The Making of Latino Families in Utah

Armando Solorzano, Beehive History

It was a cold morning in November of 1912. Thousands of Mexicans, most of them single men, got off the train in Bingham, Utah and were taken to Utah Copper Company, where they began to work that same afternoon. The “Mexican strikebreakers,” as they were known in town, had come to replace miners who were refusing to work until the management improved working conditions and salaries.

For the Mexicans, their happiness at finding a job in Utah contrasted with the looks on their faces. They were alone, without their families, in a foreign land. Many had left fiancees in Mexico waiting for them to save enough money that they could return and get marries. Accustomed to hard labor and strong families, the men faces arduous work in the mines, but they were not willing to sacrifice their families. Some decided to send for their wives and children; those who were engaged went back to marry and returned with their new brides. But the majority kept sending letters full of nostalgia and homesickness to their families.

To start a Mexican family in Bingham or Garfield was a difficult, if not impossible, task. There were very few Mexican women available in the towns. As a miner named Santos Cabrera put it, “The Mexican women you saw were either your mother or your sisters.”(1) This scarcity of available Mexican women was still prevalent in 1930, when the Bingham census reported 1,258 single males and only 100 single females. Without wives, fiancees, or Mexican women around, Mexican miners lived in boarding houses, prepared meals by themselves, washed and ironed their own clothes, and sent money back to Mexico to support the families they had left behind.

The entry of the U.S. into World War I increased the demand for silver, lead, and zinc. As a result, another Latino group arrived in Utah – Spanish Americans (2) from Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. The Spanish Americans’ were particularly willing to work in Bingham because they felt that “Utah was a pretty good state to raise a family, and there was not so much discrimination” as in other states. Unlike the Mexican miners, the Spanish Americans brought their families of as many as nine children with them. Most were very poor.

In the early 1930s, The Great Depression caused the mining industry in Utah to collapse. Latino miners were the first ones to be fired, and most left the state. Many of those families who stayed were too proud to ask for government assistance. Such was the case with Jaunita Jimenez, whose husband died of a disease contracted in the mines. She refused any assistance, “We never got help from the government. We never asked for anything,” she said. Many Latino miners looked for other job opportunities and found employment with the railroads. At times, some 70 percent of the temporary labor used in “extra gangs” had Spanish surnames.

Latinos also made important contributions to agriculture, especially in the Utah farming community of Garland, where they worked in the production and processing of sugar beets. In Garland, Latinos created the most visible Latino colony in Utah. At least 60 families moved there and lived in a very organized manner, working together in the beet fields. When the beet season was over, they worked as housekeepers. Latinos had no opportunity to attend Catholic church services in this predominately Mormon area, but they traveled to Sale Lake City every weekend to attend Mass. With money provided by the sugar company, they build a schoolhouse and were able to celebrate September 16, which was Mexican independence day and other cultural events characteristic of Mexican tradition.

As the Latino families became more established in Utah, the need for social, political, and religious organizations became evident. Initially, neither Mormon nor Catholic officials showed a great deal of interest in forming Spanish-speaking congregations. So Mexican and Spanish American families brought in priests, leaders, and missionaries from Mexico. During the 1930s, however, churches and other organizations developed various ways to serve the needs of the Latino families in the state. LDS Relief Societies, women’s self-help organizations, summer schools, bilingual class, and mutual-aid societies all helped those indigent families who lacked even the most primary resources.

World War II brought an end to unemployment, and various industries invited Latinos to move to Utah to work. A new wave of Spanish-speaking workers arrived from New Mexico and Colorado, primarily to work in the coal mines. At the same time, the first generation of Latino children born in Utah started exploring new jobs. Lacking an adequate education, most had no choice but to do agricultural work, which they had done since early childhood, Emilio Vasquez, who was born in Eureka, Utah, had begun working at the age of ten, carrying water and bringing lunches to the men working in the fields.

