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

Exhibit celebrates first Mexican Latter-day Saints in Utah

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 5:54 a.m. MDT

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “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.

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.)

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.

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.)

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.

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.)

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.

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.)

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

The Jose and Juanita Zuñiga family, followed by the Bautista family and other members, reached out to other families each Sunday by setting up a grill to make burritos and tacos for workers who were resting by the train station in Salt Lake City or who were seeking employment in the mines, railroad or farms. They also sang church hymns.

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.)

The only condition for accepting food was agreeing to hear a message related to the Book of Mormon or the restoration of the gospel. Some of these people were joined the church. The family has maintained the missionary spirit, and more than 140 of the families' descendants have served or are currently serving full-time Mormon missions for the LDS Church.

By 1920, the population of Mexican members in Utah had increased to the point that a local Mexican mission was organized. Two years later, the first Spanish-speaking branch was organized.

Cultural interaction

Since that time, the Mexican and American cultures have interacted while maintaining their own distinguishing characteristics. Today Hispanics, including Mexicans, participate in approximately 130 Spanish-speaking wards and branches in the Salt Lake Valley. These units stand as a legacy and honor the courage of the early families that came to Utah.

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.)

In 1960, the first Hispanic ward of the church was created in Salt Lake City. It was named the Lucero Ward in honor of Rey Lucero Pratt, who helped establish the church in Mexico, Argentina and among Spanish language speakers in the United States.

Exhibition

A historic photo exhibition, documenting the first Latin branch in Utah, was acquired by the Church History Department and is open to visitors in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Elder L. Whitney Clayton, of the Presidency of the Seventy, requested that the history department provide the exhibit as a follow-up to the Hispanic cultural program held there Oct. 26-27.

“Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.) “Pioneers of Spanish-speaking Wards in Utah” (LDS Church Historical Dept.)

The exhibit provides details of the history of Spanish LDS wards and branches in Utah, which goes back more than 100 years. The exhibit, which is open to the public through Nov. 30, features historic photographs of the first members of the original Mexican branch in Salt Lake City and tells the story of their conversion and immigration.

To view photos and learn more about the history, visitors can go to gate 15 of the Conference Center and ask the hosts to see the exhibition, titled "Pioneers of Spanish-speaking wards in Utah."

email: cskinner@desnews.com

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