Utah civil rights legend Archie Archuleta dies, remembered as ‘modern rebel to the very end’

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Archie Archuleta is seen in 2004 when he retired as the minority affairs administrater for Salt Lake City.

Robert “Archie” Archuleta reflected last summer on how the Utah Latino community had grown and eventually prospered during his lifetime in Utah, which the dogged civil rights defender only dreamed of as a youth. He died Friday at age 88.

He recalled driving as a child from his hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, to Salt Lake City so his family could shop at the only Latino store for hundreds of miles.

“Now they are everywhere here,” he said. “There are even several chains.”

Archuleta moved to Salt Lake City in 1953 to teach at an elementary school on Salt Lake City’s west side that he said had only a handful of Latinos and a couple of Asians.

“Now all west side schools are 55 percent to 90 percent minority,” he said. He became principal of an alternative high school and planted the seeds for what became the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center.

Archuleta also remembered that when he arrived, the entire Salt Lake Valley had maybe four Latino restaurants. Some street corners now have more. “The taco has become king. I’ve read that salsa is more popular than mustard and ketchup as a condiment among kids,” he said.

“Utah’s Latino community has lost a titan, a champion and advocate for so many issues and causes,” said Richard Jaramillo, current president of Utah Coalition of La Raza, a group that Archuleta himself had led for nine years.

“Archie helped shape the Latino community, the nature of local activism, and made so many personal connections across the state that his impact has been truly profound,” Jaramillo added.

The Salt Lake County Democratic Party held a moment of silence for Archuleta at its central committee meeting on Saturday, when it met to elect a new county mayor.

“He was a modern rebel to the very end,” said Josie Valdez, an activist and former vice chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party. “He was always looking for ways for the people’s voice to be heard. So he was both controversial and loved because of his rebel spirit.”

For example, she remembers Archuleta helping lead efforts in the 1970s to change a height requirement that prevented many Latinos from joining the Salt Lake City Police Department.

“He was very ‘brown power,’ marching in front of City Hall,” Valdez remembers. "It was funny because he was short, but thought of himself as a big and dignified man.” The rule was changed and more Latinos were hired.

“He was known as the padrino of our community, the godfather. Not godfather in the sense of the mob, but like in the Catholic Church — where you adopt all the young people and make sure to show them the way,” Valdez said. “He served as a shining example to a lot of young people that change is possible, and don’t be afraid to voice your sentiments.”

“Wherever Archie went, his smile would light up a room, and behind that smile was the mind and soul of a fierce advocate for equality,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said. “Through his example and work, Archie gave voice to marginalized people, reminded those in power of their responsibility to build inclusive communities, and encouraged others to stand up and act.

“I will miss his smile, his hugs, and his quiet words of encouragement which brought me comfort and strength.”

Biskupski noted in a news release that last fall, she presented Archuleta with the “Key to the City” for his work on behalf of homeless, Latinos and other communities of color, LGBTQ individuals and women.

In 2000, Archuleta was appointed administrative assistant for minority and community affairs by then-Mayor Rocky Anderson and worked in that position for four years.

The Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP honored Archuleta last year with the Albert Fritz Civil Rights Award — one of numerous awards he received through the years.

Others include the Quixote Lifetime Achievement Award from the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Cualli Ohtli Award from the Mexican Consulate, the Cesar Chavez Education award from Coalition of La Raza, the Charles E. Bennett Humanitarian and Civil Rights Award from the Utah Education Association, and an honor from The Chicano Scholarship Fund for civic and humanitarian achievement at the University of Utah.

“Archie was the voice for the Utah Latino community,” said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. “We are who we are today because of him. We hope to honor his legacy by continuing to advocate on behalf of marginalized communities.”

“He led by example; he taught many of us what it means to be a fierce advocate for justice, fairness and equality," David Litvack, Biskupski’s deputy chief of staff, said. “Most importantly, he showed me how to be a warrior for justice by building bridges and lifting people up — not tearing anyone down."

Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham said Archuleta left a lasting legacy as an educator there. “Even in his final years, he always sought to leave Salt Lake City and the state of Utah a better place for the marginalized and for those who would come after him.”

Tim Fitzpatrick, now executive vice president of The Salt Lake Tribune, was briefly a student at the alternative high school when Archuleta was its principal.

“What I remember about Archie is that he knew every troubled kid’s name, and they all called him Archie. The students in that school loved him. I suspect he turned around a lot of them,” Fitzpatrick said.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, tweeted on Saturday, “Archie worked everyday to ensure minority voices are heard. He made a lasting mark and will be missed.”

Besides serving as president of Utah Coalition of La Raza for nine years, Archuleta served on many other boards, including Centro Civico Mexicano, Center for Documentary Arts, Concerned Citizens Committee, Alliance for Unity, the Utah Aging Commission and the Enriching Utah Coalition. He was also chairman of the Salt Lake County Democratic Caucus.

He is survived by his wife, Lois, and their five children.