By the early 1940s, some Latino families started buying houses in Bingham. Ironically, some bought houses and apartment complexes with the money they had received by suing the railroad companies for work-related injuries and medical expenses. Usually, a family lived on ones floor and rented the rest of the house to single Latino miners and railroad workers. With the rental income, families were able to pay for their homes, receive a secure and steady income, and cover medical expenses.

Yet even when they had their own houses, it was difficult for Latino children to grow up in the mining towns and railroad camps. In Bingham Canyon, Mike Melendez felt “embarrassed about my family” because his parents could not provide what other families provided for their children. Mike’s father only had an old Oldsmobile and had no money to pay for Mike’s driver’s license. Also, his father was continuously criticized because he could not speak English well.

Just when Utah Latinos were achieving some stability in the mining towns, the onset of World War II disrupted their families. The army and navy drafted husbands and brothers; in response, some Latinas and their daughters moved to Salt Lake City looking for jobs that allowed them to support their families. At the same time, the shortage of men in the state led government officials to recruit hundreds of Puerto Ricans from New York City. This group of Spanish speaking people increased the diversity of the Latino population in the state. Like the Mexicans of the 1910s, Puerto Ricans in the 1940s were mainly single males who left their families behind. Not accustomed to mine labor or to intra ethnic conflicts with Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Spanish Americans, most Puerto Ricans left the state and returned either to New York or to their homeland. Only ten Puerto Rican families settled down and remained in Utah. These families became very successful and were able to buy houses. A few of them became leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Utah.

By the beginning of the 1960s, sons and daughters of Latino miners, railroad workers, and migrant workers were willing to attend institutions of higher education and community colleges, but the economic barriers were almost insurmountable. In 1967 there were no more than ten Latino students at the University of Utah, the majority of them lacked financial support and worked as busboys in sorority houses, as janitors, as ditch-diggers for the county, or in similar jobs. During summer, some sprayed for mosquitoes on campus. Mike Melendez, who was born in Bingham Canyon, later said that this family was so economically deprived that his parents only contributed five or ten dollars per month to his academic expenses.

In spite of the barriers, Melendez graduated and became a minority advisor at the University of Utah. As an advisor he was especially interested in recruiting Latinas. Education, he believed, would be an asset for women in case something happened to their husbands, and it was a good thing to pass on to children. Latina needed to be educated because they fulfilled two functions in their communities: They became not only mothers but also the most important educators of their families and communities. Melendez’s mother had been perhaps the first Latina to graduate from the University of Utah; she obtained a nursing degree in 1942.

Following the Chicano civil rights movement in the Southwest, Utah Latinos engaged in discussions of the discrimination, segregation, and exclusion they experienced in “Zion.” In these discussions, Latinos exhibited a wide range of opinions, depending on the group to which they belonged. Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans felt they had been subjected to high rates of discrimination in the workplace, schools, and political process. However, Spanish Americans in general denied that discrimination was prevalent in the state. Velentin Arambula, a mine worker born in Colorado, believed that discrimination was something that group members brought upon themselves: “If you conduct yourself like a white man, then they’ll treat you like a white man,” he said. The fact that his three children graduated from high school with honors was a testimony to him that discrimination was not an issue for his family in Utah.

During the civil rights movement, an important advocate for Utah Latinos and their families was Father Gerald Merrill. Ordained in 1958, Father Merrill decided to work with Utah Mexican Americans to end the cycle of discrimination and lack of opportunities and to incorporate Latinos into the educational and political system. The decisive factor that brought Father Merrill to work for Latinos was “the family warmth and the love that they so often felt for one another in spite of great difficulty they experienced.” The hub of his activities was the Guadalupe Center at 346 West 100 South in Salt Lake, which was created with money raised from dances, tamale and menudo sales, and bingo. Through the Guadalupe Center, Father Merrill provided services to Latino migrant workers and elderly Latinos; he organized classes in Spanish and English; and he developed a class for training Latino leaders.

