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Prohibido. Caution.
April 12, 2008 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Prior to 1990, over a hundred illegal immigrants died attempting to cross the I-5 in Southern California. The answer? Put up a sign, of course. The sign has been seen as racist, and sometimes as a joke. The L.A. Times profiles the man who designed the sign, a Vietnam veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation. The sign in question has become iconic in the debate on immigration policies, and a copy of it now sits in the Smithsonian. Via Strongly Worded Letter.
posted by jabberjaw (51 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh man this reminds me of a t-shirt I once saw for sale in Los Feliz. Oh wait, here it is.

It's the first one.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 8:46 PM on April 12, 2008


"It depends on how privileged you are. If you are pretty privileged, it is very amusing. It can only be received humorously if you don't understand the dire situation of these people running across the freeway."

via related
posted by andythebean at 8:50 PM on April 12, 2008


Well the t-shirt store is in Los Feliz (the front lines of LA-hipsterdom), so that's an entirely fair point andythebean.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 8:54 PM on April 12, 2008


great post.... I *do* wish, though, that there were a link at "seen as racist" - maybe folks here will fill in that blank.
posted by moxiedoll at 8:57 PM on April 12, 2008


South Park parodied the sign in the Goobacks episode
posted by KokuRyu at 9:14 PM on April 12, 2008


So how many dies after 1990? What does that say about the sign's effectiveness?
posted by IronLizard at 9:15 PM on April 12, 2008


OH MY GOD I LURVE THIS SHIRT!!!!
posted by miss lynnster at 9:24 PM on April 12, 2008


seen as racist

When people are depicted in most other signs, they're stick figures. The most common detailed silhouette that most people in the US see is a prancing deer. Having highly detailed people suddenly lumps them in conceptually with animal crossing warnings.

Great post. Fascinating topic. Be sure to check out the slideshow with audio in the LAtimes link.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 9:28 PM on April 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Send one Mencia's way.
posted by andythebean at 9:28 PM on April 12, 2008


When people are depicted in most other signs, they're stick figures. The most common detailed silhouette that most people in the US see is a prancing deer. Having highly detailed people suddenly lumps them in conceptually with animal crossing warnings.

Yeah, that was my thought, too - I live in the northeast, so I've never seen anything like this and the closest analogue in my experience would be a deer or moose crossing sign. So it seemed awful to me at first - but upon reflection, it makes sense. Ordinarily people don't cross highways. But in these particular places, they do, and there ought to be a sign to protect them. It's good to have a sign, right? I guess my point is that I get the gut reaction that there's something wrong with the sign - but I'd love to read the point of view of someone who has thought about the image, and has arrived at a reasoned conclusion that there shouldn't be signs OR that another graphic would be preferable.
posted by moxiedoll at 9:41 PM on April 12, 2008


Wouldn't it have been better if the mother had the child clutched in her arms, protecting her from danger? By making it look like she's "forcing" the child to cross the border, while running through traffic, it sort of gives the impression that she's a bad parent (not something that you want motorists to be making judgements on while driving and avoiding to run them over).
posted by hadjiboy at 10:02 PM on April 12, 2008


Apparently this guy's son was my Interpersonal Communications professor a few semesters back. I remember he mentioned that his real passion (the son's real passion, that is) was advertising. I guess advertising runs in the family?
posted by Avenger at 10:03 PM on April 12, 2008


So how many dies after 1990? What does that say about the sign's effectiveness?

I've seen these in San Diego.

That such a sign is even needed says volumes about successive American government's total inablity (or unwillingness) to secure its own borders. Criminal.
posted by three blind mice at 10:17 PM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


"That such a sign is even needed says volumes about successive American government's total inablity (or unwillingness) to secure its own borders. Criminal."

Uh-oh. Thoughtcrime in progress!
posted by Sukiari at 10:19 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Send one Mencia's way.

Why? He's not from Mexico.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:35 PM on April 12, 2008


That such a sign is even needed says volumes about successive American government's total inablity (or unwillingness) to secure its own borders. Criminal.
posted by three blind mice at 10:17 PM on April 12


yes i too am tired of people coming to work here in search of a better life fuck those guys i got mine ron paul 2008
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:43 PM on April 12, 2008 [9 favorites]


My husband and I used this as a "We're Moving" card years back. Not sayin' that I'm proud about it now.
One thing I've noticed from the Anglos I've mentioned this to: almost everyone remembers the little girl holding a doll, although it's clearly not part of the design.
posted by maryh at 10:47 PM on April 12, 2008


Uh-oh. Thoughtcrime in progress!
posted by Sukiari at 12:19 AM


Actually, the word you were looking for was 'troll." But thanks for trying.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 10:47 PM on April 12, 2008


That such a sign is even needed says volumes about successive American government's total inablity (or unwillingness) to secure its own borders. Criminal.

