Government, nonprofit and business leaders highlighted the economic, cultural, culinary and political influence of Latinos on Friday, officially kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month, at the Suazo Business Center.

Hispanics make up 20% of the city's population and 15% of the state, according to United States Census data. That influence is reflected in the city's theme this month, "Latinos: Driving prosperity and powering progress in America and environmentally sustainable futures."

"This month holds a special place in my heart because it allows us to celebrate our beautiful community and heritage. It's an honor to live in a city where diverse cultures and traditions can flourish," said Ana Valdemoros, Salt Lake City's first Hispanic council member. "There are boundless opportunities for us in Salt Lake City and we belong here. ... I encourage you to be bold and proud about our heritage this month and all year long. Let's celebrate how far we've come and let's continue to make history."

Utah's Mexican Consul Eduardo Baca Cuenca and Suazo Center Business Development Director Edward Bennett stressed just how much Latinos contribute economically.

Nearly 5 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the country contribute over $800 billion to the U.S. economy annually and employ 3 million workers. Utah has over 25,000 Hispanic business owners, who contribute over $9.6 billion to the local economy each year.

Latinos are also almost 20% of the U.S. labor force and are projected to represent 1 out of every 5 workers by 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As consumers, their buying power exceeds $2.7 trillion, which is larger than the gross domestic products of Italy, Brazil and Canada and would be the seventh-largest GDP in the world.

"It is without a doubt our Latino and Hispanic businessmen and women will be driving prosperity, power and progress in America, Utah and our very own Salt Lake City in 2023 and for many years to come," Bennett said.

Carla Arancibia and Luis Ulloa perform a musical number during a gathering of community members and community leaders to celebrate the start of Hispanic Heritage Month at the Suazo Business Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the city is working to support the Hispanic community, including investing in the west side and increasing language access.

"We work to prioritize access for our (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and women-owned businesses in this community. We recognize that the access to support, historically, is not equitable. And that's why we're working intentionally to listen, to unpack the policies or the processes that may make it harder for some members of our community to access the support they need," she said.

Councilman Alejandro Puy, an Argentine immigrant who represents the city district with the highest number of Latino residents, said although Latinos contribute to the city in many ways, their full political power has been under-tapped.

"Latinos are not showing up to vote, and I understand why. We have sometimes many trust issues. We don't know if our vote matters, but it does," he said, adding that District 2 has the lowest voter turnout. "Latinos need to show up, need to make a difference. We need to make sure that we are strong and they see our strength in our ballot box. So register to vote if you know how to. If you know friends that need to be registered to vote, send them the link. If you need to naturalize and you're eligible to do, so start that process."

Olivia Juarez, lifelong Utahn and public land director for the national nonprofit Green Latinos, also encouraged Latinos to come together on climate issues, which, across the country, have historically disproportionately impacted Hispanic and other communities of color.

"I know it feels really urgent. It can even feel really scary. But I can say that I'm not scared," Juarez said. "I'm not afraid because I can call on the power of my heritage, of all Latino community heritage and culture and history, and carry the power of the battles that we have overcome to be here today, to carry the power of the battles won for independence and liberation across Latin America to fight the greatest battle facing humanity of our lifetimes: the climate crisis."

Marta Cosgrove, a Salt Lake City resident, enjoys a gathering of community members and community leaders to celebrate the start of Hispanic Heritage Month at the Suazo Business Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News