Honoring a heritage: Exhibit celebrates first Mexican Latter-day Saints in Utah

Exhibit celebrates first Mexican Latter-day Saints in Utah

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 20 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah”

LDS Church Historical Dept.

Tears rolled down the cheeks of adults and young people alike as they traded hugs and kisses at the Zuñiga family's reunion.

It was a meeting that was intended to revive the history of their ancestors, who came to Utah from Mexico about 100 years ago.

That history has been reconstructed, thanks to a collection of photos that tell the story of the first Mexicans in Utah, including the triumphs and challenges of those families who immigrated during the Mexican Revolution. Their courage and faith made them missionary tools for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Background

Helaman Pratt, the son of Parley P. Pratt, one of the first apostles of the LDS Church, was distinguished by his desire to share the gospel in the neighboring country of Mexico.

He was one of the first six missionaries to enter Mexico and carry the Book of Mormon to the region of Hermosillo, Sonora. Helaman Pratt is also credited with the first recorded baptism in Mexico in 1876.

He served in the region for many years as a missionary, and in 1884, was called to be the president of the Mexico Mission in Mexico City.

Pratt's experience with the Mexican people provided him with a greater understanding of their cultural and spiritual needs.

While he was serving as a missionary in Mexico, persecution of the Saints began in Utah. This gave Pratt the idea to ask church leaders and Mexican government officials if colonies could be established in Mexico for church members. By doing this, Utah church members could help strengthen Mexican members in the gospel.

In 1886, church members from Utah moved to Chihuahua, Mexico, to establish their homes. They were joined by about 2,000 Mexican members who had recently been baptized. To show its support, the Mexican government helped by subsidizing the cost of transportation by train from Mexico City to Chihuahua.

Helaman Pratt greeted the Saints and helped to establish Colonia Juarez, a desolate, hostile area in Northern Mexico where vegetation was sparse.

Simon Zuñiga was one of the Mexican members to arrive at Colonia Juarez. He and others worked the land, created irrigation systems and tried to establish their homes, but inclement weather, which they were not accustomed to, made it difficult. Many of the Mexican members subsequently returned to Morelos.

In 1890, the church decided to remove missionaries from central Mexico. At that point, Simon Zuñiga was president of the branch in Cuautla, Morelos. Despite the loss of missionaries, he continued to direct weekly church services for 10 years. Simon Paez, another branch president, also maintained the Atlautla Branch without missionary or direct support from church leadership in Utah.

Church membership continued to grow. One of the sons of Simon Zuñiga, José Zúñiga, married Juanita, a daughter of Jose Bautista, in Atlautla in 1903. The couple moved to the Mormon colonies, and they were followed by some of their relatives.

The 1912 assassination of Mexican President Francisco I. Madero ended the peaceful revolution, causing increased violence and placing families in grave danger. Many LDS Church members traveled to the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, and traveled north into Utah to settle.

Jose and Juanita Zuñiga came to Utah with one group of settlers around 1916. They were among the thousands of Mexican citizens who sought refuge in the United States due to the political and economic situations of the two countries. By then, Rey Lucero Pratt, son of Helaman Pratt and a missionary in Mexico for more than 23 years, established missionary activity among Hispanics living in the southern states. Some of those who became members moved to Utah as a result.

Missionary work in Utah

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