The average person in Southern California doesn’t know what Mexican architecture is. It’s like putting jack cheese on something and calling it “Mexican food.” There’s no jack cheese in Mexico. The same thing happens with architecture. Americans create what they call “Mexican” architecture. That’s what they like. That’s what they get.
It is not uncommon to hear a San Diegan remark that there is something vaguely Mexican about the city’s visual image. But, when you then try to pin down what exactly it is that is Mexican about San Diego, explanations do not emerge in crystal-clear form — they meander around red tile roofs, “Spanish style” houses, or Old Town’s plaza.
What we do know about Mexico is that her architecture has never really ended at the border. It spills across the international boundary with the United States and is deeply imbedded in the region sometimes referred to as the “Hispanic Southwest.” The Southwest was once located entirely within Mexican territory. Its heritage is strongly tied to a Mexican and indigenous past.
But the Southwest has also been dramatically transformed over the last century and a half. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which created the present-day U.S.-Mexico international boundary, industrialization and urban growth spread across the mountains and desert landscapes of the Southwest. During the second half of the 20th Century, there was massive urban growth in the desert valleys of Phoenix, Albuquerque, Tucson, and El Paso, in the lower Rio Grande/south Texas region, in central Texas and along its Gulf coast, and on the California–Baja California border.
Along with the huge, sprawling cities came military installations, railroads, interstate freeways, mining operations, and tourists, feeding out of the cities and into the wilderness areas. This massive deployment of economic infrastructure and modernization permanently altered the cultural landscape of the Southwest. It is not easy to find, amidst all the new development, evidence of Mexican influence on architecture and place identity in the region. And yet there are both disappearing slices as well as new forms of Mexican identity in the southwestern cultural landscape.
In architecture, recognition of the Spanish southwest as a distinct place has been slow to materialize. Mexico is often left entirely out of textbooks on American architecture. Until recently, the Southwest was also regarded as a relatively marginal part of the story of American architecture, with the possible exception of recognition given to the early Pueblo and Anasazi periods.
Spain Designs Early California
Adobe and sandstone were the primary materials used by Anasazi and Pueblo builders. Adobe, a material composed of sand and clay, was essential to the Pueblo culture, and it has continued to influence the traditional cultural landscapes of the Southwest. It is a central feature of New Mexican, Arizonan, and parts of the traditional Californian architecture. Few ancient buildings remain in the region, however, because of adobe’s inherent vulnerability to the elements. Its greatest strength — being organic — is also its biggest weakness. It decomposes too easily when exposed to rain and sun. Too much sand in the mix causes adobe to turn soft and weather poorly; too much clay causes it to crack. No matter how carefully it is maintained, it will eventually return to its organic form — it will melt into the earth. It is therefore a material with a limited life span.
The technique of shaping mud into adobe bricks was brought to the Americas by the Spanish, who had learned it from the Moors. But adobe was a material the Pueblo culture had worked with before, although not in the efficient brick form. The Spanish helped the indigenous cultures perfect the art of adobe construction, and some of the most inspiring adobe buildings came after the Spanish arrival in the 17th Century. Learning to work with adobe meant dealing with the problem of water. Moisture inevitably crept in. Water could be drained off the roofs through canales (roof gutters), but, eventually enough water would get to the roof beams (vigas). The buildings that survived longest were those in which the ceiling beams were replaced periodically. It is interesting also to contrast the design of southwestern roofs with those farther south in Mexico and South America. Whereas in the latter, Spain demanded that decorative domes be built on churches and other important structures, using fired brick, in colonial New Mexico colonists once again adapted to local (indigenous) architecture. The regionally favored flat roof and earthen (adobe) constructions dominated colonial New Mexican townscapes.
California offers perhaps the best illustration of how quickly Spain took control of the southwestern U.S. territory. California, which in the beginning was two territories — Upper (Alta) California, which covers most of present-day California, and Lower (Baja) California, in Mexico — was the last of the northern frontier of New Spain to be settled by Spanish missionaries and colonists. Whereas Santa Fe had been settled as early as 1609, the first mission in California wasn’t built at San Diego until 1769. California was farther by land from the northern Mexican frontier settlements, and it was the last of the mission territories of colonial New Spain.
Once Spain arrived on the scene on the West Coast, it would quickly cover the land with three settlement types: missions, presidios, and pueblos. A string of 21 missions would be built in California between 1769 and 1822. The missions brought more than Christianity to California; they completely transformed the landscape of the California desert frontier. Plush gardens accompanied early mission construction: Spain brought citrus and olive trees, figs, and grapes to create a Mediterranean ambiance on a dusty desert landscape. The Indians of California had not built the kind of durable architecture that the Pueblos had; their simple structures were soon replaced with crude Spanish ones.
The missions were not unlike their counterparts in New Mexico or Texas. They were built in the form of quadrangles, with ornamental cloisters and plush interior courtyards, and housed a plethora of activity — schools, workshops, apartments — inside the walls of the mission compound. Presidios, too, were enclosed quadrangles with walls 3 feet thick and 12 to 15 feet high, many with bastions (towers) in the four corners. The pueblos were self-contained farming areas laid out in the classic gridiron pattern.
Just as the mission system had reached its zenith early in the 19th Century, the course of history would take a series of turns that would, within a span of merely 50 years or so, diminish more than two centuries of Spanish/Mexican influence on the landscape of the U.S. Southwest. In the 1820s, the nations of Spanish America finally achieved their independence from Spain. It happened in Mexico in 1821, some three centuries after Cortés had conquered the region for mother Spain. Only 25 years later, the northern provinces of Mexico, including the territory of Upper California, were lost to the United States following the war and subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The U.S.-Mexico boundary was drawn, and thousands of Mexicans living in what had become the United States were forced to change their citizenship. Waves of Anglo settlers flocked into the Southwest — cattlers, miners, farmers, bankers, newspapermen, speculators, and drifters. As they flowed across the deserts and settled into the most promising places, they would come into direct contact and confrontation with the Mexican settlers who had occupied these lands, however sparsely, for centuries. The “Californios,” as the Mexican settlers would be called, soon saw their land taken away, their wealth lost in a newly forming Anglo economy, and their political power decline, as their numbers were weakened by a growing majority of new Anglo voters. The decline of the Californio population of the mid-1800s is one of the least told stories of the changing cultural landscape of the 19th Century in California. As the Californios lapsed into economic and social isolation, the architectural legacies of their era — the missions and the adobe presidio towns — would also fall into decay.
The Myth of Spanish-Mexican Heritage
- The missions are worth more money, are a greater asset to Southern California, than our oil, our oranges, or even our climate.
- — Charles Fletcher Lummis
To speak of architecture in San Diego and the southwestern United States in the late 19th Century is to recognize that this was still a relatively remote frontier, no longer the northern outpost of one nation but now the western outpost of another. New technologies were rapidly arriving and changing the nature of places: railroads, irrigation systems, and mining infrastructure. The scale of settlement was still small, by East Coast standards. But gradually, Anglo populations were overshadowing Mexican ones in most of the important settlement areas. By the 1870s and 1880s, in California, what had once been a territory of small Indian communities and Spanish mission settlements along the coast was gradually being transformed into a booming region of farms, cattle ranches, small industry, ports, and trade.
The memory of Spain and Mexico was rapidly fading. The demise of the Californios unfolded in only a few decades. The Californios had set the tone for culture in California — music, art, language, and architecture were all infused with a good deal of Spanish influence. The Californios lived either on rural ranchos built of solid adobe, styled after the Spanish colonial homes and haciendas of Mexico, or in adobe mansions in the towns created by the missionaries along California’s coast. But the arrival of Anglos in the middle of the 19th Century meant not only that new economies — railroading, commercial farming, mining, shipping — would populate the southwestern landscape but also that new forms of building would alter it.
