“You validated how I feel about my community but never had the words to describe it,” said one Latino student.
It was so powerful to hear the young Latino students articulate and validate their urban planning needs after my presentation. Latino Street photography is the best way for Latinos to engage and reflect with urban planning because they tell their stories. For many Latino students, it organizes their thoughts and emotions in a simple statement. Building their ideal Latino street reinforces these values.
The U.S.-Latino Landscape is one of the hardest environments to articulate because it’s a gut feeling and not a policy, plan or urban design, as we know it. Therefore, I use street photography and objects to help Latinos and non-Latinos to reflect and articulate the rich visual, spatial and sensory landscape. My “Walking While Latino” presentation includes dozens of photos of the Latino urban environment that I have taken over the course of 30 years, starting with my home neighborhood, East Los Angeles, and expanding to include communities across the United State.
There is a general lack of understanding of how Latinos use, value and retrofit the existing U.S. landscape in order to survive, thrive and create a sense of belonging. In addition, because of their lack of participation in the urban planning process, and the difficulty of articulating their land use perspectives, their values can be easily overlooked by mainstream urban planning practices and policies.
Latino urbanism is a recent, human-center urban design phenomenon, encompassing DIY or “rasquache” urban interventions that are enhancing and transforming the public realm which challenges our existing urban design and policies.
These first major urban transformations started in the late 1960s with the civil rights movement, when Chicanos protested the Vietnam War because so many young Latinos were being sent there and dying. This political movement quickly became brick and mortar, with the painting of murals and other politically charged interventions creating a deliberate Chicano Utopia. As a child I witnessed this transformation in my community.
However, my photo series began 30 years ago while I was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studying urban planning. I wanted to understand the Latino-built environment of East Los Angeles, where I grew up, and why I liked it besides being a third-generation resident.
But how do you tell a story based on a gut feeling? I went home for the six-week Christmas break and walked my childhood streets and photographed the life I saw unfolding before me with a handheld camera. I took 10 rolls of black and white film of East Los Angeles.
I was not a tourist, but both the researcher and research subject. I wanted to capture the everyday life of the community that I was familiar with and not the spectacular shots.
I was less interested in the portraits of residents or static architecture. Because of my background in interior design, I was interest in ergonomics, or how the body relates to spaces. I wanted to highlight how their bodies integrated and moved through the landscape, like dancers, from the various activities they performed. Again, as a designer, I wondered about the objects they used to help them with these activities as well as with artifacts they left behind.
These images highlighted the various ways Latinos use their bodies to create, alter and adopt the built environment to facilitate and build community. These activities included walking, street vending, waiting for the bus, children playing on streets and sidewalks, the elderly sitting on porches, congregating with others, and other various other activities. The places where these activities took place included front yards, fences, on porches, at bus stops, streets, sidewalks, vacant lots, etc. I was intrigued by how the existing fixed infrastructure was used in temporary ways; different ways than its original design intentions.
With this approach the body becomes architecture or software of the community.
The first presentation I gave was in 1991 when MIT professor Lois Craig suggested I cobble a few of these images and make a slideshow.
The images emphasize and celebrate the innovative ways Latinos produce space and give a voice to this ingenuity to fit their social, economic and cultural needs.
These places and activities tell a story of survival and identity that every Latino in the U.S. has either created or experienced. By allowing people to tell their stories about these images, participants realized that these everyday places, activities and people have value.
Showing images of from Latino communities from East Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco and other communities across the country illustrates that Latinos are part of a larger US..-Latino urban transformation.
This highlights the hidden language of the street that is not apparent because Latino cultural, spatial and visual elements are superimposed on the American landscape of order, perfection and property values. This creates a hybrid design that is neither Latin American nor Anglo American.
These still images allow viewers to reflect on and critically examine their activities they may or may not have experienced. Latinos begin to see the pattern language of their community and talk about their neighbors’ fences, shrines, etc. This presentation becomes about Latinos and becomes an open forum of shared experience of being Latino living in the U.S. For many Latinos this might be the first time they have reflected on their behavior patterns and built environment publicly and with others.
The “Walking While Latino” presentation creates agency and pride and enables the Latinos to articulate their spatial urban planning and social needs. For non-Latinos, the presentation and open forum educate them to understand the cultural and spatial values of this community.
After the presentation and open forum, the participants are ready to start planning their community’s future by celebrating, solving, and enhancing their spatial needs bases on their newfound knowledge.
James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist and artist. He developed an innovative public-engagement and community-visioning method that uses art-making as its medium. Through this method, he has engaged thousands of people by facilitating more than 400 workshops and building more than 50 interactive models around the world.
Rojas is also one of the few nationally recognized urban planners to examine U.S. Latino cultural influences on urban design and sustainability. He has written and lectured extensively on how culture and immigration are transforming the American front yard and landscape. He is the founder of the Latino Urban Forum, an advocacy group dedicated to increasing awareness around planning and design issues facing low-income Latinos.