An important goal for Father Merrill was to eliminate the divisions between Roman Catholics and Mormons, Mexican Americans and Spanish Americans, and Latinos and Anglos. During the 1970s and 1980s the Guadalupe Center became a place where people came to celebrate their family traditions, baptisms, weddings, and quinceaneras (3). Through the practice of compadrazgo (4), they created extended families. Also Latino families helped from a credit union, which was called the West Side Family Cooperative. In addition, Father Merrill, in cooperation with Latino families, created the Cafe la Morena, a Mexican American restaurant named in honor of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

By the middle of the 1970s, Utah Latino families had experienced a transformation, especially in the relationships between parents and children. Francis Yanez observed that her children were being Americanized and losing their roots and traditions. Her children hardly knew what a Mexican was and spoke very little Spanish. They also opposed Mexican ways of living: They wanted to leave home to live with their fiancees; they preferred to buy rather than to make tortillas; and they bought canned beans instead of cooking them at home. What saddened Mrs. Yanez most of the unwillingness of her sons and daughter to fight back against the discrimination they suffered at school and in the places they worked.

The community of Latino families in Utah is still in the making. In fact, the 1990s has dramatically changed the profile of Latino families in the state. Since 1990 the Utah Latino population has grown 42 percent; in Cache county alone the growth has reached 400 percent. This new wave of Latino immigrants has been caused by economic growth in Utah; families immigrate to the state to work in agriculture, processing plants, the ski industry, hotels, restaurants, and clubs.

However, statistics show that since 1980 the economic condition of Latino families has not improved; on the contrary, it continues to deteriorate. In 1980, Latino marries couples earned 86.1 percent of the salary earned by Anglo couples. By 1990 this percentage had diminished to 83.2. Median family income for Anglos in 1990 reached $33,846, while for Latinos it was $24,941. Single Latinas reported an income of less than $12,000 per year. At the present, 21 percent of Latino families in the state of Utah live in poverty, while only 7.6 percent of Anglo families do.

In Utah, Latino families have come to constitute an important economic and political force that should be recognized. As consumers, Latino families contribute more than two billion dollars to the state’s economy, and they represent the largest voting minority group. The community is trying to solve several challenges as they work to lower high numbers of high school drop-outs and to increase enrollments in institutions of higher education, improve salaries, assist in integration into mainstream society, defend the group’s bilingualism and cultural tenets, and improve the relationship between Latino Catholics and Latino LDS. Solutions to these problems will be key if Latinos are to enter the new millennium on an equal basis with other groups in the state.

Yet regardless of their ethnic or religious background, Latinos and Latinas consider the most sacred value in their history and tradition to be their families, and that value has inspired them to contribute to the creation of a more egalitarian society in the United States. Utah Latinos such as Mike Melendez are aware that they cannot change the world, or Utah, for that matter, but certainly they can influence their families. In his own family, Mr. Melendez has taught his daughter to love all people, to understand and practice acceptance of difference cultures, to take care of the elderly and to respect the diversity of religious beliefs. He concludes, “If I can teach her that, maybe I have succeeded in causing some changes in Utah.”

Notes: 1. Santos Cabrera was born in Mexico in 1886 and was one of the first Mexicans to arrive to the state of Utah. 2. Spanish American refers to those Latinos who claimed that their parents were born in Spain and did not maintain any connection or relationship with Mexicans. Mexican nationals are Latinos who were born in Mexico but grew up in the U.S. Mexicans Americans are Latinos of Mexican descent who were born in the U.S. 3. A quinceanera is a celebration for young Mexican women who are fifteen years old. Part of this tradition is to bring the quinceanera to church to offer her life and purity to God and to announce to the while community that this young women is on her way to greater responsibility and motherhood. 4. This is an old Mexican tradition in which the godparents accept the spiritual and material responsibility of their godchildren.