Utah History Encyclopedia


By William H. Gonzalez and Orlando Rivera

Mexican American fiesta in 1930

Hispanics of Utah are those people of Spanish descent who reside in the state and have contributed to its development. This Utah ethnic group was officially placed at 4.1 percent of the population, or 69,260, in 1980; however, Hispanic leaders in Utah believe that to be a conservative estimate, and that the number is closer to 6 percent.

Hispanic history in America begins in 1492 with Columbus's arrival in the New World and the subsequent Spanish exploration and colonization during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The earliest Spanish expedition into what is now Utah was possibly by Captain Garci-Lopez de Cardenas during the late summer of 1541, as recorded in the diary of Francisco de Coronado.

The Spanish began colonizing New Mexico at the end of the sixteenth century. Juan de Onate and his party of 400 men with 7,000 head of stock established their headquarters across from the Indian pueblo of San Juan near present-day Espanola. In 1609 Governor Pedro de Peralta was ordered to establish the villa of Santa Fe. Once this was done, Spanish colonization spread throughout that area.

From that time until 1822 the Spanish flag flew over that city; it was then replaced by the Mexican flag, which caused no real change in the lifestyle of the people. In 1846 the United States declared war on Mexico and invaded that nation. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States took possession of most of northern Mexico including present-day Utah. The inhabitants of the north, who for centuries had resided in the area, remained there with their rights to property and the freedom to communicate in Spanish ostensibly granted them. However, under the new government they soon lost most of their land, their water rights, and their freedom of expression, and did not truly share in a representative government. These events resulted in poverty, forcing them to move from the lands of their ancestors to places where they could find employment in order to survive.

There is evidence that the Spanish colonizers explored much of the Great Basin for the purpose of mining, trading, and seeking a route to California. One of the efforts to establish a route between the New Mexico and California missions was the Dominguez and Escalante Expedition, which left Santa Fe on 29 July 1776 and traveled north and west with Monterey as its goal. The expedition entered present-day Utah near Jensen where it crossed el Rio San Buenaventura (the Green River) on 13 September. They then traveled west on the south slope of La Sierra Blanca de Los Lagunas (Uinta Mountains), crossed over the Wasatch Mountains following el Rio de Aguas Calientes (Spanish Fork River), and on 24 September viewed the lake and wide valley of Nuestra Senora de los Timpanogotiz (Utah Lake and Valley), which they described as ". . . the most pleasing, beautiful, and fertile site in all new Spain." The purpose of their mission was peaceful, and they were implored by the Indians to return and teach them. The return journey to Santa Fe was difficult as they crossed into southwestern Utah and to the edge of the Grand Canyon. They finally crossed the Colorado River at a place where they hewed steps in the cliff to facilitate the descent. This site, later named "The Crossing of the Fathers," is now covered by the waters of Lake Powell. In a somewhat analogous manner, most of the Hispanic history and accomplishments in the area are covered by the flood of written documents in English which have systematically excluded them from textbooks and history books and often have renamed the places discovered and first explored by the Spanish.

Even though no permanent settlements were established by the Dominguez-Escalante party, the explored Utah area had been claimed for the king of Spain. Later, this familiarity with the geography played an important role in the development of the Spanish Trail, which began in Santa Fe, went north, then west across what is now Utah, and on to California. The Spanish Trail is of great importance to Utah history, having been used by American explorers and Mormon settlers; today modern highways follow it.

Because of the Hispanic exploration and presence, some Spanish names are still used to name geographical features of the state, such as the Colorado and San Juan rivers, the La Sal and the Abajo mountains, and Montezuma and La Gega Canyons, all in southern Utah.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Hispanic presence was again felt in Utah with Hispanic contributions to the development of the cattle, sheep, railroad, and mining industries. Both the cattle and sheep industries have their origins in the Spanish-Mexican culture, having been brought to the New World by the Spaniards. Spanish mining processes and irrigation systems played an important role in the development of the West, especially in Utah. The English language is replete with words derived from Spanish to describe objects or processes hitherto unknown to the Anglo settlers: rancho, sombrero, mustang, hacienda, vaquero, latigo, lasso, el dorado, and acequia, are just a few of them. With the development of the new industries in Utah, people familiar with these processes were needed; Hispanics from the Southwest, attracted by these jobs and land, began to move into southern Utah to settle permanently; by 1900 the Hispanic presence had become established in the Monticello area of San Juan County. Many families soon had their own homesteads and continued to play an important role in the development of the cattle and sheep industries in that area; they later provided the labor force for the nascent mining industry in the region.

At the same time that Hispanics from New Mexico and Colorado were making their homes in Utah, other Hispanic people, Mexican immigrants, were coming to northern Utah. Most of these new immigrants settled in Salt Lake City and Ogden areas, where they worked in the mines and for the railroad; later, others worked in the coal mines of Carbon County.

