ‘80s to break out of poverty. In the mid-‘90s, my parents followed in their footsteps. They landed jobs as horse farm workers, working under the radar for some of the most famous horse trainers in the country. My family moved all over the US with their horse racing team, and eventually settled in Lexington.
For most families like my own, immigration to Kentucky was motivated by the agriculture and horse racing industries. Cardinal Valley became the barrio of the Latinos, mainly of Mexican immigrants, as panaderias y mercados popped up. This growth spurred a flourishing business, and design, environment.
Hispanic urban sprawl in Lexington’s West End has become recognized and referred to as Mexington, a term coined by Dr. Steven Alvarez, a scholar of literacy studies and bilingual education with a focus on Mexican immigrant communities. In many ways, Mexington is exactly that – a vibrant and growing Lexington neighborhood with strong cultural roots.
In Mexico, brick walls and fences are covered in hand-painted ads for restaurants, beer brands, mechanic shops, political campaigns — you name it. When you walk into a market, you’ll see farmers and local shopkeepers advertising prices handwritten on any type of surface or material. This is the traditional design landscape of Mexico. Though it’s worth mentioning here that the contemporary design community in Mexico is rapidly growing, as Anagrama Creative Director Sebastian Padilla recently discussed with AIGA.
Mexington’s businesses reflect Mexico’s environment. We may not have a zócalo, but the colorful store lights, foreign ads for different sodas, and hand-painted signs catch your eye when you walk around the neighborhood. As the Hispanic population grows in Mexington, business owners are using open spaces in unique ways.
The types of businesses here range from bakeries to taco trucks, with practical names that usually go something like name of your family or region or hometown + the service you offer = name of business.
Examples of this in Mexington include:
La Juquilita Tacos
Supermercado Aguascalientes #2
Supermercado Aguascalientes #3
Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez
Panaderia Y Electro domésticos Torreón
The list goes on.
In Mexington, the responsibility of branding is often tasked to a local with little painting experience or design practice. Ask the guy who wrote the price for cilantro in Sharpie on a poster about kerning, or if the bleeds were set right for the printed menu, and you’ll get a weird look.
What this can teach us is that effective design does not correlate with perceived level of design. Not when its primary objective is to communicate, and it still works. A culture identifies with and relates to this type of design. To a certain extent, recreating the environment of grocery stores and street markets in Mexico is most important. High levels of design are appreciated, but run the risk of drowning a culture out.
The poster with the cilantro price written in Sharpie is part of its own design language. It is not inferior to other designs that are considered more sophisticated. By understanding its history and context, we can understand this style as design.
My grandparents bought a house at the heart of Mexington. Other family members opened small stores and businesses. My uncles started a norteña band and became pioneers of the clubbing scene in Mexington. The Cardinal Valley I grew up in already had Mexican establishments. Whether on Chicago’s 26th Street or the most rural parts of Guerrero, the colorful aesthetics of handwritten ice cream prices and neon paper color menus are a recognizable language to me.
For years, design in Mexington has served as a lighthouse for immigrants. It has created a sense of home and has grown with the community. It’s become an identifier for the neighborhood, a permanent part of its personality as a unique city within a city. Rooted in practical design, Mexington is on the path to be the next mecca of Mexican culture in southern America.
Written by Armando Diaz