As Jill Biden emerged around the side of a Salt Lake County Health Department bus Wednesday, she was greeted by Comunidades Unidas members and volunteers holding a banner at Jordan Park.
“Bienvenida, Dr. Biden,” they yelled in unison.
The first lady then turned to 14-year-old Lesley Soledad, who shared with Biden how she got her name.
“When my parents came to the United States, they were confronted by the immigration patrol on the border of Arizona,” Lesley said. “They hid in bushes” near a house, and “a young girl came outside and offered my parents shelter and food.”
Her mother was six months pregnant at the time. Later, when she gave birth to Lesley, her parents decided to name her after the little girl who had helped them.
“Without her, I don’t know where my family would be right now,” Lesley, who lives in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood, told Biden.
Biden arrived at Jordan Park, where a west-side COVID-19 vaccination clinic had been set up, shortly before 3:30 p.m. after visiting nearby Glendale Middle School during her trip to Salt Lake City.
“When we first got the call from the White House, I couldn’t believe it,” said Mayra Cedano, executive director of the nonprofit Comunidades Unidas, which empowers and supports Utah’s Latino and immigrant communities.
After verifying that Biden’s visit was actually happening, Cedano said she “knew that we needed to show her the importance and the work that immigrants are doing in our communities.”
“We need to show her the faces of our children,” Cedano said, “the faces of our families, of our mothers getting vaccinated.”
‘I just wanted to ... hug her’
Biden watched as two women received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine under a tent. One of them was 33-year-old Silvia Soledad, Lesley’s mother.
The other woman, 34-year-old Diana Trejo, said she had been hesitant to be vaccinated because she worried about potential side effects. The Glendale resident said she was “nervous and excited” to receive her first dose with Biden watching.
“I just wanted to jump up and hug her or something,” she laughed, “but I couldn’t do that.”
As Biden watched the women get their shots, she said it’s time to move vaccination efforts from mass clinics to neighborhoods — something Utah is in the process of doing.
“It feels like there is hope,” she said. “Things are going to get better.”
In addition to celebrating the work of Utah’s essential workers and community health efforts — such as Comunidades Unidas’ promotoras program — it was important to show Biden the need for comprehensive immigration reform, according to Maria Montes, the nonprofit’s community engagement and organizing manager.
“We wanted to share with her the stories that come from our heart, as immigrants,” she said. “The pandemic hasn’t only been scary in terms of our health and that of our families, but it’s been scary to know that we are essential and, unfortunately, continue to be unprotected from deportation.”
Montes added, “To move this country past the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to prioritize creating a pathway to citizenship for essential workers.”
Biden’s visit meant a lot to Fernando Bello because “she recognized that we are important,” he said, as people working in community health, construction, agriculture and hospitality.
“Many members in our community do not have legal status,” the 41-year-old Kearns resident said.
So when he got a chance to speak with the first lady, Bello said he encouraged her “to push for comprehensive immigration reform” and “a fair system” so “our people can get out of the shadows and get the help they need, since they are helping our community.”
West side often ‘overlooked’
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, thanked Biden “for coming to my neighborhood” on the capital’s west side.
“A lot of times we’re overlooked,” the lawmaker said, “and she made a concerted effort to come down here.”
Community health workers and partners, such as Comunidades Unidas, are vital in helping to get as many people vaccinated as possible, Romero said, especially as Utah’s Hispanic and Latino populations have not been vaccinated at the same rates as other communities in the state.
As of Wednesday, Latino and Hispanic Utahns accounted for 8.4% of all vaccinated people in Utah, but they represent 13.3% of the adult population, according to data from the Utah Department of Health.
Roughly 250 people signed up for appointments Wednesday at the pop-up vaccination site in Jordan Park, and there were extra doses available for more people who show up, according to Romero.
Before Biden headed to the airport, Cedano said she told the first lady, “Please don’t forget about us.”
It was “very emotional” and “an honor” to spend time with Biden, Cedano said, “because not a lot of low-income communities of color get an opportunity like this.”
Biden chatted with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and representatives from the county health department before departing in her motorcade past cheering people scattered in the park.
With the Secret Service and police presence gone, kids flocked to the swings and jungle gym. An ice cream van playing music drove by as people lined up, waiting to receive their shots of hope.
— Tribune reporter Matt Canham contributed to this story.