Interviews with Chicano/Latino Leaders
Bertha Graham was born in Taos, New Mexico, and relocated to Tooele, Utah, shortly after graduating High School. Determined to complete her education, Graham returned to school after giving birth to her children and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Utah State University (USU). Upon graduating from USU, she worked as Women’s Program Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, then was selected to be the Equal Employment Opportunity officer for the Salt Lake City office of the Bureau of Land Management, a position she held until retiring from work. Graham also was an ardent supporter of Utah’s Chicano/Latino community. She served on the board of SOCIO (Spanish Speaking Organization for Community, Integrity, and Opportunity), Utah’s most effective Chicano/Hispano civil rights organization, until it disbanded in 1986, and she counseled high school youth in Tooele on how to resolve racial tensions.
Angela Romero was born in Tooele, Utah, and raised by her maternal grandparents. She attended the University of Utah where she earned a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in Public Administration. Since 2007, Romero has been the program Manager for Salt Lake City’s Sorenson Unity Center, and has become increasingly more active in the affairs of the Chicano/Latino community. She currently sits on the board of the Utah Coalition of La Raza (UCLR), where she organizes the annual Cesar Chavez Peace and Justice Award Banquet, and participates in lobbying efforts with Utah’s Hispanic Latino Legislative Task Force. In 2012, Romero successfully ran for a seat in the Utah State Legislature. She is now the representtive for House District 26, located on Salt Lake City s west side. (Note: Romero wears a sling in the enclosed photo, because she was recovering from a broken clavicle suffered in a bicycle accident at the time of her interview.)
A child of Mexican immigrants, Jesse Soriano was born in San Antonio, Texas, and relocated to Detroit, Michigan, when his father found work on an automobile assembly line. At the age of seventeen, Soriano dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. “The major reason was I was just absolutely bored, but I also didn’t feel the Detroit teachers cared about minority students.” Soriano spent nearly four years in the Navy. Initially, he resisted the discipline, but the Navy turned out to be one of the best things that happened to him: “It gave me a lot of self-assurance. I [also] learned about getting along with different kinds of people, so that was a great learning experience for me.”
Following his discharge, Soriano earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and two Masters degrees from Michigan State University. His first job was as a high school teacher in Marine City, Michigan. He later was appointed Director of Bilingual Education for the state of Michigan. Soriano’s passion for social justice and civil rights eventually led him to administrative positions where he felt he could be of more help to minorities in general and Chicanos in particular. In November 1980, newly elected President Ronald Reagan appointed him director of the National Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Affairs. Later, Soriano moved to Utah, where he taught at the University of Utah, and then served as the last director of the Utah State Division of Ethnic Affairs, an office that was dismantled in 2011 by Utah Governor Gary Herbert.
Andrew Valdez was born in northern New Mexico and raised on Salt Lake City’s west side. He completed West High School and then graduated from the University of Utah and the University’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. After being admitted to the Utah bar, Valdez became a public defender and then a part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps), where he spent three and a half years in Central Europe. When Valdez returned to Utah, he resumed his position as trial counsel with the Legal Defenders Association Felony and Homicide Division. In all, Valdez spent ten years working as a public defender before Governor Michael O. Leavitt appointed him a Third District Juvenile Court Judge in 1993. At the time of his selection, Valdez was the first Hispanic appointed to the Utah bench.
Valdez’s route to the Utah bench was neither simple nor straightforward, however. His parents divorced after the family settled in Utah, compelling the Valdez children to work to supplement the mother’s income. At the age of eight, Valdez joined his older brother on the corner of Main Street and 200 South to shine shoes and sell newspapers. He remembers being drawn to the appearance of men who “carried themselves with power.” When he discovered they were lawyers, he was determined he was going to be a lawyer, too. When Valdez was 10, he met a Mormon businessman named Jack Keller who changed the direction of his life. Keller owned a printing shop downtown and gave the young man an after-school job. He also introduced him to playing tennis and studying with a sense of purpose. For all intents and purposes, Valdez says, Keller became his surrogate father and “saved” his life. In 2008, Valdez published a book “paying tribute” to Keller’s impact on his life titled, No One Makes It Alone.
