Julie Stewart: Immigrants are building on the strongest legacy of Utah pioneers

I am searching for new ways to honor my migrant past.

(Julio Cortez | AP) Migrants walk on a dirt road after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Mission, Texas.

William Stewart and Elizabeth Murdoch — my great-great grandparents on my father’s side — came to Utah from Scotland by way of Liverpool, New Orleans, St. Louis, Peoria and Omaha. A trip that today might take one day took several years because at each stop, they needed to stop and earn money for the next leg of their journey. Their journey’s final, arduous path began on August 1, 1857, when they left Iowa City with a wagon train bound for Utah. They had already lost one child, but were determined that his body would rest in the promised land, so they sealed his casket and placed it in their wagon. Before William would step foot in Utah, he would lose another son and a newborn girl. Elizabeth too would soon lose her life. Weakened by travel, pregnancy, weather and heartache, Elizabeth died near the crossing of the Big Sandy River in Wyoming. She was just 33 years old.

William made it to Utah carrying one son on his back and the other in his arms. They were too weak to walk. He immediately sought out help from a friend and relied on the fellowship of a community of pioneers to survive. During those first lean years, food was scarce and the danger of death — from starvation or exposure — was ever present. After many years of intense labor and hardship, William’s family settled permanently in Meadow, Utah, my father’s birthplace.

I wouldn’t be here were it not for the sacrifices my ancestors made.

This year, I am searching for new ways to honor my migrant past. One answer focuses on immigrants from Latin America: the modern-day pioneers who enrich Utah’s culture, contribute to its vibrant economy and infuse our aging population with youthful energy. There are many ways to support immigrants, but Comunidades Unidas — Utah’s premier organization promoting immigrant rights and social justice — is leading the way.

Recently, Comunidades Unidas was named the 2023 UnidosUS National Affiliate of the Year. This award is the highest honor bestowed for exemplary work in community service and advancing justice for immigrants. One area of excellence identified in this award stands out.

Since its inception nearly 25 years ago, CU has run a leadership academy that encourages youth and community members to learn about politics. Using their new knowledge and skills, graduates of this academy — working closely with CU staff members — have pushed elected officials to institute more humane policies, such as removing obstacles from accessing food security programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), cleaning up local parks and increasing access to life-saving medical services like mammograms and other cancer-screening services. These community leaders, teenagers to seniors, are embracing the lifesaving, community-focused practices that allowed our pioneer ancestors to survive, and eventually to thrive.

There are many ways to honor the work and sacrifices of those who came before us. But I can think of no better way than to support the pioneers of today.

Like my ancestors, many Latin American immigrants fled persecution to find freedom and security in the U.S. They are building a new life here in Utah and are working to create just communities that encourage economic, political and social advancement. We can support that work by joining campaigns around immigrant justice. We can make financial contributions. And most importantly, we can recognize that Latin American immigrants are building on the strongest legacy of Utah pioneers.

Julie Stewart

Julie Stewart is a professor in the Honors College at Westminster University and serves as the vice-chairwoman of Comunidades Unidas.