At just 11 years old, Efren Corado Garcia traveled with a human trafficker from Guatemala through Mexico, making his way by himself across the U.S. border to the hope of a better life.

His mom, who had paid the trafficker, was already in California.

“All of those (immigrants’) stories come from the same place. It really is ... because there is a need that is not being met, and in fact there are many needs that are not being met from housing stability, just food, and just financial support that allows you to live. It’s really as simple as that — it’s people running away from poverty and death,” Garcia said.

But he doesn’t remember his childhood experiences as traumatic. If he’d never come to the United States, his life would have been completely different.

“I would’ve been a farmer. Our homes were made of hay and mud and sticks. They weren’t made out of what we see downtown right now,” Garcia said of Salt Lake City, his home now for nearly 15 years.

Instead, he’s been a professional dancer, dance teacher and arts accessibility advocate with Salt Lake County. After finding himself redeployed when the pandemic hit to manage an isolation and quarantine facility, Garcia now uses his unique experiences in his position as the county diversity affairs officer, where he’s working on equity and fairness issues at a time of social unrest.

Repertory Dance Theatre dancer Efren Corado Garcia received his bachelor’s degree in dance at Chapman University in Orange, California, followed by a master’s in modern dance at the University of Utah. He taught at the U. and Utah Valley University, and then joined Repertory Dance Theatre where he performed for six years. He is now Salt Lake County’s diversity affairs officer. | Sharon Kain, Repertory Dance Theatre

‘Connecting with the community’

Garcia received his bachelor’s degree in dance at Chapman University in Orange, California, followed by a master’s in modern dance at the University of Utah. He taught at the U. and Utah Valley University, and then joined Repertory Dance Theatre where he performed for six years.

“Which was a great opportunity to really have access to the community at large. I mean, I can tell you that I have performed in the course of the six years, at probably every elementary school in the county and possibly the state,” Garcia said.

His career took a turn when he decided to move on from performing and joined Salt Lake County’s “Arts for All” program, which promotes inclusion and accessibility at the Eccles Theater.

“Again, that provided me another opportunity to connect with community organizers and various fields, anywhere from hospice care ... to resource centers, and just individual community members, as well as figuring out what were some of the components that would be limiting (for attending events),” Garcia said.

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But when the pandemic hit, that job “stalled” as arts and culture activities throughout the community halted. He and many other county employees were offered opportunities to aid in the pandemic response.

“And I just was offered an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse. One, because I had the privilege of being at home and didn’t have anybody at risk besides myself and my dog, so it was a pretty easy decision to go ahead and be redeployed with the health department,” Garcia recalled.

He began managing a quarantine and isolation facility that housed COVID-19-positive community members without homes or places to isolate within their homes.

Through the arts, Garcia had participated in community advocacy work, but he’d “never participated directly with individuals that were homeless or that were in densely complicated areas as far as living situations,” he said.

“To me, it was really illuminating because it showed me that there was another outlet, another facet of what makes up Salt Lake County,” according to Garcia. “This opportunity to work at the shelter really provided me my first, fully-fleshed encounter with a community that was much in need.”

While overseeing the quarantine facility, his job included ensuring safety policies and procedures were in place, dealing directly with clients and their needs by ensuring patients could be transferred to and from hospitals, serving as a liaison between staff and administrators, and working with health professionals on-site.

“But I think the majority of the work was just figuring out how to create an opportunity for individuals to feel supported and to feel like they were being treated with dignity and appreciation for who they are in the midst of a pandemic,” Garcia said.

That need for connection came to play a big part in how he approaches his current job. After working at the quarantine and isolation facility, Garcia was offered the role of diversity and inclusion officer for the county in January.

Something Garcia says he often encounters in discussions about government and government agencies “is that detachment from personal connection that happens inside some of these services.”

When he was performing, he got to work with those as young as 3 and as old as 98, he said.

Sohyun Park, left, an intern in the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, works with Efren Corado Garcia, diversity affairs officer, at the county’s headquarters in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 12, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“The experience that arts provide, you can see the cycle of life unfolding right in front of you, whether it’s by the individuals that are crossing your path or by the fact that you see movement happening in various bodies, and the diversity that you see displayed in front of you exemplifies the diversity that we’re trying to reach inside of governmental agencies, with a sense of compassion,” he said.

“You want to be empathetic, sympathetic and authentic inside how you’re building relationships, with a sense of transparency. And what’s more transparent than the arts? When you watch a dancer on stage, you see their full being.”

