Marco Diaz found himself living something a few weeks back that could have come out of "The Twilight Zone" had it ever been written as a television script.
He and other local Latinos were on Utah's Capitol Hill, opposing proposed legislation against in-state college tuition for undocumented students. The hostility from some opponents was palpable, but Diaz had no time to engage in hallway debate he was late for a meeting on Temple Square.
As he dashed into the Assembly Hall, he was stunned to hear about "the most concerted effort to reach out to (local) Hispanics ever. It was such a contrast, being at the Legislature 15 minutes before." Several hundred Spanish-speaking missionaries young and old filled the hall, along with local Latinos. They heard Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve outline a program designed "specifically to work with and serve the Hispanic community."
Along with presidents of the church's Utah North and Utah South areas, Elder Ballard laid out "the praise and vision of how these (Latinos) are our brethren and we must love them." Diaz remembers someone saying it "is no accident that they are here, but (it's) by the hand of the Lord that they are." And in unprecedented numbers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Having done verbal battle with the conservative Utahns for Immigration Reform one member of which implied on Capitol Hill that Latinos here illegally and seeking a driver's license were in violation of LDS doctrine Diaz and his colleagues have felt the political heat. He was pleased when the church sent a spokesman to make plain that members "should never infer that the church endorses their personal political positions."
But walking into the Assembly Hall that morning was "a little jaw-dropping to say, 'Wow, am I hearing what I'm hearing?' To hear the love they were expressing it was magnificent." The dialogue was forceful in "taking a very compassionate view of individuals and not a political view of them," said Diaz, who serves as a counselor in the Granite Ward Elders Quorum presidency.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to provide details about the meeting, but Diaz sees that gathering and the scheduled performance by Brazilian soloist Liriel Domiciano during the church's general conference this weekend as definitive signs that top church leaders are reaching out in unprecedented ways.
"Among Hispanic LDS folks, particularly the Brazilian community, they are absolutely ecstatic about the fact that one of their own is coming to perform here," Diaz said. He believes church leaders are modeling advice President Gordon B. Hinckley has given repeatedly during his administration. "We're all part of a worldwide church," Diaz said, "and people will continue coming from other places to the U.S. We appreciate his holding up the banner that we need to be more tolerant."
George Monsivais agrees. A member of the Provo East Stake Presidency who serves as a spokesman for the church on Hispanic matters, Monsivais was born in East Los Angeles and reared in Southern California after his parents emigrated from Mexico in the early 1950s. His growing up in a Spanish-speaking LDS ward was an invaluable asset in the development of his own faith, he said, and he's not surprised to now see Latinos flocking to Utah, whether they're LDS or not. As in other areas of the country, the trend is projected to escalate, he said.
"People like the atmosphere here. It's a slower, more peaceful way of life compared to Southern California or Miami. It's family-oriented, and whether they are LDS or friends of other faiths, they bring with them those family-centered values." Though concerns over immigration have existed for centuries in the United States, Monsivais believes most Latinos come wanting to fit into the culture and contribute to it, rather than seeking to change what's here.
"This population is coming specifically because of what we have to offer," he said. "It's our opportunity to then reach out and help incorporate them into what we have."
When they encounter hostility, "it's a source of hurt and pain to them." But as the church leads out by providing Spanish language congregations and cultural events, such as the Christmas fireside for Hispanics in the Conference Center, the effort is priceless. "Latinos are ecstatic when the church leadership organizes different events that focus on their culture or language," Monsivais said.
Jorge T. Becerra, president of the Draper Eastridge Stake, recalls the emotion he felt when Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then an LDS apostle and later to lead the church, came to his Spanish-speaking ward to congratulate several young men who had earned their Eagle Scout award.
That visit made "a huge impression on me" and is evidence that "the church has always cared for Hispanic people." The recent Hispanic Christmas devotionals are further evidence of that, he said.
Like many new immigrants, Becerra's parents came from Mexico to the Beehive State in 1962, seeking better educational and economic opportunities for their children. Spanish was spoken at home unless an English-speaking visitor was present. The Lucero Ward of which he was a part held Hispanic festivals, taught Mexican folk dancing and focused many activities on the members' heritage.
While he reveled in the immersion of culture, language and love, he married an Anglo woman and decided it was time to attend an English-speaking ward, which allowed him to "learn the skills and gain the expertise of how the church is run and how the programs of the church are to be operated." As a second-generation Latino member, he's comfortable in both worlds. Though his children have been tutored by their grandmother in Spanish, they speak English and "have assimilated very well," he said.His advice for new immigrants: "Use your diversity as a strength, not as a weakness. . . . My mom always told us it was an advantage."