The changing face of Utah - Are we ready to embrace the future?

'Coming to our Census' series explores demographic issues

Published: Saturday, June 23 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Utah is home to some 25,000 refugees who have resettled here since the end of the Vietnam War. All but about 200 live in Salt Lake County.

Among Utah's 300,000 Catholics, 80 percent are Spanish-speaking.

Isara Velazquez's parents are naturalized American citizens from Mexico City. The largest and most rapidly growing group of immigrants to come to Utah are from Mexico, Perlich said.

The Velazquezes are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and said they rely on the strength of their family to help meet the challenges their children may face. Strictly by the numbers, the children face greater challenges than their white counterparts:

Minority youths are overrepresented in the state's justice system.

They have a higher rates of teen pregnancy.

Graduation rates show minority children lag behind their white peers.

Fewer have health insurance, or face language and cultural barriers that make it difficult to access the health care system.

But it is not a self-fulfilling prophecy for a family, said Rocio Velazquez.

"It is in our hands to prevent all those things," she said. "I think it's family, family unity, family values."

Humberto Velazquez came to the United States in the 1990s seeking a better life. "I just try put in their minds, 'This is an opportunity country,'" he said, referring to the lessons he teaches the couple's four children.

But it is also a state that is the midst of growing pains, with the private and public sectors attempting to adapt to change and an older generation of people becoming accustomed to an unprecedented level of diversity.

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, came to Utah from San Francisco. The Beehive State, he says, is "in the beginning stages of becoming more diverse."

While he considers Utah a welcoming place, Utahns are clearly in a period of adjustment, he said.

"We're still growing into this. I'll go to one church and by and large, there are a lot of white faces in the pews. When I celebrate Spanish Mass, I'll see a lot of people with dark skin and black hair. There's not a lot of mixing and matching, really."

Public schools serve as the primary melting pot, says Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for instructional services for the Utah State Office of Education. They are also the place, perhaps, where the opportunities for greatest improvement can occur.

Historically, ethnic minority students in Utah — with the exception of Asians — have lagged behind white peers on standardized test scores and graduation rates. Recent data suggest the gap is lessening, however, and some school programs are closing the gaps in remarkable ways.

Still, as the population changes, can educators be trained and resources dedicated to meet the needs of a wide array of learners? Can the best practices be adopted, or will conflicts arise as limited education dollars are squeezed between past programs and new needs?

"How do we help the teachers reach all of these kids? How do we prepare them for what's already here and for what is coming?" Hales asks.

Part of the issue for the white majority is that it's been the white majority since the baby boom started. That feels like the norm, and for some it is difficult to embrace changes that actually have been a part of the nation since its founding. The no-change era is an aberration.

"It looks a lot different to us baby boomers because there were not many immigrants and (it was) a pretty ethnically and racially homogenous community — not just here in Utah but across wide swaths of the United States," Perlich said.

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