James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, and artist. He has developed an innovative public-engagement and community-visioning tool that uses art-making, imagination, storytelling, and play as its media. He is also one of the few nationally recognized urban planners to examine Latino cultural influences on urban design and sustainability in the US. He has written and lectured extensively on how culture and immigration are transforming the American front yard and landscape, and he is the founder of the Latino Urban Forum, an advocacy group dedicated to increasing awareness on planning and design issues facing low-income Latinos. Read more about James here.
James Rojas on Arrival City Chapter 3: Arriving at the top of the pyramid
What separates the American arrival city from the European arrival city is the power that immigrants, especially Latinos, have in transforming the urban/suburban landscape. Latinos are creating a new design lexicon for Los Angeles’s tired old suburbs and across the US that middle class whites are abandoning for urban living. Latinos moving into these car-centric suburbs are transforming them with their cultural behaviour patterns. Through their socializing, walking, biking, using public transportation, they are erasing the car-culture scale of these suburbs. This growth of the Latino population in the US will in a few dozens years make a new American suburban standard. Arabs in Paris, Indians in London, or the Turks in Berlin will have great difficulty transforming the civic, cultural, and physical identity of these cities but Latinos can and will change the profile of vast American suburban landscapes. Latino immigration is also changing the urban/suburban landscapes of their homelands because these returning immigrants bring back new ways of thinking about space from their time in the US which is developing a Pan-American urbanism.
The vast majority of America’s single-family housing was built in the twentieth century with values and spatial requirements that met the social, cultural, design, and economic needs and dreams of America’s working- and middle-classes. As great numbers of Latino immigrants move into those homes, they bring attitudes towards housing, land, and public space that often conflict with how the neighborhoods and houses were originally planned, zoned, designed, and constructed.
Latinos moving into single-family homes add their cultural living patterns to the American spatial forms to create “Latino vernacular.” This vernacular offers cultural, economic, and environmental solutions to the residents’ needs as they customize and personalize their homes. Every change Latinos make to their homes, no matter how small, has meaning and purpose, representing the struggles, triumphs, everyday habits, and beliefs of the new working class residents.
Latino vernacular synthesizes cultural styles that are neither “Spanish” (as the general public views it) nor Anglo-American. The beauty of the vernacular cannot be measured by any architectural standard but rather by life’s experiences, expressions, and adaptations. The vernacular represents Latinos’ adaptation to their environment.
Public vs. private; outdoor vs. indoor
Many Latinos come from the rural places of Mexico or Latin America where social, cultural — and to some extent economic — life revolves around the zócalo, or plaza. The plaza becomes an extension of residents’ home life. The dialogue between home and plaza —which is very apparent in the physical structures of Latin American settlements — manifests itself in the way Latinos redesign their single-family homes in the U.S.
Because of warm weather and Spanish urban design precedents, the traditional Mexican courtyard home is designed with a “patio” or interior courtyard, which helps ventilate the interior of the home and floods it with light. With most rooms facing the patio, it becomes the physical focus of the home.
By contrast, the American house has a strong linear movement that begins at the front of the house and works its way back. American rooms are arranged beginning with the “public” (the living room) in front, to the private (the bedrooms) in back. In the Mexican house, the focus is on being either inside or outside, not in front or in back. Privacy is usually not an issue.
Front yard as plaza
Nowhere else in the Latino vernacular home is Mexican use of space so illuminated and celebrated than in the enclosed front yard or plaza. As Mexican immigrants settled into their new homes, the American front yards became a space for cultural identity.
The Mexican brings a new interpretation to the American front yard (la yarda) because many homes in Mexico don’t have them. Depending on the practical needs of the owners, the use and design of the front yards vary from elaborate courtyard gardens reminiscent of Mexico to working spaces. La yarda reflects Mexican cultural values applied to American suburban form.
The personalization of la yarda by the residents, along with the enclosing fences, has greatly changed the appearance of the front yards and the street. In Latino neighborhoods, enclosed front yards are now so dominant that they have altered the general physical characteristics of the neighborhoods and the residents’ behavior patterns. The continuous green, park-like setting that symbolized the American suburban front yard has been cut into individual slices in East Los Angeles. These “slices” readily allow for individuality and sociability and create diversity.
In many middle-class American neighborhoods, the appearance of the front yard is the standard for acceptance. In Latino neighborhoods, acceptance is not based on appearance of the front yard but on physical and social contact with neighbors. In contrast with anonymous lawns, Latino front yards are personal vignettes of the owners’ lives.
Fences as social catalyst
The visible expanse of lawn fronting American suburban houses is a symbol of ownership and privacy. It is also a psychological barrier that separates the private space of the home from the public space of the street. People do not walk on another person’s front lawn unless they are invited to. While one can find fences in many front yards across America, the egalitarian front yard has led many to think of fences in terms of exclusion, seclusion, or security — barriers against the world. By contrast, in Latino neighborhoods and barrios, fences bring neighbors and pedestrians together. Front-yard fences have become cultural icons and places for social interaction.
Front porches are important to Latinos
In most American homes, the use and importance of the front porch has declined. But for Latinos, the front porch is a critical, valued connection between outdoor-indoor space and public-private space. In Latin America, rooms such as the laundry room are located outside the enclosed house; so the use of outdoor space as part of the home is a common practice. Thus the use and desire for outside space via the front porch comes naturally to Latinos.
Latino front porches are used to check out what’s happening on the street, to socialize with family and friends, for extra storage, as a place for toddlers to play, to sell services or things, and as celebratory spaces. Therefore porches are redesigned or enlarged to meet those needs.
The porch is where seniors sit to watch the world go by, where teenagers wait for something to happen, where a mother sits to watch her children play in the front yard, where a man might meet his friends after work, or even a place were you give haircuts! These uses make the front porch an enduring space that adds to social activity on the street.
The Latino vernacular transforms and sustains the street
Latino single-family houses “communicate” with each other by sharing a cultural understanding expressed through the built environment. The residents communicate with each other via the front yard. By building fences they bind together adjacent homes. By adding and enlarging front porches, they extend the household into the front yard. These physical changes allow and reinforce the social connections and the heavy use of the front yard. The entire street now functions as a “suburban” plaza where every resident can interact with the public from his or her front yard. Thus Latinos have transformed car-oriented suburban blocks to walkable and socially sustainable places.