National Historic Landmarks Committee unanimously votes to designate the Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center in Socorro, Texas a National Historic Landmark
SOCORRO, TEXAS – On October 21, 2021, the National Historic Landmarks Committee met to consider ten (10) Historic sites and buildings nominated to become National Historic Landmarks. Amongst them, our very own Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center, also known as the Rio Vista Community Center, located right here in Socorro, Texas. What a proud moment for the Socorro community!
What are National Historic Landmarks?
A National Historic Landmark is a building, district, site, or structure that is officially recognized by the United States as having “national historical significance”. The National Historic Landmark designation is the highest designation in the United States and is reserved only for buildings and sites that possess extraordinary significance to our nation’s history. If designated a National Historic Landmark, the Rio Vista Farm would hold the same designation as the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, and the Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C. Currently, there is only one National Historic Landmark site in El Paso County, Texas. Hueco Tanks was recently designated as a National Historic Landmark on January 2021 and Rio Vista Farm hopes to be the second site.
In 1925, Congress passed the Historic Sites Act, which authorized the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and National Park Service to formally designate properties as having “national historical significance” and administer historically significant federally owned properties. To be designated a National Historic Landmark, historic sites and districts must prepare a well-researched and peer-reviewed nomination document detailing the site’s historical significance, historic context, and justification for the site’s designation. On October 21, 2o21, the Rio Vista Farm nomination was presented to the 16-member National Historic Landmarks committee made up of academic scholars and experts in history, archeology, architectural history, preservation, and cultural resource management. The NHL Committee unanimously approved the designation of the Rio Vista Bracero Processing Center as a National Historic Landmark. The Rio Vista nomination will now make its way to the National Park System Advisory Board and then to the Secretary of the Interior’s desk for final designation.
Why is Rio Vista being nominated for such a high distinction?
The Rio Vista Bracero Reception Center is nationally significant for its association with the Mexican Farm Labor Program of 1951-64, also known as the Bracero Program, which was jointly administered by the US and Mexico. The Bracero Program was the largest single temporary alien worker program ever undertaken by the United States. From 1951 to 1964, Mexican guest workers, also known as Braceros, were recruited by the United States and Mexico to enter into temporary guest worker contracts and fill agricultural jobs all over the United States. In total, more than 4.2 million bracero contracts were drafted for more than two million unique individuals. During its busiest year, 1956, over 445,197 guest worker contracts were processed through the Bracero Program.
Approximately 800,000 Bracero contracts were processed at the Rio Vista Bracero Processing Center during its years of operation. Mexican guest workers were recruited in Mexico and driven to the Rio Vista Processing Center where staff would rapidly screen prospective workers for potential health conditions and their ability to complete the harsh manual labor required in the agricultural jobs they were hired for. The process of becoming a Bracero was often lengthy, arduous, and many times humiliating, however, many former Braceros express pride in their participation in the Bracero Program and proud of being able to offer their families a better life.
Braceros comprised nearly a quarter of US agricultural workers by 1959, and provided a steady, reliable supply of highly-skilled farmworkers at very low wages benefiting the agricultural economy of the United States. Nonetheless, the bracero program was controversial and drew criticism throughout its existence over concerns it resulted in worker exploitation and negatively impacted domestic farmworkers. The national discussion around labor shortages, farmworkers, and immigrant labor policies continue to this day.
It is hard to overestimate the legacy of the Bracero Program and the impact it made on immigration patterns and policies of the mid-20th century as well as on agricultural labor history. From the nomination document, “the bracero program stimulated migration between Mexico and the US, encouraging documented and undocumented movement of bracero farm workers and others to this country in the early 1950s and after”. The Bracero Program contributed to an increase in the US Latino population after WWII, particularly in states from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. While some Braceros completed their contract period and returned to their communities in Mexico, many Braceros chose to emigrate with their families to the United States. Many families in Socorro have a family member who was either a Bracero or worked as a staff member at the Rio Vista Bracero Processing site. Countless more descendants of braceros live and walk amongst us in communities all over the United States.
How did all of this get started?
The National Historic Landmark designation of Rio Vista Farm has been a multiple-year effort by a number of very dedicated individuals, such as Victor Reta, the City of Socorro’s Recreation Centers Director and Historic Preservation Officer, Sehila Casper, former Project Manager with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Gary Williams, Senior Program Officer for the El Paso Community Foundation, Dr. Yolanda Leyva, Director of the UTEP Oral History Institute, and countless other community members, City staff, volunteers, and partner agencies. These are just a few of the many individuals who have toiled for years to raise awareness about this important site, even when the fragile adobe buildings at the site looked as if they would be washed away with the next desert monsoon. Perhaps one day we will blog about the infamous day when Gary Williams walked into a 2014 City Council meeting and proclaimed “this site is endangered!”, kicking off a whirlwind of efforts on behalf of the City and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to preserve this national treasure.
So, what is next? Are we going to let these important buildings fall apart?
Never! This is one of the reasons why the City of Socorro Community Initiative (CSCI) nonprofit organization was established – to help raise funds for the full restoration, rehabilitation, and immediate reuse of the twenty-one (21) historically significant structures on the Rio Vista Farm historic site. So far, the City of Socorro has allocated $1.1 million dollars through its capital improvements program, and the City has been successful in securing grant funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Certified Local Government Program, and the Texas Preservation Trust Fund. This initial funding has been key in kicking off important first steps such as the development of a Historic Structures Report and stabilization and structural engineering reports, as well as completing phase I of stabilization work at the site. However, because there are twenty-one (21) historically significant structures at Rio Vista, the full rehabilitation of the entire historic sites is estimated in the millions. The CSCI has now adopted its Strategic Plan identifying the Rio Vista Farm rehabilitation project as a key project of the organization and plans to kick off a fundraising plan to solicit funds from individual donors, foundations, and corporations for this important site in the coming months. The City of Socorro is already developing plans and construction documents to rehabilitate and convert some of the buildings at the site into the City’s first-ever public library, public health clinic, and small business incubator, amongst other public uses.
If you would like to contribute to the rehabilitation of this important site, we encourage you to visit our DONATE page at https://socorroinitiative.org/donate/. We remind you that all of your contributions are tax-deductible, and more importantly, that you will be investing in the Socorro community for years to come.