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.


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.


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.


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.


Dual Immersion Academy succeeds despite setbacks, bigotry


Some people see unmet needs in their communities, wonder why, hope that somebody will do something, then forget about it in the rush of daily life. Other people, like freelance journalist Patricia Dark, see these same unmet needs and realize they are the “somebody” that everybody else is hoping for.

“If something doesn’t exist and there is a need you can see, or if you don’t find what you need, you create it,” Dark said in a recent interview.

It was that determined mindset that led to the opening last year of the Dual Immersion Academy, Salt Lake City’s first public charter school at which both Spanish and English speaking students are placed in classes together and spend their days learning with each other, and from each other, in both languages.

When Dark came to the United States with her family three years ago, her Argentine-born daughters, Elizabeth and Kathryn, were 4 years old and 2 years old, respectively, and spoke only Spanish. Within a couple of years, Dark said, she noticed they were speaking only English and had actually begun to forget their native Spanish.

“I didn’t know you could lose a language,” she said. “It amazes me how few people in America speak a second language. It also amazes me how many new arrivals to the country don’t realize the need to speak English.”

As Dark and her family settled in Salt Lake City, she also noticed a troubling lack of visibility when it came to the different local non-white populations, populations with proud histories and rich traditions to contribute.

“There was no diversity, no color, no culture here,” she said. “No stories.”

She said she was familiar with the dual immersion concept of teaching and recognized how that model could work to address both of these problems. Within months she had recruited a group of local mothers and filed the necessary state paperwork to launch a charter school.

The academy, located at 1155 South Glendale Drive in Salt Lake City, opened its doors in September 2007. Roughly half of the 350 students come from Spanish speaking homes and half come from English speaking homes. All books and learning materials are bilingual.

One day the students do everything in Spanish and the next day they do everything in English. The result, Dark said, is students who are “not only bilingual, but also bi-literate.” She said studies show that students from these types of schools are 70 percent more likely to go to college.

“The kids use more of their brains,” she said. “They are like zombies the first week. It’s a lot of work to do everything in two languages.”

It is also a lot of work, as Dark said she quickly discovered, to open and run a first-of-its-kind charter school. Several problems arose that she had not foreseen, and most of the ones she had been anticipating turned out to be worse than expected.

“Opening a school is like building an airplane in the air,” she said. “I had no idea how difficult it would be.”

The school ran out of funding before the cafeteria could be completed, and the outdoor tent being used as a temporary facility blew apart in a recent storm. The students now eat lunch in the classrooms, which are carpeted. Combine kids, food and carpet and you get a mess, Dark said, and teachers have had to relinquish their much-needed preparation time in order to supervise.

Dark also has to contend with ignorance and bigotry on a daily basis, and said she has been startled by the intensity of it. She has received frightening and angry calls demanding to know why she is giving “illegal aliens” a free education, or wondering how she could dare to teach Spanish in an English-speaking country.

Dark, 41, was born in New York and raised in a bilingual household. Both of her parents worked at the United Nations – her father as an Argentine diplomat and her mother as a clerk. She attended college at Columbia University, majoring in international politics. During her junior year, she said, a serendipitous mix-up over an internship assignment in England resulted in both a career and a husband.

Instead of working in Parliament as planned, she was given a job at a London publication where current Salt Lake City Weekly writer Stephen Dark was working as the business editor. When the internship ended, she had a marriage that she described as an adventure and a career writing for newspapers and magazines that would take her to three different continents.

Dark moved with her family from Buenos Aires to Salt Lake City three years ago after the collapse of the Argentine economy. When she arrived, she took a position with Mundo Hispano, a regional Spanish language newspaper. She said she learned a great deal about the local Hispanic community while reporting for the newspaper and recognized many things that could be done to help community business owners.

She got involved with the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and, last year, was named its executive director, becoming the first woman to serve in that post. Since taking the helm, she has worked to increase small-business membership and has developed a series of chamber-sponsored workshops on topics ranging from taxes to marketing.

“So much of the knowledge necessary to be successful as a business owner is practical details that can’t be taught in a classroom,” Dark said. “But there was really nowhere locally to learn these things.”

Dark also saw a need for networking opportunities and started hosting a series of events at the chamber. At one of these, she said, a local man with a small cleaning service met a vice president at Wells Fargo Bank. That man now has 500 employees and a long-term contract to clean the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Salt Lake.

However, Dark said she considers the Dual Immersion Academy her greatest achievement – and her biggest headache. She said she still needs a great deal of financial help to make it completely what she envisions. At the moment, the school can’t even provide bus service to the students, which hinders recruitment efforts.

She is, at least, encouraged by the support she gets from Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who took time during the Crandall Canyon mine disaster in Aug. 2007 to attend the school’s grand opening. And she knows that, despite all of the problems, she is doing exactly what she set out to do.

“The important thing is that the kids are learning,” she said. “And we are achieving diversity.”


Dual Immersion Academy triunfa a pesar de contratiempos y fanatismo


Algunas personas reconocen que hay cierta necesidad en sus comunidades, se preguntan porque existe, y esperan que alguien haga algo al respecto. Después siguen con su vida cotidiana y lo olvidan. Otras personas, como la periodista independiente Patricia Dark se dan cuenta de estas necesidades y ven que ellos son el “alguien” que los demás están esperando.

Recientemente un una entrevista Dark dijo: “Te puedes dar cuenta que hay algo que necesitas pero no existe, entonces si no encuentras eso que necesitas, lo construyes.”

