The Latino Network is a nonprofit in Gresham, Oregon that lifts up youth and families to reach their full potential. The organization employs over 160 staff members who provide programs and services related to school-based education, rent and utility assistance, access to housing, and workforce development – all in the name of creating a thriving, engaged, and influential Latino/x community in the Pacific Northwest.
With a rapidly growing Latino/x population in the greater Portland metro area, and amid one of the most tumultuous political climates for immigrants in the U.S., the Latino Network sought to expand its services with a new community center. La Plaza Esperanza, meaning “a place of hope,” promises to be the physical realization of a longstanding dream for the Latino Network: 18,000 square feet of safe, welcoming and accessible space dedicated to celebrating Latino/x culture and heritage.
In 2019, ZGF joined the project to provide design services pro bono as part of Public Architecture’s 1+ Program. While the capital campaign to fund the building of La Plaza Esperanza is currently in an active early phase, the need for a protected and welcoming environment for Latino/x residents is imminent. Lara Media, a Latina-owned communications and outreach firm, led a six-month community engagement effort for the project that included public forums with hundreds of participants, from parents and children to community leaders, donors, and staff. During the community outreach events, we heard from Latino/x-identifying individuals that felt marginalized in institutional spaces. They described being relegated in favor of their white counterparts and experiencing high levels of anxiety and insecurity in institutional public settings.
The ZGF team sought to ensure La Plaza Esperanza would answer these concerns and reflect the community’s goals of a creating a welcoming and culturally-affirming experience. The result is an open and transparent design that puts Latino/x people front and center with a residential aesthetic that prioritizes psychological safety. From the moment of arrival, visitors will note a design approach influenced by the surrounding forests and homes that invites the Latino/x population to feel secure. A generous front porch spans the length of the building to give an interstitial space for gathering and familial conversation. A sloped mass timber roof channels warm, natural materials true to the Pacific Northwest and encourages all-season activities on the community porch.
Bucking institutional design traditions like monochromatic materials and looming concrete walls that obscure the interior, ZGF designed La Plaza Esperanza with full height windows that showcase the programs and vibrancy of the culture inside. A preschool and multipurpose community room are both visible from the exterior with doors that open to the front porch. Bright colors from their interior walls peek through the exterior glass façade to create moments of cultural connection and identification before visitors take their first step inside.
Pedestrians and passersby are also invited to experience the community in full bloom. Guided by a mandate to create a hub in the Pacific Northwest where Latino culture could be experienced and embraced, ZGF organized flexible programming inside of the building to flow naturally out from the multipurpose rooms to the porch and beyond. This allows the nonprofit to host large holiday events or forums that can spill outside and connect to the parking lot, which is designed to accommodate large open-air gatherings and event equipment.
Informed by an extensive community outreach effort and following a culturally responsive design approach, La Plaza Esperanza’s interior design reflects input from stakeholders who wanted the hub to support a diverse population of intergenerational Latino/x residents. The entryway doors open to a main hall where the nonprofit’s primary services are connected by a mixed-use lounge. With room for students, parents and grandparents to wait for a program to start or a mentor to arrive, the lounge encourages people from all generations to spend more time together and expresses the importance of multigenerational living to the Latino/x community. It also supports the need for temporary child-minding space while family members are participating in events.
Just off the public lounge is the organization’s first-ever onsite preschool program. The school will serve approximately 20 families and act as a demonstration site for how to deliver culturally specific preschool programming. Teachers and leaders that were previously traveling to numerous schools across the Portland metro area now have a permanent home for their cultural education practice, complete with classrooms and designated indoor and outdoor play areas.
As the Latino/x community expands in the Pacific Northwest and evolves over time, La Plaza Esperanza will provide a flexible cultural center for generations to come. The building design includes large multipurpose rooms with flat, open floorplates, mobile furniture and retractable room dividers – equally perfect for a job training seminar, community forum, or small group study session. Visitors seeking services for sensitive matters, such as immigration or housing insecurity, can find private meeting rooms on the first floor for confidential staff support. Upstairs, a 5,300 square foot mezzanine effectively doubles the staff office footprint and expands programs and services without the expense of a true second story.
Juan Martinez, Director of Development and Communications at Latino Network, is excited to see La Plaza Esperanza become “an important symbol for the greater Portland metro area. One that allows the heart of Latino/x heritage to be celebrated from within the community and embraced by those outside of it for a new era of intercultural learning.”
The Latino Network is actively seeking fundraising to make La Plaza Esperanza a reality.