Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mexican Gardens in California: a Cultural Manifestation

Mexican front yard in Arcadia. The tall native species are covering the front window. Personal archives

Gardens could be compared to architectural designs. They contain ideas, they are expressive creations, they show man’s reflections. The difference between architecture and garden has ambiguous connotations. If the garden is not created for a human necessity, the garden is what the developer/designer proposed, it is closer to Art. But some gardens have an anthropological dimension, -though many authors defend the aesthetics-, they are expressions of culture. In this sense, the garden satisfies necessities; then, it would be closer to architecture.

Man accesses to this relationship between environment and culture by means of perception. This process involves comprehension and utilization of the information given in different responses to landscape; in this situation, man launches two kinds of mental activities: description of properties, which objective is to understand the situation focusing on the determination of properties and landscape components; predictive activity of experiences in which man could evaluate the degree in which landscape satisfies his necessities, in consequence he could plan his decisions about it. (Corraliza, 1993).
Some characteristics in landscape perception are shared with the social group. That is why criteria in perception could be different between users of this landscape and whoever plans and designs it. Designers should take into account which components have psychological attraction, or are embedded of symbolism and historicity.

An elaborated Mexican landscape design in the front yard. Personal archives.

This example is what anybody would call a “Mexican garden design”. I took the picture in Los Angeles county, but the neighborhood was far from being a Mexican one. Here, the designer is representing the Mexican culture, but this nice garden in itself is not an expression but a mimic of Mexican culture.
The real Mexican garden I have seen in California differs from this one. The term in Spanish is “jardín¨, but Chicanos and Mexicans call it ¨yarda¨, that is a modification of the original English term ¨yard¨. The yardas are full of religiosity and memories, they express the high sensibility that emerges unconsciously from the family´s beliefs. Religious practices are integrated into daily life, because the rural nature of many Mexican communities experienced that often the priest was absent, so folk religious practices were developed inside the houses.

The Virgin Mary in the front yard, Los Angeles. Personal archives.

Backyard with folk Mexican art. Personal archives.

A shrine of the Virgin Mary in Her acception as Virgen de Guadalupe could be displayed in a corner or somewhere against the perimetral walls. Sometimes, the shrine is covered by garlands and vines with beautiful flowers. Folk art participates in the garden, usually in pots that are like ¨misplaced objects¨ reinforcing the family´s memories: painted cans, kitchen pots, tires, etc.
Another religious manifestation is the Altar del Día de los Muertos built in November; this type of altar has ancestral Aztec roots and is built in commemoration of the family´s dead. The grass in the back yard will not be the typical American houses´ lawn, instead of the tiny grass or ground cover, it is the cut lot´s wild grass or hard packed dirt without weeds; the soccer games and family parties are the priority, followed by the hanging of clothes. The front yard is always an exception, as any neighbour could denunciate to the City Hall that the landscape is messy and not consistent with the rest of the neighbourhood front yards. Chicanos tend to block the windows, in their preference for tall native species surrounding the house. Sometimes the species spread too much, covering the yard. This recurrent arrangement is the same one as the interior décor.

The hanging clothes is a recurrent habit in many Mexican backyards. In my country, our cultural habit -at least in the cities- is to hang the clothes but hidden as much as possible, preferably in a terrace with no view to the street. Personal archives.

The species selected are mainly native species, and the chili plant is never absent. Emphasis is on visual perception, but in the Mexican garden the five senses intervene. Looking at a plant of chili, a Mexican man told me ¨I see it and it makes my mouth water¨ (¨la veo y se me hace agua la boca¨), expression that sounded very interesting to me, the simple plant was awakening senses. Another plants are selected on the basis of healing primitive principles. When the Spanish conquistadores came to Mexico in the XVI century, they destroyed the Aztec gardens and the priests´ investigations, as the Catholic Church considered them blasphemous. Although the written knowledge was destroyed, the plant wisdom was kept in the collective memory.
All landscapes, natural or artificial create an aesthetic impression which gives us a reflection of the manmade in a certain period. Though conceptual categories for some researchers may not include the word “garden” for some remaining spaces, the Chicano gardens are created for social interaction and in most of cases, given its religiosity, for myth-making. They are a cultural transition between architecture and landscape.
As the United States increasing number of immigrants grow, the study of vernacular gardens as cultural manifestations where humans interact, should be deepened and classified, since changes in the society are thought to produce changes in the landscape and urban manifestations.

Castro, Rafaela. Chicano folklore: a guide to the folktales, traditions, rituals, and religious practices of Mexican Americans. Oxford University Press.2000
Drexler, Dora. Landscape Perceptions – The Symbolic Meaning of Landscape and its Role in Mental Wellbeing
Muñoz-Pedreros, Andrés; Moncada Herrera, Juan; Larrain, Alberto. Variación de la percepción del recurso paisaje en el sur de Chile (Variation of the perception of the landscape resource in Southern Chile). Revista chilena de historia natural. Santiago, 2000
Nazarea, Virginia D. A Map of her Own: Accessing the Imagined, Imagining the Unaccessed.
Palmer, James. Research Agenda for Landscape Perception

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