Decolonizing Public Space to Reflect an Evolving Region

Artist collective Las Imaginistas reimagine public space, advocacy, and urban planning.

Las Imaginistas approach public space as a work of art: we examine its construction in the same way we would an object, performance, or intervention. The construction of public space is a shared series of events that leads to a physical, spatial, and temporal performance that reflects the values of those in power and then provides a structural script, thereby creating the perimeters of identity performance within the given area. Performances can of course be unprecedented or counter to the intentions circumscribed by public space, but the performance of these counternarratives requires more energy and effort than those that are prescribed. Counternarratives exist in opposition to the infrastructure of their containment, so their survival requires more caloric exertion. For example, it is easier to accept the importance of a Confederate leader who has a monument in public space than it is to exist counter to it, to question it, to advocate for its removal, or to simply dislike it. Any action of conscious resistance requires more effort than passive compliance. And the architecture of public space (as encompassed by the built environment, public policy, and the public imaginary or collective consciousness) provides the scripts by which occupants are expected to act.     

It was with these ideas that Las Imaginistas embarked on the project Hacemos La Ciudad (We Make the City). The program engaged residents who were normally excluded (intentionally or through convenience) from planning processes. Throughout the course of yearlong activities, we collaborated with more than 200 Brownsville residents using art engagement strategies to understand their aesthetic visions for reshaping public space. The program necessarily used atypical engagement strategies, as we knew that the tried-and-true pathways for community participation usually feel very plug-and-play to residents. They are typically engaged too late, about too little, and feel like their opinions are instrumentalized as a way to advance pre-existing plans for development.  

A model of Brownsville created by Las Imaginistas in their Hacemos la Ciudad project. Credit: Jesse Miller
A model of Brownsville created by Las Imaginistas in their Hacemos la Ciudad project. Credit: Jesse Miller

Instead, our project (inspired in part by the work of LA-based planner and community activist James Rojas) encouraged residents to do deep dream reflection and embodiment as they imagined a decolonized future for their border town and its articulation of public space. The project invited residents to dance about the future of equitable housing and sing about gender equity. We used strategies of arts-based research to analyze the content produced by participants and then presented the findings both to the public and the City in a series of recommendations for the future.  

The priorities that emerged fell into three main categories:

1. Demilitarization of the region

2. Increased infrastructure to support cultural development, specifically for low-income youth of mixed immigration status, and to support regional understanding of systemic racial oppression

3. Increased public resources, including infrastructure for health, housing, and public parks  

The details of this portrait for a more equitable Brownsville are colored by its position as a border town; however, the broad strokes of our community’s interests align with what nearly all systemically oppressed communities have been advocating for for generations: better infrastructure for equity. 

Cities are unsustainable, and increasingly dangerous systems of oppression. They are organisms that are built to tell the stories of the oppressor and to manage the valves of power imbalance in order to assure that resistance can be controlled. Cities speak their vocabulary of management through public monuments, housing codes, street widths, and racialized, gender-based norms. So how do we manage a transition to more equitable futures when the structure of inequity is encoded into our socio-spatial scripts?

Workshops from Hacemos La Ciudad. Courtesy of Las Imaginistas

Building a sustainable future will require living in alignment with the earth, but it will also require reflection on the colonial histories that provoked unsustainable living in the first place. One of our key findings from Hacemos La Ciudad was that residents felt robbed from an understanding of how colonization and militarization had informed narratives that were built into public space. After one of our events, a participant sat outside quiet and alone. One of our group members approached her and asked if she was OK. She looked at us, nearly crying, and said, “I have lived here my whole life and I never knew these stories. Everyone should know this. I can’t believe what has happened here.” 

The history of the establishment of the US–Mexico border (and of our nation as a whole) is wildly violent and tragic. Yet one can easily go through life without being exposed to these narratives: they are spatial secrets. And their agendas are whispered to us in the infrastructure that remains: the border wall, the towns named after military captains responsible for genocide, the incarceration of humans seeking asylum.  

The future of public space and equity requires spatial healing and atonement. We cannot move forward without spatially acknowledging our past. Instead of asking what public space is or how it can be more successful, we must ask ourselves how our public space is produced and if those are the mechanisms that will best lead us to liberated futures.

Biographies

Las Imaginistas

are a socially engaged art collective working to decolonize public space, liberate the public imagination, and dissolve borders, both real and imaginary. The group—currently consisting of Ruben Garza, Bere Cruz Marquez, and ChristinaMaria Xochitlzihuatl Patiño Houle—is based along the Rio Grande Delta in Estok Gna territory. Las Imaginistas are recipients of the ArtPlace America National Creative Placemaking Award (2018) and A Blade of Grass fellowship (2018). Their project Borders Like Water is supported through the Race Forward Immigrant Butterfly Lab (2020) and a NALAC Catalyst for Change Racial Justice (2020) grant. The group’s writings have been featured as part of the Ford Foundation’s Creative Futures initiative and in Shelterforce, and they have been covered in Public Art Review and Alan Nakagawa’s VISITINGS podcast. They have presented widely on their work at creative placemaking and urban planning conferences.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.