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Conexion Amigo aims to bring 2 cultures together

Shelley Weiss recently hosted a fiesta in her Park City home.

Included were several long-time Park City residents and a group of Hispanics, all newcomers to Summit County.The mood at first wasn't exactly warm and fuzzy.

"The groups seemed segregated . . .. Many of the Hispanics said that it was a party for white people," said Weiss, who hustled to get the groups mingling before the party ended.

The gathering may reflect a widening gap between Park City's white and growing Hispanic communities.

As a remedy, Weiss and others from both communities organized Conexion Amigo, an advocacy group designed to educate and bring cultures together.

"We want people to get to know each other, for residents to get to know the new Latino population," Weiss said.

Easing culture shock is vital, she added.

Many Hispanic immigrants arrive without an understanding of Utah laws, ranging from criminal statutes to building code ordinances and immigration policies..

"I spoke to one man once who had an open container outside a convenience store. He didn't know it was illegal," Weiss said.

Conexion Amigo leaders enlisted Park City police, who were eager to forge a stronger relationship with the Hispanic community.

Under the direction of detective Rod Ludlow, officers received cultural and sensitivity training.

A system was also established where Spanish-speaking volunteers were called whenever a Hispanic without English skills was in an accident, arrested or needed some sort of police assistance.

"It's worked out well," said Lorena Riffo, the state's director of Hispanic affairs. "Interpreters can explain to someone why he's being arrested, why he or she is being incarcerated and help him understand his rights."

The group has also sponsored classes to help newcomers grasp a new language.

"There's a misconception that Latinos here don't want to learn English, but they know that's their ticket to a better job, a better life," Weiss said.

Ludlow said his department has enlisted methods used in Aspen, Colo., to assist newly arrived Hispanics. Included are Spanish-language pamphlets with how-to tips on being good neighbors, registering cars and using seat belts and child-restraint devices are required by laws.

A small percentage of the newly arrived Hispanics commit crimes, Ludlow said.