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Latinos in Utah: The Postwar Years (1946-1967)

While Latinos’ efforts during the war years may not have changed the attitudes of all members of the white majority, important changes did take place within the Utah comunidad. After 1945 many individuals who had worked in the state’s industries and military facilities and who had fought for their country in European and the Pacific theaters refused to accept second-class citizenship any longer. These Spanish-surnamed men and women of the Beehive State accepted, as did their brethren in other states, the rhetoric of equality and brotherhood often and loudly proclaimed by the U.S. government.

One veterano, Epifanio Gonzalez, captured the determination of this group accurately when, after returning home (having earned a Silver Star), he was denied the opportunity to buy a home on the east side of Salt Lake City. He asked, How would you feel if you came [home] decorated, you fought your heart out in the war, and you say, ‘Now I am an American. I’m just as good as anybody.’ And then, all of a sudden, you’re just a second class citizen.12

Discrimination against and the social and economic conditions of Latinos in Utah, while not as virulent as in other states, were less than ideal. An examination of any Census Bureau statistical measure from the 1950s and 1960s reveals that Spanish speakers lagged well behind the rest of Utah society. For example, they were poorer, the graduation rates for Spanish-surnamed children were quite low, and a disproportionately large percentage of the community’s workers were employed in low-skilled, low-paying positions. In addition, many property owners in the state refused to rent or sell to Latinos outside of certain neighborhoods. During the postwar years, various organizations worked to challenge such trends.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Centro Clvico Mexicano took the lead in providing services to the population on the west side of Salt Lake City. The Centro offered its membership a broad range of benefits, including sporting activities, reduced insurance payments, radio broadcasts, and classes designed to reinforce culture and traditions. The staff and congregants from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish often helped in these efforts. In addition, the Salt Lake Diocese established a Catholic elementary school and a community clinic in the barrio during the 1950s.

Another entity that sought to improve circumstances in the community was the American GI Forum (AGIF), a veterans’ and civil rights organization that established branches in Ogden in 1954 and in Salt Lake City in 1955. The two local groups called for equal rights and fair treatment for Latinos, raised money for scholarships, and sought to end both employment and housing discrimination. Though the goals of the AGIF were commendable, the Utah branches were fairly ineffective in the face of suspicions among some in the Latino populace and the broader society as well that the AGIF was actually a front for communist infiltrators. The Utah branches spent so much time trying to prove their members’ worthiness, that they had little time left to effectively articulate their message and work for social justice.

Leaders from the two principal Latino-based congregations, the Guadalupe Parish and the newly renamed Lucero Ward (the former Rama Mexicana), were also active in challenging conditions endured by the Spanish-surnamed people of Utah. After the death of Father Collins (in 1957), several priests came and went in rapid succession until 1961. At that time, Father Jerald H. Merrill arrived and led an effort to make the parish a more active participant in community affairs. During his time as pastor, Father Merrill established a branch of the Guadalupana Society (a service organization for Catholic women), a cursillo (literally, little course) movement (a service and religious program for Catholic men), as well as a cooperative food market, a Catholic credit union, and a center for barrio dwellers to gather and discuss local issues. All of these endeavors generated a larger social-action footprint for the parish, which was well in tune with the progressive changes brought about as a result of Vatican II.

By June of 1960 Lucero Ward had grown to a total of 467 members, and this led to a change in status. The first leader of the Lucero congregation was Robert H. Burton, who was quite sympathetic to the plight and concerns of local Latinos, but who took a more conservative approach to remedying the circumstances extant in the barrio. As was common in earlier decades, Burton encouraged his congregants to develop their English skills and pursue educational opportunities in order to improve their lot. Given the historical context of the mid-1960s, this advice, while valuable, was clearly out of step.

The Lucero Ward’s view of social progress changed dramatically in 1966, when Orlando Rivera (an educational psychology professor at the University of

Utah) took over the group’s leadership. The injustice of racism, he felt, affected all of the Spanish-surnamed people regardless of denominational affilia-tion.13 This led Rivera to seek common cause with Father Merrill (and others) in order to create an entity that, hopefully, would unite all of Utah’s Latinos in order to challenge social ills more effectively. The end result of their collaboration was the birth of an organization with the acronym of SOCIO (SpanishSpeaking Organization for Community, Integrity, and Opportunity), which means good friend in Spanish. During the next two decades (the group commenced operations in March of 1968) SOCIO and its leadership helped improve the social and economic circumstances of the Spanish-speaking population of the state of Utah.

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