The Anglo population brought its “East Coast” ideas about architecture and building to the southwestern desert territories, including California. In the late 19th Century, a great deal of building was done with wood. Except for ceiling beams and door and window treatments, neither the indigenous populations of the Southwest nor the Spanish colonial and Mexican populations built extensively with wood. So when Anglos began to populate the towns of California and other southwestern regions after 1850, wood-slat commercial and residential buildings began to dominate the new townscapes, and not always with favorable results. In desert cities from El Centro to Phoenix, in the 1880s, the poorest immigrants from Sonora, Mexico, were living in modest adobe structures that stayed relatively cool in the hot desert heat. Meanwhile, the wealthier new arrivals, just off the train from the East Coast, built giant wooden Queen Anne mansions with high ceilings, towers with cupolas and turrets, and wraparound porches. The rich even tried building double roofs to counteract the summer heat, but the wooden houses remained uncomfortable during the summers.
While the Anglo-European immigrants from the eastern United States began building their wooden cities, the remnants of Spanish colonial building were falling into disarray. Missions had been abandoned and within a few decades were overrun with wild vegetation, while the doors and windows, and even some adobe walls, were all decaying. It is said that Anglos occasionally used the missions for nostalgic picnics, a social event on the ruins of some unknown past.
Anglos arriving in California in the 1890s viewed the adobe structures they associated with Mexicans as not very practical. The structures had been built with a technology (mud and straw bricks dried in the sun) they considered primitive. This was the 1890s, after all, a time of prosperity and new industrial machinery, milled lumber, nails, and glass. The early Americans looked at the old missions and saw them as primitive and not worthy of imitation. A U.S. architecture historian once wrote: “For all of their religious significance and romantic connotations, the Franciscan missions are of only limited importance to a social history of California architecture.”
The 1880s marked the beginning of a period of rapid economic growth in California. There was a land boom on, and everywhere there was new railroad construction, new towns, land speculation, and growth. Many speculators, investors, promoters, and wheeler-dealers came from the East Coast and Midwest to join in the boom. What was needed was a bit of “myth making and literary invention.” Thus would be born the “mission myth.”
Charles Fletcher Lummis would carry the flag of the mission myth during its early phase. Born in Ohio, Lummis moved to Los Angeles in 1884 to begin working as an editor at the Los Angeles Times. In a few short years, he became enamored of the Spanish past and its architecture. He formed the Association for Preservation of the Missions in 1892 and the Landmark Club in 1895. He believed that the mission legacy was fundamental to the growth and future well-being of California. Meanwhile, all around him Anglo wooden housing, particularly Queen Anne and Craftsman styles, was leading the way as boomtowns were constructed.
Lummis’s dream to resurrect California’s mythical Spanish past was aided by a number of events and circumstances that swirled around him. In 1881 a writer and journalist from the East Coast, Helen Hunt Jackson, after touring the Spanish missions and ranches of California, wrote the novel Ramona, about a beautiful half-Indian, half-Mexican girl brought up on a hacienda near Los Angeles. The novel painted California’s Spanish-Mexican past in the most idyllic way and, as one observer has written, gave Southern California “a myth by which to know itself.” Ramona was one of the biggest-selling novels of its time, and it generated a new nostalgia and excitement about California’s “Spanish” past, a past that, in one observer’s words, “was more Spanish than Spain itself” — far more romantic in memory than it had been in reality. Communities named themselves after “Ramona” — we have one in San Diego County.
But California now had the possibility of an identity, grounded in a mystical, romantic past, and the boom of the 1880s and 1890s was as good a time as any to begin the search for some sort of Mediterranean tradition, particularly when it might also serve the function of enhancing real estate and business interests who were investing heavily in the growth of Southern California. Thus, when architect A. Page Brown designed the much-heralded Spanish-style California Building for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, many began speaking of a new form of architecture: California Mission Revival. It had four elements: an adobe look, missionlike parapets, bell tower, and arcades. As Mission Revival began to catch on in the 1890s, Charles Lummis continued his criticism of its competitors — wooden houses transplanted from the Midwest to Southern California.
Mission Revival fed off the “mission myth” that had been given impetus by Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. The mission myth portrayed California’s Spanish past as graceful, romantic, and idyllic, a land of friars and missions and well-fed ranchers. It made no mention of the larger reality of California’s Spanish-Mexican past: the brutality of forced Indian labor, racial tensions between Mexicans and Indians and, later, Anglos, or the record of lynchings and hostility toward the Mexicans during the 1850–1880 period of early Anglo immigration into the region. Not until as late as 1946 would any writer challenge that characterization with a crisp reconstruction of events that actually took place.
Mission Revival Versus Spanish Colonial Revival in San Diego
Thus was born Mission Revival architecture, which flourished in San Diego from 1891 to 1915 and was largely an ornamental style used for houses, railroad stations, museums, city halls, and schools. Roundly criticized for being merely decorative, early Mission Revival buildings often seemed trivial and out of context, and some critics have looked back on these buildings and found them repetitive and boring. One observer believed that “Mission Revival failed because it proved impossible to adapt the primitive architecture of a religious order to the commercial and worldly society of the late 19th Century.”
In 1915, the Panama-California Exposition was held in San Diego to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal (on which construction had begun in 1904) and the new connection between North and South America. San Diego, on the border with Mexico, was a logical place to hold such a fair. For architecture, this would prove to be an interesting moment in Southern California. Mission Revival architecture was on the wane, but the organizers of the Panama-California Exposition decided they wanted to design the Balboa Park setting for the exposition in a Spanish/Mediterranean flavor. Just as Mission Revival had gotten its impetus from A. Page Brown’s California Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, so would a new architectural style — Spanish Colonial Revival — get its first push from the designs of the principal architect for the Panama-California Exposition — Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Goodhue had designed buildings in Panama and Cuba and had written about Mexican architecture.
Many were surprised at Goodhue’s selection over Irving Gill, whose modern interpretations of Mission Revival had already seen the light of day in Southern California. Grosvenor Goodhue was committed to a much more European interpretation of “Spanish” architecture, and his buildings in Balboa Park reflected this “Spanish Colonial” theme. The highlight of the exposition design was the California Building (now the Museum of Man), a cathedral with stucco walls, arches, ironwork balconies, and ornate portals, thought to embody most of the elements of the so-called Churrigueresque school well represented in churches and government buildings in colonial Spain and Mexico.
Spanish Colonial Revival regenerated the continued search for a Spanish past in San Diego’s built landscape. Although for consumers Mission Revival had lost some of its mystique and attractiveness, developers, investors, and boosters had not lost their enthusiasm for the romanticism of a mythical Spanish-Mexican past. After 1915, all pretense of the connection with Mexico was cast aside, and the “fantasy” element was brought center stage. The idea was no longer to re-create the feeling of the missions that had come from Mexico, and that had actually been in California, but rather, the idea was to seek a Mediterranean, European, and, as many would come to call it, Andalusian (a region of southern Spain strongly influenced by the Moors) flavor in building styles. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s highly ornate, Churrigueresque buildings started the ball rolling. While the Panama-California Exposition had originally been planned as a temporary exhibit, the San Diego public became so attached to the buildings that funds were raised to convert many to a permanent status. So it is today that Balboa Park is a built landscape of Andalusian and Spanish Colonial structures.
San Diego was not the only place touched by the second wave of Spanish-style architecture in Southern California. Indeed, many towns became so attached to Spanish-style architecture in the second and third decades of the 20th Century that they put into place zoning legislation that prohibited all forms of building design other than Spanish-Mediterranean. The best-known examples are the communities of Santa Barbara, Ojai, Palos Verdes, San Clemente, and Rancho Santa Fe. The typical attitude of residents and builders is captured in the statement by the builders of San Clemente, who claimed to envision “happiness and prosperity in Spanish homes on the shores of the sundown sea.”
