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Latinos in Utah: The Territorial and Early Statehood Eras (1847-1940)

In July of 1847, Brigham Young led his flock into the Salt Lake Valley and declared that this is the place where the Mormons would establish their homeland free, hopefully, from the prying eyes of the U.S. government (even though Utah was, at this time, still part of Mexico). Arriving in the lands where they hoped to establish their version of Zion, the members of the LDS Church utilized a two-pronged approach to establish dominion over the territory: first, through a gradual expansion of settlements both north and south of the Salt Lake Valley; and second, via the creation of specific colonies (such as Cedar City and St. George) far beyond initial settlements to take advantage of natural resources and to produce specific goods.7 One such undertaking was the establishment of LDS-owned livestock operations in the southern part of the territory. Here, the paths of Mormon pioneers and Spanish-speaking people intersected during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The primary meeting place for this interaction was in and around the town of Monticello, located in southeastern Utah (in present-day San Juan County). Here both groups toiled to improve homesteads and cared for sheep and cattle. Many of the local Latinos, the majority of whom traced their ancestry back to northern New Mexico or southern Colorado, served as vaqueros and sheepherders at church-owned ranches. Catholic Church records show that the first baptism of a Spanish-surnamed Utah-born child took place in this community (in 1900). By 1920 several hundred Spanish speakers resided in the area, making a positive contribution to the local economy while also holding on to their religious and ethnic traditions. As the rest of the territory became more interconnected to the industrial economy of the United States (Utah entered the Union in 1896), Monticello served as a gateway to Spanish-surnamed individuals who headed north in search of employment in the new state’s expanding agricultural, mining, and transportation industries.8

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, capitalist development commenced the integration of Utah into the broader national market. Key developments in this process included the discovery of gold, silver, and copper by the mid-1860s and the arrival of railroad connections to other western cities (even prior to statehood). Such undertakings generated a need for unskilled labor and migrants from Sweden, Italy, and Greece; some Latinos also heeded the call for

Mexican and mexicano traqueros at work on Union Pacific tracks in northern Utah, c. 1920s. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved.

workers. In addition, the state’s production of sugar beets increased dramatically during the years of World War I, and that helped bring more Latinos to toil in the fields of Box Elder County and elsewhere. Finally, the growth of mining and commercial agriculture necessitated the expansion of railroad facilities. This attracted still more mexicanos and Mexican Americans. It is estimated that by the early 1920s, 40 percent of the track labor between Salt Lake City and Milford was Spanish-surnamed. The sum total of this economic activity is partly reflected in the 1920 census, which documented a total of 1,666 persons of Mexican birth living in the state. By 1930 this figure had increased to slightly more than 4,000.

As the Latino population expanded, individuals within the community took it upon themselves to establish organizations designed to meet cultural, social, and economic needs. Among the associations established during the 1920s and 1930s were a few mutuales (mutual aid societies) such as the Cruz Azul (the Mexican Blue Cross), Union y Patria (Unity and Nation), and most importantly, the Centro Clvico Mexicano (Mexican Civic Center). In general, such entities provided members with opportunities to celebrate national and other holidays; to pool meager earnings to help neighbors with medical and burial expenses; and to teach children about the history and culture of la patria (the nation). While the various societies assisted many and fostered a sense of ethnic orgullo (pride), the devastating impact of the Great Depression led to the demise, with the exception of the Centro Clvico Mexicano, of all of the early organizations by 1940.

Religious associations also played a key role in the early development of the community. Not surprisingly, the two principal denominations functioning within the west side of Salt Lake City (the primary sector of concentration for Spanish speakers) were the Catholic and LDS churches. In 1920 the Diocese of Salt Lake (which encompassed the entire state) conducted its first census of the area’s so-called Mexican population. Administrators found approximately 100 familias living and working near two railroad depots in the downtown area.

The priest who oversaw the undertaking, Father Francis Alva, argued that the diocese needed to be more aggressive and protect this flock from the many preachers of all kinds who are after them. Alva called for the establishment of a mission to serve the needs of the families. The cash-strapped diocese managed, with the assistance of Mexican nuns (from the Order of Sisters of Perpetual Adoration) to establish the Guadalupe Mission in 1927. In 1930, Father James Collins arrived at the facility. Through the efforts of these dedicated individuals, the mission offered religious services, language classes, sporting activities, and a summer day camp for neighborhood children throughout the 1930s.

The LDS Church was also active in the barrio as the three Rivera sisters, converts from Mexico who arrived in Salt Lake City in 1919, were charged by the

church hierarchy to begin ministering to su gente (your people) around the beet fields of Box Elder County. The Riveras (in conjunction with other Spanishspeaking converts who arrived in the early 1920s) were successful in proselytizing, and in May of 1923, the LDS Church established the Rama Mexicana (Mexican branch). The services provided paralleled those at Guadalupe Mission. In addition to religious ceremonies, the branch held patriotic and ethnic festivals and dances and provided members with mechanisms for mutual assistance.

However, some differences caused tensions within the comunidad. The Rama Mexicana, for example, which was led by white church officials during these years, provided congregants with better access to information about jobs than was available to attendees at Guadalupe. This proved particularly valuable during the years of the Great Depression, when the Spanish-speaking population in Utah declined precipitously (the number, as tabulated by the Census Bureau, dropped from more than 4,000 to less than 1,100). By maintaining ties with the most important institution in the state of Utah, Latino converts had access to a more extensive range of social services than their Catholic brethren. Finally, some members of the two groups refused to permit their children to attend dances or to socialize with Latinos not of their particular denomination.9 The tensions among some of the adherents to the two denominations was only just beginning during this era; in many ways, these tensions continue to be part of Latino life in Utah.

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