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    - photo by Veronica G. Cardenas for Las Imaginistas

A crowd gathers around a model made of painted clay buildings, hand-drawn street grids, pieces of yarn, and other chucherias (knick-knacks) depicting a future downtown Brownsville, Texas, and its connection to Matamoros, Mexico. It’s the result of months of dialogues, bike rides, and making workshops led by Las Imaginistas, an art collective. Their project, Hacemos La Ciudad (We Make the City), is a civic reimagining of Brownsville.

Las Imaginistas are Christina Patino, Sukhgian Houle, Nansi Guevara, and Celeste De Luna. They work with residents, city staff, and design professionals using methods that are engaging and intellectually deep. They often work on themes similar to those of city staff and design professionals, but in ways that build more meaningful connections with residents. The Hacemos La Ciudad model is a remarkable product of their work, but the model is only a portion of the inspiring creative project.

Months ago, a small bicycle parade meandered through the Buena Vida neighborhood, just north of downtown. A group of singing kids greeted the parade at a public housing property, where residents were invited to donate small everyday objects that would be used to make the model. A few weeks later, residents showed up for a design charrette, bringing more objects and sharing how their city could be more reflective of them, how things would be different if they were part of decision-making processes. They discussed how the aesthetics and styles of a few prominent residents are more valued than the creative moves made by most of the city’s population — how the culmination of decades of individual decisions have ended up designing a city that makes it hard for people to live, get around, and be healthy.

Las Imaginistas also hosted James Rojas, known for his examination of Latino urbanism, in a design workshop, and held three interactive dialogues that dove deep into fundamental issues of equity in architecture and planning, including examining what decolonization looks like, how capitalism overpowers culture, and how we all intentionally and unintentionally carry on legacies of inequity.

Hacemos La Ciudad encourages residents to make their city by realizing how the built world impacts them and finding ways they can participate in decision-making processes. While the model shows locals the impact of their input, the long-term vision of the project is a more resident-led future. 

Jesse Miller, AIA, is an architect at Megamorphosis in Harlingen. He lives in Brownsville. 

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