The 20th-century building of Santa Barbara has been described as the materialization of a Spanish dream city. What is conspicuous in the reading of any history of the building of Santa Barbara is that both the promoters (politicians, businessmen) of its development and the architects hired to design the buildings to fit the desired Spanish-fantasy townscape were all primarily of Anglo descent. For example, three of the best-known architects in Santa Barbara were Arthur Page Brown, Francis Wilson, and George Washington Smith. Furthermore, the increasingly Anglo community in Santa Barbara consisted of a large number of citizens who were active defenders of the vague notion of “Hispanic” architecture and culture. They not only made it politically possible to have an entire city of Mediterranean flavor, they also favored Spanish art, landscaping, and other cultural elements. To achieve their goals they formed interest groups and political coalitions, called the Community Arts Association and the Plans and Planting Committee. It may not be entirely fair to say that all the impetus for these actions can be ascribed to the powerful builders, investors, and economic interests in Southern California who stood to gain from popularizing the myth of a romantic Spanish past, achieving higher growth rates, and thus increasing land values and greater profit. It is probably also the case, as illustrated by the incredible sales of Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, that many who came to California simply wanted to believe in a rich past. It is also true that California inspired the search for a Spanish-Mexican connection, even if the one that was found had never really existed. The act of searching, and the visual landscapes that that search produced, created a rich outpouring of interest in the notion of Spanish-Mexican culture at a time when Southern Californians were first discovering how intimately connected the land was to a Mexican past. What is perhaps unfortunate is that the details of that past were never sufficiently publicized or understood; this is still largely true. But then, America is a nation with so little history, it tends to have a short memory and does not typically mobilize in ways to enhance its memory.
The Zorro Myth Rises and Falls
The Spanish myth held strong in California in the early decades of the 20th Century. If all the developments already described were not enough to sustain the interest of many Californians in Spanish-Mediterranean culture, during the 1920s another popular media event pushed this process further along. Some have called it the “Zorro myth.” Based on a novel called The Mark of Zorro, a series of films, television programs, radio shows, and comic books began to portray the image of a masked hero called Zorro (fox, in Spanish). Zorro defended the poor in a historic, uniquely wealthy fantasyland said to be Spanish California. Such creations illustrate the degree to which the larger Spanish cultural movement had become caricature, exaggeration, and fantasy, amidst what has been described as the “illusion of mountains, seashore, and channel, of Andalusian architecture, polo fields, tennis courts, golf courses, hotels, costumed festivals, and ceremonial pageants.”
That is how San Diego imagined itself in the early part of this century, and that is why such architecture is found in abundance in much of the region. What is also clear, however, is that no force was sufficient to sustain such illusory, tentative styles of building when they were not sufficiently based on real events and real people from the region. The Anglos imported their fantasy of Spain and, to a lesser extent, Mexico. When the fantasy worked as a market tool, Spanish-Mediterranean designs would drape the landscapes of towns and cities. If other systems of building came along to displace it, so be it. That was the American way, and Southern California became the 20th Century’s quintessential example of how places can become homogenous and devoid of original character and uniqueness if no effort is made to sustain the meaning of place.
Southern California’s 20th Century would prove to be very fickle as far as Spanish-Mexican architecture and urban design are concerned. The essence of 20th-century Southern California is that it was the “self-made” place, where people thrived due to self-reliance. The icons of Southern California culture became those of the individual — privacy, single-family housing, lush private gardens, and individual mobility within city space (through elaborate freeway superstructures and skyrocketing rates of private automobile ownership). All this defused any collective formation of memory, any collective notion of a past, of architectural tradition. Southern California had lost its connection to the Mexican-Spanish past.
A visiting German architect’s book on Los Angeles architecture, which has become a classic, emphasizes the uniqueness of the regional ecology, and of the cultures of freeways, surfers, and Disneyland, but he also has this to say about the past: “For the purpose of the present study, Spanish Colonial Revival will not be treated as an identifiable or consciously adopted style, but as something which is ever present and can be taken for granted, like the weather.” A number of other well-known architects favored Spanish-style architecture for California, including Charles Moore. But Moore also thought that Disneyland, the quintessential make-believe place in Southern California, was probably its most characteristic architecture. He wrote that Disneyland had saved the public realm in Southern California by providing a far more exciting space than any of the existing downtowns. Yet Disneyland was the ultimate fabrication, a completely made-up ambiance, and Moore seems to revel in it by quoting Noël Coward’s comment about Los Angeles: “There is always something so delightfully real about what is phony here; and something so phony about what is real.” What is real and what is not are intertwined, and one is not sure which is more cherished.
The Search for San Diego’s Mexican Identity
In the year 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo traveled north from the Viceroyalty of Guatemala to explore unknown territory along the Pacific coast. Entering a bay surrounded by hills, he found the harbor was deep and well protected, and he claimed this land for Spain. More Spaniards would return two decades later and build an outpost for ships in the great sailing fleet of the Spanish empire making the Acapulco-Manila run. The outpost was named San Diego de Alcalá.
For nearly two centuries, this distant settlement remained but a small dot on some navigational charts of Spanish sailors. In 1769, the Spanish finally returned, and San Diego de Alcalá became the first of 21 missions to be built along the Pacific coast in present-day California. The intent of the Spanish settlers was twofold: to settle the California territory in the name of the Spanish king and to impose Christianity upon its dwellers through the construction of the missions. Father Junípero Serra was the founder of the first of the Franciscan missions. He named it after the settlement: San Diego de Alcalá.
As best as historians can reconstruct it, the original mission of San Diego de Alcalá was the simplest and least decorative of the 21 California missions built between 1769 and 1822. The San Diego mission was completed in 1780, after an earlier effort had been raided and destroyed by local indigenous groups. The 1780 building was constructed about six miles inland. It consisted of three-foot-thick adobe walls, pine roof beams, and windows covered with grilles made of cedar. The structure was quadrangular, typical of mission design. It incorporated the Spanish Colonial design elements of the interior patio and arcades. The façade was notable for its gracefully curved pediment and a bell tower.
The San Diego de Alcalá mission was the first important structure built by Europeans in a region that would eventually become a meeting place of Anglo America and Latin America. Today, the restored mission sits on the slope of a hill on the north side of Mission Valley, a stone’s throw from one of the region’s busiest freeway interchanges. The mission is easily lost in the visual and audio cacophony of the freeways, shopping centers, condominium complexes, and apartment buildings. It sits like some strange white apparition of San Diego’s 18th Century dwarfed by the techno-modernism of the early 21st Century. It lies just up the freeway from one of the icons of 1960s modernism: the San Diego Qualcomm Stadium, a hulking concrete modernist structure. The restored mission is significant not only for its intricate details as a building, but also for the extent to which it has been smothered by the 20th Century, just as Mexican cultural influence in architecture has been overshadowed by the contemporary freeway metropolis.
San Diego is like the rest of Southern California. It names its baseball team the Padres, it has Mission Valley and Mission Boulevard and Friars Road, a peninsula called Coronado, a mountain called Soledad, a valley called El Cajon (the box, in Spanish). But it doesn’t embrace its Mexican past. Some of the most beautiful sights in the San Diego region are heavily influenced by Mexican-Spanish design: parks, churches, and residential neighborhoods. Most San Diegans, transplanted Americans from other parts of the continent, do not appear to greatly prize the past. San Diego is a high-tech, freeway, coastal city, oriented toward the future. The past can be bulldozed away by developers or packaged by real estate entrepreneurs.
Old Town is the name that has stayed with the original settlement area of the 18th-century Spanish colonists who settled in San Diego. Old Town nearly disappeared in the mid-20th Century, only to be rediscovered and converted into a state park and historic preservation area, and one of the major tourist attractions in the San Diego region. It sits tightly wedged against one of San Diego’s wealthiest city neighborhoods, called, not unsymbolically, Mission Hills. Down in Old Town, historic buildings have been refurbished to create a feeling of neighborhood, all reinforced by the restaurants and retail shops that cater to the hordes of tourists that flow through the area. Old Town is notable for its historic buildings preserved from the “Mexican” period (pre-1848) and the “American” period (post-1848). The name “Old Town” seems to have become a kind of regional phenomenon in the Southwest, where cities like Los Angeles, Tucson, and Albuquerque all have their original Mexican areas preserved as historic landmarks and utilized for tourism and for retaining commercial vitality near the present-day central business districts.
In San Diego, Mexican-period buildings include the Casa de Estudillo, an enclosed adobe structure begun by Captain José Maria Estudillo in 1829. The Estudillos were one of the early Californio families. There are also the Casa de Machado, built by Juan Manuel Machado in the 1830s, and the Casa de Bandini. The Casa de Bandini’s history is a fitting architectural metaphor for the experience of Spanish-Mexican families and their culture in 19th-century California. Juan Bandini built the original single-story adobe house in 1829. The romantic view expressed at the turn of the century that pictured old Spanish mansions with second-floor balconies is largely a myth: structural limitations in the type of adobe buildings created by the Californios tended to limit even the most lavish ranch structures to one story. The Bandini house in its Mexican-Spanish phase was, indeed, one story. During the transition period from Spanish-Mexican to Anglo control in California during the late 1840s and the 1850s, Bandini was among the Californios who suffered tremendous economic losses. He sold his home to an Anglo, Albert Seeley. Seeley added a second story made of wood to the Bandini home. He then turned the house into the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Today the building is preserved as an important landmark of the period. It houses a Mexican restaurant whose main clients are Anglo tourists.
