On the north bank of the Rio Grande, just east of El Paso, sits one of the area’s most significant historical sites, although you will not find it in many tourist brochures.
Rio Vista Farm, a cluster of century-old adobe buildings that sheltered destitute children during the Great Depression and later served as the main processing center for the Bracero Program, has deteriorated over the decades. The site was named one of the state’s most endangered places by Preservation Texas in 2015.
But the effort to restore Rio Vista Farm got a big boost on Sept. 17. Officials in Socorro, where the site is located, announced that the landmark has been designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an influential Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
“We have a long-term commitment,” National Trust field officer Sehila Mota Casper told El Paso Inc. “Rio Vista Farm will allow us to not only be invested in this particular site but also have an active presence in El Paso County. We definitely look forward to lending our voice and being an active player.”
The designation is one of the first steps in a process Socorro city officials and local historians hope ends with the complete restoration of the site, located at 901 N. Rio Vista Rd. What it becomes is up to the community, the National Trust says.
Officials imagine “anything from a heritage tourism site to projects that may someday lead to a library, recreation rooms, classrooms or a museum,” according to a press release.
Rio Vista Farm, originally named the El Paso Poor Farm and now known as the Rio Vista Community Center, was established in 1915. Operated by the O’Shea family, it served destitute adults and children and later hosted a number of welfare programs.
From 1951 to 1964, the site served as the main reception and processing center for the Bracero Program, a temporary guest-worker program that brought Mexican laborers to the United States to work in agricultural areas.
It was closed in 1964, after new federal welfare programs and state law reduced the population of the poor farm to four. The movie “Traffic,” released in 2000, filmed a few scenes at Rio Vista.
Many of the farmworkers who participated in the Bracero Program were repatriated to Mexico, but millions of Mexican Americans can trace their roots to it through their fathers or grandfathers who entered into the U.S. as braceros, according to the National Trust.
Some can even trace their roots specifically to Rio Vista, which was one of five processing points.
“The Hispanic community is growing on a national level, and a lot of these folks have ties back to the farm-worker programs,” El Paso historian Bernie Sargent said. “Rio Vista could be a place where they could go research their ancestry.”
The site, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, remains intact. But many of the buildings have deteriorated over the decades.
“Some of them are in abysmal state,” said Sargent, chairman of the El Paso County Historical Commission.
The effort to rehabilitate the site stretches back to 1998, but it was dogged by a lack of funding and turnover in Socorro city government, officials say.
The project took a step forward in 2015 when Socorro allocated $1.1 million towards the restoration of a portion of the site.
Four of Rio Vista’s 16 buildings have been rehabilitated and are used as a community center, said Victor Reta, the city’s recreation director.
“We’re very excited and eager to get this project done. We know it is a long time coming,” Reta said. “It is something the community deserves and has been waiting for.”
Casper with the National Trust nominated Rio Vista Farm for the designation after spending three days in El Paso in January. She was on a fact-finding mission for the trust and toured historic sites across the county.
The trust describes its list of National Treasures as “a portfolio of nationally significant historic places where the National Trust is taking direct action.” It is posted online and includes historical sites across the country – everything from the Palace of the Governors in New Mexico to the Astrodome in Texas.
The National Trust has 250,000 members and an endowment of nearly $300 million. Former first lady Laura W. Bush serves on its board.
The group has long supported projects in El Paso. It awarded several grants to local organizations in the 1990s and early 2000s to support the preservation of El Paso’s historic missions. It also supported El Paso County’s efforts to restore the Old County Jail in the San Elizario Historic District.
“In designating Rio Vista Farm a National Treasure, we hope to capture the site’s central connection to the largest guest-worker program in our country’s history so that future generations benefit from the lessons farmworkers known as braceros can teach,” said National Trust CEO Stephanie Meeks in a statement.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105. Twitter: @ReporterRobby.