"Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia, y si no la salvo a ella no me salvo yo."
(tr. "I am myself and my circumstances, and if I do not rescue my circumstances, I do not rescue myself.”)
Jose Ortega y Gasset
While I am not an immigrant, the immigrant experience was the matrix of my worldview. I grew up in a primarily Latino, Mexican/Chicano community in California close to the San Ysidro International Border with Tijuana, Mexico. My maternal grandparents were both born in West-Central Mexico and moved individually to the Mexican state of Baja California. They met and married in Tijuana and had eight children; half were born on one side of the border and the other half on the other, all within a ten-mile radius. They immigrated to the United States of America when my mom, the oldest, was still a little girl. Growing up, we would go back and forth across the border to eat, shop, and visit family. At that point, the border seemed to be not so much a dividing line but a suture that held two disparate cultures tightly together. And this was common for many in that area, whose lives embodied the various registers of the immigrant process and where familial ties contemporaneously played out on both sides of la frontera.
The immigrant experience, with all its inherent contradiction and complexity, is predicated on acculturation. A gradient of identity is formed by the seemingly simple translation 'from there to here.' This movement can engender a kind of perpetual displacement—a bereavement of rightful place. And this is a pathos that can activate the immigrant experience and how it propagates transgenerationally. Wherein the selfless desire of a parent to create a new and better life for their children ultimately leads to what has come to be known, in some circles, as "first-generation trauma." The bitter irony of how the children of immigrants can become trapped in this liminal space between nations and cultures, between their parent's past and the promise of their own future, simultaneously divided from their ancestral homeland and the country of their birth. For example, a child can be considered not 'Mexican enough' in Mexico. While in the United States, they are too Mexican to be considered a part of the 'real' America. Inevitably, this will all hit home one day. When someone angrily demands of them, "why don't you go back to your own country?" Seemingly unaware of the sad reality that the person they are asking this of might not have ever set foot in this aforementioned country, let alone have any claim to a place there. You might be asking yourself, but what does this have to do with architecture?
Architecture is part and parcel of any given national culture. For example, Japanese or Italian architecture indicates something definite and easily understood. But what does American architecture call to mind? What kind of structure is signified? Since the immigrant experience is a fundamental aspect of the American experience, as President John F. Kennedy said, "we are a nation of immigrants," it logically follows that American architecture should have been a sort of 'immigrant architecture.' And as this new kind of nation was formed, a new kind of architecture should also have been formed. In so far that this nation's new and unique possibility was a function of immigration, the same should have been true of American architecture. It should have been something far different from any previous style or movement that had existed. But American architecture categorically was not--is not-- that, which is lamentable. The Euro-Americanism that dominates the built environment does not speak to this nation's amazingly rich cultural diversity, which is one of our greatest strengths. It does not speak to the agency of an immigrant but the hegemony of the colonist; it is the architecture of settler colonialism that surrounds us. As I teach my high school students in Trenton, New Jersey, the Georgian Revival architecture they see around them is not neutral or picturesque; it represents the success of a program of eradication and replacement. What new architectural style could have grown in this fecund soil if only it had been allowed to do so? Or, at the very least, what could have been if America's vibrant and advanced, autochthonous architectural culture had been recognized and integrated into the colonial building project? But it does not figure into our built environment at all. And why not? Why can a talud-tablero style motif not find a place on the facade of a school or a state building, for example? Does it not have more of a rightful claim to a place there instead of a Tuscan column? Our cities do not really represent their citizens anymore, but this should change. After all, as the French philosopher Auguste Comte has said, "demography is destiny." I believe in the possibility of a new Immigrant Architecture, an American architecture proper, a space needs to be marked out for it in advance. And this new style of architecture cannot be divorced from the lived experience of immigrants; in fact, it will be centered on it.