Old Town’s historic importance as the original settlement for the Latino/Hispanic community of San Diego is only marginally reflected in the area’s built landscape. There are as many Anglo buildings as there are Spanish-Mexican ones. Prominent on the pseudo-townscape of the tourist district are the Wrightington House, built by Thomas Wrightington in the 1840s, and the Seeley Stables, a replica of the stables originally built in 1867 to house stagecoaches and horses for Seeley’s stage line, which made the trip from San Diego to Los Angeles in less than 24 hours. There is also the Whaley House, a two-story brick and wooden shingle-roofed structure that became the center of an Anglo-oriented Old Town in 1856–1957. Old Town would quickly be eclipsed as a significant settlement when in the 1860s a furniture entrepreneur and developer from San Francisco, Alonzo Horton, came to San Diego and said of Old Town: “I could not give you $5.00 for a deed to the whole of it — I would not take it as a gift. It doesn’t lie right. Never in the world can you have a city here.”
In the short span of about 20 years, San Diego would pack up its town hall, its courthouse, bank, newspaper office, and other important city buildings and move lock, stock, and barrel down the hill onto the flat coastal plain. Only a decade before citizens had called this area Horton’s Folly, because Horton the developer bought the coastal flatlands — later to be called Horton’s Addition — with the intention of moving the city of San Diego there. He did. This marked the birth of New Town, the new San Diego. Horton had achieved his main objective in coming to San Diego from San Francisco: to make good real estate investments. Horton’s Addition is visual testimony to late-19th-century San Diego’s transformation from a Mexican town built of adobe to an Anglo city of wooden Victorian- and New England–style architecture. Horton’s Addition covers much of downtown San Diego today. Only a few of the original wooden structures, whose styles range from Western Stick to bungalow to Eastlake, remain. They are backdrop to layers of 1960s and 1970s modernist skyscrapers and 1980s postmodern office buildings and retail structures. Multimillion-dollar investments have created waterfront villages, the redevelopment of the turn-of-the-century Gaslamp Quarter, a trolley network, and the centerpiece of the new downtown: a great postmodern shopping center. Its name: Horton Plaza, of course.
If Anglo San Diego wiped away the Spanish past in the middle of the 19th Century, it also followed other areas of Southern California in resurrecting the Spanish-Mexican heritage in a very different form a few decades later. San Diego did not ignore the Mission Revival frenzy that swept California in the 1880s and 1890s. In fact, one of the nation’s greatest interpreters of that movement came to live in San Diego at the turn of the century. Irving Gill is generally recognized as one of the 20th Century’s visionary designers. He arrived in San Diego for health reasons in the 1890s. It didn’t take him long to appreciate the simple beauty and meaning in California’s mission past. He once stated that “the missions of California are beautiful because their builders could not but be honest. They had not the time, tools, or skill to cover with ornament, or cut up into angle, so their works stand with undisputed dignity and superiority…their extreme simplicity holds the eye, resting and gratifying it, making an indelible impression of power and repose.”
Gill’s gradual shift toward mission-inspired, industrially produced designs represents an amazing transformation from his origins, which consisted of working in the Chicago office of the early modernist skyscraper architect Louis Sullivan. After leaving Chicago, Gill went to Southern California, and surely what he found in California’s mission architecture fit well with his strong belief in the relationship between design and the natural environment. He quickly discovered that he preferred concrete and stone and tile, because of their advantages in the ecological setting: durability and insulation. He once noted that “we should build a house simple, plain, substantial as a boulder, and leave the ornamentation of it to nature, who will trim it with lichen, chisel it with storms, and make it gracious and friendly with vines and flowers and shadows as she does the stone in the meadow.” Two of Gill’s greatest designs are in La Jolla: the Bishop’s School and the La Jolla Woman’s Club. Both buildings demonstrate Gill’s uncanny ability to design modern industrially produced structures that incorporate, both functionally and artistically, mission elements. Both buildings were built of concrete over hollow tile with a light-colored stucco. The walls are adobelike, and there are archways, patios, arcades, pergolas, and bell towers.
The kind of buildings Irving Gill designed remain as remarkable curiosities and architectural treasures, rather than as part of a generic regional architectural style or movement. As mentioned earlier, it had been expected that Gill would be invited to head the design team that created buildings in Balboa Park for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Instead, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was chosen, and his more ornate Spanish buildings were a big hit with San Diegans and spurred local enthusiasm for the Spanish Colonial Revival phase in San Diego. Ironically, the Santa Fe Railroad station in downtown San Diego had been built in majestic Mission Revival style, in preparation for the exposition of 1915. During the two decades following Grosvenor Goodhue’s designs for Balboa Park, building styles moved away from the mission-inspired design toward the ultra-Baroque Churrigueresque motif, similar to Goodhue’s great California Building in Balboa Park. Goodhue’s design of the Prado, or main avenue running through the park, was a grand axis around which he put in 14 major complexes, many linked by Andalusian arcades, formal gardens, patios, and plazas. Along the Prado one could see towers, domes, arcades, and ornate building façades. The park entrance spanned the Cabrillo Bridge, a stately structure with great arches and a Roman aqueduct–like appearance that reminded viewers of the Alcántara Bridge at Toledo, Spain.
Balboa Park made a winner of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, and the Spanish Colonial Revival designs caught on like wildfire in San Diego through the 1920s. Entire neighborhoods were appearing in Spanish Colonial Revival style — among them Mission Hills, Hillcrest, Kensington, La Jolla, Point Loma, and later Rancho Santa Fe. San Diego’s largest university — San Diego State University (at the time called San Diego State College) — took the big step of dedicating its campus design in the 1920s to the Spanish Colonial theme. The campus president during that period, Dr. Edward Hardy, was instrumental in this decision. Inspired by Bertram Goodhue’s fine work in Balboa Park, many architects of the period were designing what were termed Spanish-Mediterranean buildings, which brought together architectural features from Italy, Islamic North Africa, as well as Moorish Andalucia in Spain, and Spanish neoclassic, Plateresque, and Spanish renaissance architecture. President Hardy at the State College wrote that the new campus design would be “an architecture reminiscent of Spain and Spanish art itself influenced by the Arabian and Moorish art, and in landscaping very like that of southern Spain.”
San Diego had moved from the missions to the Moors, from Mexican memories of the region to a lapse of Mexican memory. This period is notable for the confusion that seeped into the relationship between building and memory. United States architecture has always been shorter in span and more ephemeral than in Mexico. San Diego’s memory was exceptionally short. San Diego forgot its missions, and the romanticization of a false past was transferred from Mexico to another exotic locale where they also speak Spanish: Spain. Thus San Diego State University was to become a vision of Andalusian colleges, with Moorish walls and arcades, bell towers, and lush landscaped courtyards. If it did not portray the memory of the region, at least it built on elements of that memory. After World War II, the campus would be invaded by the modernist styles in vogue through the 1950s and 1960s — brutalist, drab, formalist gray structures cut across the fabric of the past in libraries, a student center, or a health-services building.
To a great extent, the campus of San Diego State University was a mirror of the larger San Diego region, where the post–World War II period was ushering in functionalist, no-frills, modern structures. International-style glass-and-steel skyscrapers dominated new freeway-scale corridors like Mission Valley. Modernism also tended to move San Diego away from its past even further; the whole philosophy of modern architecture seemed to do away with references to the past, and many were concerned about its effects on cities. There were, of course, creative and innovative modernist buildings, such as Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, but largely the modern era saw San Diego evolve as a highly eclectic modernist-built landscape in which the past was further erased both by the scale of the diffuse metropolis and by the uninspired, placeless landscape of modernism. Spanish-Mexican architecture’s main function now became clear: either for tourism, for homes in wealthy neighborhoods where the “Ramona” myth could be propagated, or for commercial real estate developers convinced that Spanish style might attract more consumers. Where all this connected to some real sense of the Mexican-Spanish past had long since been forgotten.
