Historic American Buildings Survey: Honoring the past, Preserving our legacy

Rodrigo Otárola y Bentín, HAF Youth Programs Deputy Director – NPS Latino Heritage Internship Program Coordinator
Co-authored by Luke Argleben, Operations/Program Assistant

It was in a Mission style single-story adobe structure located in “40 Acres” in Delano, California that César Chávez began a 25-day public fast resulting in the convergence of a movement that redefined workers’ rights in the United States. César Chávez solemn sacrifices to advance equity represented a powerful statement of solidarity for the United Farm Workers Movement, while the little adobe structure became the movement’s headquarters - a place that then hosted their challenges and conviction for a better future. More than honoring our community's stories and acts of empowerment, how do preserve the places that evoke our ancestors’ legacy of progress?

As delineated by Hispanic Access Foundation’s Latino Heritage Scholars in the “Place, Story and Culture” report, Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA) introduced the Cesar Chavez National Historical Park Act to Congress to further protect the legacy of this site; “[if] approved, the act will create a historical park that will connect the Forty Acres site to other important historic places associated with the life and legacy of Cesar E. Chavez.”

In 2008, “40 Acres” was designated as a National Historic Landmark, a category for places of exceptional historic importance. With this recognition, the National Park Service’s Heritage Documentation Preservation (HDP) coordinated several surveys with its architectural arm, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), to record in detail the significance of the landmark’s historical resources. HABS’ mission has been instrumental in preserving the stories behind some of our most iconic buildings and historical neighborhoods — including sites pertinent to Latino heritage. 

In working to connect Latinos with public lands, HAF has recognized the importance of addressing the demand to further protect Latino heritage sites such as “40 Acres”. Through our relationship with NPS, we have been offered the privilege to not only work with Latino heritage sites, but also with the programs who work to preserve them. Starting in 2015, HAF’s partnership with HABS through the Latino Heritage Internship Program (LHIP) has both advanced the documentation of historic preservation projects and created unique work opportunities by bringing the passionate talent of upcoming Latino professionals to the HABS’ team. 

Similarly, to the previous years, LHIP placed two interns to work closely with HABS architects in completing several documentation projects, while gaining invaluable professional skills and expertise in historic preservation. Emelyn Najera, LHIP HABS 2018 intern, was tasked with documenting a row-house in DC’s U Street Corridor, and a house located in Hollin Hills – a housing complex designed by mid-century modern architect, Charles Goodman. Throughout her internship, Emelyn worked alongside an intern from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Internship (HBCUI) to conduct field work in the aforementioned sites, capturing measurements with hand-tools or with the help of Leica laser scanners. In her words, LHIP not only provided Emelyn with an in-depth insight into the rigorous work of HABS, but also with a unique opportunity to work with “a property [that] had retained much of its original design, making it an excellent candidate for documentation” 

Rodrigo Martinez, LHIP HABS 2018 intern, spent his summer documenting the Memorial Amphitheatre in the Arlington National Cemetery. After delving into aerospace engineering during the early stages of his professional career, Rodrigo decided to pursue a graduate degree in Architecture with a focus on historic preservation as he believes that architects can have an impact on history by preserving the stories behind these places’ walls.  With his unique blend of skills and perspectives, Rodrigo used HABS high-end tools and software to produce several sketches and 3D renderings following the programs guidelines for documentation. “These kinds of careers are not seen [by the public] often…our drawings are used to show what a building was, what it is now, and what it could be in the future.”

Emelyn and Rodrigo’s supervisor, Robert Arzola — who worked as program manager in the 40 Acres documentation project — appreciates the long and arduous work Hispanic Access HABS interns contribute to the program’s growing compendium of architectural heritage documentation. In Robert’s words, HABS partnership with HAF "allows us to document significant historic sites that would otherwise not be recorded for our collection at The Library of Congress."

As with other positions in HAF internship programs, HABS interns work tirelessly to capture their projects’ every last detail, often taking several measurements of buildings’ distinctive features, and using laser scanners to render these places into 360-degree maps depicting a mirror-image of entire structure. “Finding architects with passion is difficult. Passion and commitment to the work is what it takes to succeed as an architect,” Paul Dolinsky, NPS Heritage Documentation Program Acting Chief mentioned while reflecting on the several contributions made by Hispanic Access interns over the course of 4 summers.  HABS interns are “learning what it takes to be a great architect and leaving with techniques so strong that they can work on anything.” 

With a pending approval of the Cesar Chavez National Historical Park Act to better represent and celebrate César Chávez’ legacy, HAF continues to focus in expanding our youth programs with the goal of building the capacity of new generations of historic preservation professionals who can dedicate their skills and passion to protect current - and nominate new - sites dear to our Latino communities.

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