I had an unconventional and oblique path toward architecture. I didn't consider it as a career until I was in my mid-twenties. The only thing I thought I knew about being an architect was that you had to be very good at math, which precluded me instantly. I had no interest in math. In point of fact, I had no interest in school at all. I had a rough time during my teenage years and definitely did not excel in high school. The thing I loved was art. I did not even really plan on going to college. By chance, I met someone who told me about this art school in Los Angeles, Calarts. You didn't need an SAT score or a particular GPA-- all you needed to apply was a portfolio. I had a lot of drawings and paintings. I was twenty-one when I started art school there, and it was the first time I had lived outside of the area where I grew up. I found myself in an exurb north of the San Fernando Valley. One day during a critique in my third year there, someone offhandedly mentioned the book "Learning From Las Vegas" by Robert Venturi. And once I read it, as well as "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," it was as if my eyes could finally see the world that had always surrounded me. Everything suddenly expressed novel intentionality; a new level of meaning became accessible. I now understood that design had formed almost everything around me, and I began to be able to develop a more critical understanding of my surroundings. There was a reason why certain things existed back home but not here. And something that instantly stood out to me in this new environment was the lack of 'taco shops,' these family-owned Mexican American fast-food places are ubiquitous in the neighborhood where I grew up. There were so many; sometimes, there would be one every couple of blocks or two right across the street from each other. In some, there was always a line no matter what hour of day or night you went; others remained perpetually empty. And they always stayed in business somehow, leading to rumors that they were actually money-laundering operations for the cartels headquartered not far from where they stood, on the other side of the border. Obviously, I missed the food, but there was something more that I missed. I came to see they were signs of local entrepreneurship, economic agency, and even the American dream itself. It was as if these taco shops were the immigrant experience itself rendered in glass, concrete, and once brightly colored render. These were establishments owned by immigrants, where immigrant employees served an immigrant clientele in an immigrant community. Their very being constituted a kind of ad hoc immigrant architecture. You could get a taco made of brains or tongue or a burrito filled with French fries and carne asada. The quotidian and pedestrian nature of the buildings themselves was appealing to me. They were what they were, and they were ordinary and ugly, straight out of "Gods Own Junkyard." One interesting architectural aspect of these taco shops is how in some of them, the previous life of the building remained present in how it assumed the form of an earlier establishment. Like a taco shop whose building is wagon shaped, because it originally was an Arby's fast-food restaurant and thusly retained its branded architectural form. And this becomes an oblique indication of the process of immigration in and of itself and the community's changing demographics—a concrete representation of a kind of architecture of replacement.
In 2006 with my newfound understanding of the built environment—and the minimal knowledge of architecture that I held at the time; I created an artwork called "The Taco Shops of Chula Vista." A few years later, an art center in South Central Los Angeles exhibited the project. The work of the German artists Berndt and Hilla Becher and their series of documentary photographs of i ndustrial architecture inspired my project. It also referenced Ed Ruscha's work, "Every Building on the Sunset Strip," from 1966. A set-builder in the Theater school at CalArts helped me create 3d models of these buildings from my childhood. The work consisted of monochromatic perspective views of the models; they were isolated from their local context and lined up next to each other in a row. They had no materials or textures and were stripped of any signage to accentuate their rough architectonic form. This project indicates my entrance into architecture. I was invested in architecture's relationship to, and construction of, identity from the beginning. And the ways in which the architect's broad personal narrative can inform the architecture they create. And there is a direct line from this art project to my interest in becoming an architect; I began studying architecture at Princeton a few years later.
More than fifty years ago, Venturi proclaimed the certainty of an architecture that was "...based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience...." and his interest in the "…hybrid, rather than the pure." And although these specific words and language might have meant something different to him than to me, one token of identity, namely class, certainly informed his critique of Modernism. And all this time later, I imagine his statements as capacious enough to include nationality, race, and ethnicity as well. And I firmly echo his call for an architecture that "…has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less." The built environment, and subsequently architecture practice, need to accommodate more viewpoints and diverse voices. We need more narratives, other narratives. And thankfully, our society and profession have changed, and continue to change, to accommodate the polyvalent lived experience of those that were historically excluded, and precluded, from practice. It is this 'difficult unity' that speaks to the promise of a new immigrant architecture that can represent the "messy vitality" of the American experiment. It is what always should have been. That is to say, a style or movement that amalgamates the cultural influences of various cultures that constitute our society. Integration is a better model than assimilation.
For the last few years, I have taught architecture to high school students through Princeton ArcPrep, and it has been my absolute privilege. This is a program that was created by the Dean of the Princeton University School of Architecture, Mónica Ponce de León. Our goal is to help diversify the field of architecture by introducing students from historically underrepresented groups to what architecture is and for them to learn what architects do. The overwhelming majority of my students are either immigrants or first-generation (second-generation) Americans; most of them are from Latin America. My greatest wish is that some of these kids will find their passion for architecture, much sooner than I did. And that they will go to school and study architecture and one day enter professional practice, much smoother than I did. And these students give me hope for the future of American architecture and the built environment to come, and that they will be able to contribute their unique potential to build a different world. I instill in these students that whatever they design, whatever they make, is enriched by who they are. The specificity of their experience is what will make their work special. They can reference Classical Antiquity, Palladio, Le Corbusier, and Mies but they also have the authority to include elements of their Ghanian, Nigerian, Guatemalan, Salvadorian, and Dominican, to name a few, cultures. I take them walking around downtown Trenton—towards the State Capital Building, and they see a unitary notion of identity that only can assert itself at the expense of everything else. It imposes itself on them; it alienates them. Architecture is the story that a society wants to tell about itself. What is the story that we want to tell going forward? For far too long, we have told a story of conquest, manifest destiny, the practice of settler colonialism, and the theory of White supremacy that enables it. This was the true sad story of our past and should never be forgotten. But it does not need to be the story of our future as a society. This Eurocentric story will inevitably have a different meaning in a minority white country. And it needs to be replaced with something new that speaks to what America has become, or has finally been allowed to be, the nation of immigrants it has always been. And while there is no question that immigrants built this country, and their exploitation in the construction industry continues to this day, it remains to be seen what role immigrants can and will play in designing its future.