Troll troll is troll.
posted by hob at 10:53 PM on April 12, 2008


The original sign only really seems racist in that mainstream American any-discussion-tangentially-related-to-race-is-racist understanding, with some retconning rationalization to be sure. When I read the above post, I was really expecting to see stick figures wearing sombreros. No joke. The immigrant community uses this design in a prideful way according to the article.
posted by Skwirl at 11:36 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Part of the offensiveness of the sign is the fact that it says "Caution" in English - but "Prohibido" or "Prohibited" in Spanish. Two messages for two different cultures? It's not like all Spanish-speakers in California are illegal immigrants.

When I was going to college in Southern California, some of my Chicano buddies found the sign offensive - as if it talked down to people of their culture. I don't know if they still feel the same way about it.

Great link, andythebean.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:13 AM on April 13, 2008


Troll troll is troll.

Why do you insist this is trolling? Is your world so small that an opinion that conflicts with your own must necessarily be some sort of fraudulent hoodwink?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:31 AM on April 13, 2008


That's it.
I'm going to make some
'*Caution* Fraudulent Hoodwinking'
signs when I get the chance.
posted by isopraxis at 12:41 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


No matter where you are politically on the people and issues, you don't want a family coming through your windscreen. The sign indicates that men, women, and children dart across this section of highway; it is intended to save your life and theirs. If it resembles a deer crossing, it’s because of the medium and the behavioral similarity (darting out unexpectedly).

How else would you show it? A giant video screen showing an intimate portrait of a noble family making their way north for a better life? You've got only a second or two to communicate with drivers that real humans are at risk.
posted by pracowity at 12:52 AM on April 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Why is it that the sign has become a representative for the actual problem? It sounds like a lot of people are attacking the sign, when they really want to be talking about the immigration. It feels a bit like this warning label.

Changing the sign, or calling it racist, isn't going to change the issue, or add to any potential solution.
posted by DreamerFi at 12:55 AM on April 13, 2008


Some yeras ago I crossed at San Ysidro every day for about two months. I hated that fucking sign especially as I knew what I would see on the other side. Some equivalate the border fence with what Israel is doing to the West Bank. Some Tijuana locals are getting a bit rad about it as well.
posted by adamvasco at 1:03 AM on April 13, 2008


According to the article the original sign said "Caution" only - I didn't catch any mention of "Prohibido". Presumably it was added later on. Which is fascinating, in fact. The sign has two interpretations, depending on who you are.

Motorists: Watch out for running families. (the original intended meaning)

Running families: Crossing is prohibited.

If 'Prohibido' is not there, it could be interpreted as
Running families: Take caution while crossing the road!
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:12 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, according the OP, the sign's depiction is a racist representation of Latinos.

Let me see if I can break down the designer's original thought process:

Gee, I really hate Latinos. For being Latino. With this project, I really have an opportunity to stick it to 'em. Let's see, hmmm, sombreros? No, too obvious. Taco Bell dog chasing behind? Nah. Oh, wait, I don't hate Latinos! It's women I hate! I'll put the woman second, behind the man where she belongs!

Well as you can see, I've failed miserably. Anyone else care to give it a try?
posted by Brocktoon at 1:17 AM on April 13, 2008


What a sad sign. I'm glad it's posted.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 2:43 AM on April 13, 2008


I think the problem is that the authorities still want the threat of death to hang over the crossing of the road as a disincentive. Otherwise they could build a tunnel under the freeway (without intending disrespect, the sort of thing that's done for migrant wildlife whose paths cross a busy road), or, indeed, a bridge over it. That would be the sort of action one would take if one didn't actually want anyone to get killed.
posted by Grangousier at 3:10 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Why do you insist this is trolling?

Because it is trolling.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:31 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


If they had been stick figures it would make drivers think it was a pedestrian crossing, which it really isn't. It's a warning that people are running across the road. I think it's a pretty good sign as far as the clarity of the message it's trying to put across goes.
posted by fire&wings at 3:34 AM on April 13, 2008


Send one Mencia's way.

