A couple weeks ago I was at Microsoft Research’s annual Social Computing Symposium, a fun and unorthodox gathering of geeks and academics on the cutting edge of technology, culture and activism. The discussions centered around four main topics: 1) ‘Big Data and its Discontents‘, 2) Social Shopping, 3) Hacking Hardware, and 4) Civic Media and Social Change. During the evening we had a self-organized selection of mostly improvised 5-minute talks that ranged from a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the “minimum viable lifestyle” to a serious analysis of environmental regulation in China. I had volunteered to offer an introduction to Mexico’s 10 funniest memes, but then realized that they would only be funny after they were explained. And nothing is funny after it is explained.
So, instead, I attempted a cultural introduction to Mexico as seen through its social media memes. Only half way through putting together the presentation did I realize that there was a larger, socially relevant theme that tied most of the memes together: they are a vehicle through which Mexico’s new middle class is asserting itself against the longstanding impunity of the the country’s ruling elite. More about that toward the end of the post.
‘Fatty’ is a term of endearment and ‘güey’ is the Mexican ‘dude’
Mexico’s first viral video is titled “La Caida de Edgar” (“Edgar’s Fall“) and essentially makes fun of a whiny, chubby kid as his friends mess with him while he attempts to cross a stream. Mexico, the world’s most obese country, is, depending on your point of view, either surprisingly comfortable or insensitive when discussing another’s figure. “Gordo” or “gordito,” which sorta translates to “fatty” or “chubby,” is often used as a term of endearment — especially by wives addressing their overweight husbands. “Gordo” is the most likely nickname of the fat kid on any soccer team. Throughout the video you hear the word ‘güey,’ expressed with a wide range of intonations. I’ve never seen convincing documentation of the origin of ‘güey,’ which is not used in other Spanish-speaking countries. Some say it is derived from büey, a castrated bull. Another animal-derived form of addressing someone in Mexico is cabrón, which literally means “big goat” and shifts meaning depending on context and intonation.
Sometimes cops are to be feared more than criminals
From Know Your Meme:
In 2007, Juan Pablo Carrasco was stopped by the local police for speeding in Juarez, Chihuahua, where news crews happened to be present on site. The footage (filmed by the crew) begins with Carrasco surrounded by several Mexican police officers, who were trying to get him to take a field sobriety test. Before complying with the procedures, Carrasco frantically responded with an outburst of “tengo miedo,” which means “I am afraid” in English.
Wage earner is an insult
This meme also began with a sobriety check. Two (clearly) drunk women were offended that a traffic cop suggested that they might have had a drink (or 10) before getting in their car. There are many astonishing aspects to this spectacle, including the fact that the most belligerent of the two woman was part of the cast of Big Brother Mexico. But what is most astonishing is her use of “pinche asalariado” as an insult. Essentially, she called him a “fucking wage earner.” You know, someone who has to work for a living. And, apparently, in her distorted worldview, that is an insult.
The “Ladies de Polanco” was the first use of the word “lady” to describe a rich, clueless woman who takes advantage of her social status to behave irresponsibly in public. Ever since, not a month goes by without some news story about another lady. A compilation of the “five most famous ‘ladies’ of Mexico” is on YouTube.
Mexico City’s former mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, raised the bar for all politicians that aspire to master the medium of Twitter. Never shy to express his opinion, Ebrard made the quotidian metropolitan experience a bit more entertaining thanks to his unpredictable comments and playful banter with his followers.
Here’s one example. Some guy named Gerardo Perry says, “my esteemed Marcelo Ebrard: Go fuck your mom for generating so much chaos in the city with so many public works.” Ebrard replies: “Gerardo, my mom already died and if we didn’t do public works, the city would only get worse.” In fact, Ebrard’s use of Twitter inspired Luis Moreno, the President of the Inter-American Development Bank, to pen a column in the Atlantic with the grand title “How Social Media Could Revolutionize Third-World Cities.” He concludes that “the next mayor of Mexico City, like others across the developing world, will not really have the option of ignoring social media.” That has proven true, although current mayor, Miguel Mancera, is decidedly less able/authentic on Twitter than his predecessor.
Ebrard inspired various memes (and a funny Tumblr called “Chelito Doing Things“), but he will always be remembered for #tenemossismo. Mexico City is surrounded by active volcanoes and frequently experiences earthquakes. After each tremor, we all consult Twitter immediately for information about the epicenter, strength, whether any buildings collapsed, and if our friends are OK. Ebrard’s Twitter account became the de facto source for seismic information. At one point he was so eager to inform his fellow residents of the earthquake that he tweeted simply “tenemossismo” (“wehaveanearthquake”). Beyond stating the obvious, Ebrard’s tweet evoked an image of the mayor unable to type correctly as he was tossed around by the tremor.
Ebrard is a strong contender for the next presidential elections in 2018.
Following the “Ladies de Polanco” it was inevitable that there would soon be a video of an obnoxious “gentleman.” Sure enough, a wealthy businessman, Miguel Sacal, filled the role when security cameras caught him beating the parking attendant of the building where he lives. It’s truly difficult to watch:
Sacal was angered because the parking attendant informed him that he wasn’t allowed to leave the desk unattended and so couldn’t repair the man’s flat tire. Having knocked out two of the man’s front teeth, Sacal yells “Now you see what I am made of…You don’t know who you are dealing with.” When two other men enter the frame, Sacal explains to them, “these bastards don’t want to do what I tell them.” Among the many insults used by Sacal, he calls the attendant a “pinche indio” (“fucking Indian”). Again, incredibly, simply calling someone indigenous is still treated as an insult by many Mexicans.
