Marisa’s Fashion is a model for west-side Hispanic-owned businesses

Story and photos by JACOB RUEDA

Hispanic-owned businesses in Salt Lake City are becoming the staple in the local economic landscape. The rise of such businesses began in the early to mid-1980s and has become prevalent due to the influx of people migrating from other states and other countries. U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019 says Hispanics or Latinos are the largest non-white ethnic group in the city.

Despite their growing numbers in Salt Lake City, the presence of Hispanics is not as commonplace compared to places like Los Angeles or Houston. While Hispanic-owned businesses in those cities are typical in their local economies, their impact went unrecognized in Salt Lake City until recently.

Marisa’s Fashion was one of the first Hispanic-owned businesses in Salt Lake City. The store is located at 67 W. 1700 South.

“Marisa’s Fashion is one of the first Hispanic-owned stores in Salt Lake City,” says Refugio Perez, a local business owner and entrepreneur who started the clothing and general retail store 40 years ago. After arriving from California and receiving settlement money from a work-related injury, he started Perez Enterprises and created Marisa’s Fashion from it, naming the store after one of his children.

“It is the only one that is still in business out of an initial group of five stores that were established,” Perez says in Spanish.

The store located at 67 W. 1700 South has had the support of the Hispanic community from the beginning. Although at the time the Hispanic population in Salt Lake City was small, people around the Wasatch Front and other states knew of Marisa’s Fashion and came to shop there.

“We started to grow quickly because there weren’t that many places and people were limited as to where they could shop,” Perez says. “We had people from as far as Ogden, Park City and Wendover [Nevada] coming to our store so it worked out for us and we were able to grow our business.”

Refugio Perez is the founder of Perez Enterprises. He started Marisa’s Fashion in the early to mid-1980s.

Marisa’s Fashion grew as a result of demand but also from knowing the responsibilities of running a store. One of the challenges in today’s business world is lacking that knowledge. Perez says some Hispanic entrepreneurs today go in ambitiously without being aware of basic operational skills.

“Nowadays, someone starts a business and they do it without knowing the basics of how to start or run a business,” he says. Aside from the legal and financial responsibilities, staying on top of technological advancements in the digital age is essential in today’s market.

“There have been a lot of professional Hispanic businesses of late and that’s why they are important tools for success,” Perez says.

The longevity of Hispanic-owned businesses is determined by the ability to overcome obstacles. Perez says it has not always been easy staying on track, especially in times of a national crisis.

“9/11 really affected us,” Perez says. “I felt at that time that the State of Utah was the last to get hit economically because of what happened in New York.” An analysis from online small business website The Balance says the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused a recession at the time to worsen. Perez decided to hand over responsibility of Marisa’s Fashion to his brother as a result.

“I told him that if any of the businesses survived, I’d prefer it be his and that’s what happened,” Perez says. Since then, the business has carried on in Salt Lake City’s west side. Economic downturns and other setbacks aside, Hispanic-owned businesses like Marisa’s Fashion and Perez Enterprises continue to grow and establish themselves permanently in the area’s commercial landscape because of the economic and social influence they have.

Aaron Quarnberg, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says “understanding the Hispanic business community” is necessary “for any company looking to grow.”

In his welcome letter to the 2019 Hispanic Small Business Summit, Aaron Quarnberg, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says “understanding the Hispanic business community” is necessary “for any company looking to grow.” Statistics website Statista reports the buying power of the Hispanic community in the United States is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by the end of 2020. (That figure was calculated before the impact of COVID-19 in March 2020.)

“Latinos are contributing a lot not only with their businesses but with their taxes and it’s something that I think governments should really pay attention to,” says Moises Olivares, a Realtor and author based in Los Angeles, in a Facebook chat. He also says Salt Lake City can learn from cities like Los Angeles by expanding the perception of the Hispanic community as more than just what is propagated through stereotype.

A February 2019 study from the Peterson Institution for International Economics says “Hispanics, especially the foreign born, exhibit higher levels of entrepreneurship than other ethnic groups in the United States.” Despite these findings, Perez from Perez Enterprises says the Hispanic community in Salt Lake City still lacks recognition for its overall economic contribution. 

The Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce helps Hispanic-owned businesses thrive in the local economy while helping them comply with city regulations.

“People like to spend cash,” Perez says. “We know that helps business, even [non-Hispanic] businesses. If they did not have the economic support from the Hispanic community, they wouldn’t be in business.”

Regardless, Salt Lake City’s west-side Hispanic-owned businesses continue in spite of setbacks, crises or perceptions from others. Weathering the ups and downs of the market, cultural shifts, and technological changes helps businesses like Perez Enterprises and Marisa’s Fashion endure for as long as they have.

“When one is patient and is secure in the knowledge that they have to keep at it and keep going,” Perez says, “it becomes important so we can keep fighting and not give up to the last breath.”

Editor’s Note: Read more stories about local entrepreneurs, the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the impact of the Hispanic community in Utah.

