It was a bit of an accident, but hundreds of protesting (and partying) Latinos in Salt Lake City kicked off a weekend of planned nationwide protests Friday over immigration in more than 100 cities, urging Congress not to forget the issue amid the federal government shutdown.
The protests nationally were supposed to start Saturday. "But we couldn't get a permit because of LDS General Conference and a lot of other events going on. So we had our event on Friday, and kicked off events around the nation, even if it was sort of an accident," said Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah.
Hundreds of Latinos gathered at Centro Civico de Mexico, not far from the Gateway mall on downtown Salt Lake City's west side, to listen to speeches, eat food from taco wagons, wave U.S. flags, listen to music blasting inside and outside the center, and make a short protest march around the neighborhood.
Organizers said crowds wanted to hear from common people, instead of political leaders from Latino groups often quoted in the press.
So one speaker was Epifanio Arciniega, a construction worker who has been in Utah for 20 years and is working to obtain citizenship. He said Latinos work hard which was recognized a bit during the 2002 Olympics "when we helped build the freeways, build the venues, build the housing, serve the food and made Utah ready for the world. Now it's time for leaders to show some recognition and gratitude."
Many held handmade signs. A small boy held one saying, "I am an American citizen. Perhaps I will become president. Please legalize my parents. Do not separate us."
Xochiacatl Lopez was wearing a towering Aztec headdress. He held a sign in Spanish saying when Brigham Young arrived here in 1847 and said "This is the right place," he was standing in Mexico at the time.
"Is it the right place only for them [the pioneers]?" Lopez asked. "I hope we give Latinos the same rights that the Mormons and other immigrants found here."
Yapias said most of the Latino community want the undocumented to have a chance through immigration reform to work for legal status and citizenship.
"They don't expect it to be handed to them. They want to work for it. If you want them to learn English, they will. If you want them to pay a fine, they will," he said. Yapias adds they are excited that reform is "just a step away" because the Senate passed it, but they are frustrated that the House has not acted, as conservatives are blocking it.
Archie Archuleta, president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, said, "We don't want to let Congress fall asleep on this issue." He adds if Congress does not pass it this year, Latinos plan to push voter registration drives hard "to throw the rascals out. If we can put even a dent in tea party control, then maybe they will do something."