Esa mentalidad fue lo que llevo el abrir la escuela Dual Immersion academy cual abrió el ano pasado. La primera escuela publica donde ambos estudiantes latinos y norte americanos toman parte en clases y aprenden de uno al otro, tanto como en ingles como español.

Dark se mudo con su familia desde la Argentina a los Estados Unidos hace tres años. Sus hijas Elizabeth 4 años y Kathryn de 2, hablaban español. Pero en un par de anos Dark se dio cuenta que sus hijas hablaban solo ingles y se les estaba olvidando su lenguaje natal.

“No sabia que podrías perder un lenguaje,” dijo Dark. “Me asombra como pocas personas en América hablan un segundo idioma, y también el hecho do como aquellos que acaban de llegar no se dan cuenta de la necesidad de hablar el Ingles.”

“Aquí no había diversidad, o color o cultura. No hay historias.”

Ella estaba familiarizada con el concepto de combinación en el sector educativo, y reconoció como este modelo podría ayudar en resolver estos problemas. En unos meses ella recluto a madres en la comunidad y llenaron los papeles requeridos por el estado para empezar una escuela charter.

Esta academia esta localizada en 11 south Glendale Drive en Salt Lake City. Abrió sus puertas en Septiembre 2007. Aproximadamente la mitad de los 350 estudiantes vienen de hogares donde se habla español. Y la otra mitad en donde se habla ingles. Todos los libros y materiales son bilingües

Un día los estudiantes hacen todo en español y el otro día lo hacen en ingles. Dark dice que los estudiantes “no solo son bilingües, pero también leen y escriben en ambos idiomas.” También menciona que hay estadistas que dicen que los estudiantes cuales van a este tipos de escuela tienen 70 por ciento mas en posibilidad de ir a una Universidad.

La Sra. Dark dice que “los niños usan mas su cerebro. Son como zombis en la primera semana. Es mucho trabajo hacer todo en dos lenguajes”

También se dio cuenta que es mucho trabajo abrir y manejar una escuela que es la primera de su tipo. Hubo muchos problemas que Dark no había previsto, y aquellos cuales anticipo fueron peor de lo que ella esperaba.

“Abrir una escuela es como construir un avión en el aire. No tenia idea que tan difícil podría ser.”

Los fondos de la escuela se agotaron antes de que la cafetería pudiera ser terminada. Y una carpa cual eras usada temporalmente como salón fue destruida después de una tormenta. Los estudiantes ahora comen su almuerzo en los salones, cuales tienen alfombra. “Combina a niños, comida y alfombra y tienes un salón sucio,” dijo Dark. Y los maestros tienen que supervisar a los niños cual quita el tiempo para poder prepararse para sus clases.

A parte de eso Dark se enfrento contra ignorancia y fanatismo. Recibía llamadas donde personas demandaban saber porque les daba educacion gratis a ilegales, o porque enseñaba español en un país donde se habla ingles.

Dark de 41 anos nació en Nueva York y creció en un hogar bilingüe. Sus padres trabajaban para la Naciones Unidas — su papa como un diplomata Argentino, y su mama como vendedora. Ella fue a la Universidad de Columbia, donde se recibió en política internacional. Durante su penúltimo ano escolar mientras hacia un servicio de interno en Inglaterra resulto en conseguir carrera y marido.

En lugar de trabajar en Parlamento como ella planeaba, le dieron un trabajo en un periódico en Londres donde Stephen Dark que ahora escribe para el periódico local Salt Lake City Weekly, estaba trabajando como editor. Cuando su trabajo como interno termino, Dark estaba en un matrimonio cual ella describe como una aventura, y con una carrera escribiendo para periódicos y revistas que la llevaron por tres continentes.

Dark se mudo de la Argentina a Salt Lake City hace tres años cuando callo la economía de dicho país. Aquí, empezó a trabajar para Mundo Hispano. Un periódico regional en español, ella aprendió bastante acerca de la comunidad latina y mientras reportaba para el periódico reconoció que muchas cosas se podrian hacer para ayudar a los dueños de negocios en la comunidad latina.

Se involucro en el Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Y el ano pasado fue nombrada director ejecutivo, convirtiéndose en la primera mujer en servir en dicho puesto. Desde que tomo el mando, a trabajado en incrementar el numero de negocios locales y a desarrollado series de talleres que hablan de asuntos como la mercadotecnia.

“Hay mucho conocimiento que es necesario para tener éxito como dueña/ño de tu propio negocio. Son cosas que no se aprenden en la escuela. Y no había lugares donde aprender estas cosas.”

Dark también vio la necesidad en crear una red de oportunidades en la comunidad hispana. Organizo eventos en el comercio hispano donde latinos interactuan unos con los otros. Dark cuenta que en uno de estos eventos un hombre que tiene su servicio de limpieza conoció al vicepresidente del banco Wells Fargo. Ese hombre ahora tiene 500 empleados y un contrato de largo plazo para limpiar edificios de Wells Fargo en el centro en Salt Lake City.

A pesar de todo, Dark considera a Dual Immersion Academy su logro mas grande tanto como un gran dolor de cabeza. Todavía se necesita gran ayuda financiera para ver terminada su visión. Por el momento la escuela todavía no puede proveer servicio de autobús para los alumnos cual hiere los esfuerzos en reclutar mas estudiantes.

Algo que le da animo a Dark es el apoyo del Gobernador Jon Huntsman Jr., quien a tomado tiempo durante el desastre de la mina Crandal Canyon el año pasado para atender la apertura de la escuela. Y ella sabe que a pesar de todo los problemas que a tenido ella esta haciendo exactamente lo que se propuso.

“Lo importante es que los niños aprendan y que alcancemos diversidad.”


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