Latino/Mexican Space Reconsidered: The Barrio
Barrio. In Spanish it means neighborhood. In English it means ghetto.
The cultural landscape of Mexican-American barrios in San Diego and the southwestern United States can best be viewed as a dialectic clashing of two sets of forces: the external pressures of urban development, capitalism, and anti-Mexican sentiment, which tended to restrict Chicano populations to marginal spaces within the larger city — leading scholars to speak of a process of “barrioization”; and the internal response by people of Mexican heritage to create a homeland, a distinct ethnic space that is valued by those who occupy it — a notion that has been termed “barriology” (the ideology of the barrio).
This gradual spatial concentration of the Mexican/Latino populations of the urban southwest border region into barrios has left behind a set of distinct cultural landscapes over the last century and a half. The emerging creation of valued social spaces has injected new landscapes into the fabric of Mexican-American communities. The idea of barrio-ization cannot be traced to any single decision or conspiracy of actors, but rather to an unspoken theme that has unified all the built-environment decisions made by powerful actors in the history of southwestern urban development over the last 150 years. One can view this process unfolding across three time periods: the late 19th Century, 1900 to 1945, and the post-1945 period.
Because Mexican people dominated the towns of the southwestern United States until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the period following this landmark shift in territorial political control marked one of cultural, political, and economic shock. It took several decades for the new economic landscapes and political policies of the Anglo system to begin to penetrate the townscapes of the Southwest. By the 1870s and 1880s, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the process of displacement and marginalization of Mexican communities had begun. As towns that Mexicans once dominated were transformed to fit the needs of Anglo economic development (oriented toward capital-intensive agriculture, irrigation, railroads, etc.), the Mexican community was abruptly impacted. Urban space was commodified — land became part of an intense market system, and real estate speculation began. Land was subject to a taxation scheme in a market system where anything not managed by the government was privatized. Mexican pueblo communal lands disappeared into private hands. New water, rail, and other technologies cut across the old townscapes, while the real estate frenzy, particularly in the boom of the 1880s, left Mexicans forced into ghetto spaces and marginalized politically.
On the West Coast, the Californio populations declined in the middle and later part of the 19th Century, while the construction of new towns was heavily influenced by East Coast architecture. The period 1850–1900 saw the secularization of the mission system, the breaking up of large Mexican-owned ranchos, and the erosion of the sociopolitical culture of the Californio population that had dominated the scene for five or six decades.
In the latter part of the 19th Century, new infusions of Mexican immigrants penetrated the southwestern United States. The new Mexican immigrants were not necessarily wealthy Californios of direct Spanish descent, as had been the case before 1850; they were the first waves of Mexicans of mixed Spanish-Indian heritage (mestizo), the first of millions of people of Mexican descent who would begin to populate the mining towns, railroad centers, farming communities, and industrial cities of the American Southwest.
The earliest settlements of Mexican workers from the last decades of the 1800s were modest, simple clusters of adobe homes. The settlements were often referred to as Sonoratowns, since many of the Mexican migrants came from the northern Mexican state of Sonora. What is striking about the settlement process of Mexican immigrants, as early as the 1870s and 1880s, is that they were already forming their own spatially confined niches in the urban fabric. Thus began the process of Chicano barrioization.
“Barrio-ization” can be said to form the second period of Mexican built environment history, from 1900 to 1945. During this period, the Southwest continued to grow, cities like San Diego expanded, and more immigrants from Mexico arrived. The experience of these immigrants was one of increasing segregation into less and less desirable parts of the city. The period 1900 to 1945 is notable as a time in which the process of ghettoization intensified. Various forces were at work. On the one side, increasingly larger waves of Mexican immigrants arrived in the American Southwest in the early decades of the 20th Century. As they flowed toward urban labor markets, a second force — economics — took over. Like other unskilled immigrants before them, Mexicans did not have the resources to pay very high rents. As cities like Los Angeles industrialized and developed, land values increased. Enclaves of low-rental housing formed, typically in the least desirable parts of towns: adjacent to the overcrowded factories, near noisy railroad stockyards, or on the far edges of town. Language also played a role in the ghettoization process. Mexican immigrants became more comfortable living near the old Sonoratowns or the emerging Mexican immigrants’ enclaves where they could find others who spoke Spanish.
As cities such as Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Diego, Albuquerque, and El Paso became more densely populated, there was more competition for property, and the property market heated up. Greater hostility developed in the process of neighborhood formation. Dominant populations and their political power blocs create written and unwritten rules that discriminate against ethnic minorities. In the southwestern cities of the early 20th Century, discrimination served to exclude Mexicans from some neighborhoods, further driving them toward their barrios. Discrimination had already become a way of life for Mexican immigrants, who had to endure severe backlashes during periods of economic recession. Discrimination in housing was just one more way some Anglos chose to scapegoat the Mexican immigrant population amidst a period of economic downfall.
The Changing Landscape of the Barrio
Such behavior cannot help manifesting itself on the cityscape. The final period in the history of the Mexican-American urban landscape is that of post-1945. By 1950, barrios were well entrenched in cities like San Diego. The cultural landscape of the barrio had been fairly consistent across the Southwest before 1950: communities of a few humble adobe structures, mostly in ruins, small wooden frame houses, low-rent tenements, family-owned markets in wood-frame buildings, and Catholic churches built of stucco or plaster. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of frenzied urban development. Here the barrios that had existed for several decades were threatened by massive urban redevelopment. Land was seized for building freeways and other public facilities. Many unwanted and noxious developments — factories, freeways, stadiums — invaded what had been the primary living spaces for Mexican immigrants. The cultural landscape soon became one of distress: abandoned warehouses, heavily polluting factories, freeways, increasing crime, police.
Examples of this process of barrio-ization are evident throughout the southwestern United States. In San Diego, a freeway and bridge sliced Barrio Logan into fragments. Freeways were defended by some planners as evidence that cities were becoming more technologically sophisticated. Some observers even went so far as to argue that freeways allowed more freedom of movement, a truly democratic development. But too many freeways destroyed the sense of place and endangered the quality of life of Mexican-American neighborhoods.
In response to these conditions in the latter half of the 20th Century, we find an increasing shift in consciousness by the Latino population toward viewing their neighborhoods as a kind of valued cultural and social space. Some scholars argue that the period of the 1930s, in which the Depression spurred massive deportations of Mexican immigrants, served to spark greater determination on the part of those who remained, or those who returned, to construct permanent spaces in the Latino community. This determination, which some call “barriology,” began with the creation of symbolic activities — parades, holiday festivities, and cultural events — that ritually celebrated not only Mexican culture but also Mexican-American place/community.
One specific form of intervention by Chicano community activists materialized as a battle to preserve parkland being usurped by freeway and other development. In San Diego, a former water tank in Balboa Park was transformed into a Mexican-American cultural center called Centro Cultural de la Raza. On the otherwise uninspiring exterior, stark, colorful, powerful murals were painted. Nearby, Barrio Logan, the oldest Mexican-American neighborhood in the city, fought to create a neighborhood park under the Coronado bridge. In 1970, the neighborhood mobilized a political action in the form of civil disobedience, when it learned that land under the bridge was to be given to the California Highway Patrol for use as a substation and parking lot. Latino residents responded by physically taking over the space, remaining on it, first, as an act of protest, and later, by way of constructing their own park. Eventually, the city and state governments backed off and allowed the community its park, a site that today commands enormous symbolic pride in the community. Surrounding the park are vivid Mexican murals, covering the otherwise imposing pillars of the Coronado bridge. Each spring, a special Chicano Day celebration takes place here to honor the history of the community’s struggle to create this important place.
