Comunidades Unidas gets a new leader as nonprofit marks 20 years in Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayra Cedano, the new executive director of Comunidades Unidas, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, speaks at the organization's offices Dec. 11, 2019.

Comunidades Unidas began in 1999 as an initiative of Midvale, focused on improving the health of the city’s Latino residents.

Today, the independent nonprofit is “a powerhouse” working for the rights and well-being of the state’s growing Latino and other immigrant communities, its incoming executive director said.

Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017 and began implementing new immigration policies, said Mayra Cedano, “we’ve had to face a lot of different barriers and battles. Obviously, overt racism came back really, really strong. ... And I think that Comunidades Unidas has been, and continues to be, a safe space for many.”

As Comunidades Unidas celebrates its 20th anniversary, previous executive director Luis Garza is stepping down after 11 years with the nonprofit. He’s moving to Chicago and said he plans to continue to work on immigration issues.

“The silver lining from all of this, since this administration started, is that many people have come together," Garza said. “We’ve seen a lot more individual donations for our organization in the last few years than ever before. We’ve seen more volunteers coming in."

The state’s Latino population has grown to more than 450,000 people. There are Latino elected officials; state Sen. Luz Escamilla was in the race for Salt Lake City mayor this year. And overall, Garza said, he’s seen more collaboration and understanding among the people who live here.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been working on building stronger relationships with our community, to make sure that the voices of immigrants are heard, the voices of the Latino community are heard here,” Garza said.

Cedano and Garza met earlier this month at their offices in West Valley City to talk about what they’ve seen at their organization and their hopes for the future. Comunidades Unidas started with a handful of employees and now has 13, with women leading the team.

Cedano, named this month as the incoming executive director, was born in Mexico and immigrated to Utah when she was 11. Garza hired her after she graduated from the University of Utah in 2010. She most recently worked as the nonprofit’s community engagement and organizing director.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is photographed Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayra Cedano, program coordinator of Comunidades Unidas, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is photographed Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.

In 2018, the nonprofit provided more than 3,000 health screenings, registered 501 new voters and recorded over 4,000 volunteer service hours, among other efforts. Comunidades Unidas works to make sure “that every Latinx in Utah is a healthy, self-sufficient, and engaged member of the community,” according to the organization’s website.

Community activism and organizing have been a focus for Comunidades Unidas, and Cedano said it will continue to “be more bold and more vocal because of these difficult times."

About 100 people gathered at Comunidades Unidas for a vigil to share stories, heal and talk about how to bring change after Trump signed an order to ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, she said.

“When we had the Muslim ban, and when we were getting a lot of different attacks, community members would start calling. And they’re like, ‘Mayra, can we just come?’ " Cedano said.

Comunidades Unidas has participated in other rallies and protests. “We also played a vital role in in-state tuition [for Dreamers], driver privilege cards and other pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant legislation that we’re either fighting for or fighting against,” Cedano said.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayra Cedano speaks to a group gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol in 2017 in response to the Trump's administration's plan to end the DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, program.

Each year, the nonprofit’s Promotora program teaches people to be community leaders who educate and guide others about health services. Last year, 14 people graduated from the training.

“Many times here in Utah, we see the difference between the Latino community and other communities in terms of health outcomes," Garza said. “And there’s still a big gap in some of those outcomes, like chronic conditions, access to health care, insurance rates among Latino children."

But “we see ourselves as a bridge” he said, that can “connect communities with those resources that exist.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luis Garza, of Comunidades Unidas, speaks as House Democratic Representatives and Utah Latino Leaders, along with community activists, law enforcement, and others spoke in Salt Lake City in 2017 against recent orders by President Donald Trump on immigration and refugee status.

As Comunidades Unidas grew and became a nonprofit, it continued to work on health initiatives while expanding to include services such as financial education. In 2014, Garza and Cedano started an immigration clinic, accredited by the Department of Justice, to provide low-cost immigration services, Cedano said.

“We’ve been helping hundreds and hundreds of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipients renew their DACA [status] and so many other legal permanent residents get their citizenship,” she said.

Cedano and Garza said they were excited this month to see the Utah Supreme Court take a step toward allowing undocumented immigrants who have qualified for DREAM Act protection to possibly be admitted to the state bar.

Next year, Cedano said, Comunidades Unidas will help educate people in preparation for the 2020 census. She also said she wants to find ways to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.

And Garza said Comunidades Unidas will continue to fight for more representation in local government on Salt Lake County’s west side, “to make sure that the issues that our community cares about are heard” when policy decisions are made. The nonprofit helped prepare questions for a mayoral debate this fall focused on Salt Lake City’s west side.

Garza added: "We’re working on eliminating the collaboration between law enforcement and ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Families should stay together. That’s part of the values in our organization. ... And we think that that really resonates with the values of the state of Utah.”

As she begins leading the organization, Cedano said, she wants Utahns to know that “immigrants are powerful. And Comunidades Unidas is powerful, and will continue to be powerful.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.