Interior view of the Bracero Reception and Processing Center built in 1951 at Rio Vista Farm.

photo by: Robert R. Arzola, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Architect

October 10, 2023

Documenting the Rio Vista Farm and Bracero Reception Center

The history of Rio Vista Farm and the Bracero Reception Center is one of labor and immigration which not only shaped the region, but also provided a foundation for modern Mexican American communities. This is a site whose story is finally being told.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s involvement with Rio Vista Farm began in 2015 after the site was identified as part of a survey of significant Latino sites. Since then, the National Trust has worked with partners to preserve, document, and promote this historic site. The Texas Historical Commission and the National Trust for Historic Preservation funded studies and critical stabilization work for five buildings, while also providing important technical assistance and advice.

In 2023, to further preserve the story of this historic site for posterity, Rio Vista was selected by the National Park Service's Historic American Building Survey (HABS) for documentation. Established in 1933 in collaboration with the Library of Congress, HABS's mission is to record the built environment in the United States using detailed measured drawings, photographs, and written histories. For the documentation of Rio Vista, the program enlisted the help of student architects Allison Toro Villada and Steven Esparza through the Latino Heritage Internship Program (LHIP).

Elevation view of one of the historic adobe buildings used during the 1935 Transient Labor Camp era.

photo by: Robert R. Arzola, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Architect

Elevation view of one of the historic adobe buildings used during the 1935 Transient Labor Camp era.

Documenting Rio Vista has larger implications, as Sehila Mota Casper, former National Trust staffer and the executive director of Latinos in Heritage Conservation, said, "the HABS documentation represents a significant step forward, shedding light on the historical significance of the labor movement and migration patterns through the Bracero Program. The story of Rio Vista Farm is now being unveiled, highlighting the enduring contributions of the nearly 5 million contracts for skilled Mexican workers who played a vital role during a critical period in United States history.”

The Legacy of the Bracero Program

Located in Socorro, Texas, Rio Vista Farm was established as a poor farm, where El Paso County sheltered those that were impoverished and orphaned. Beginning in 1929, and through the Great Depression, the site operated a series of public welfare programs. By 1936 the site was a base for the Civilian Conservation Corp.

In 1951 the farm was the site of the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center, one of many centers for the Mexican Farm Labor Program which was established by executive order in 1942. These agreements between Mexico and the United States opened the borders for Mexican men to work legally in the country under short-term contracts, addressing a need for agricultural labor during World War II. By 1964, according to the Library of Congress, over 4 million braceros had entered the United States. The program formally ended in 1964.

HABS Architect, Paul Davidson, provides instruction to Latino Heritage Internship Program on how to take panoramic photos to capture color data of the site for the data captured.

photo by: Robert R. Arzola, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Architect

HABS Architect, Paul Davidson, provides instruction to LHIP Summer Architects Allison Villada and Steven Esparza on how to take panoramic photos to capture color data of the site.

It is at reception centers such as the one at Rio Vista that these laborers were processed into the United States, received health screenings, and were assessed for their skills. The site included barracks, recreation centers, shower buildings, and a mess hall. The significance of this site to understanding the history of Mexican Americans, and the impact these individuals had on the growth of the United States' agricultural economy, cannot be understated.

Documenting the remaining buildings is an essential part of preserving that history for years to come.

Documenting Rio Vista Farm

Allison Toro Villada and Steven Esparza met for the first time shortly after arriving in El Paso along with Paul Davidson and Robert Arzola, the HABS Architects. They knew up front that the documentation of the various structures had to occur within five days within which the two of them would learn about the historic site while gaining expertise in a variety of documentation tools and strategies.

Steven Esparza produces a field note by hand in one of the dorms at the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center.

photo by: Robert R. Arzola, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Architect

Steven Esparza produces a field note by hand in one of the dorms at the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center.

LHIP Allison Villada produced a hand sketch and molding profiles of a historic window at Rio Vista.

photo by: Robert R. Arzola, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Architect

LHIP Allison Villada produced a hand sketch and molding profiles of a historic window at Rio Vista.