Why, did Joe Rogan already make a joke about it?
posted by m0nm0n at 4:22 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


That such a sign is even needed says volumes about successive American government's total inablity (or unwillingness) to secure its own borders create a humane immigration policy. Criminal.

FTFY
posted by nax at 6:01 AM on April 13, 2008


If it was my job to make signs, and my boss was all "Come up with a sign to warn drivers about people crossing the freeway that isn't so racist" I would have no idea how to modify the present sign.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:36 AM on April 13, 2008


It's not racist. It warns drivers that people run across that road. Statement of fact in order to save lives.
posted by orange swan at 7:20 AM on April 13, 2008


When people are depicted in most other signs, they're stick figures. The most common detailed silhouette that most people in the US see is a prancing deer.

this is true overall - but this was a common sign around the towns where i grew up (rhode island) & i know i've seen them in other residential areas, mostly older ones - it seems that these have been phased out lately in favor of all text signs

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_Children_At_Play

i think the added detail is intended to emphasize the specific humanity of the subjects, i.e., in the slow children sign that it is *children* (lookout! a wee one with knee socks & a beanie fer crying out loud!) and in the case of the caution/prohibido it is a *family*, poppa momma & little daughter (lookout! she's got pigtails fer crying out loud!)

thank you, jabberjaw, for this post - the piece on John Hood was fascinating
posted by jammy at 7:22 AM on April 13, 2008


The first time I saw that sign I assumed that, because the beach was just next to the highway, people needed to be warned about families dodging across after a family outing. People down there spend ALL weekend on the beach in nice weather and then do stupid things like try to dodge to the other side to hitchhike home or whatever.

So- the figures seem clearly not racist to me (*Not Hispanic!*). The Prohibito vs. Caution? Maybe... but not so much more than a 1000 other signs put together by monolingual highway workers.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:44 AM on April 13, 2008


Troll troll is troll.

Troll troll troll troll troll. Even buffalo know that.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:47 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Huh. I've spent over a decade staring at those signs, and as a fan of form vs. function I personally love them. I'm sorry but they do show EXACTLY what you should be looking out for. I've seen families running across I-5 firsthand and let me tell you that IS pretty damn close to what the sight looks like. Meanwhile, around the world there are many signs very similar to this. If you're supposed to look for something, it really helps to show an example of how the thing you're looking out for might actually appear in real life when you see it. (In high school I was a vocal hater of the horse crossing sign because it made it look like horses have elbows. Their legs don't bend that way, dammit!) But political correctness isn't exactly going to help save a weak family of five that's truckin' across the fast lane after not having eaten or drank water for five days. There's nothing politically correct about the situation to begin with. I'm sorry but this sign is perfect because it calls it as you'll see it and that's exactly what it needs to do.

All of that said, this sign has always bothered me most. Poor slow kid. And of course, my favorite is this one.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:58 AM on April 13, 2008


Make that almost 2 decades staring at them. Time flies.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:01 AM on April 13, 2008


So, let's see, with the sign, people frequently but unpredictably cross this highway, and we have drivers warned that people cross the road. Without the sign, people frequently but unpredictably cross the highway, and we have drivers who will be surprised to see a bunch of people in the middle of the road.

Now, maybe I'm overcautious, but as an out of state visitor, I would like to know that random objects are particularly common on a stretch of road on which I'm driving. I'm generally annoyed by the proliferations of signs, but when it comes to things like deer, people, or anything meaty and larger than a raccoon showing up on a highway where the average speed is probably greater than sixty miles per hour, I would prefer to be "in the know." New drivers might like that, as well.

I also have no clue in the image as to what kind of ethnicity they are supposed to represent. People who have daughters? Damn, I hate Daughternese, they're always showing up and trying to sell me Girl Scout Cookies. *points to sketchy evidence linking Girl Scout cookies and obesity in American youth* What is wrong with those people?

