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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Grupo Motivos: Creating Latino Heritage in Philadelphia’s Landscape and in the Archives of American Gardens

Las Parcelas, Philadelphia, PA pictured here in 1995.
Ira Beckhoff, photographer.
Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens
In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), the Archives of American Gardens has decided to highlight a garden located in the Norris Square neighborhood of Philadelphia where brushes and paint, rather than shovels and seeds, were the tools used to start a community garden.  Plans began in the 1980s, yet it was not until a summer day in 1992 that a “massive multi-agency, anti-drug raid” in “The Badlands” (so called because of the area’s reputation for drugs and violence) enabled this vision of a revitalized urban space to begin. That same day vacant lots were cleared of debris and a mural started. The “colors and spirit of Puerto Rico” were used as “a way to provoke the neighborhood people to see something other than drugs and trash.” Las Parcelas was born.

A Spanish term literally meaning “the parcels,” Las Parcelas is a collection of garden spaces, maintained by women in a dedicated neighborhood organization, Grupo Motivos, in collaboration with the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society's  Philadelphia Green. More than community garden plots, however, Las Parcelas is akin to a museum. It tells a story of Puerto Rican heritage as a part of American history, materialized in Philadelphia’s urban landscape through culture and horticulture. Economic decline and urban policies created a landscape seemingly devoid of nature and culture, and rife with racial tensions. Through gardening, Las Parcelas attempts to make a positive story of heritage and identity tangible,  by displaying culture in a landscape where it was all too frequently made invisible.

As seen in the images above, vibrant murals recall the landscape and labor of Puerto Rico, honor community leaders and commemorate the passing of traditions on to a younger generation. Masks and designs on benches explore the African heritage that became rooted in Puerto Rico along with native Taino and introduced European cultures.  Inside “La Casita” (pictured below) objects donated by older residents are used as educational tools. As Iris Brown, a coordinator of Grupo Motivos, describes the garden’s ideals, “it’s a good way to show our culture and background to younger generations and non-Puerto Ricans.  Through the casita and the gardens we say, ‘here’s where we are now, but here’s where we’ve been.  This is who we are.”  Moreover, as an intergenerational community space designed with areas for gatherings, cookouts, dancing, and crafts, it is also a place to invent new traditions for the future.

Using overlapping ideas of culture, identity, heritage and environmental education, Las Parcelas captures themes common in garden history, combining them to create a unique sense of place rooted in Puerto Rican experiences.  Doing this also raises new questions. For example, what does it mean for a garden to be a community garden? How are these community gathering spaces different from the public parks and squares that came before them? How do we interpret these creations as a part of a larger garden history?

At the Archives of American Gardens, Las Parcelas represents the importance of maintaining diverse archives. Capturing Latino heritage at the Smithsonian Institution provides scholars and the public with materials that can spark new questions and interpretations of the past, to tell stories that can guide us in the future. 

“La Casita” (the little house" at Las Parcelas community gardens is reminiscent of housing in pre-WWII Puerto Rico. It is used as an educational space within the garden to teach youth who take part in Norris Square Neighborhood Association programs. Ann Reed, photographer, 2007.
Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens

Joe Cialdella, 2010 Summer Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

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