Since most Hispanic families came to Utah from materially-poor environments, the hardships encountered here, such as low wages for cowboys and sheepherders, and, for the miners, low wages, "gang bosses," and dependence on the company store, all prepared Hispanics for the Great Depression--poverty was nothing new to them. During this period of economic crisis, rural Hispanics continued to eke out a living from the soil, but those living in the urban centers could not revert to the traditional way of life and had to adapt the best they could to a new type of hardship, urban poverty. Many Hispanics returned to New Mexico, and many Mexicans were deported to Mexico, a measure taken by the U.S. government to ease the unemployment problem.

With the outbreak of World War II, there was an immediate demand for a labor force. Recruiters from the defense industries went to the villages of New Mexico to entice Hispanic workers and their families to move to Utah. Not only did Hispanics contribute with their work to the war effort, but Hispanic soldiers actively participated in battle, becoming one of the most highly decorated groups in the United States Armed Forces.

Many Hispanics, attracted by the better paying jobs and better living conditions, left the rural areas and joined the steady stream of Hispanics from Colorado and New Mexico to work in the defense-related industries of northern Utah, reinforcing the Hispanic communities in those areas or creating new ones. In the past twenty-five years an increasing number of people from Central and South America have appeared on the scene, thus continuing to enrich the colorful tapestry of Utah's Hispanic population.

Since the first permanent Hispanic settlers of Utah came from northern New Mexico where the lifestyle and culture were based on the Catholic faith, this cultural difference prevented them from being easily assimilated into the local Utah culture. This rejection was instrumental in the strengthening of both their language and culture, causing the Hispanics to form their own communities within the larger community.

Even though Hispanic families usually were large, the compadrazgo (godfather/godmother) system gave rise to close relationships with other families through baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. Each of these occasions was observed by a fiesta. The wedding, in most cases a community event, was celebrated by a fiesta and dance.

Most Hispanics upon arrival into the state established contact with the local Catholic church, which attended to their spiritual needs and became the cultural focal point of their community. In the early 1920s a branch of the Mormon Church was organized in Salt Lake City called La Rama Mexicana, which attended to the needs of Hispanics who came to Utah from various Spanish-speaking countries because of their conversion to Mormonism. Pentecostal groups also organized churches among Hispanics in the state. These religious groups often reinforced Hispanic ethnicity.

The Hispanic community in Utah has been served by many different organizations. Some of the early ones were organized by Mexican immigrants, and include the Cruz Azul, a Mexican version of the Red Cross, and Union y Patria, a mutual aid society. After World War II, new Hispanic organizations appeared; they include the Centro Civico Mexicano in Salt Lake City, Sociedad Mexicana Cuahotemoc in Carbon County, and the Sociedad Fraternal Benito Juarez in Ogden.

During this period a new type of Hispanic appeared upon the scene, the Hispanic war veteran, who, after serving his country and returning home, refused to resume his way of life before the war. These men formed organizations oriented toward civil and political action. The prime example of these organizations was the American G.I. Forum, founded in Texas in 1947, a chapter of which was organized in 1954 in Ogden and another in 1955 in Salt Lake City. The purpose of this organization was to challenge employment discrimination and to encourage education by providing scholarships.

With the advent of the Civil Rights movement, Hispanics began to more closely examine their own cultural heritage and values. The forces on the national level had an impact on Utah Hispanics and in 1958 a new organization appeared whose acronym, SOCIO, stood for Spanish-speaking Organization for Community Integrity and Opportunity. At the height of its activity, members came from every Hispanic community in the state. Its goal was equality, opportunity, and respect for the Spanish-speaking people of Utah.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, the Hispanic population forms Utah's largest minority group, and it is constantly being reinforced by new arrivals from all Spanish-speaking countries. However, despite their contributions to the development of the state, Hispanics still continue to live under some conditions of intercolonialism such as the disfranchisement of many and their lack of political power, as well as subtle and blatant forms of racism.

Hispanics currently have concerns about the public school system's failure to educate their children, the exclusion of Hispanics from the higher education process, an unemployment rate three times that of the general population, sociological problems manifested by disproportionate numbers in the corrections system and on public assistance, law enforcement profiling Hispanics, gang activity and adverse media reporting on youth accused of gang activity, English-only legislation, and immigration problems, among other basic human rights concerns.

Hispanics are an integral part of the people and the society that is Utah. They have adopted the dominant culture although they sense a loss as their own original culture is not as visible nor as revitalized in Utah as it is in other states. The future for the Hispanics of Utah is one of growth and, if the barriers are removed, possible full participation in the social fabric of the state.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994.