Javier Sáenz, Ph.D., is a social-psychologist who was born and raised in Panama City, Panama. Upon graduation from high school, he resettled in the United States to attend college and eventually graduate school. Dr. Sáenz obtained a Master’s degree in Social Work in 1958 and a Doctorate in Social Psychology in 1974, both from the University of Utah. He is a certified individual and group therapist, and has been an educator at both the University of Utah and the Salt Lake Community College.
A great deal of Sáenz’s work has been directed toward solving psycho-social problems with diverse adult populations. He worked extensively in Utah to train Hispanics and other minorities to function as human service workers in the mental health system. During his years in mental health, Sáenz developed and administered a model program to train ethnic minorities to provide services to the chronically mentally ill. This was accomplished by forging a coalition that included the mental health system, a non-profit community organization, and the University of Utah. The coalition provided the training infrastructure and developed the clinical services curriculum. Program participants were largely Chicano/Hispano, with many of them single, female, heads-of-households. They received certification upon completion of their program, and many of the women went on with their work in mental health to advanced degrees.
Currently, Dr. Sáenz is retired and maintains a small private clinical practice, providing assessments and treatment to Hispanics in Spanish and English. He provides evaluations to determine eligibility and follow-up counseling for Spanish-speaking people referred by the Office of State Rehabilitative Services. He also works as an activist on behalf of services to ethnic minorities in Utah and the Southwest.
The youngest of five children, Isabel Rojas grew up with an acute appreciation of the immigrant struggle. Isabel’s father was the first member of the Rojas family to emigrate from Colombia. He later sent for his wife and children, and the family settled in New York City, where Isabel was born. When Isabel was two, the family left New York and came to Utah. As she describes, they packed their belongings into their van one night and left, in part, to escape people who had been “stalking” her older sister. The LDS church also was a significant draw for Rojas’ parents. Isabel’s father converted while still in Colombia, and he wanted to raise his family at the church’s ecclesiastical center.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, Isabel discovered both the pleasure of belonging to the state’s dominant faith and the anxiety of being separated because of her nationality and culture. When her parents bought a small home in Rose Park, on the city’s west side, she suddenly realized, “Oh, this is where all the brown people live.” After graduating from West High School, Isabel became her family’s first college graduate. Her initial job was with Communidas Unidas, a non-profit organization that advocates in behalf of Utah’s immigrants. She credits them with developing her social confidence. “They really helped me tap into skills that I didn’t realize I had, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m good at this. I can do this.’ Anytime you work for a non-profit, that’s what they’re gonna do. They throw you [out there], because they have limited funds, so you end up having to learn more skills than you would in a big corporation where you’re hired to just do one thing.” Currently, Isabel is the Community Collaborations Director for Salt Lake City’s United Way.
One of five children, Ruby Chacon was born in Salt Lake City and raised on its west side by a single mother. A sensitive child who loved to draw, Chacon grew up doubting she would finish high school. She saw herself following the pattern of her siblings and other Chicano/Latino girls, who became single mothers in their teens and then dropped out. As she was entering high school, her oldest brother took her aside one day and told her, “Ruby, you have to be the one to break the mold and finish school.” That conversation motivated her to fight back against the discouragement she faced in school and in the community. She succeeded in graduating from West High School and, later, from the University of Utah with a degree in art. After graduating, Chacon transformed herself into one of Utah’s most exciting artist-activists. She now uses her art (and her work as a mentor of young artists) to tell the moving and, as she says, “dignified” stories of Utah’s Chicano/Latino people.