On day one, the group met with the director of Rio Vista Farm, Victor Reta, director of Recreation, Communications, Historic Preservation, Emergency Management, and Special Events for the City of Socorro, who walked them through the site giving them the history as they took in the different conditions of the structures. This was Villadaʻs first time in Texas, and she said, “the heat was something different, I donʻt know where I am right now, but this is really cool. This is an amazing site with a sense of history that is still standing.”

Drawings of the South Elevation and Floor Plan for the Rio Vista Processing Building.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey. Steven Jesus Esparza, 2023

A drawing by Steven Esparza of the South Elevation and Floor Plan of the Processing Building at the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center.

The project hit its first bump, however, when the equipment arrived two days late. Instead of doing laser scanning first, Villada and Esparza used a profiling comb-a-metal tool with teeth, that when pushed into a surface, provides critical measurements for windows and doors. Esparza, who had never used this type of comb before said, “I kind of liked picking up all those new skills because I know I can use them in my next historic documentation class.”

The next step, once the equipment arrived, was to set up the laser scanners. This involved placing individual targets in the various buildings that would help guide the equipment in the process of collecting data. The worry for both Esparza and Villada, who were documenting the processing center and the x-ray building, was missing a spot and having a gap in the data. Villada said “back in the office we did have that frustration of why didn't we place a target over there? Then we had a missing door or a missing roof, which was a challenge.”

The most valuable lesson for both student architects was being hands-on at every step of the documentation process for Rio Vista. “All in all, it was a pretty great experience both on the site and then later how we got to apply that data to make drawings,” said Esparza.

Drawings of the East Elevation, Section A-A, and Window Details of the Processing Building at Rio Vista.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey. Steven Jesus Esparza and Allison Toro Villada, 2023

A drawing by Steven Esparza and Allison Villada of the East Elevation and Window Details of the Processing Building at the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center.

As Scott Keyes, chief of Heritage Documentation Programs at the National Park Service said, “after years of interest in the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) was thrilled to document the property with students from the Latino Heritage Internship Program. The drawings produced by Allison and Steven will help preserve and rehabilitate this significant site, while also raising awareness of the Bracero Program and the important contributions of Mexican workers to the agricultural history and development of the United States. The resulting documentation will be permanently archived in the HABS/HAER/HALS collections of the Library of Congress where it will serve as a valuable resource for future researchers, historians, and the public.”

Drawing of the North and North Wall Elevation for the Rio Vista Bracero Selection Building.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey. Allison Toro Villada, 2023

A drawing by Allison Villada of the North and North Wall Elevations of the Selection Building at the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center.

The Future of the Rio Vista Farm

With HABS documentation (which included 70 large format photographs) completed of select buildings, the future of Rio Vista Farm is looking good. While a lot of work still needs to be done, in 2022 CSCI secured a $750,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation for the creation of a Bracero Museum with the University of Texas at El Paso and the City of Socorro.

Then in August 2023, Rio Vista Farm was approved by the National Park Services Advisory Board for designation as a National Historic Landmark, the highest level of designation bestowed by the National Park Service. The site is now awaiting the final stage of review and approval for official designation by the Secretary of the Interior.

Drawing of the floor plan and West and West Wall Elevation for the Rio Vista Bracero Selection Building.

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey. Allison Toro Villada, 2023

A drawing by Allison Villada of the West and West Wall Wall Elevations of the Selection Building at the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center.

For Esparza and Villada documenting this history was an experience they will never forget. “If I can help in some way preserve a physical structure, then I also help preserve a story with it. So that's what really mattered to me the most,” said Esparza.

For Villada, this project is about more than just Rio Vista, “it is a baby step, starting with one small Latino site, but eventually this could be the impetus for other ones to be documented and preserved. There are so many Latinos in the United States and around the world, and it is important to have these stories saved, and for the National Park Service to say, ʻyeah, our story is important,ʻ is incredible.”

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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