Thus “barriology” represents a kind of collective decision to find ways to Mexicanize the bland spaces that had become home to the Chicano population. This growing social place consciousness has produced a contemporary generation of artists, community organizers, architects, store owners, schoolchildren, and others determined to inscribe their cultural origins upon the built landscape of their neighbors. This impulse can be seen both as a response to the crisis of barrioization and marginalization, and as a way of enriching their community experience. It is noteworthy to remember that the neighborhoods occupied by people of Mexican descent usually consisted of buildings in the Anglo tradition — wooden bungalows, Victorian mansions, or simple brick-and-concrete apartment houses. Ironically, the buildings designed with Mexico in mind — the Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival structures — were usually not occupied by people of Mexican descent. We have already seen that these turn-of-the-century building styles were largely created and financed by Anglo promoters and investors concerned not so much with the preservation of Latino culture as with the propagation of a romantic image of California that would draw would-be residents and consumers.
Thus, although Latinos could not alter permanent buildings and large infrastructure projects, they could transform the landscapes to make their communities more livable. It would be a mistake to restrict discussion of Latino barrio landscapes to the buildings alone. Landscapes in cities are strongly defined by buildings, but the spaces between the buildings are often equally or more important to the overall cultural landscape. This is quite noticeably the case in the Latino barrio. As stated above, in most Mexican-American barrios, the landscapes they transformed were not originally built by them; they were built by the dominant Anglo population. But as Mexican-Americans established territorial control over these places, they also established their own cultural landscapes. They personalized many of these spaces, transforming them, in part, from hopeless ghettos into vital living spaces, moving from a condition of being “barrio-ized” to one in which they felt a sense of belonging, a sense of place, a “barriology.”
What makes many barrios unique is the way their people have enlivened the setting by adding to it elements that reflect their cultural understanding of urban living space. One scholar terms this “enacted space,” people of one culture acting upon their living space to adapt it to their needs. Chicano personalization of the barrio can take many forms but generally revolves around either the way physical space is utilized, or the way the landscape is decorated. Often overlooked is the importance of people in transforming the more static built environment. In the barrio, what stands out is not the geometry of the wood-frame bungalows on their rectangular lots but, rather, the way the spaces around the lots have been personalized.
Street vendors add color and flavor to the streetscape of the Latino barrio. The street vendor, or ambulante, is an important element of the landscape of Mexican and Latin American cities. Street vendors in Latin America are relics of urban life in earlier centuries when street markets and street vending were a regular part of the urban economy, when the scale of urbanity was pedestrian, and the scale of marketing limited by technology and local ownership. In the early 21st Century, the combined forces of global marketing and automobile travel have moved marketing off the streets. The street vendors that survive in less developed nations are a product of economic adaptation. Millions of urban dwellers came from farms and, unable to find work in traditional sectors like manufacturing or construction, they turn to the informal or street economy as a source of income for survival. Public spaces — streets, plazas, churchyards, and open markets — become the domain of the large, mobile street-vending population south of the border.
In the barrios of the American Southwest, street vending reflects the same kind of innovative response to economic conditions. Those who sell on the streets are simply trying to earn a living in a difficult job market. They adapt their trade to the setting, using innovative equipment and spatial strategies to make their products and services more marketable. It is not uncommon on the streets of El Paso or Tucson or San Diego barrios to find items being sold from shopping carts, makeshift barbecues, aluminum trash cans, wooden crates, Tupperware, a van, spread across a chain-link fence, or on pegboard stands. One study of East Los Angeles vendors identified seven street-vendor prototypes:
• “Los moscos” (the flies), or Central American and Mexican immigrants who gather in groups, peddling their availability as laborers. They usually station themselves on strategic street corners by which potential employers know to cruise if they need workers. Mariachis travel on commercial streets, often near bars, selling their services as musicians. They also find places to congregate (certain street corners) where people know to come to look for their services if they wish to use them for private parties.
• “Asphalt vendors” are those who set up near freeway off-ramps, or on the median strips of major street intersections. Taking advantage of slow-moving vehicles or cars at stop lights, they, like their counterparts in border cities like Tijuana, try to sell everything from bags of peanuts or oranges to flowers and newspapers.
• “Pushcart vendors” roam the streets selling exotic fruit cocktails and other food (tamales, ice cream, etc.). Again, these same kinds of vendors can be seen in Tijuana or Mexicali selling fruit and fish cocktails, shaved-ice drinks, hot dogs, and carne asada.
• “Tent vendors” are usually clever female entrepreneurs who set up enclosed stalls by attaching fabric from poles, buildings, or other means of support. Tent vendors are usually wedged tightly between buildings and fences or other structural supports.
• “Weekend vendors” sell odds and ends, used clothing, household goods, in a sort of Mexican version of a flea market. Vendors work mainly on Saturdays. They make use of fences to hold up items for sale and delineate their selling areas.
• “Auto vendors” sell out of their cars, which they move from location to location, often parking their trucks or vans near key roadside sites and setting up their temporary markets for new items like Mexican ceramics or homemade objects.
• “Roach coaches” are the large food trucks one sees near construction sites and factories in most cities; the food trucks are often custom-built and have become a popular part of the neighborhood landscape.
Similar patterns are found on the streets of San Diego’s Barrio Logan. While the magnitude of the neighborhood dictates a much smaller number of vendors, their range of activities is similar to that of vendors in Los Angeles. The same can be said, with perhaps regional variations in food, for the barrios of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. What is interesting about all these forms of informal commercial activity is the way Mexican-American vendors adapt to social space.
In Barrio Logan, the freeway creates the main public space of the community. Around Chicano Park, one finds food, fruit, ice cream, and clothing vendors, as well as those who sell out of their cars. Many more commodities are offered for sale than in most neighborhoods; street vending is a Mexican (and Latin American) phenomenon, and clever entrepreneurs experiment with what can be sold until they get it right. Chicano and Mexican immigrant sellers are careful to choose the right locations and the proper mechanisms to engage in street vending. They use fences and buildings to delineate their selling space, keeping in mind that, even when shopping, people feel more comfortable in a well-defined consumption space, rather than one that chaotically spills over into public space. Also, many vendors utilize artistic designs in decorating their vans, buses, or cars to attract public attention: crucial in an informal street venture, where advertising in traditional media isn’t possible.
It may also be true that the lively commercial culture of the street found in the barrios of the U.S. Southwest reflects the longing among Mexican immigrants for the public-market culture so dominant in their homeland. Mexican cities are dominated by lively public spaces: plazas, squares, markets, and a vibrant street life. In the more automobile-oriented and suburban American city, this sense of place is lost. Latinos are trying to re-create the sense of plaza and public life they left behind south of the border.
There are a number of other “props” used by Latinos to personalize neighborhood landscapes like Barrio Logan. Gas stations are converted to taco stands. Balconies and front porches on turn-of-the-century homes are vividly personalized with family items ranging from potted plants to furniture, toys, and barbecue equipment. Storefronts are stylishly decorated to the whim of the owner’s taste. In Barrio Logan, many stores around Chicano Park display individual art produced by their owners. These decorations are often cluttered juxtapositions of color and advertising text, in a style that has been called amontonado (literally, stacking).
Mexican-American homes are distinguished by the emphasis on the front yard, or la yarda. Anglo homes typically utilize the front yard in a decorative way that tells outsiders something about the social status of the occupant. The front lawns are neatly mowed, and there may be flowers in the garden beds, but, as landscape writer J.B. Jackson argues, the front yard is often an impersonal space. In San Diego’s barrios, the front yard can be highly personalized, an active space that is decorated for everyday use (fountains, play space for children, etc.). One of the main decorative features of the front yard is religious: the Christian shrine, which can also be traced to the idea of building a shrine for a saint in Spain or colonial Mexico. Yard shrines apparently translate differently in different barrios of the Southwest, from the nichos of Tucson to the capillas of San Antonio to grutas in East Los Angeles. The ultimate function of the yard is that it provide a way for individual residents to connect with the larger community. According to East L.A. city planner James Rojas, “As Mexican immigrants settled in their new homes, the front yard became a very personal expression.… The Mexican brings a new interpretation of the American front yard because many homes in Mexico do not have them.… The front yards reflect Mexican cultural values applied to American suburban form.”
