PROVO — Jorge Becerra remembers a time when he attended the only Hispanic Latter-day Saint congregation in Salt Lake.

Now a Draper stake president, Becerra can think of 28 Hispanic congregations in a similar area. And that's just another sign of the rapid growth of the Hispanic population both in Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The biggest indicator, however, came Sunday night as Becerra sat among 5,000 Hispanics gathered at the Brigham Young University Marriott Center to hear the gospel of good news in their own language.

"It's amazing to see how we've grown," Becerra said. "It is a great opportunity to bring us together in a spirit that is — we say in Spanish — alegre, or happy."

All faiths were invited to the Hispanic Christmas Celebration, the second event of its kind sponsored by the LDS Church.

"If we are Christians, we love the Lord Jesus Christ. We revere him as the Savior and creator of the world," said Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The celebration, conducted entirely in Spanish, featured Christmas messages by Elder Ballard, who spoke through a translator, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. Both focused on the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ, along with the important contributions of Utah Hispanics.

"I think most of them are working hard to learn English and get the opportunities for themselves and their family that English offers," Christofferson said, "but there's no substitute for having a celebration in your own native language."

Miss Latina USA Lydia Acuna also cautioned the crowd not to lose their native flavor in the process. "I am proud to be a Lamanite," said Acuna, referring to the Native American tribe depicted in the Book of Mormon. "I am American. I am Mexican. I am happy to be who I am."

"It was so great to listen to hymns in my own language," said a tearful Cristina Hazembuller, who left Argentina two years ago to come to Utah. "The language can transmit something so special."

Christofferson — who learned Spanish while serving an LDS mission to Argentina 30 years ago — said the annual celebration is intended as a "thank-you" to the Hispanic community for all they bring to the local landscape.

"They bring so many things with them — family values and cultural traditions," Christofferson said. "And they have wonderful food."

According to LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills, more than a quarter of the 11 million-member church are native Spanish speakers. Latin America — including Brazil — constitutes a third of the church's world membership by itself.


E-MAIL: lwarner@desnews.com