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Writer finds Latino Utah

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Jorge Iber and his wife didn't expect to find anyone like them when they moved from Miami, Fla., to Salt Lake City in 1992. They came so Jorge could earn his Ph.D. in history at the University of Utah — and it took a while before they ventured away from the relatively monochromatic east side of the city.

Hungry for some Latin sustenance — the Ibers are Cuban American — they found, wonder of wonders, guava paste at a west-side grocery. Opening that container of Caribbean sweetness opened Jorge Iber's senses to a side of Utah he hadn't planned on.

Faith and jobs have drawn all kinds of Latinos here since the beginning of the last century, and the exodus goes on, as Iber writes in his book, "Hispanics in the Mormon Zion." The author, who now teaches at Texas Tech in Lubbock, returned to his now-beloved Salt Lake City this weekend to talk about how Hispanic history is repeating itself here.

As railroads, mines and farms were established across the West, laborers were in great demand, so in poured immigrants willing to work dangerous jobs for low pay. "Wherever there was tough, manual labor to do in the early part of the 20th century, you're going to find Mexicans," Iber began.

Mexicans worked in Utah's sugar beet fields and railroad lines starting in the 1910s and '20s, and in the process joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They had come into this country as Catholics, and significant numbers found that conversion to the Beehive State's dominant religion gave them higher status.

In his book Iber recounts a stinging example. Eufemio Salazar, a Mexican American who was raised a Mormon in Colorado, was apprehended by a police officer in Utah in 1926. Salazar "gave him my genealogy and all other proper information," as in his ward affiliation. The officer's behavior changed suddenly, Iber said, and he ended up giving Salazar a ride to work. "He changed from being a 'dangerous Mexican' to 'Hey, he's all right.' I guarantee you, if this individual had been Catholic, that would not have happened," Iber said.

Heavy-industry jobs declined after the 1970s, to be replaced by a construction boom at century's end. "The economy in Utah was very, very good in the 1990s, and that has attracted more people and greater diversity," Iber said. A joke he used to hear around the U. went something like, "Where do you get authentic Mexican food in Park City? Everywhere, because if you go into the restaurant kitchens, that's who's working there, preparing the dishes."

Mexicans have long constituted the largest Latino population in Utah, and this part of the Southwest was part of Mexico before the American pioneers' arrival. But other groups bring their distinctive cultures to the state, Iber said. During the 1940s, a few hundred Puerto Ricans came to work in the copper mines, stirring conflict with their Mexican predecessors. Mexican American parents, said Iber, "didn't want their daughters hanging around with those d--- Caribbeans," since their culture seemed so different. Tensions between Catholic and LDS Latinos intensified through the years, he added. LDS parents didn't want their teenagers dating Catholics or vice versa.

None of this is ancient history, Iber noted. As Utah's population grows, it will include immigrants of widely divergent backgrounds. Already the state has substantial Argentinian, Bolivian, Chilean and Salvadoran communities. And "as the (LDS) church continues to grow and spread its message in the Spanish-speaking world, you'll have more of those folks coming in," from Central and South America.

All this in a place where Iber thought he'd find few other Latinos. "I tell my students, 'Be open to your surroundings; be aware of what's going on around you,' " he said. Taking his own advice gave him entre to writing a book about both Utah's history and its future.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com