Fences appear to be another kind of landscape element of Mexican-American barrios. Fencing in the front yard makes it a more intimate household space. It can be adorned with flowers, as if it were the interior patio that Mexican immigrants may remember from back home. The act of enclosing and decorating the front yard becomes a way of integrating it with the indoor space of the home. The idea of enclosing the front yard is probably derived from the tradition of the enclosed courtyard or interior patio, which was brought to colonial Mexico by Spanish colonists. This tradition, in turn, can be traced to the architecture of Islamic houses in southern Spain. In the barrios of Tucson, we find evidence of the original Spanish colonial enclosed house in the form of the Sonoran adobe, a walled house with an enclosed patio. After 1900, this form of enclosure was gradually replaced by the fenced front yard, which became dominant in Mexican neighborhoods but not in Anglo ones. The main form of enclosure is the chain-link fence.
A former resident of a National City barrio describes a more creative form of fencing:
- In my old neighborhood there was a man we called the “can man.” In the 1980s, he started building a fence in front of his house out of empty beer cans, soda bottles, and aluminum cans held together with cement. He would place the bottles and cans on their sides, the bottoms facing out towards the street, cementing them together. By strategically placing different colors of bottles in circles, diamonds, and waves, he created patterns in the fence. The project began to grow as he added more elaborate posts and arches. Most amazing was a tower which connected with the house. The house became a neighborhood landmark; for years we used to drive by slowly, checking on the progress, wondering what he was going to do next.
Whereas an Anglo resident would consider that his or her residential space begins at the front door, in the barrio, the home can be said to begin at the front-yard gate. As city planner Rojas notes, “Collectively, the enclosed front yards in the neighborhood create a very intimate atmosphere as opposed to nonenclosed front yards of typical suburbs. The fences along the streets break up the lawn space of each home and the street becomes more urban rather than suburban in character, because the fence reflects a personality of the resident on the street.”
In the end, Mexican-American barrio residential space displays a great deal of vernacular artistry. Latinos customize and personalize homes that would otherwise be indistinguishable from many other residential landscapes in rapidly urbanizing regions of the southwestern United States. In the barrio it has been possible to transform the homes, not so much by remodeling, which would be more expensive, but by transforming the spaces around the homes and the relationship between the home and the surrounding space. The small wooden bungalows are enhanced by the fenced-in personalized yards. But, more than just enclosing the yards, this alteration speaks to the larger issue of the design plan of the house. In Anglo homes, the flow of space moves from front to back, with the most important space being the back patio and back yard. In many barrio homes, the flow of space may be from side entrance to front, and the most important spaces are the front porch and front yard. Once again, in the absence of the traditional interior courtyard, some observers claim that Mexican immigrants use the fence to create the feel of the interior patio in the front yard. The wood-frame houses themselves are rarely altered structurally, but they are often painted in bright and unusual colors. Color can be traced back to the Spanish-Islamic cityscape, where polychromatic tiles embellished palaces and churches in a style called Mudejar. This was eventually passed on to architectural style in colonial Mexico. Of course, indigenous architecture was also noted for its striking color, so that if one believes that cultural practices regarding home and neighborhood design are fused from different influences over time, it would not come as a surprise to find that Mexican-Americans often choose the best paints and brightest colors to adorn homes in the barrio.
There are other ways Chicanos impose their signatures on neighborhood landscapes. Graffiti, or “tagging,” is an outlet for young people to express themselves graphically on the built landscape. The term graffiti was coined by archaeologists in the 18th Century when the ruins of ancient Pompeii were excavated from under volcanic ash. The walls, which had been preserved by the volcanic debris, were covered with personal odes, vulgar jokes, and social criticism that had been spontaneously scratched upon them. Thus the Italian term graffito, or its plural graffiti, was used to refer to scribbling or scratching of rude drawings, casual writing, or social commentary on rocks or walls.
Graffiti are termed placas in the barrio. They typically have a specific purpose: a way for gangs or individuals to express territorial ambition. Gangs use specific tags to mark off space. Public parks or other meeting places are tagged by a local gang to express intended control of turf. The edges of one gang’s turf are also marked off to suggest working boundaries between one gang and another. Tagging areas outside of one’s turf can indicate a form of graphic challenge from one gang to another. Sometimes, one gang’s marker will literally be crossed out to accommodate another gang’s tag. In a culture that places so much emphasis on ownership of property and on control of private space, it should not be surprising to city governments that barrio gangs often mimic the values of the larger society in wanting to control space. Tagging may also be a way to protest and express anger toward the establishment. Graffiti is often spray-painted on public property, including freeway exit signs, stop signs, or storage bins. Severe fines and penalties are assessed when the authors are caught defacing public property.
But, there are also more positive sides to the graffiti phenomenon. Many barrio observers have suggested that graffiti is a way for young people to add color and liveliness to the often impersonal and institutional elements of their neighborhood landscape. The barrio, visually speaking, can be a bleak place, filled with abandoned buildings, rundown storefronts, and factories with blank gray walls. Graffiti is often more than just idle scribble; it is carefully crafted calligraphy from practiced, artistic hands. Many in the barrio feel that programs should be set up to channel this artistry in more positive ways, and in some cities, small social-service projects are doing exactly that, training gang members to become artists and to contribute to the beautification of their neighborhoods.
Perhaps the most striking element of the barrios of the American Southwest, during the past three decades, has been the emergence of art in public spaces in the form of murals. Barrio muralism emerged as part of the larger Chicano movement in the 1960s, which sought to air demands and gradually politicize the barrio. Both muralism and the larger political movement also represented a way of maintaining cultural pride and, more specifically, defending real neighborhoods from the threat of demolition, urban renewal, or deterioration in quality of life brought on by the location of noxious facilities (freeways, stadiums, factories, bridges, etc.). In a sense, barrio muralism was a response to negative impacts of urban development on Mexican-American communities in the 1960s and 1970s.
The emergence of murals on the barrio landscape can also be traced to more general cultural and historic forces. Muralism was an artistic and political vehicle that had emerged after the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917. It became a way to inform and educate Mexico’s basically illiterate rural population of the 1920s about the ideals of a new society and the evils of the past. Postrevolutionary muralism in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s served to build a new consciousness. Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist and avowed Marxist, who became an international celebrity, captured the flaws of his country’s past in murals on some of Mexico’s great public buildings. Rivera was commissioned to create a mural for Rockefeller Center in New York City in the 1930s, but the mural was ordered destroyed by the Rockefellers when they discovered he had included Lenin among the world’s greatest leaders. Other muralists joined Rivera in painting new images on Mexico’s urban landscape, images that challenged and confronted, that promoted a new ideology of workers, peasants, and revolution. For example, José Clemente Orozco created giant caricatures of state, church, bankers, politicians, and the military.
Given this legacy, and the conditions Latinos faced living in the urban Southwest of the United States, in the 1960s the Chicano movement was part of the larger political struggle of ethnic minorities in the United States to achieve a better place in American society. Muralism, as it had in Mexico some four decades earlier, became a vehicle for protesting and airing demands on the daily urban landscape. It was also a way for Latinos to reclaim their place on that landscape.
In California, some 1500 murals were painted on bridges, walls, and buildings. As in the case of Mexican murals, the communication of ideas was as important as the aesthetic qualities of the murals. The murals engage and challenge the viewer. They often tell a profound story, whose subject can range from religion and death to indigenous themes, historic events, celebration of famous people, and memories of scenic landscapes. The murals represent a way for people to beautify what would otherwise be a sterile and depressing landscape, as for example in the painting of murals on the pillars of the Coronado Bridge.
The murals found in San Diego’s Barrio Logan offer a particularly poignant illustration of the connection between public art and politics. After residents of the barrio fought bitterly to prevent the California Highway Patrol from building the substation under the Coronado bridge, the neighborhood won the right to establish Chicano Park. From 1970 to 1973, the idea of embellishing the unsightly columns of the bridge with community murals took shape. The first murals were done during this period, and two artists’ groups formed. Early murals mirrored efforts elsewhere in terms of content: symbols of indigenous culture, references to history and politics, and some graffiti. A special holiday each spring commemorated the founding of Chicano Park. But by 1975, crime in the park had increased, and drug dealers, drunks, and rival gangs fought for turf. A kiosk and second set of murals had appeared by 1978. The murals became much more literal than the early mystical works. In 1980, Chicano Park was declared a historic site by the City of San Diego. The murals had played a vital role in establishing a sense of place and history in the center of the oldest Mexican-American community in San Diego.
