Travel to Utah

Latinos in Utah: The Chicano Movement and Reagan Era (1968-1990)

With the genesis of SOCIO, Utah Latinos established a nondenominational association with the goal of improving their social and economic circumstances. SOCIO’s charter noted that it would act consistently and lawfully to establish and maintain justice in all areas affecting the well being of the Spanish-speaking person and community. The hope was to overcome the religious and ethnic divisions that had split the group in previous decades and work to open up educational and occupational possibilities for all members of the comunidad.15

To accomplish this task, SOCIO’s leadership decided early on that the entity would not take a confrontational stand against the broader society. The Spanishspeaking people of the Beehive State continued to lag behind fellow Utahans in the areas of economics and education, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they still constituted only around four percent of the state’s population. Therefore, Merrill, Rivera, and others believed that if SOCIO worked with Utah’s political and business leadership, it would accomplish more than with ethnic militancy. In sum the leadership cadre envisioned that their group would work with the system in such a way that changes some rules that amount to artificial barriers holding their people back.

In cooperation with state and local governments, area school boards, and various law enforcement agencies, SOCIO undertook a broad range of programs designed to improve the daily existence and opportunities of Latinos. Among the plethora of cooperative efforts undertaken during these years were job and managerial training programs; health education; efforts to reduce recidivism among criminal offenders; new curricula in schools to help reduce the dropout rate; and affordable housing, among many other efforts. Of particular importance was the creation, in 1974, of the Institute for Human Resource Development (IHRD). The entity’s goal was to seek grants from governmental and private agencies in order to

fund (and manage) social-welfare programs designed to benefit the Latino population. Among the graduates of this organization’s training programs was Eliud Pete Suazo, who would go on to become an important community activist and Utah’s first Latino state senator. The IHRD continues to operate to this day, though now under the name of the Centro de La Familia (the Center for the Family).

SOCIO also worked to improve the lines of communication between the Spanish-speaking community and state government. To that end, under the administration of Governor Calvin Rampton, the chief executive began meeting on a regular basis with SOCIO’s leaders. Further, Rampton established the position of Chicano ombudsman within the bureaucracy to provide Latinos a direct link to state government. Gilbert Ramirez was the first individual to occupy this position (starting in 1973). In subsequent years, the ombudsman position evolved; now Utah has an office of state government dedicated specifically to minority issues (the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs). This ombudsman post, in concurrence with the election of the first two Latino state representatives, John Ulibarri and Rey Florez, helped increase awareness within state government of issues and concerns of the Spanish-surnamed.

In the area of schooling, the University of Utah, in conjunction with SOCIO and the Ford Foundation, invested monies in an effort to provide access to higher education to young men and women from the comunidad. Starting in 1969, the institution created a recruitment program that sought out recent high-school graduates from the west side of Salt Lake City and gave them an opportunity to attend the state’s flagship institution of higher learning. Such efforts also led to the establishment of Chicano-themed classes and organizations not only at the University of Utah, but at most of the state’s colleges and universities.

The Latino population of Utah continued to grow during the 1970s and 1980s, and by 1990, the federal census counted a total of almost 85,000 Latinos. The group, however, also became more diverse (both ethnically and economically) during these decades. One major contributor to this trend was the LDS Church’s continued missionary activity throughout Latin America. Not surprisingly, many new Mormones (who hailed from places like Peru, Chile, and Argentina) decided to come to the city that stands at the heart of their denomination. Many of these recent converts were professionals in their native lands and have, over subsequent years, reestablished professional licensure or founded business enterprises. As a result, a fairly substantive gap now exists between the economic and social standing of many Mormones versus that of their mostly Catholic brethren.16

A second group that arrived in fairly large numbers during the 1980s comprised migrants (both documented and undocumented) from Mexico. These individuals took jobs in the restaurants, clubs, and other facilities in many of Utah’s thriving tourist locations (for example, in the Nevada border town of Wendover and in the ski town of Park City). In addition, other mexicanos came to work in the beef and

poultry processing industries in communities such as Hyrum and Moroni.17 By the end of the decade, the broader population of Utah was noticing the dramatic increase in the Latino population sometimes with very negative results, as demonstrated by a series of very public (and poorly administered) raids by the INS in places such as Wendover (in 1986).18

Another reason for the growing economic diversity (disparity) among Latinos by the end of the 1980s was the success of programs started by SOCIO. The entity that did so much to improve life for the Spanish speakers of Utah appeared to have a bright future when members gathered in 1985 to commemorate the group’s 17th anniversary. Indeed, there was even talk about buying a building and establishing a permanent and independent office for the organization (the group had been previously housed at University of Utah and, later, at Salt Lake City government facilities). It was not to be, and SOCIO ceased operations in 1986.

What accounted for the demise of this once thriving enterprise? The group, which had been an all-volunteer entity at the beginning, shifted to a paid staff by the middle of the 1970s. Once that happened, Orlando Rivera argued, many people lost interest. Also, Rivera believed, the group was successful in achieving many of its goals in economic and educational advancement. Once this happened, many in the membership drifted away to follow other pursuits.19

Overall, one could argue that the Chicano Movement era was both a success and a failure in Utah. While SOCIO, working in conjunction with government and business leaders throughout the state, managed to open up many opportunities for some in the comunidad, the Beehive State’s economy also attracted many new Latinos during the 1980s who have not achieved as much social and economic progress. While many Mormon converts have been able to establish themselves in Utah since the end of the Reagan era, other mexicanos, who are less educated and mostly Catholic, have found a tougher road, with little beyond low-skilled and low-paying occupations available within the state’s economy.

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