WEST VALLEY — Armed with machetes and standing in murky, knee-deep water, more than 30 sweat-drenched people hacked their way through tight throngs of weeds in the spirit of community.

The immediate goal Saturday for the almost exclusively Latino group was to clear the canal near the Multi-Cultural Center so that the water could flow to a nearby pond.

The larger goal, however, was to send a positive message to counter the negative characterizations about Hispanics given by anti-immigration groups, said Enrique De La Flor, who helped organize the West Valley project through his ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The main reason is so that American and Utah people know that we are not a burden," he said. "We can do a lot for the community."

Throughout the state, more than 25 groups organized service projects ranging from house painting to park cleanups as part of Latino Service Day. Although official counts were not available for participation, many of the groups were expecting over 50 people, said Tony Yapias, project coordinator for Proyecto Latino de Utah.

"The number of people who are willing to volunteer is amazing," Yapias said while helping to clear grass that had overgrown veterans graves in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. "It's pretty overwhelming. It's tough to find the words to describe it."

Yapias organized the service day primarily in response to the recent anti-immigration rallies of the Utah Minuteman Project, a group that is fighting on both a state and national level to stop illegal immigrants from coming into America, especially from Mexico. While Saturday was the first service day, he plans to make it an annual event, if not more often.

"The purpose of this is to be good community, to be good citizens, and for people to see it," he said. "This community feels like they have been pounded, and they really want to be seen in a different light."

Giacomo Reyescrdova, who was also helping at the cemetery, said that the project was important to him as both a Latino and former Marine. Although a Latino-centric event, he hoped that as it grows, it also expands in a way that would "unify all ethnicities" through volunteer work.

"I'm a veteran and a Latino, and I see a lot of work that needed to be done," he said. "I wanted to help here, and want to change the opinions of some people about Latinos."

For volunteers like Monica Candia, however, it was just another day of helping their community. Along with helping clear grave sites, she is also a volunteer at homeless shelters, helps clean up parks and coaches an at-risk youth soccer team whose first game is next week.

"I've been volunteering since I was young, and most of my job experience is as a volunteer — like a lot of Latinos," she said. "It's not really recognized, but we don't do it for recognition. We do it because we're part of the community."


E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com