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This paper proposes, from a semiotic perspective on cognition and working towards a cognitive perspective on semiosis, an analysis of the inter-semiotic translation processes (Torop, 2002) surrounding the maguey and other cacti, ancestral plants that now decorate public spaces in Mexico City. The analysis involves three semiotics, Peircean semiotics, bio-semiotics, and cultural semiotics, and draws from other disciplines, such as Biology, Anthropology, and Sociology, in order to construct a dialogue on a transdisciplinary continuum.
The maguey and other cactus plants are resources that have a variety of uses in different spaces. In rural spaces, they are used for their fibers (as thread in gunny sacks, floor mats, and such), for their leaves (as roof tiles, as support beams, and in fences), for their spines (as nails and sewing needles), and their juice is drunk fresh (known as aguamiel or neutli), fermented (a ritual beverage known as pulque or octli), or distilled (to produce mescal, tequila, or bacanora). In urban spaces, cacti are used as an element of identity in the Mexico City coat of arms, as decorative plants, and as plant/objects for everyday uses – coat-hooks, trash receptacles, and as refuge for street vendors (underemployment). Cacti are also used with religious significance, at the feet of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who protects passers-by.
Cacti are plants that grow naturally in Mexican rural spaces – ideal environments and habitats for them – but which are planted and cared for by human hands in urban spaces – creating a socio-cultural landscape. This transition from rural to urban spaces is what we consider to be the inter-semiotic translation from rural to urban, from natural to cultural, from biological to socio-cultural (artistic, literary, cinematic, and pictorial). We arrive at the interesting conclusion that in Mexico, these plants hold importance today (in the 21st century) because they are inscribed in a biological/natural/rural – human/cultural/urban responsive and cyclical process, with all the biological, sociological, anthropological and economic meaning that is produced in that cycle.