As soon as the video was uploaded to YouTube, Mexico’s middle class was outraged and a number of campaigns were launched to seek justice. Unfortunately, a few of these campaigns also focused on the fact that Sacal is of Jewish decent. In May 2012 he was sentenced to four years and three months in prison, a rare example of justice against a powerful individual.
#PosMeSalto & #PosMeEncuero
The Mexico City Metro is one of the largest, busiest, and cheapest subway systems in the world. In 2012 average daily ridership was just under 4.5 million. One can travel all the way from Tláhuac at the far south of the city to Ciudad Azteca in Ecatepec, Mexico State for just 25 cents. At least that was the fare until the beginning of this year when the cost per trip increased from 25 to 40 cents (from three pesos to five pesos). For New Yorkers who pay $2.50 per ride or Londoners who pay nearly $4 per ride, 40 cents sounds like a bargain. And it is. But those who protest the fare hike are quick to point out that over 75% of Mexico’s federal transport budget is allocated to automobiles and less than 25% is allocated to public transport, cyclists and pedestrians. (This despite the fact that only 25% of Mexicans have cars.)
In protest of the fare hike, many users of the metro began photographing themselves and their friends jumping the turnstiles. The campaign spread virally with the hashtag “#PosMeSalto,” which roughly translates as “well, then, I’ll just jump.” Inevitably, “PosMeSalto” led to a sub-genre of #fail videos, including this one:
In the same way that literature inevitably builds on the books of the past, memes in Mexico are often inspired by their predecessors. The week after subway riders protested the fare hike, leftist legislators rallied against the proposed energy reform bill, which allows private investment in Pemex, the state oil monopoly. For some reason, one of these legislators decided to strip down to his undies in protest. Twitter users immediately dubbed this decision “#PosMeEncuero,” or “well, then, I’ll just get naked.” It’s a playful example of how Mexicans creatively address their feelings of powerlessness.
The almost-naked legislator then inspired the protesters of the metro fare hike who not only jumped the turnstiles, but did so in their underwear.
Though Mexico has a strong literary tradition with greats like Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, José Emilio Pacheco, Juan Rulfo, Elena Poniatowska, Elena Garro, and Rosario Castellanos, you don’t see as many Mexicans reading books in cafes and subway cars as you do in other Latin American countries such as Argentina and Colombia. This lack of appreciation for literature was most evident when President Peña Nieto was unable to correctly name a book that’s influenced his life, besides the Bible. Peña Nieto’s awkward stammering as he attempted to remember a single book title and confused the names of two of the country’s most influential writers was great fodder for the meme makers. #LibreríaPeñaNieto, or “Peña Nieto’s Bookstore” became a week-long sensation. Advertisements by the country’s largest book chain were altered to make fun of the then-presidential candidate.
Adding fuel to the fire, Peña Nieto’s daughter responded to her father’s critics on Twitter, calling them a “bunch of jackasses” that “form the proletariat” and envy what they don’t have. The wealthiest residents of New York City and Los Angeles do whatever they can to appear “proletarian,” but among Mexico’s elite it is still a put-down.
In reaction to her tweet, #SoyProle became a badge of honor. Others used “#ProLee” (“in favor of reading”) to emphasize that, maybe they’re not rich, but at least they can name three books.
Though there are many “ladies” to choose from, #LadyProfeco is most illustrative of how social media is threatening the impunity long enjoyed by Mexico’s elite.
Lady Profeco is the moniker given to Andrea Benitez, the wealthy daughter of veteran political operative Humberto Benitez who was appointed to direct Profeco, the national consumer watchdog agency, when Peña Nieto was elected president. Andrea visited Maximo Bistrot, a trendy new restaurant in the Roma Sur neighborhood of Mexico City and expected to be seated immediately. Instead, she was told that she would have to wait for a table just like everyone else. Predictably, her response was: “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” The next day inspectors from Profeco, the agency her father directs, came to shut down the restaurant. As Manuel Rueda writes in Fusion:
As inspectors from Profeco began to shut down Maximo’s, several outraged dinner guests began to take pictures with their mobile phones. The unwanted attention apparently forced inspectors to quickly withdraw from the restaurant, but the damage was done.
From Twitter, the “Lady Profeco” case soon became the major news story in the country. Within days both Andrea Benitez and Humberto issued apologies and seven Profeco employees implicated in the scandal were fired. But the outcry continued so long as Humberto Benitez remained director of the agency. The following week President Peña Nieto announced that Benitez was stepping down as director, another rare case of addressing impunity despite strong ties of political loyalty.
The meme has been embraced by a Mexican middle class as a tool to confront the impunity of the country’s elite. Last year the Wall Street Journal highlighted an increasing awareness among Mexicans that it is now less cool to be an obnoxious, spoiled kid:
As my friend Alfonso Tamés explained to Rueda of Fusion:
What you have here is a clash between two worlds. It’s the Mexico that values improving your lot in life through hard work, against the Mexico of privilege and arrogance, where family connections get you what you want.