Academic journal article Western Folklore

Barrio Gardens: The Arrangement of a Woman's Space

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Barrio Gardens: The Arrangement of a Woman's Space

Article excerpt

The barrio gardens of Tucson are almost gone now, along with the traditional Mexican neighborhoods that sheltered them. Unlike the vibrant, open and very public displays often found in contemporary Mexican-American yards, the barrio garden was a hidden treasure, an oasis of cool, green privacy sheltered by high walls, tucked behind the flat facade of a city street But while these gardens flourished, derived from the cuttings brought by wave after wave of Spanish women settlers and carefully nurtured through generations of Spanish, Mexican, and Hispanic cultures, they stood as leafy green symbols of the connection between the women of New Spain and the ideals and visions of their ancestresses (Goldsmith 1994:140). The traditional southwestern city garden, open to the elements and the earth but shielded from public view, was a particularly female space, the place a woman made for herself with and within her network of family and friends. Here Mexican-American women combine cultural ideas of womanhood, individual expression, and negotiation with a demanding natural world in the creation, arrangement, and use of their own small plot of earth.

THE FORM OF THE BARRIO GARDEN

Traditional Hispanic urban houses, with their plain exterior, conjoined construction, and welcoming zaguan (breezeway) giving a glimpse of the greenery in an enclosed patio, can be found wherever people of Spanish descent settled in large numbers (Arreola 1993:166; Stewart 1974:1). The determination of what defines interior and exterior space is quite different than that in equivalent urban dwellings constructed by Anglo settiers. Rather than situating family living indoors and using yard space to separate each building, barrio houses surround the garden, patio, or yard, incorporating that exterior space into the living area. "Enclosure is a recognized feature of Mexican townscapes. Courtyard or patio housing orients the house inward and results in walled enclosures, often with a building line tight against the street" (Arreola 1988:300-1). The building itself presents a featureless facade to the public eye. The focus of those living in these buildings is turned inward, away from the street. A photograph of the Manuel Amado family "in the backyard of their home" shows a part of the high, enclosing wall which defined their property, made from the same thick adobe bricks as the house (Sheridan 1986:48-9). By shielding the "outdoors" with wings of the house or thick garden walls, the space becomes a private place where women might work, visit, cook, or even pray, without having to contend with the gaze of outsiders.

This type of domestic architecture has its roots in the atrium spaces of the Roman Empire and the segregated housing of the Middle East (Stewart 1974:3; Arreola 1993:166-7). The thick adobe construction created a cool inner courtyard protecting the dwellers within from the heat without. Greenery was an integral part of this type of housing, adding to the inviting nature of the interior patio. But the native vegetation of the desert southwest would not do to ornament the cool patio oasis of this Mediterranean housetype. The fleshy cacti and quick-blooming desert flowers were too alien, too well adapted to the arid landscape to properly create the lush interior gardens associated with these courtyard homes. Familiar plants outside the door were as necessary as the customary furniture and decor in the house. And indeed, evidence suggests that "women coming from Spain and Central Mexico included seeds and cuttings as well as other treasures of civilization in their trunks" (Goldsmith 1994:141). The concept of home included more than just the size, arrangement and use of interior space; it also incorporated the cultivation and arrangement of appropriate vegetation. "No matter where-presidio, rancho or pueblo-Mexicanas carved out a corner, a plot, or even a field to plant their seeds" (Goldsmith 1994:144).

The local flora might provide palatable food or even attractive decoration, but could not encompass the less tangible purposes of the barrio garden. …

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