Effort equals reward for Latinx organizations in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by BRITT BROOKS

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“DREAMers Life III” by Ana M., 2009.

Twice a year monarch butterflies make a 2,500-mile trek between the U.S. and Mexico. The migration is what keeps them alive. When cold temperatures in the states are unlivable, the warmth of a Mexican winter is the saving grace for this entire species.

Monarchs are more than pretty to look at, though. They’re a symbol for the Latinx community of migrants traveling to the U.S. and elsewhere. Though the journey is long and difficult, the destination promises opportunity, safety and a better life for Latinx individuals and their families.

The immigration process from Central and South America to the U.S. is grueling for even the toughest and most determined, but what happens when immigrants finally cross the border? How are Latinx people — with or without papers — supposed to integrate into American cities? If a language barrier exists, where can immigrants find jobs, housing and education? These kinds of questions are being asked and answered in Salt Lake City by professionals at organizations like the Dream Center, the Utah Coalition of La Raza, and the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The Dream Center at the University of Utah can be found on the south side of campus in the Annex building in the middle of a long hallway dedicated to diversity. Flags and banners hang in bold color, workshops and offices are bustling, and one can’t help feeling better about the world when students of all different cultures and ethnicities are seen thriving.

But the opportunity for higher education isn’t accessible to everyone. Some states bar undocumented citizens from attending universities, even though no federal laws support these actions. Thankfully, Utah isn’t one of them.

Luis Trejo and Brenda Santoyo greet those walking into the Dream Center with smiles and a friendly “what can we do?” attitude. Complete with memorized statistics and an impromptu presentation, Trejo and Santoyo shared some serious knowledge about the college experience of Latinx students in Utah.

Trejo, 19, is a student at the U and peer mentor with Santoyo, 24, a graduate assistant. They help Latinx students with their legal status, career goals, scholarships and strategies for picking the best college. Sometimes, they even recommend that students start at Salt Lake Community College, which is more affordable than the U. The Dream Center is also a resource for community gatherings and conversations and offers a space for local Latinx artists to display their work.

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The Annex building at the University of Utah.

Invigorating orange walls complete with posters and artwork create an environment that is both comforting and energizing. Monarch butterflies are featured in many of the decorations, including two graduation caps made by Santoyo. One of the caps says “Todo lo que hago, lo hago por ustedes.” Everything I do, I do for you. The stories here don’t just educate — they inspire as well.

The faculty are friendly, considerate of sensitive topics and well read on current laws that affect undocumented people here and nationwide. They know about options most students aren’t aware of, such as in-state tuition for anyone during summer semesters. And though the center is located at the U, is offers services to students from any college in the state. “It’s also really important to note we’re the only Dream Center in Utah,” Santoyo said.

Diversity and higher education create a new generation of young adults to tackle inequality, stereotypes and ignorance in an otherwise white-dominated professional world. For years the Latinx community has been marginalized, and Trejo mentioned how dehumanizing it is to call another person illegal.

Civil rights are crucial for Latinxs in America, and an active resistance against prejudice and discrimination has grown considerably in the last few decades. The rapidly growing Utah Latinx populace is at nearly half a million people, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune in 2018. They strengthen and inspire each other, as well as continue the work of past civil rights leaders, most notably César Chávez.

The Utah Coalition of La Raza was founded in 1992 as a way to ensure the community had an organization to back up Latinx people in multiple situations. UCLR honors the legacy of César Chávez — Mexican American civil rights activist — with a fundraising banquet each year.

Chris Segura, 78, was president of the organization from 1997-99 and spoke about the action and assistance UCLR provides the Latinx community. “They’re an organization that promotes advocacy through education, immigration, civil rights and justice,” he said.

Segura knows plenty about the Latinx experience in education, as he was the first ever Hispanic administrator in Granite School District. As a U alumnus himself, his eyes lit up when talking about the partnership he started with the University of Utah. His plan involved the education and engineering departments at the U with the goal of making more college-credit classes available. This got Latinx students to take university classes in high school and created a higher chance of graduating and earning scholarships for low-income or undocumented students.

One of the biggest facets of the organization as a whole is education. UCLR runs three programs for K-12. The programs include the Utah Latinx Youth Symposium, CommUNITY Club, and Latinos in Action. As written on the website, Latinx are the least likely group to enroll in early childhood education, something UCLR is trying to change with community outreach. Equity in education for all students is important to give the same opportunities no matter their background.

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Hashtags help connect different communities on social media.

Organizations like the Dream Center and UCLR are resources for the Latinx community to have, especially for education. But what happens after graduation? One of the best pathways to success is to become an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is especially popular among undocumented people who might not speak English fluently or at all. Barriers against Latinxs aren’t just legal and political but can be seen in our local communities as well, where non-English speakers are all but ignored.

Someone else advocating for Latinxs is Alex Guzman, CEO of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a former politician from Guatemala. He’s versed in all things business and runs the chamber to give counsel about the different strategies for Latinx people when starting their own company in Utah.

When asked about his personal journey he said, “I’m a door maker more than a door opener.” According to Guzman, this is the kind of attitude one should have in order to be part of UHCC. An annual membership fee covers free classes, community gatherings, and networking events and activities. Once members join they have the opportunity to work with other Latinx-owned businesses and be supported and educated on how to succeed in Utah’s culture.

For the historically marginalized Latinx people of America, Utah is making strides. UHCC wants people to thrive and has helped over 13,700 business owners not just with seminars and networking but also political representation in connection with the national Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Growing diversity is good news for Salt Lake and surrounding Utah cities. And there’s an abundance of hardworking, inspiring Latinx members in communities across the state. Different cultures and experiences not only enrich our communities, but also help with international perspectives as well.

These organizations truly have what’s best for Latinx people in mind, whether they’ve made a journey like the monarch butterfly or were born in the U.S. In a world where the odds are against you, resources, networks and services can be invaluable.