“I am always amazed,” Chacon adds, “when people ask me to strip my work of its ethnicity, as if doing so would make it more valid. These people would never take away flags from Jasper Johns, or take the American diner away from Edward Hopper. I paint what inspires me, what I see, what I feel, that is all. The fact that it is deeply touched by my Mexican roots only suggests that I am deeply touched by my Mexican roots. I am an artist who paints her Mexican family, the people around her, and the experiences that come with that. Through these paintings I say this is who we are, this is how we lived.”
In 2002, Chacon and her husband, Terry Hurst, founded the Mestizo Coffeehouse and the Mestizo Institute of Culture & Arts. The former is a community meeting spot and gallery that showcases the work of underrepsented artists; the latter is a non-profit organization that seeks to strengthen and build community through arts, civic engagement, and dialogue. Today, Mestizo is a community organization that empowers young Latinos and provides space to those who use art as a tool for social change.
In 1955 David Martinez immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his parents and five siblings. Immediately upon arrival in Fresno, California, the Martinez family, including the six-year old David, began picking blackberries and doing seasonal farm work to survive. Over the ensuing years, Martinez remembers picking an assortment of fruits that included apricots, peaches, plums, strawberries, blackberries, and grapes.
When he reached the age of thirteen, Martinez recalls asking his father why they came over to the U.S. By then, Martinez says, “[I] started to see that life wasn’t equal. It was tougher being a Mexican and growing up in California.” His father’s response has stayed with him all his life. “I remember his answer as if it was yesterday. He said, ‘I thought there would be more opportunities here for my family than back in Mexico.'”
Martinez earned a Bachelors and Masters Degree, in, respectively, Psychology and Education Administration from Brigham Young University. Since 1979 he has been employed by the Salt Lake City School District, working first as a teacher, then a counselor, and, currently, as a vice principal at the Horizonte Instructional Center. During his more than thirty years in education, Martinez has been motivated by his father’s vision and his own experiences. Together, his background and personal outlook influence him to celebrate America’s great opportunities while guiding minority students to confront and challenge America’s inequities. “I have a lifelong commitment,” he emphasizes, “to improving educational services to Latino students.”
Daniel Argueta is a second generation American and a Chicano/Latino activist. His parents migrated to the United States from Guatemala a decade before his birth in Hayward, California. His father came first, following in his own father’s footsteps. Daniel’s mother came later. After earning their citizenship (and following Daniel’s birth), the Arguetas returned to Guatemala with their three sons. Financial setbacks compelled them to consider leaving again. Reluctant to uproot for a second time, Daniel’s father asked his two oldest boys where they preferred to live. “In the United States,” they said. The family could return under one condition, the father explained, if the boys promised to attend college.
After living in Florida, the Arguetas settled in Kearns, Utah, where, Daniel says, his parents worked several jobs and left their kids “unattended.” “Summer times we did whatever we did. My parents couldn’t be around, so we grew up with other [minority] kids like us. We wanted a feeling of belonging and getting something we never had before. It all comes down to economics, so we joined [a local] gang. Being in a group,” Daniel went on, “you’re not alone. You now have people who will stick up for you, so you’re not fighting alone.”
Daniel and his brothers were more fortunate than other young gang members—they avoided arrest and prison. His older brothers joined the U.S. army, became medics, and then Utah police officers. Counselors, teachers, and Chicano/Latino leaders brought Daniel back from the brink. They helped him become proud of his roots, his heritage, and the Chicano struggle for equality. Their support helped Daniel channel his anger into activism. Today, Daniel heads Utah’s newly formed Brown Beret Chapter, an organization that appeals, he says, “to the have nots.…, the people that feel like they have been left out. I feel like we can represent [them]. We’re the group that will say: ‘We welcome you how you are. You don’t need to change to be in us. You don’t need to be a good kid. You don’t need to get good grades. You just need to be willing to listen, and we’re not gonna be here to judge you or anything. We’re gonna be here to support you, [and] we can build off that.’”