SOUTH JORDAN — The first time Antonio Ortega saw Utah's Wasatch Mountains, he said he understood what Brigham Young felt when he pronounced, "This is the place."
Fleeing danger in Venezuela, Ortega arrived in the U.S. in 2014 seeking political asylum after standing up against growing corruption in his government under President Nicolas Maduro.
He left his own IT business and a comfortable life, finding himself in Ogden on the couch of a former companion from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He didn't speak English. He had next to nothing.
But after years of rebuilding, he now works at a Utah software company, QFloors, and said he continues to fight for the freedom of his people. Ortega says the company supports him in that work and his co-workers were there for him when he experienced a recent tragedy. The company says it's lucky to have him on the team.
The events that sparked the pilgrimage began several years earlier.
"Life was nice and good, until (Hugo) Chavez was continuously developing his revolution," and communistic principles were being introduced from Cuba, Ortega said.
He saw the country that he loved — one with beautiful beaches, a passion for baseball and scenery like the famed Angel Falls, which is pictured in Disney's animated movie "Up"— change.
"And then things in the country started to go wrong, and every year was worse and worse and getting worse, so that's kind of how life was," he recalled.
The government became increasingly controlling.
Ortega decided he wanted to "raise some awareness" and become politically engaged against dictatorship in the country. He helped found a local political party to advocate for democracy. The party put forth a mayoral candidate, but elections were corrupt from national to local levels, he said.
In 2009, Ortega joined a major political movement introduced by activist Leopoldo Lopez. It was called Voluntad Popular, meaning "the people's will." He helped found a chapter of the party in his city of Rosario and got elected by popular vote as the "coordinator" of the party in the city.
That angered the city's mayor, according to Ortega. He claimed that many leaders were drug lords.
In 2014, after years of "threats and intimidation" from security forces and the "collective" — or military groups that "inflict terror on the population' to keep the people submissive — tensions escalated.
"It is very difficult to live there," Ortega explained.
Lopez called for protests on the streets and millions of people went out to protest. Police forces killed protesters on the streets. Lopez was jailed, blamed for the deaths after what he called an "unjust trial."
Because Ortega coordinated the party in his city, he also faced blame by the government for protests and rallies.
On July 3, 2014, a group of people showed up in front of his house near midnight and started throwing things at his home, shouting threats like, "Traitor, we're here to kill you," Ortega recalled. They then poured gasoline in his yard and set it on fire.
Ortega escaped through his back door and ran to the police station. When Ortega asked for help, an officer said, "You know what you're doing. You know what you've been doing, Antonio," he recalled.
"So the police officer knew me by name, which was unusual, totally unusual. Why would a police officer know your name? And say, 'We know what you've been doing. You have the radio show where you talk bad things about the revolution and you are a political leader. And this is why, and we don't take claims or complaints about politics,'" Ortega remembered the officer saying.
While he tried to convince the officer to send help, "he became more aggressive towards me," Ortega said.
"I understood that I was going to be put in jail. That's what I felt."
He asked the officer to get him a glass of water. When the officer walked away, Ortega said he fled the office and went to another city to plan his escape from the country. He eventually flew to Aruba and then to New York City.
"And that's how I landed in New York with $500 in my pocket."
After he left, he says officials "paid a visit" to his mother and broke her walker while looking for items that belonged to him. She, his son and other family members soon followed him to America.
While in Utah, Ortega searched for a job in the IT industry. But he couldn't yet speak English, and so he began working for a life insurance company that was seeking a Spanish speaker to visit Latino community members. He quickly moved up in the company and said he became one of its top salespeople.
Ortega picked up on English and later started working at flooring software company Qfloors in South Jordan, where he says he's been supported in his advocacy work for Venezuelans.
Since leaving his country, Ortega has continued to fight for the Venezuelan people's freedom. He helped found an international movement, Voluntad Popular International, and has met with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and other leaders seeking help for Venezuelan migrants. He has sent humanitarian help for the people of Venezuela and those escaping.
Recently, he and his co-workers at Qfloors sponsored a coat drive and shipped hundreds of coats to Venezuelan refugees in Cucuta, Columbia.
"Antonio is awesome," said QFloors President Chad Ogden. "But he is living a story that is just hard to comprehend. Our hearts hurt for him and even more so for the people who are suffering so greatly in Venezuela. The coat drive was just something we as a company could do to try to help and support in our small way."
There are now around 10,000 Venezuelan immigrants in Utah, according to Ortega.
More than 3 million Venezuelan migrants have left the country in recent years — largely on foot, according to news reports. "They walk distances that are longer than the distances that the Mormon pioneers had to walk from New York to Salt Lake," Ortega said.
Last month, blackouts became daily occurrences across the country. "We don't know yet if those were intentional or technically something that was going wrong," Ortega said. "If you don't have power, you have no water."
Opposition leaders have blamed corruption and mismanagement under Maduro for the blackouts, while Maduro has blamed U.S. cyber attacks. U.S. officials have dismissed those allegations as absurd.
During the recent blackouts, one of his brothers in Venezuela died. He wasn't sick, Ortega said, but he suffered a stroke and went to a hospital, where the doctors couldn't help him because there was no power. "He agonized and died in front of them, and nobody could do anything."
He was at work when he learned of his brother's death and says his co-workers were supportive of him during that difficult time.
"Venezuelans never, ever used to be moving to different countries. We were very happy with all the famous (baseball) players and famous Miss Universes that we have … and very beautiful beaches and places to go, and nice people. And then everything is gone. It's no longer the country when I was a kid."
From his experience being an immigrant in a country experiencing political tensions over immigration, Ortega offered thoughts about how Americans can treat those who are new to the United States.
"You can judge or you can generalize people," he said, "(But) you have to judge case by case. I think that's the appropriate approach, because you can assume everyone is the same or has the same background or story. And because life is complex, complicated and busy, some people have a tendency, or most of us have the tendency to tag people: 'This is an immigrant or this is an illegal.' Nobody is born illegal. … We are human beings," he said.
Understanding that everyone's story is different, according to Ortega, is key.
He says he hopes to return someday and help rebuild Venezuela. But until then, Ortega says he's grown to love Utah and its people.
That first night here, he says, the family he was staying with took him to a play in Sandy. While driving on U.S. 89 from south Ogden, "I saw mountains on the right and on the left side," he recalled.11 comments on this story
"I saw those mountains like arms, surrounding the valley and the great people here in Utah, and I then understood why Brigham Young said, 'This is the place.' Because he could recognize that it was protected, mountains protecting the people that were running away from persecution," Ortega said, tears welling up in his eyes.
"And I think that's why God brought them here," Ortega said, referring to the Mormon pioneers who fled religious persecution in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the mid-1800s.
"Many years later, he brought me here, too."
Contributing: Associated Press