Since when is "Mexican" a race? Are we really cutting race so fine as to come down to country of origin? What about states, can we do that? If I don't like people from South Carolina, does that make me racist, or just weird? And how is it that anything less than full support of illegal immigration (pffft, just show up, guys, we won't even make you sign anything) is now also racism? Are other countries with, ah, less-porous borders decried as racist in, say, Europe?
posted by adipocere at 8:10 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


BTW, I've also been on the trolley from TJ as immigration wandered through. The immigration police would walk up to random people and say, "Hey, where ya from?" and the person would respond "San Diego." Then the cop would say, "Okay, so where'd you go to high school?" Silence. Blank stares all around. Next thing we knew our train was half empty and the cops were leading them all away. After watching them for a bit, I realized exactly what the cops were looking for. It was like all of the people who were trying to sneak across had read the same handbook on "how to look and seem American" and it just wasn't really working for them.

That stuff is normal life in San Diego. My family arrived there in 1908 and there's nothing racist about acknowledging the truth of the problems that are faced in my home town on a daily basis. If you've seen the desperation in these people's eyes up close... it's heartbreaking. The last thing on their minds is whether or not you've portrayed them politically correctly on a sign. They've got bigger problems weighing them down.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:13 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Grangousier:
I think the problem is that the authorities still want the threat of death to hang over the crossing of the road as a disincentive. Otherwise they could build a tunnel under the freeway (without intending disrespect, the sort of thing that's done for migrant wildlife whose paths cross a busy road), or, indeed, a bridge over it. That would be the sort of action one would take if one didn't actually want anyone to get killed.
I don't think building additional bridges or tunnels would have helped. The audio of the slideshow at the LA Times link mentions that illegal immigrants deliberately avoided using the freeway overpasses due to the widespread belief that this would help to avoid immigration officers. In the slideshow you can see photos of people running across the freeway with overpasses in the background. Changing immigration policy would have been one way to address these deaths, but freeway median fences and border fortifications appears to have been the approach chosen.
posted by RichardP at 10:27 AM on April 13, 2008


I think the problem is that the authorities still want the threat of death to hang over the crossing of the road as a disincentive. Otherwise they could build a tunnel under the freeway (without intending disrespect, the sort of thing that's done for migrant wildlife whose paths cross a busy road), or, indeed, a bridge over it. That would be the sort of action one would take if one didn't actually want anyone to get killed.

Uh huh. So it falls on the government to make illegal immigration less hazardous. Building a bridge or tunnel may reduce the risks that the illegals faced but I fail to see how it would profit the U.S. And who would pay for this "improvement"?

No, no, don't tell me. I can guess.

But never mind all that. Despite what you may be inclined to believe, the U.S. does not have a vested interest in making sure some number of illegals die on I-5. There haven't been any deaths of migrant families crossing the freeway since the late 90s. Caltrans installed a tall fence that runs along the divider.

Breathe easy.
posted by BigSky at 10:46 AM on April 13, 2008


That such a sign is even needed says volumes about successive American government's total inablity (or unwillingness) to secure its own borders. Criminal.

I agree, Squanto. What do you think we should do?
posted by dhartung at 1:39 PM on April 13, 2008


Maybe I'm pointing out the obvious, but it's worth noting that "prohibido" means "forbidden," not "caution." It's important to tailor the message to the audience.
posted by pantufla_milagrosa at 9:10 PM on April 13, 2008


The issue abou the sign shouldn't be how realistic it looks, because here in San Diego we also have surfer crossing signs that display a high degree of versimilitude.
posted by LionIndex at 8:07 AM on April 14, 2008


BigSky writes "Building a bridge or tunnel may reduce the risks that the illegals faced but I fail to see how it would profit the U.S."

Well if nothing else preventing the emotional trauma and possible physical injury to the American drivers on the freeway would be of benefit to the US.
posted by Mitheral at 9:36 AM on April 14, 2008


I wonder if that's still a big issue (people getting killed on the freeways)....

I drove a cab while going to school 15 years ago in San Diego. I have a fair number of "border runs"--taking folks from various places in San Diego to the border. Every time I went down there, I'd see small and large groups dashing across the freeways, hiding in the bushed next to the freeways, etc. It was insane!

I seem to recall they tried reducing the speed limit to like 50 for about the first 5 miles after the border too....

I used to think it was a cultural issue: folks from central Mexico and Central America--where roads are often poor and cars slow...come here and take that same attitude about crossing the "road"--not realizing it's a huge freeway, cars are hyper powered, and everyone is in a big rush. They just can't do the vector analysis at big distances and high speed....
posted by PhiBetaKappa at 10:06 AM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wonder if that's still a big issue (people getting killed on the freeways)....

It is not. See the last section here, 'Seen as Metaphor'.
posted by BigSky at 12:03 PM on April 14, 2008


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