A lot can happen in the space of a front porch, and for many Latino-Americans it is even the epicenter of life in their communities. This second guest article by James Rojas details more of his pioneering research on Latino Placemaking demonstrating the informal creativity, common sense, and personal expression that is often missing from Placemaking in American culture. Building on this research, James’ tireless work in communities is powerfully bringing out these qualities in everyone he meets.
In many American homes of today the use and importance of the front porch have declined. However, this trend does not ring true across all contemporary cultural lines. For Latino-American homeowners and renters the front porch is most often seen as a spatial asset and is fully utilized. Because of the relatively mild climates found in Latin America, and due to a Spanish colonial-historical precedent that has favored a courtyard model of development, the use of outdoor space as part of the home is now commonplace within many Latino-American households. Or, otherwise put, the use of and desire for outside space through the front porch comes naturally to Latinos.
The front porch mimics the courtyard and transitional indoor-outdoor spaces found in many a Mexican and Latin-American home, where patios and laundry rooms are most often located in open air portions of the house’s floor plan. The circulation of air and the flood of sunlight from these outdoor rooms connect the Latin American home to the surrounding environment. In Latino-American homes porches act as stand-ins for these open-air spaces.
In many cases the front porch is the most prominently spatial element of the home because it is located on the front façade and usually in the center of it. As such front porches have a strong social connection between private and public space. The front porch is where Latinos become civic-minded and bond with their neighbors.
From the porch residents will observe what is happening out on the street, celebrate religious events, and socialize with family and friends passing by. It is where senior citizens sit to watch the world go by, where teenagers wait for something to happen, where a mother will sit to watch her children play in the front yard, where a man might meet his friends after work, and sometimes a place where people give haircuts!
It’s where the house puts its best face forward and becomes a place for civic and religious pride. During the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, shrines to the Virgin Mary are temporarily erected or expanded in front porches with statues, pictures, and red white and green ribbons and flowers. During the Christmas season, many residents build large, elaborate nativity scenes on the front porch.
The front porch is often decorated and re-designed to reflect various uses such as additional storage space, as a place to sell services and goods, a place for toddlers to play, and for family celebrations. Residents place sofas, chairs, and tables on porches to reinforce their role as a social space.
Porches reconfigure, enlarge and add on to the existing home to meet a variety of needs. Decorative and functional items such as potted plants, birdcages, storage containers, and shrines reinforce their iconic importance. If the home is built on slab construction or low to the ground, these props sometimes extend out into the lawn, re-enforcing the flow of space to the fence and street. The Latino front porch becomes a cultural reference point designed with icons from Latin American architecture such as arches, tiles, stucco, brick, and wrought-iron railing and lighting fixtures.
There are a few front porch typologies depending on when the single-family home was built. The older Victorian homes and a few of the California Bungalow types typically contain a sizable front porch that extends the width of the front of the house. The owner of the home does not have to enlarge it but will often swap out pre-existing wood banisters, create arches, and replace columns with wrought iron. The second typology front porch is a side porch, where half the front of the house is porch while the other half is house. The owner typically does not enlarge the porch but rather simply changes its appearance. The last typology is when there is no or a small front porch that is enlarged extensively with the most dramatic physical changes to the house. Many of these small porches are at the front and center of the house and serve simply as an entryway into the home. The porch usually has two columns that hold it up on either side. The owner desiring increased porch space thus has to make multiple structural changes to the house to enlarge this type of porch. Many times there is a resulting awkward break in the roof line that creates a unique form.
The front porch is where the Latinos express their cultural identity through use, design, and celebration especially in areas of US Southwest. These makes the Latino front porch an enduring and salient space in the American urban and suburban landscape.