Garcia hopes to promote that sense of connection and understanding in county agencies. He noted the value of coming in from outside of the institution to look at issues like diversity and inclusion.

“I’m able to build systems that allow for easier access because I am also encountering those as I’m getting familiar with all the services inside the county,” he said.

Garcia also brings his memories as a new immigrant into his work.

“Language has always been a big issue for me,” he said. As a new American, he often thought, “Am I communicating my ideas clearly? Do I sound educated enough? What do I need to learn, how do I need to adapt to the environment around me? What are people thinking? Am I being profiled?”

“All of these questions are constantly simmering inside of a person’s mind, especially when you identify as an immigrant or refugee, or sort of nonnative status,” he said.

“And so when I think about what that looks like ... I also think: ‘How are resources being distributed to individuals like me when I was younger?’ When I was younger, when I first started to speak English, I was the translator in my family. And so, how are we utilizing our services to redistribute those responsibilities, and how can we take accountability of that?” he asked.

One of Garcia’s goals is to figure out how to help county government “weave each other’s experience so that we are not just siloed, but that we can then work from the inside at getting those messages out. And then in return the community will also feel that there is an opportunity to feel like they are part of a larger mechanism that supports their everyday life.”

Addressing ‘fear of change’

Garcia also knows there’s resistance at the local and national levels to change being called for by diversity and inclusion advocates.

That was highlighted during the early spring in a post circulated on social media made by Salt Lake County Councilman Dave Alvord, which accused the “left” of wanting everyone to “have light brown skin,” be the same gender, and have no children, among other things.

Alvord later issued an apology “for any who misunderstood my intentions.”

“I assure you that I don’t hold any ill will toward anyone,” he said, explaining that his comments about Democrats were “hyperbole” meant to start a discussion about “cancel culture.”

Garcia called the councilman’s post “really relevant to the environment that is surrounding the national level of conversations about what it means to be inclusive and how that is reflected inside governmental agencies.”

“There is absolutely no way to hide the fact that the statements he made were deliberate and hurtful. And inside of that, you also have to realize that he’s also looking to be heard, and that perhaps change for a lot of people ... is not something that is very comfortable,” Garcia said.

To those who fear change, he said: “You know, I think it’s OK to be a little bit scared, and it’s OK to be in a position of vulnerability where you may feel like you’re being left behind. But the reality is that we are perhaps experiencing the surges of community engagement that are seeking advocacy in a different level than we have seen before with a lot more hunger and drive.”

While some feel their values are “being washed off the table” or that they’re being erased, Garcia said marginalized communities aren’t asking for erasure.

“It’s not about making everyone feel the same or look the same, it is simply an opportunity for us to mirror what it feels like to walk down the street downtown, on the West Side, Magna, Sandy, and knowing that the people that you’re walking next to have desperately different value systems than you do, and yet you can still walk through the same corridors and live the same life, and aspire for the same desire to feel alive and to feel loved and to give love,” Garcia said.

“And I think that it’s OK for us to try to bring that feeling into the government and how it affects the community at large,” he said.

Inclusion action plan

Garcia and others on the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Council of Diversity of Affairs worked on an action plan on diversity and inclusion since Mayor Jenny Wilson “pressed the need” for such a plan.

After several months of work, that plan was adopted on March 24.

“And what that does, is that it really deposits accountability under the mayor’s term, because this is the mayor’s first full term, so she’s wanting to thrive by making sure that the community, especially those who are often marginalized, get on that train with her,” Garcia said.

Pastor Corey Hodges, chairman of Mayor’s Council on Diversity Affairs, said: “I think that there’s a lot of work that can be done to make sure our country is a place of inclusion and equity for all people.”

The plan addresses “big issues” like housing and economic disparity, health initiatives and criminal justice, “and how all of the systems really work in tandem to ensure everybody has the best available opportunity to succeed, not just in this life cycle but generationally inside of their families,” according to Garcia.

It marks the first time the county has outlined “such an explicit agenda of things they want to change through diversity and inclusion.”

Hodges says Garcia seems to “have his hands on the pulse” of what the county needs to address diversity and inclusion.

“Both of us, we just want the best for all the citizens in the Salt Lake County area. We want them to have the best opportunities for everybody, and continue to make sure we make the Salt Lake community a great place,” Hodges said.

“We no longer want to be working inside a county that speaks on accessibility, inclusion, equity, but really we want to be a part of a system that places the county as a leader in taking accountability for what that will look like in the future beyond this administration,” Garcia said.

“It’s greater than all of us. This is a plan that, in turn, will affect generations to come.”