Latino candidates work to awaken the 'Sleeping Giant'

Published: Friday, Aug. 24 2012 6:12 p.m. MDT

Josie Valdez discusses politics and the large number of Latino candidates at her kitchen table in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, August 8, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — James Gonzales was sitting in the dining room of La Puente Restaurant in 1991 with state Sen. Pete Suazo when the flow of conversation turned to the then soon-to-be-released results of the 1990 Census.

Gonzales recalled that Suazo, who died in 2001, was debating how many Latinos would be listed as residents of Utah.

"We were absolutely certain it was over 100,000 and even then we knew it was incomplete. I remember how excited Pete was at that point. He spoke very clearly about the future of the Hispanic community and Latino community," said Gonzales, chairman of Pace Latino, an organization that leverages the power of Utah's growing Latino community through political participation.

It was a glimpse into the future and what would become the need for greater representation by those who understand the Latino community and the changing population of Utah.

Today, more than 20 years later, Latinos make up 16.3 percent of the population with growth estimates projecting it to be among the fastest growing segment of the state. This year also marks elections with the largest number of Latino candidates seeking office in Salt Lake County.

Salt Lake County currently has eight Latino Democratic candidates, six of whom are women, running for legislative seats in the November elections. The Republican Party has one Latino candidate, and other Latino candidates are seeking to represent other Utah counties, making this the largest number of Latino candidates in Utah running for a state legislative seat at the same time.

The Utah Latino population has increased by 156,781 people between the past two census counts — from 201,559 Latinos in 2000 to 358,340 Latinos in 2010. The Latino community represents 66 percent of all documented minority groups in Utah and 45 percent of all documented U.S. minority groups, totaling 50.5 million people.

A change in demographics

Gonzales has been analyzing the numbers for several years. He said the 16.3 percent of Latinos in Utah can be the difference in the upcoming elections, if they vote.

"Can you imagine the impact of 300,000 people participating?" Gonzales asked. "Let's take away everybody who is under 18 and you are down to about 200,000, that is 10 percent. Ten percent moves any election."

He said in Salt Lake County there is an 18 percent Latino population.

"In 10 years from now the demographic change to Salt Lake County will be profound … because the children that represent the 50 percent or 60 percent of those in elementary schools and junior high schools will be at voting age," Gonzales said. "Salt Lake City will probably have close to a majority of Latino residents."

A similar demographic change occurred more than a century ago. In 1900, Utah's foreign-born population was 92 percent European. In 2010, it was 62 percent Latin American, according to research conducted by Pamela Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

"It's just a matter of time when we white baby boomers start dying off in significant numbers and the generation that takes our place, which is already minority-majority in many communities throughout the state, and certainly nationally, they become the new face of the state and the nation," Perlich said earlier this summer.

Mark Wheatley and Josie Valdez said they usually make it a habit to argue political issues at the dinner table, but they have made a promise to each other to put the debates on record from now on and only debate on Capitol Hill, that is if each of them wins their respective elections.

Wheatley is of Spanish ancestry and is a member of the Utah House of Representatives for District 35. He has been married for 27 years to Valdez, who is running for Senate in District 8.

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