 

Ballet Folklórico de las Américas: a home away from home

Details on a costume used by the group.

Story and photos by PALAK JAYSWAL

On the edge of downtown Salt Lake City, just behind the Gateway Mall, resides a small building in a fenced-off area. During the day, the white brick shines, the title on top proudly giving it an identity. The Centro Civico Mexicano, on 155 S. 600 West, is a nonprofit organization that is home to many different local groups. 

Late on a weekday night, you’re bound to run into a youth soccer group in the middle of practice. On the opposite side of the gym, behind a polyester red curtain, lives a stage. It is set for the dancers from Ballet Folklórico de las Américas. The oldest Latin American folk dancing group in Utah practices in the building twice a week, undeterred by conditions such as freezing cold temperatures in the winter. Each member arrives with a smile and a welcoming hug to all the members (and guests alike). They’re ready to immerse themselves in cultural dance for the next two hours. The silent message from the group is clear: everyone is welcome here. 

Ballet Folklórico de las Américas celebrated its 40th anniversary in November 2019. The group, originally formed in 1979, has continued to uphold its original mission “to unite the community under one heart as we communicate with the universal language of music and dance to show that Latinos are an important group contributing in our mainstream society with traditions and celebrations that bring enrichment to families and communities together as we celebrate diversity.” 

Legacy and Roots 

Members of Ballet Folklórico de las Américas.

The group celebrates diversity within Latin American countries as well as within a community of Latinos in Utah. Giselle Cornejo, a past dancer and continued supporter of the organization, identifies as Afro-Latina. She has been with the group since it originated when she was 15 years old. Her mother is one of the original founders and Cornejo’s experience and legacy with the group has helped her find her own identity. “When you’re learning a dance from Latin America, you learn why you do things a certain way. You learn what the movement means. It’s deeper than just a dance. It’s a projection of a culture,” Cornejo said. 

It is a culture that Cornejo has passed along to her own two daughters, now older, who also joined the group. The folk dance group not only becomes a second home for many immigrants, helping them adjust to their new lives and retain their identities, but also helps them stay in touch with their culture. In fact, Cornejo encourages involvement for this very reason. “If you have Latin American roots, I would say this would be a good place to bring your kids. It’s a fun group and it keeps families together. I think it helps [kids] identify who they are,” she said. 

Hats used in one of the dances.

While Cornejo is a generational legacy within the group, even the newer participants share the same sentiment. Miztly Montero, another dancer, has only been dancing for three months and she can already attest to the difference she feels in her life. “It’s an extended family, in a way, and it’s part of the culture you don’t get in any other scenarios where other people dominate the sectors,” Montero said.

As a first-generation child of an immigrant, Montero felt increased pressure to prove herself to her family and to the world. “You feel like people are looking down on you,” she said. “Part of that led me to work harder in school, at work, but it also led me to miss part of my culture and not embrace it as much.” The part of her culture that Montero missed out on is rediscovered through folk dancing — where she gets to learn about her heritage through songs, dance moves and community. 

Montero urges everyone to support groups like Ballet Folklórico de las Américas through attendance and inclusion. “It’s cool to embrace the value groups like this bring. Not just to the Hispanic population, but to other cultures and how we can come together and embrace those differences.” 

Resiliency, Teamwork and Patience 

Those differences are exactly what led Artistic Director Irma Hofer to her discovery of the dance group over 36 years ago. Hofer found herself drawn in by the different cultures of Latin America, not just the sole focus on her own Mexican heritage. “Latin American folk dancing has more variety and more stories. I learned history, traditions, celebrations and customs through that. The idiosyncrasies of Latin Americans,” Hofer said.  Through learning dances like the merengue, salsa, mamba and others she continues to grow. 

Boots and Decorations used during the dances.

Through her leadership, Hofer strives to make the group a place where her dancers can not only embrace their identities, but also learn to be better people. “We learn a lot of our personal and human values in this group,” Hofer said. “We learn resiliency, teamwork and patience.” 

All three of these traits are being put to work as the folk dance group, among various others who use the civic center, raise funds for a new building. With so many different groups using one center, there is simply not enough room for everyone. More often than not, Ballet Folklórico de las Américas has its practices canceled because other groups can’t get their work done with music playing. 

“The Mexican Civic Center is in much need of funding because we need a new building. We need dance classrooms, art classrooms, conference rooms where people can meet and not be canceled,” Hofer said. “This is the space we have. This is it.” 

The Mexican flag at the Civic Center.

Despite the circumstances, the dancers and members of Ballet Folkórico de las Américas continue to dance away, committed to making the most of what they have with a group that has offered so many of them a home away from home. The energizing music of the mambo, the dance the group is practicing, fills the cold building. Costumes are brought out for the dancers’ performance that weekend and a Mexican flag proudly waves next to the stage at the Centro Civico Mexicano, welcoming anyone who is looking for a place to belong.

