National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Hispanic Heritage Month
Benson Historic Barrio, Cochise County, Arizona

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

“We had so much fun!”

photo
Benson Historic Barrio
Photograph courtesy of the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office
These are the words  Benson Barrio resident Edward Ellsworth used to recall his youth when the Benson Historic Barrio in Conchise County, Arizona, was full of children at play.  Ellsworth spoke with Janet H. Parkhurst, Ralph Comey and Karen DeLay when they were researching the history of the Barrio for the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office. Edward Ellsworth should know; he was born in the barrio (“neighborhood” in Spanish) in 1959 and still lives there today.
Janet Parkhurst, who interviewed Edward Ellsworth, acknowledged Ellsworth’s invaluable support during the research for the Benson Historic Barrio when she stated “I believe the scholarship of Edward Ellsworth should be celebrated.  He has been working on Benson's cemetery project, among his other research efforts.  I do hope he will write an article for the Journal of Arizona History about his beloved grandmother and the families of the barrio…”

The Benson Historic Barrio, encompassing 307-572 Fifth Street, between San Pedro Street and Route 80 in Benson, Arizona, is significant for its association with the history of Hispanic residents in this ethnic enclave.  Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been part of Benson’s history since the agricultural and railroad eras in the late 19th century. The creation of the Benson Barrio exemplifies a local, Mexican response to what was a worldwide industrial movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, involving the migration of rural people into cities, searching for economic opportunities during the industrial revolution. 

The area where the Benson Historic Barrio would stand was originally the territory of American Indians;  the  Cochise culture with Hokokam and Salado connections. It came under control of the Spanish and later Mexican governments.  Euroamericans arrived in the region after the Gadson Purchase of 1854, when the United States purchased the land from Mexico.  The town of Benson itself was created when the Southern Pacific Company began laying railroad tracks in the area.  Benson was named after William B. Benson, a friend of railroad magnate Charles Crocker.  Town site lots began to sell on June 21, 1880, the day before the regular train service to the Pacific coast commenced. Benson was the only town in the area with transcontinental connections and the introduction of regular train service brought rapid growth. Employment and trade were fostered by nearby mining operations, and Benson became a “hub city” with the arrival of two additional railroads, making the town the only point in Arizona served by three independent railroad lines.

photo Family of Severiano Leon Bonillas
Photograph courtesy of the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office

Benson’s future barrio began to develop in earnest between 1898 and 1901. East of Gila Street became occupied by Mexican farming and ranching families who migrated from nearby, rural areas The barrio formed initially because the Southern Pacific Railroad offered land and the emerging town offered employment opportunities. The presence of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, built in 1895 (no longer extant), was also a strong allure for the traditionally Catholic rural Mexican American population.  While the church served the entire community of Benson, it became the undeniable heart of the Roman Catholic barrio.

The tendency for people of Mexican or part-Mexican descent to group together in urban enclaves in southern Arizona resulted from complex factors.  In a typical southwestern pattern, rural, pioneer Hispanic families often sprang from a fluid, frontier society whose close ties and intermarriage between Euroamericans, northern Europeans and people of Mexican descent were common.  Once settled in town, these families were considered to be “Mexican” and found themselves residents of Mexican enclaves.  The barrio also offered some protection against discrimination by the larger Euroamerican population, and the cooperation among families allowed for social benefits to develop. 

Starting in the late 19th century, Hispanic mutual-aid and fraternal insurance companies began to appear in southwest urban centers.  The presence of the Alianza Hispano-Americana in Benson’s Barrio was a characteristic response---membership offered low-cost insurance that protected working-class families during major crises. At its height the Alianza included more than 17,000 members in local chapters across the western United States and northern Mexico. The Alianza played an active role in Benson for many years and occupied 505 E. Fifth Street after World War II. 

Barrio social life followed the calendar of the Catholic Church. Saints days were celebrated.  Important celebrations included the days of San Juan, San Ignacio, Our Lady of Lourdes, San Francisco, the Holy Child of Atocha and the Feast of the Holy cross. Neighborhood women would join together to prepare festive meals of tamales, enchiladas, menudo, empanadas and hot chocolate.  There were Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations.  Symbolizing the search by Mary and Joseph for a place to give birth to the Christ child, the traditional posada was held.  Families also quietly honored their dead by visiting graves at the Seventh Street Cemetery on the day of the Dead in early November.  These communal celebrations remained strong in the Barrio up through World War II; then they gradually died out.

The Knights of Pythias also contributed greatly to Barrio social life.  In the 1890s a dance for Euroamerican and Mexican-American couples in this hall would be the highlight of the season.  Mexican songs were held and highly contested horse races were held.  Barrio social life focused very much around street activities, with Fifth Street functioning as a Mexican “plaza.” This was the place where children played and social interactions occurred.  It could be closed off for special functions.  Lively street dances took place there as well as coming-of-age celebrations for girls. For the latter, live doves contained in large clay jars were released.  For street festivals, neighbors made beer, wine, and fancy foods. There was also a considerable amount of bootlegging and gambling in the Barrio.

photo
Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church
Photograph courtesy of the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office

Barrio resident Edward Ellsworth learned much about the early history of the barrio from his paternal grandmother, Aurora Bonillas Mendoza. Aurora Bonillas Mendoza as a young girl came to live in what became Benson’s Barrio from her family farm at Tres Alamos along the San Pedro River. She later married her neighbor Reyes Mendoza.  Widowed in 1920, Aurora Bonillas Mendoza acquired the property at 418 E. Fifth Street. She shared her house with the Ellsworth family until her death.

Born in 1959, Edward Ellsworth remembers growing up in the barrio when 62 children lived in the neighborhood, and church festivals, street fairs and other celebrations marked the close-knit community life of the residents.  According to Mr. Ellsworth, the barrio where he grew up and lives today comprises both sides of E. Fifth Street east of San Pedro Street.

Including present and former, mixed residential and non-residential occupancies, the Benson Barrio has maintained a cohesive character. The dwellings are small, one-story buildings. West of Gila Street, in the former “Barrio Americano” portion of the barrio, the houses on the north side of Fifth Street is constructed of wood with gable roofs.  East of Gila Street there are notable differences, with most houses being constructed of stuccoed masonry, including mud adobe, with low-pitched adobe roofs.  Most of these homes are close to the street and have chain linked fences and some have yard shrines; all characteristics being typical of Hispanic barrios in the southwestern United States. The two different planning traditions, the Euroamerican and Hispanic, meet in the Benson Historic Barrio.
The Barrio is increasingly under threat today.  Although much of the property ownership remains with family heirs, some residences have been demolished and several buildings are abandoned. The economic situation in Benson has forced many younger Barrio residents to seek employment elsewhere.  Only a few old barrio families remain in their carefully maintained houses. The Benson Historic Barrio was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on April 8, 2011.

Compiled by Rustin Quaide from original research by Janet H. Parkhurst, Ralph Comey, Karen Delay, Edward Ellsworth and the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office from the Benson Historic Barrio NRHP Nomination, Arizona SHPO, and February 18, 2011.
Endnotes:
Parkhurst, Janet H., Ralph Comey and Karen Delay, Benson Historic Barrio NRHP Nomination, Arizona SHPO, February 18, 2011. Various interviews with Barrio resident and researcher Edward Ellsworth (quoted here) were conducted from February through July 2005.
Parkhurst, Janet H.,  Communication with Rustin Quaide on 8-31-2011.

Hispanic Heritage Month

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