The Semiotics of the NM License Plate

Every state’s vehicle license plate tells a story. The plate typically displays the state’s motto, uses state official colors, and typically contains state-specific symbols.

Plate design used to change from year to year but state officials must have gotten wise to the cost of replacing plates annually even if the plates are manufactured in prisons. More recent trends have been to replace plates so infrequently with a new design that they become unreadable.

19 states do not require a vehicle to display a front plate. Is that a cost-cutting measure or a consequence of lobbying by vanity plate manufacturers? I would think that cops would prefer to be able to search for a car from either the front or the back of the vehicle. I once purchased a car in Indiana to be licensed in Illinois. The salesman scrambled to find the front plate bracket which was inconveniently hidden in the spare tire well. When I purchased my Honda Pilot here, I removed the front bracket and plate which is just an advertisement for the dealer. If anybody is dying to get a Borman Autoplex plate, let me know.

Drivers become very fond of traditional designs and are resistant to change when plates are redesigned. The white on Michigan-blue plate (the color is trademarked by the Michigan State Police) was in use for so long and became so popular that when the state started replacing it with a not Michigan-blue on white plate, a lot of vehicle owners opted to get a more colorful plate celebrating all the peninsulas even though it cost $5 extra per year to renew.

Like many states, New Mexico has a large selection of license plates that can be acquired for an additional fee. Unlike many states, New Mexico offers two standard plates. When you license your car, you are given a choice of the standard plates or may choose to get a vanity plate; a plate honoring a particular cause; or, if you qualify; a special veterans plate.


New Mexico State Flag and Standard Plates

I permanently moved to New Mexico in 2007. I was given a choice of the yellow plate shown above or the balloon plate. I told the clerk that I didn’t really care and he choose the balloon plate–said it looked better on my car. It seems to me that I see the balloon plate more often than the yellow plate in Las Cruces. It’s more modern. The balloon plate doesn’t stand up very well to our abundant sunshine and it’s not uncommon to see a totally unreadable plate. OTOH, the balloon plate is much more reflective at night. I wonder if there is a negative correlation between the size of the place you live in and relative proportion of yellow to balloon plates.

The balloon plate was replaced with the a turquoise plate celebrating the 2012 centennial last year. I guess that for once, our government is ahead of the game by issuing it 2 years prior to the centennial.

Look at all the symbolics used on the 3 plates. Probably the most important symbol is the Zia, the Zuni symbol for the sun. It is the state flag and common to all three plates. State colors are red and yellow.

The state motto is Land of Enchantment and is on all three plates.

The yellow and balloon plates use the state colors. The centennial plate uses a lighter yellow, a lighter red, and inverts the Zia from the state flag. Perhaps the designer is not a New Mexican or changed the colors for aesthetic reasons.

The state flower is the yucca but is only present on the yellow plate.

The state stone is the turquoise and is only present as a color on the centennial plate.

Prior to the new centennial plate, both standard plates had USA on them. Is it is included because so many Americans think that New Mexico is part of “Old” Mexico? (The New Mexico magazine has a monthly column entitled One of our 50 is missing on this subject).

Somebody must have decided our nationality is no long in question or maybe it will find it’s way back after 2012!

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About ViAnn

Progressive retired geek who loves to play golf
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