Miami-Dade County

Are Metrorail’s new ‘abuela’ anti-littering signs racist?

Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works’ new Grandmas signage for its Metrorail system is aimed at imploring riders to behave, to clean up after themselves, to think of their fellow passenger. The ‘abuela’ sign sparked a bit of controversy on Twitter when some questioned its intent.
Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works’ new Grandmas signage for its Metrorail system is aimed at imploring riders to behave, to clean up after themselves, to think of their fellow passenger. The ‘abuela’ sign sparked a bit of controversy on Twitter when some questioned its intent.

On the day Metrorail launched its first new train in more than 33 years, a new ad campaign that urges riders to keep the cars clean and treat each other with respect by using images of grandmothers has some crying racism. Others are simply befuddled.

One poster on the train and in the stations features a stern-looking grandma in a blue robe with blue curlers in her hair. She’s wielding a rolling pin like a weapon. Above the image, in white caps: “This isn’t abuela’s house. Keep your seat clean.”

Because this is 2017 and not 1984, there’s an accompanying hashtag for social media: “#RespectYourRide.”

There are also posters featuring white and African-American grandmas. Other signs are in English, Spanish and Creole. Each tweaks the anti-littering or how-to-behave message with different wording. The Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Work’s communications department designed the materials.

“One grandma says ‘Didn’t I teach you to share?’ Another says, ‘Don’t be rude. Don’t block the exits.’ Different grandmas. Different references. Different demographics. We wanted to make sure we were speaking to everyone,” said Ileen Delgado, chief of marketing and communications for Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works.

No one’s arguing that the county, which operates the aging system, shouldn’t mount an attention-grabbing campaign to clean up the cars — even if it takes a talking point meme and provocative image. The trains are notoriously filthy: Trash. Discarded food. Urine. Vomit.

“I understand your frustration because I ride that train every day,” Michael Hernández, director of communications for Miami-Dade County and a spokesman for the mayor, told Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago in June.

Riders have complained for years about the condition of the cars. An October Miami Herald article was headlined: “Call it Metrofail: How to waste 20 hours a week riding the rails in Miami.”

But the abuela (Spanish for grandmother) image, in particular, could backfire.

@BGGrosso posted a meme on Twitter about the anti-littering sign that wondered: “A little racist.”

@LoicNey, who posts as The Dude, wondered if the sign was pitched at other groups besides Latinos. “It is a risky move I think.”

That’s part of the plan, county officials say. The idea was to resonate with the Metrorail system’s users, to “put together a clever, witty campaign to capture the attention of passengers to work with us and discard their trash,” Hernández said.

Why grandmas?

“It’s not aimed at any one particular demographic but rather the concept of everybody’s grandmother and how she taught them how to behave and what the expectation is,” said Delgado.

Who’d disobey Grandma?

“It’s truthfully not meant to insult or offend anyone but a reminder to respect your space and everyone else’s space in a way we all thought people could relate to because it’s a bunch of different grandmas,” Delgado said.

As to the cleanliness problem, county officials hope the endearing nature of grandmas, abuelas and granns prove effective even if there are some early misinterpretations.

“One of the main complaints is that the trains are incredibly dirty. Until all the new train cars come online, we can’t replace all the mechanical issues. However, cleanliness is something that can be addressed by each individual passenger,” Hernández said. “We do clean them three times a day but what will be more effective is if passengers clean up after themselves.”

County officials, and members of Miami-Dade’s transportation department, were on site Thursday at a ceremony for the $8 million, four-car train’s debut. The new train, manufactured in Medley, is the first of a full retrofit planned to finish in 2019 that has a $350 million price tag.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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