 

 

 

 

 

Poplar Grove church is a symbol of diversity and service

Story and photo by JACOB RUEDA

In the heart of Poplar Grove lies St. Patrick Catholic Church, a haven of spirituality for the residents of this area of Salt Lake City. The parish located at 1040 W. 400 South serves not only as a host to communities from different parts of the world, but also as a steward in one of the roughest areas of town.

Father Anastasius Iwuoha hails from Nigeria and began serving as pastor of St. Patrick parish in August 2016. Before arriving at St. Patrick, he served in various parishes around the Salt Lake Diocese. He calls the difference between where he served previously and St. Patrick “glaring.”

While serving in another parish, “if you came to any of the masses, if there is any single person that is not Caucasian, you would spot the person immediately,” Iwuoha says. The range of nationalities represented at the parish is the most diverse he’s seen during his time in Salt Lake City. “St. Patrick’s is uniquely multiethnic, multiracial,” he says.

Built between 1916 and 1919, St. Patrick Catholic Church served European Immigrants. Image courtesy of St. Patrick Catholic Church.

In its early days St. Patrick served Italian and Irish immigrants to Utah, according to the Fall 2019 issue of The West View. Today, the cultural makeup includes people from the Pacific Islands, Myanmar, Philippines and Africa.

Rita Stelmach, 60, noticed the changing demographic of parishioners. She has attended St. Patrick since she was 19. “We have the most different mixture of cultures at St. Patrick’s,” Stelmach says.

Anthony Martinez, director of religious education and youth ministry, says some communities outgrew the parish and established themselves elsewhere. For example, the Vietnamese and Hispanic communities either built their own parish in other parts of the Salt Lake Valley or they settled in other parishes.

This May 24, 1919, article from the Salt Lake Tribune shows the old parish and the newly constructed church. Image courtesy of St. Patrick Catholic Church.

Salt Lake Diocese Bishop Lawrence Scanlan established St. Patrick in 1892, when it was originally located at 500 West and 400 South. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in April 1916 the purchase for the grounds where the church is today. Scanlan’s successor, Joseph Sarsfield Glass, bought the property from Bothwell & McConaughy Real Estate and Investment Company for $6,000 ($140,728.62 in 2019 value).

The parish experienced a number of events in its history, including fires in 1924 and 1965 that gutted the church but did not destroy it. In July 2019, St. Patrick celebrated its centennial and unearthed a time capsule containing fragments of the old parish, photographs and newspaper clippings.

Throughout its history, the parish has served the local community in different ways.

“We opened our hall and the hall was the center for the neighborhood meeting for a long time,” Iwuoha says. The parish served as neutral ground for town hall meetings where even the police came to participate. “They [came] here to decide the fate of the whole neighborhood,” he says.

In addition, church outreach projects focus on helping the homeless population in the area. Organizations like the Daughters of Charity and the Knights of Columbus work in conjunction with the parish, says director Martinez. They provide aid and donations for distribution to individuals experiencing homelessness. Likewise, students from J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic High School donate food items during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Martinez grew up in Poplar Grove and recognizes some of the stigma surrounding that area. “I’m beyond proud of where I come from,” he says, adding that people who are unfamiliar with the neighborhood judge it based on news reports and not direct involvement with those who live there.

Iwuoha echoes that sentiment, saying that his experience is different from what others told him it would be. “The impression I got when I came here was, here are a humble people, humble and vibrant people,” he says. “That’s my own personal treasure, not the one I got from [others].”

Roadsnacks.com reports the neighborhood around the church is one of the less reputable areas of Salt Lake City. However, statistics from December 2019 from the Salt Lake Police Department show a drop in overall crime.

The parish works to promote a “spirit of peace and good neighborliness” in the area through participation in church and local events as well as Sunday sermons. “When [people] come to church and when we preach and teach, they go back and become good citizens and good neighbors,” Iwuoha says. Additionally, the summer carnival brings the neighborhood together to show support for the church and the community.

The parish faces challenges despite community support. The structure of the main church and the surrounding buildings are crumbling due to age and wear. Cracks that are haphazardly patched are visible in the church walls and there is water damage from flooding. The biggest problem facing the parish is money.

“The greatest challenge St. Patrick’s has now is where to raise funds to replace some of the very aging and dangerous structures we have,” Iwuoha says. “The basement is virtually crumbling and the building is at risk.” The exact cost for repairs is unknown. The parish was able to repave its parking lot but “at a very huge cost,” Iwuoha says.

St. Patrick Catholic Church continues its tradition of diversity and service. Image by Jacob Rueda.

Setbacks aside, parishioners gather each week in the spirit of worship and community. In its 128-year history, people have arrived at St. Patrick from all over the world to call it home and to share the one thing they have in common.

“St. Patrick’s Church is the house of the Lord where everyone is welcome: believers, non-believers, Catholics, even non-Catholics,” Martinez says.

Iwuoha says it is a sense of shared faith, a duty to service and pride in America that brings people together to celebrate the spirit of the parish. “They have pride in the nation,” he says. “All of us are American.”