The taking back of their urban space through the creation of murals on the cityscape has assisted in achieving recognition of Latinos as a powerful political force in the U.S. Southwest, particularly in the border states of California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. But as many of the images wafting across the barrioscapes make clear, the problems are far from resolved. Air pollution in the ghetto, police brutality, gangs, drug consumption, and unemployment remain deeply imbedded in the barrios. Zoning, a tool created in the 1920s by cities to control land uses, was not used to better organize the barrio until recently. The problems of these neighborhoods may be even more grim than the images conveyed by muralists. No one would argue that the murals themselves offer any solution to the deeper problems. But they represent a way in which the Latino culture has begun to demonstrate that it has pride in its role in the urban scene, some of which consists of territorial pride in the traditional spaces within the city that Chicanos have occupied.
It is understandable that not all Latinos chose to live in the traditional barrios when given the choice. The post-1950 period saw the gradual dispersal of upper- and upper-middle-class Latinos out of the barrio, as they assimilated into the larger urban fabric. While many Mexican-Americans chose to move away from the barrio, they remained loyal to it, dedicating time to help preserve the neighborhoods, fight government insensitivity, or beautify the Latino spaces with parks, community centers, landscaping, and murals. More recently, the barrio landscapes of the Southwest have begun to show the effects of their connection to the global economy. Previously dominated by Mexican immigrants, the Latino barrios of today are filled with Central and South Americans as well. Evidence of their connection with their homeland, both economic and cultural, is illustrated best by the growing commercial landscapes of “transnational services” — legal assistance for foreigners, travel agents, remittance services, and assistance with immigration and naturalization. These activities are splattered across the commercial landscapes of the barrio today.
Many of the barrios continue to suffer severe urban-design problems. Aside from low economic status, barrios, like other ghettos in the United States, have suffered from inadequate or irresponsible urban-planning decisions. Examples include locating noxious facilities such as factories that pollute near barrios, building freeways through them or airports nearby, inadequate open space, inadequate access to mass transit, locating prisons or jails or other negative facilities nearby, too much public housing, traffic congestion, and inadequate transport planning.
The Crisis of the New Exurban Mexican Immigrant Barrios
Long-term settlement of Mexicans in the southwestern United States produced the inner-city barrios described above. These enclaves represented somewhat traditional forms of immigrant adaptation to the urban housing market. Another kind of adaptation has also characterized the landscape of Mexican immigrant settlement on the U.S. side of the border. In this second prototype of community formation, Mexican immigrants responded to the high cost of both rental and owner-occupied housing by seeking nonconventional living spaces, ranging from illegal occupancy of land in undesirable rural and topographically isolated spaces (canyons, riverbeds, etc.) to illegally subdivided lots. In both cases, the settlement experience appears as an extension of the shantytown and squatter experience in urban Mexico, including its northern border towns, and Latin America, where lack of capital forces cityward migrants to squat or illegally occupy undesired lands, build their own makeshift housing, live without basic services, and generally exist in a marginal, undeveloped urban community.
In San Diego and Southern California, the large influx of Mexican immigrant workers in the post-1960 period has put a strain on an already saturated and overpriced housing market. While Southern California is heavily populated, its urban form tends to be low density and dispersed. At the edges of the urbanized region, and in some exurban and suburban areas, lie tracts of agricultural land. It is not surprising that Mexican workers, beginning in the late 1970s, began searching for housing in these less expensive real estate locations. Furthermore, many immigrants working in agricultural or landscaping jobs on the outskirts of the city found it more convenient to reside near their work sites. In northern San Diego County, thousands of Mexicans work for the agricultural industry, as day laborers, landscapers, packers, farmworkers for the strawberry, tomato, and avocado growers, and for large nurseries and flower farms. North County is a vast, complex topographic region with mountainous terrain cut up by canyons and valleys. Housing developments for the affluent snake across the flatland on ridges and mesas. Down below in the flood-prone canyons and riverbeds lie thousands of acres of unusable land.
In these canyons thousands of migrant workers constructed live-in camps on unoccupied land. They set up spontaneous living environments, built from the detritus of their nearby work sites: tents and shelters of plastic, tar paper, cardboard, packing crates, and discarded wood. Clotheslines weave their way through the sites. Tortillas are cooked on the rusty lids taken from discarded 55-gallon drums. Makeshift grills or pots are created from discarded items founded in dumpsters. Most of the campsites, which the migrants call cantones, lack running water or plumbing. Water is carried in from irrigation spigots on nearby farms. There is no electricity.
Aside from the inhuman nature of these camps in terms of health conditions, they are distinguished by a high degree of impermanence and instability. Their architecture is makeshift not only because of the migrant workers’ limited resources, it is also that way because, for many of them, their unresolved legal status in the United States makes it necessary to be prepared to hide from the U.S. Border Patrol or the immigration authorities. Even those workers with legal immigration status exist in a state of uncertainty, since the land they occupy is not legally zoned for residential use and since the living conditions there (lack of running water, plumbing facilities) are usually in violation of county health codes.
These cantones remind one of the way poor city migrants find housing south of the border: they illegally occupy nonresidential land they do not have title to. This leads to a landscape of uncertainty. Housing is built of the cheapest materials. It would not make economic sense to invest in more expensive housing construction materials if the migrants’ fate is eventually to be driven off the land. Even renters usually do not invest in the infrastructure of the spaces they occupy. The difference is that renters are protected by the state and local housing codes that require landlords to maintain certain minimal levels of building safety and hygiene. Such protections do not exist for the Mexican migrants, who are thus forced to occupy ephemeral living spaces in what have been termed “shadowed lives.”
The typical housing types within the migrant camps range from makeshift tents built of plastic tarps and scrap wood to holes dug into the ground and covered with wood. The crawl spaces have been referred to as “spider holes” in the local media, giving the impression metaphorically that the Mexican workers living in the wild are far apart from mainstream “cultured” San Diego, which sleeps in conventional houses or condominiums. Yet, the “spider holes” offer the migrants the possibility of “crawling” away or remaining hidden from the Border Patrol, who often raided these sites during the 1980s. Of course, the “spider holes” are amazingly unpleasant spaces for human shelter, frequently invaded, not by immigration authorities, but by fleas, rats, or snakes.
The migrant worker camps are not unique to San Diego County. Similar living conditions have been found in other parts of California. During the post-1960 period, Mexican migrants who crossed illegally into the United States have been forced to endure unbearably inhumane living conditions because they occupied a bizarre world: one in which their labor was demanded by U.S. employers, but their presence in the United States remained illegal. Thus, the architecture of illegal migrants has been highlighted by instability; unsafe, unpleasant, and inhospitable shelter; and inadequate safety and hygienic conditions. Harassment by public authorities or by the so-called border bandits, criminals who prey upon illegal migrants, has simply added to what has basically been an unpleasant architecture of survival.
In general, the living conditions of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants in the United States have consisted of discrimination, segregation into barrios and migrant camps, and a feeling of disenfranchisement from the larger society. Such living conditions have been reflected in the kinds of spaces Latinos in the Southwest have been forced to occupy. This is not to say, however, that Latinos have not fought back and tried to enhance their living conditions, or even improve the spaces they occupied. The migrant camps of Southern California are distinguished by the ingenuity with which farmworkers were able to build living spaces with limited materials and income.
The long journey of Mexico’s urbanism to the northern frontier of the United States, is, in the end, a complex tale of lost memory and borrowed memory. Nostalgia and marketing may have fueled Anglo use of Mexican themes in designing southwestern U.S. cities in the first part of the 20th Century. But the dominant Mexican demographic presence in the region today, on both sides of the boundary, suggests that a completely different kind of built environment may be possible in the next century.
— Lawrence A. Herzog
This essay is an edited version of an excerpt from a chapter in Herzog’s new book, From Aztec to High Tech: Architecture and Landscape across the Mexico–United States Border (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
Lawrence Herzog, Ph.D., specializes in urban design and planning in Latin America, Mexico, and the U.S.-Mexico border. He is currently a professor at the School of Public Administration and Urban Studies, San Diego State University, California. Herzog is also the author of Where North Meets South (University of Texas Press, 1990).