Sixty years ago, Salt Lake City only had four Latino restaurants. That’s according to Archie Archuleta, a longtime Latino rights activist.
Now, he says, “there are more than that just on a street corner.”
This rapid population growth not only accounts for a shift in demographics, but massive cultural impact on Salt Lake City. While the culture has changed drastically, attitudes surrounding immigrants and refugees has not been as smooth or quick of a transition.
Booming in the Beehive State
“Since 2010, Utah’s minority groups have grown by 129,526 people – the equivalent of adding a city the size of West Valley,” Salt Lake Tribune reporter Lee Davidson wrote in an article last June, citing data from the U.S Census Bureau. “Utah’s white population has grown by 9.4 percent since 2010. Minorities have grown by 24 percent.”
Despite political debates surrounding the border wall and tactics to prevent migration between the United States and Mexico and other parts of Latin America, immigration has slowed. According to Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Ken C. Gardner Policy Institute, Hispanic populations are rising due to natural increase and high birth rates, but not immigration.
“Their children are now having children, and they’ve become a major part of our community,” she says.
Empowering local Latinos
Comunidades Unidas, a local nonprofit, was formed by small business, religious organizations and an immigration clinic in Salt Lake City with the goal of empowering and bringing together the Latino community.
Veronica Zavala, manager and social worker at Comunidades Unidas, says the organization helps Latinos “recognize and achieve their own potential and be a positive force for change,” while noting funds come from small grants.
Zavala, an immigrant herself, moved to Utah from Mexico City almost ten years ago. Since then, she’s graduated from Salt Lake Community College and is now pursuing a degree in social work at the University of Utah.
“We’re scared,” she says. “The Latino community is not saying we’re okay, because we’re not. There’s scary stuff happening right now that is very real. But we are resilient.”
Zavala says that Comunidades Unidas works with SLCC students to help fulfill volunteer credit hours, and they are currently looking for student interns.
“Most of our volunteers here are immigrants or children of immigrants who want to get out of their homes and make a change,” she says. “More young people have gotten more involved since the election of Donald Trump. They are sad, they are angry. They want something else. They are putting that anger and energy towards something meaningful that can make a difference.”
Struggling to fit in
Eduardo Lopez, a student at SLCC, grew up in Salt Lake City in an immigrant family.
“My parents have never technically lived in Salt Lake legally, but they had children [in California] so they couldn’t go back to Mexico,” he says. “They really struggled to stay afloat with bad jobs. No one would hire them because of their status. It’s never been easy to get citizenship.”
Lopez says his parents are no longer “technically together,” but they cannot divorce or his father will get deported. He adds that even though he’s lived in Salt Lake his whole life, he struggles to feel connected to the community and faces setbacks and discrimination daily.
Lopez has also noticed changes in the immigrant community due to recent policy reforms.
“Some of my close friends have been deported,” he says. “Some people have just straight up left the country, and some decided that even if they get denied it’d be best to apply for citizenship now more than ever. There’s a lot of fear right now.”
Fatima Rasoul, a Kurdistan refugee, has similar feelings about the community in Salt Lake City. Rasoul says that she’s seen growth in the community in recent years, but there is currently a lot of fear in the immigrant and refugee community.
“It’s weird because when I go back to Kurdistan to visit family they make fun of me for my accent and call me American,” she says. “I don’t fit in there. But in the United States, I’m a minority. I don’t really fit in anywhere.”
Building community through cooking
SPICE Kitchen Incubator, which stands for Supporting the Pursuit of Innovative Culinary Entrepreneurs, is a program started by the International Rescue Committee and has gifted Salt Lake City with more than 22 new, diverse food businesses.
According to their website, SPICE Kitchen is focused on helping refugees, immigrants and other disadvantaged community members start their businesses and share their culture and culinary talent with the Salt Lake community.
Jackie Rodabaugh, marketing and logistics coordinator at SPICE, is responsible for growing the organization by reaching out to the community and recruiting volunteers. Students are accepted into the program and can receive credit hours, she says.
SPICE provides access to commercial kitchens, entrepreneurial training, product development, marketing and finance assistance, access to capital and resources to help launch their businesses.
Small businesses and nonprofits are popping up all over Salt Lake City in support of the growing immigrant and refugee population, enhancing the lives and community support to thousands of new Americans.
“It’s hard to feel at home in a new country, but Salt Lake City does a good job. It’s a special place to be,” says Rasoul. “The culture is progressive, welcoming and inclusive, and I feel lucky to call this place home.”