Map of Utah

Latinos in Utah: The World War II Era (1940-1945)

Not surprisingly, the years of World War II were quite positive, in an economic sense, for Utah. A dramatic increase in federal spending led to the employment of more than sixty thousand civilians in a variety of defense-related manufacturing plants, along with various military bases and depots established during the conflict. Between 1940 and 1945, Uncle Sam issued more than $1 billion in war contracts to local companies and spent another $430 million constructing facilities. Not surprisingly, the increased commercial activity stimulated a renewed interest among Latinos (primarily manitos) to either return, or move for the first time, to the Beehive State.

Unlike other western states, Utah did not attract a large number of braceros during World War II; only about 600 to 700 of these workers toiled in the area. Indeed, the principal attraction for Spanish-surnamed individuals was the proliferation of industrial, mining, and railroad work. Not surprisingly, the majority of new arrivals lived in the state’s urban core and toiled for large companies such as Remington (in Salt Lake City); U.S. Steel Geneva Works (in Provo); Utah Copper and Kennecott Copper (in Bingham Canyon, a western suburb of the capital); the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (in Salt Lake City); and the Union Pacific Railroad (in Ogden). While the men employed by corporate behemoths did not experience complete

equality and opportunity, most earned more than they had prior to the war years, and a few even managed to move into low-level supervisory positions (such as foremen) that had not previously been open to Spanish-surnamed personnel.

Many Latinas took advantage of opportunities in other sectors of the state’s economy specifically, in the areas of food processing and domestic work. Key employers of Spanish-speaking women during these years included Purity Biscuit, Utah Poultry, Sweet Candies, the Hotel Utah, American Laundry, and Star Laundry. Like their male counterparts, the majority of mujeres (women) were not provided with the opportunity to move into supervisory positions, but the steady work contributed to the economic stability of familias.

Whereas most Latinas remained in industries considered traditional women’s employment, some did break down barriers and move into fields such as manufacturing or transportation. One such pioneer was Clotilda Gomez, who worked at a Salt Lake City railroad yard during the war. Not surprisingly, she was subjected to a daily dose of sexual harassment. She tolerated this ill treatment to provide for her four children. In a 1987 interview, Gomez noted that she endured maltreatment not only to earn a decent living, but because she felt she contributed to the war effort. Further, she argued that overcoming such obstacles had a dramatic impact on her sense of self-worth. I think women changed from that era [they took] this change in their lives in order to make decisions and work. Even among the Mexican families there started being a change with the women because they realized they were equal to men.10

The economic upturn increased the level of diversity (and divisions) within the Spanish-speaking community of Utah as Bingham Canyon employers aggressively pursued laborers from Puerto Rico, bringing hundreds of islanderos (islanders) to the area beginning in 1943. The Boricuas (a Puerto Rican term of self-reference) faced many of the same problems earlier Latinos had endured in local mines specifically, laboring in the lowest-paying and most demanding positions with little chance of promotion. Further, the Puerto Ricans endured discrimination from their fellow Spanish speakers, who considered the new arrivals to be foreigners who posed a grave threat to the jobs and families of veteranos (some of whom had been in Bingham since the late 1910s). The local Mexican consulate, Carlos Grimm, even stated that mexicanos should not sympathize with the Puerto Ricans, because Spanish blood did not diffuse through Puerto Rico. During the early slave trading days, Negro blood mixed with that of the Puerto Ricans.11

While the manitos and mexicanos in Utah found common ground in their disdain of Boricuas, this did not end all the obstacles between those two Spanishspeaking clusters. Debates and divisions regarding who was a real Mexican (so to speak), and who was not, continued unabated. The differences were so acute that many manitos refused to attend the Centro Clvico Mexicano functions (and many mexicanos did not want the manitos there), instead establishing their own union

and mutual aid society right after the end of the war ( Sociedad Proteccion Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos, or the Society for the Mutual Protection of United Workers). This association, which established branches in both Salt Lake City and Ogden, continued to operate into the early 1960s.

The growth of the Spanish-speaking community in Utah during the war years also had a dramatic impact upon both the Guadalupe Mission and the Rama Mexicana. The congregations grew, and by the end of the war, Guadalupe had been designated a parish by the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, and the Rama counted more than 120 congregants.

The war years were beneficial in various ways, with steady pay and occupational opportunities evident for some of the Latinos of Utah. Still, this did not mean that the comunidad was internally united or that the majority of the state population was willing to accept Spanish-surnamed men, women, and children as equals. A great many issues remained unresolved, with a key question being how these Latinos would fit into Utah society after the end of World War II.

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