Philadelphia Latinos connect with Caribbean roots through ornate porch gates

Engracia Rodríguez painted her porch three years ago, and it still looks bright. The vibrant lilac she selected for its cement walls stands out against the white balustrades and iron grids that enclose her rowhouse’s entrance on North Front Street in Fairhill.

When Rodríguez, 65, bought the house more than 20 years ago, there was no front porch. She added the extended fencing, the deep purple patio tile, and the sloping awning, and connected the new features with curved iron bars. Rodríguez calls this area her balcón (Spanish for “balcony”). The space is a portal to the home, but also to nostalgia.

“As years passed by, the people where I used to live progressed, and they started building their houses with cement and with a balcón,” she said in Spanish. Rodríguez, a musician, designed her balcón to match her family’s porch in Salinas, Puerto Rico, which she shared with 13 siblings. “I don’t regret building it because sometimes, when you want something, with time and effort, comes a time when you can have it.”

Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
In Latino enclaves in North Philadelphia, such as on Allegheny near Second, it is common to see intricate ironwork adorning rowhouse porches.

Balcón is one of many names used for these design features. Whether you call the overall space a balcony or a porch (galería in Spanish), or refer to the wrought-iron gates in particular as cobertizos or rejas, these living spaces offer a Philly remix to cultural and architectural heritage that’s singular to the Latino Caribbean diaspora.

The front of a rowhouse has long been a space that Philadelphians used for lazing and lounging. Step-sitting is one iteration; sliding into a chair on a front porch is another.

>>READ MORE: See more of our coverage on Philly stoops

Rowhouses are “the perfect canvas to do what you want inside of your space,” said Ariel Vázquez, acting project architect at Blackney Hayes in Philadelphia.

Custom rehabs often reflect ancestry, said Vázquez, who sees hints of heritage in exterior color choices or permastone selection. Vázquez, who has researched Philly galerías, describes them as residents’ attempts to re-create “what home looked like for them.” He estimates that the popularity of these rejas swelled in North Philadelphia during the ’70s and early ’80s.

Census estimates suggest that nearly 215,000 Latinos live in Philadelphia. More than six out of 10 are Puerto Rican; three-quarters are of Caribbean origins.

Philadelphia’s Latino Population

The city’s Latino community is most prominent in the Lower Northeast, especially in Juniata Park, Fairhill, and Kensington. Click on the map for details on Latino Caribbean countries of origin.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau; 2012-16 American Community Survey
Staff Graphic

James Rojas, an urban planner and researcher based in Los Angeles, argued in an essay that “the use and importance” of the front porch has faded for many Americans, but not for Latinos. In Spanish home design, the prominence of courtyards, patios, and florid gate designs has been passed down for centuries, Vázquez said. In his research, he pinpointed the origins of these styles to the eighth-century Moorish conquest. Whether in the south of Spain or in the Greater Antilles, a home dweller could expect a front porch to be a cooler area in the house, which made it an easy gathering point.

Josue Cruz, 25, said his parents had white gates installed on their family home in Harrowgate shortly after they moved in nine years ago. Cruz sat on the front step, next to their painted blue permastone fence, as a huddle of relatives concentrated on dominoes. Security was the first priority, he said, and with the gates, the porch could be more peaceful and relaxing.

When night falls, games don’t have to stop, Cruz said: “Just lock the gate, and you don’t even got to worry about it.”

Residents expressed concern about crime in the area; some mentioned drug activity in particular. Fairhill and Kensington register the highest drug-crime rates in the city.

Cobertizos may serve several uses at once. Warren James, an architect and curator based in New York, said a gated porch offered protection but still let the breeze in. It functions as “this intermediate space between the private home and the public sidewalk,” he said.

Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
María Pacheco (left) and her sister, María Torres, share what they call “Golden Girl” moments on their porch. In Latino enclaves in North Philadelphia, it is common to see intricate ironwork adorning rowhouse porches.

Many residents with rejas fill their patio spaces with chairs, tables, hammocks or wind chimes. Some porches welcome plants and resemble solariums. Parents may sit in a galería’s shade, with the ability to keep watch of their children

María Torres, 70, was advertising a yard sale on her sister’s balcón in Fairhill. Her sister, María Pacheco, 78, has her porch painted in clean gray and white. When Pacheco first moved in 25 years ago, there were rejas, but those were more plain than the black pear-shaped rails that her husband would eventually install. Pacheco appreciates the control the rejas give her over visitors. When there isn’t a heatwave, the sisters like to sit outside and banter.

“Like The Golden Girls, OK?” Torres said.

The gates remind James of suburban developments in Ponce, Puerto Rico, but speak to a predilection for wrought iron that he’s observed in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and New Orleans. James considers them cultural expressions, commissioned and designed without an architect’s touch, but rather in step with the tastes of communities. Philly’s cobertizos carry a message, James said: “This is where we are, and this is where we make our presence visible.”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Nahum Juarez (center) talks with his son Nahum III (left) and Cesar Quezava as they work inside the shop, Philly Custom Metal Fab.

Nahum Juarez, 36, the owner of Philly Custom Metal Fab, crafts seven or eight porch gates in his Ludlow workshop. Each order requires tedious measurements to fit the house perfectly. The process, from measuring, to grinding, to priming, to installing, may take four to five weeks.

“That’s why every job is custom,” Juarez said. “Every job is different.”

Window guards and porch gates were “the bread and butter” of his business several years ago, when he had a shop in Camden. Following local law enforcement reforms, crime dropped in Camden. By 2014, Juarez received fewer orders. The downward trend inspired him to set up shop in Philly.

Juarez learned welding from his father, who still runs a workshop in General Felipe Ángeles, the town in the state of Puebla, Mexico, where Juarez grew up. In Puebla, Juarez said, customers were more likely to order doors and fences. In Philly and Camden, he’s noticed that when homeowners think primarily of security, they often opt for straight bars with little ornamentation.

“But a lot of the people say, ‘We don’t want it to look like a jail,’” Juarez said. “‘We want it to look nice.’”

For those aesthetically minded customers, the Philly Custom Metal Fab team crafts what it calls “a belly,” giving the steel teardrop curves. Juarez works alongside a crew of three, including Herbert Patricio, a metalsmith/designer from Curitiba, Brazil. For a basic porch gate, the firm might charge $2,500. For bellies, the price goes up to $4,000.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Herbert Patricio drills a hole in a metal plate at Philly Custom Metal Fab in Philadelphia.

The house in Fairhill where Daniela Herrera Sarduy grew up had gates before her family arrived 12 years ago. Herrera Sarduy, 20, said the family turns to the porch to drink coffee and have a smoke during the evening.

“Here is the space where we would be outside and breathe fresh air,” she added, speaking at times in English and other times in Spanish.

After a shooting nearby several years ago, a bullet got stuck in the front window frame, she recalls, after penetrating the aluminum awning that cover the rejas. She feels more protected while being inside her home now.

“You can see what is happening outside before something can happen to you,” she said.

Still, the porch was the place her family watched her prom date pin on her corsage. Most houses in Santa Clara, Cuba, where family still lives, have colorful porches like this, in blues, pinks and yellows.

To live in a house that doesn’t have an enclosed porch would be such an odd thing, she said. She can’t imagine her place without one: “I am so used to this.”