MEXICO CITY — The emoji: a 21st-century evolution in written language, in which words are generalized into simple symbols that convey a universal meaning or cultural reference in graphic form. Now the Mexico City government has asked how residents would express their city in symbols, with an open competition for the design of a new emoji package representing this megalopolis. Many are delighted by the idea, though not everyone sees the charm of the contest, which has been subject to taunting trolls on social media who say that the government is wasting its resources (even though the competition isn’t utilizing government money) or that the new emoji should represent the dark side of life in Mexico.

Promotional image (courtesy of the Laboratorio Para la Cuidad and collaborator Zoe Mendelson)

The emoji—CDMX competition was organized by the Laboratorio Para la Ciudad, an experimental government organization that functions as a think tank with the goal of bringing citizens closer to city government. Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera launched the initiative within his administration, which has been focused on building social and infrastructure projects, many say, with the intention of making a run for president in the upcoming election, though he hasn’t officially announced his candidacy.

Regardless of the mayor’s future plans, the laboratory is in charge of creating social and design projects. Prior to the emoji competition, it has hosted hackathons, in which coders are given 48 hours to create a pitch for the next great mobile app, and a series of workshops and talks at the laboratory’s downtown offices.

How can 20 little emoji sum up Mexico City, this layered and labyrinthine maze of concrete, ancient ruins, palm trees, and steel? Maybe summing it up is not the point, but what function will the new emoji serve for the city and its citizens, including myself? Will the winning designs include landmarks like the Angel of Independence (although people might confuse our angel with the Berlin Victory Column angel) or the Mexico City cathedral?

Emoji—CDMX launch event (courtesy of the Laboratorio Para La Cuidad)

I hope designers forgo stereotypes like Frida Kahlo, lucha libre, and sugar skulls, and that someone thinks to represent the magical Mercado de Sonora, where you can order up all manner of ceremony, spell, and curse. How about Nezahualcóyotl, the poet king?  Will the new emoji package include the shwarma-inspired skewer of tacos al pastor or the famous torta de chilaquiles, as one Twitter user suggested?

Maybe one winner will be the simple number 43, which has been the most powerful symbol spray-painted and scrawled around the city in recent years, representing the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in the state of Guerrero. I’d like to see a trans emoji for the sex workers, or mujercitos, who also go missing here.

(Translation: Mancera’s emoji package should include: assault, depression, micros, bribes, harassment, riot police, floods, pollution, etc.)

Importantly, the competition offers insight into the way citizens see their city and its government, as evidenced by both the strong support and the strong opposition that has been expressed from the beginning. Internet trolls aren’t known for their rigorous research, so one of their main complaints, that the government shouldn’t use public resources for an emoji competition, is misinformed. (The competition and its 30,000-peso [$1,668] first-place prize were funded by sponsors like The Lift Mx and Design Week Mexico.)

In 2015, Finland’s government launched its own set of characteristic emoji in order to attract tourists to the low-profile nation; they include naked sauna-goers and a longhaired head-banger. Meanwhile, we’ve seen the expansion of platforms that support emoji around the world, as well as the evolution of the emoji dictionary, which has been a site of gun debate and was even adapted into art history. Now the Mexico City government intends to put the capital on the emoji map with a series of unique characters embodying what makes this place special and unique.

The emoji—CDMX competition is open to anyone who wants to submit their designs until July 16. Judges include Federico Jordan, whose work has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, and many other major publications; emoji activist and expert Jennifer 8. Lee, and Fred Benenson author of How to Speak Emoji.

Emoji—CDMX launch event (courtesy of the Laboratorio Para La Cuidad)

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Devon Van Houten Maldonado

Devon Van Houten Maldonado lives and works in Mexico City, by way of Portland, Oregon and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. He has contributed to Paste Magazine, OZY, Terremoto and Aesthetica Magazine....