What do Colombian artist Carlos Vives, Ambassador Carlos Vecchio, and 20,000 Venezuelans have in common? They all see value in Utah.
One could see it on September 9th, 2022, a key date for Venezuelan-American communities, because it was the original deadline to apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). To bring attention to the program, Ambassador Carlos Vecchio chose to host a public event in Utah. Less than a month later, on October 7th, 2022, Carlos Vives performed to a sold out audience in Salt Lake City. Unlike this time, Vives was much more selective during his 2018 tour, the closest he came to Utah was during his flight from Houston to his closing performance in Los Angeles.
Vives and Vecchio likely had some of the 20,000 Venezuelans that now call Utah home in their respective audiences.
Utah is a place of extremes that a typical Caraqueño wouldn’t know: extremely hot and cold temperatures, but also extremely safe neighborhoods and the second lowest unemployment rate in the country (2.0%, behind Minnesota’s 1.9%). Utah also has the highest rate of children as a percentage of total population, a feature that’s attractive to Venezuelans and other Hispanic communities that prioritize raising a family.
Venezuelans are the third largest Hispanic community in the state, behind an overwhelming Mexican majority and tied with a similarly small Peruvian group. Considering the relatively dire situation in Venezuela, however, more Venezuelans are likely to come to the United States and could create a unique enclave in Utah, and this would definitely have an impact and be felt in that place: 20,000 Venezuelans would represent a 0.1% increase to the population of New York City, 0.3% of Miami’s, or 1.3% of Salt Lake City’s, but in Utah, Venezuelans already make up as much of Salt Lake City as they do in Miami, and a small number of Venezuelans can make a big difference in the case of the Utah capital.
There are even more reasons that make Utah a top destination for Venezuelans. Patricia Quiñones of Utahzolanos cited a high rate of volunteers and charity thanks to the presence of the Mormon church. According to the Mormon church, there were about 174,000 Mormons in Venezuela in 2020. If this population chooses to migrate, and they prioritize their religious beliefs, the choice is a no-brainer. While they don’t provide lawyers in a migrant’s legal case for protected status, the church does provide more traditional forms of charity to believers and non-believers, a valuable offset to the state’s unfriendly weather and relatively high English language demands.
Each migration wave from Venezuela has included progressively lower-income populations that benefit from the church’s charity. Venezuelans of other faiths have also found reason to convert to Mormonism, as was the case with Quiñones’s mom, who was convinced by missionaries who visited her at home.
Quiñones notes how far the local population has come: six years ago she ran into another Venezuelan family in the supermarket in a meeting that ended in tears of happiness and solidarity. Three years ago, Utahzolanos was founded as community organizing was becoming necessary. Today, there’s a Venezuelan festival and meeting a countryman is a low-brow affair at a Vives or Mark Anthony concert. Despite their current minority relative to Mexicans in the state, could Utah become the next Doral?
Dry Beyond the Climate
Despite Venezuelans’ closeness and association to southern Florida, Cubans still outnumber Venezuelans in the southern state by more than 10:1. With equivalent Puerto Rican communities in New York and Salvadorians in DC, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area could create a distinctly Venezuelan segment of the population through relatively small and targeted migration and growth.
Jesler Molina, director of the Venezuelan Alliance of Utah, believes that this is unlikely, despite believing Utah remains an attractive location for Venezuelan migrants. Molina notes that the Hispanic population of Utah is 90% Mexican, an overwhelming proportion that’s seen across the Western United States. “Mexicans have a consulate in Salt Lake City, whereas the entire west coast was serviced by a single Venezuelan consulate in San Francisco (currently closed).”
Molina also said that defining a particular geographic area in Utah with Venezuelans would be difficult, he highlights the state’s unique characteristic in that the travel time from city to city is 5-10 minutes, with Venezuelans dispersed around the Great Salt Lake. Utah, unlike Florida, isn’t an easy state to manage for new arrivals. English skills are a must, rents are expensive, and landlords aren’t as lenient with subleasing, missing SSNs, or informal arrangements. In order to work in the state, new arrivals must have protected status through TPS or asylum.
While Molina believes that most Venezuelans in the state didn’t have an issue with this settling-in process, he believes these formalities may discourage others who may have residency issues or who just want an easier alternative in terms of weather or language.
Molina was involved in a three-year process to bring Carlos Vecchio to the state. Vecchio’s visit was the result of lobbying by groups such as the Venezuelan Alliance, whose main argument was that the Venezuelan embassy has to do more than focus on the largest communities of Venezuelans in Florida and Texas. The push for Vecchio’s visit also centered on Utah’s strategic importance for future legislation concerning Venezuelan migrants. Since future migrant-friendly legislation must be bipartisan to succeed, Utah would serve as a key state to have representatives and senators like Mitt Romney sign off as key Republican sponsors to secure the growing Venezuelan vote in the state.
While red states may be associated with limiting migration, Venezuelans appear generally well received in the state. In 2018, Utah’s Attorney General conducted a ceremony that recognized 48 Venezuelans for their efforts to support Venezuelans communities, cover their situation in the media, or simply for their “courage and determination in coming to Utah.”
Sancocho by the Salt Lake
Thanks to this community, no visit to Salt Lake City can now be complete without delving into the increasing variety of the local Venezuelan culinary scene. Proof of the economic and cultural value that Utahzolanos are increasingly providing to the state are Chang’s Chinese-Venezuelan cuisine, A Lo Maracucho (self-explanatory), and the more traditional Arepas. Actually, the Venezuelan community in Utah is diverse in itself, with representation from Maracaibo, Caracas, Táchira, and Lara, in that order.
The Venezuelan community in Utah may still be in a relative infancy, but as the number of Utahzolanos increase, so will their political and cultural power. Local politicians will bear them in mind as the next generation of migratory protected status laws are legislated. The Venezuelan ambassador will keep in mind that there are 20,000 voters that can be mobilized and that are themselves ambassadors of our country and culture. Latin artists will increasingly add a stop in Salt Lake City and perform in front of sold-out crowds. Finally, as the state’s unemployment rate remains at the bottom of the national average due to the ongoing labor shortage, employers will continue welcoming Venezuelans looking for work.
Some 18,000 Venezuelans in Utah have work permits or are protected by TPS or asylum requests. Perhaps the particularities of the religious path to Utah will contribute to having a bigger community in the future, even in a time of narrowing migration opportunities.
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