For centuries, the only notable architectural landmarks as people travelled through the villages of Mexico were the gleaming churches, lording it over the squat houses that surrounded them. These days, the houses in the churches’ shadows are mostly made of cinder-block. They are sparsely painted, and have a defeatist look: steel rebar used in construction sprouts out of the roof (often with empty Coke bottles inverted on top to prevent rusting), a sign that one day the owners dream of having enough money to add on another storey. They rarely do.
In recent years, though, a new kind of building has emerged sporadically among the maize milpas. These are the finished article; altogether more brash, playful and non-conformist – a challenge to the churches they sometimes upstage. They are houses several storeys high, with columns, towers, false gables, cylindrical bay windows, courtyard statues and, occasionally, a rainbow of colours. Some are in the style of American McMansions; others are faux-Disney palaces; one or two resemble spacecraft crash-landed on earth. They are usually unoccupied, giving them an otherworldly air, which is apt because they do come from another world. They are found in areas of mass migration, and are often built by Norteños, or migrants who left the village years before to travel to America.
Adam Wiseman, a photographer, has documented the phenomenon, which he calls “free architecture” because it is not confined by the usual aesthetic tastes, nor is it constrained by the dead hand of the property market. The houses he photographs are not meant to be bought and sold. They may never even be lived in. But they are free in a personal sense, too. They represent a migrant’s dream come true. When people leave the pueblo, they sacrifice a community and a sense of belonging for a dangerous life in the shadows, without papers, and without support, in an alien environment. They have to build their own ties, and use their own wits, to survive. For years, they feel like outlaws, lost in a netherworld of hard work and cramped accommodation, their main connection to family and friends back home a nebulous stream of remittances every week, month or year.
But some make good, and among those that do, building a house, mansion or palace back home can mean becoming no longer neither here nor there, but both here and there – a person literally unconstrained by borders. It allows them to give something concrete back, via a big house-building project, to those they left behind, while also yelling, gringo-style, from the rooftops: “We made it, suckers!” As free agents, they build freely, mixing and matching styles they may have seen across the American landscape – or even worked on as bricklayers or landscapers. Critics may call these houses a pastiche. Wiseman portrays them as a personal statement. They are a tribute to man’s ability to dream of a better life.
For most of the last century, that dream has pulled Mexicans north – and brought them back home again, with new tastes and styles. In her book “The Remittance Landscape”, Sarah Lynn Lopez, an American historian, writes of how migrants in the 1920s and 1930s brought back wristwatches from America, introducing a stronger sense of time to villagers who had previously had only the church bells to guide them. Later came the motor car, which meant new roads and a new rhythm of life. Migrants also support schools and other public spaces.
Yet like most dreams, they lose something in the telling. Occasionally the carefully wrought design of the houses is let down by less sophisticated building practices in Mexico. Graffiti is a scourge. Left abandoned, the houses go to seed. Sometimes, the attempt to establish a physical presence in the pueblos they left behind only serves to emphasise the psychological distance the migrants have travelled – and how hard it is to go back in time. They often left home as adolescents. Their very act of departure may have changed the nature of the village, fostering other youngsters to head north, creating a sense of abandonment. The migrants may have picked up American values, which they want to bring back to Mexico. That can cause resentment.
Be that as it may, these beguiling houses tell a story of the current reality of Mexican village life almost as evocatively as the majestic churches have done in the past. Once these villages were communal, bound by the ebb and flow of the seasons, inward-looking and god-fearing. Now they are part of the wider world, with clashes of culture, individualism and conservatism, of style and taste. It’s a strange-looking place, but it comes with a sense of humour – and a sense of adventure. It’s still under construction.
Los Reyes Metzontla, Tehuacán, Puebla
This pastel-coloured house, surrounded by a forest of Saguaro cacti in the desert of southwestern Mexico, is eight hours’ drive from the capital. It is in the state of Puebla, close to the border with Oaxaca, an arid area from which extremely poor people have traditionally flocked to America to find work. It has a feeling of the fiesta about it: it resembles a cake from the local pasteleria, it has mischievous flourishes in the windows, and it reflects the bright blue sky. The story behind it is unknown. It stands alone and no one answered Wiseman’s call.
San Miguel La Labor/San Felipe del Progreso, Estado de Mexico
Often it is the sheer incongruity of the buildings that gives the impression of freedom. Mexican villages are full of squat, rectangle homes, with a few windows. This one is like an uptown block of flats, with so many windows (and no curtains) it must blaze with light and heat. They look out on the fertile land of the State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City. Two aspects of the house are truly Mexican. It is unpainted, with exposed brick and cement. It also has an unsightly black water tank on the roof from which a hose hangs down.
San Miguel La Labor/San Felipe del Progreso, Estado de Mexico
This castle, standing under a Mexican flag, probably pre-dates “Game of Thrones”. Otherwise it would have high walls, rather than steel shutters. But it has found a lucrative way to offset the baronial cost by opening the ground floor for business: renting out sound systems, it appears. The Volkswagen Beetle is a nice touch. VW stopped manufacturing the modern “Bug” in Mexico only this year.
San Pedro Techuchulco, State of Mexico
Another castle, this one with high walls but no windows. Wiseman returned to the house two years after first taking photos of it, and building work had not progressed at all. It is not unusual for houses to take many years to build, because the remittances stop, the owner fails to visit, or the builders give up. That doesn’t mean they will not be finished eventually. There is no stigma in Mexico in leaving an unfinished home.
Pinal de Amoles Queretaro
This house, in the mountains in Mexico’s tropical La Huasteca region from where many Mexicans emigrate, exhibits many of the features of the “remittance” genre. It has curved, polarised windows, which are rare in Mexico. It also has three shop fronts on the ground floor, which will help provide the owners and their family with a decent livelihood when they return.
Ajusco, Mexico City
In the foothills of the mountains surrounding the capital, this building is an example of function rather than form. This house is no architectural triumph. But new floors are added on as the remittances flow in.
La Magdalena Tlaltelulco, Tlaxcala
This area is not only famous for migration to the east coast of America. It is also infamous as a hub of people trafficking for the sex trade. This house’s ostentatiousness is common in the area; such properties function more like advertisements of status than architecture. But it is dangerous photographing them. Wiseman was spotted taking photos from his car window by men with walkie-talkies. He drove away fast.
Wiseman describes this as the “Christmas House”. Though he photographed it during blazing heat in February, it still had a Christmas tree on display in the pink tower, as well as a snowman on the balcony. The internet café below helps pay for it. The cars suggest that maybe the migrants have come home.