Cal Nez has found his home in Salt Lake City

by BRYNN TOLMAN

An old English proverb says, “Home is where the heart is.” Another variation says, “Home is where you hang your hat.”

The search for home is never simple, but it’s important to make peace with the answers that come from the journey.

Cal Nez is now content calling Salt Lake City home; this peace of mind, however, was not always the case.

Nez, a Navajo, takes pride in his Native American ancestry, but understands all too well the hardships that can be associated with his heritage. Nez has spent his entire life asking, “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where have I been?” In answering these questions, he has discovered what “home” means to him. Throughout his journey he has learned home is more than just the structure where one lives.

At the age of 5, Nez was sent to boarding school in Sanostee, N.M., where he describes his experience as “six years of prison.” After returning to the reservation in Tocito, N.M., he realized that his options for success were very limited.

An opportunity to move to Salt Lake City arrived and Nez took it. He remembers that saying goodbye to his grandma, who raised him, was the hardest part of leaving. Yet he recalls thinking, “I left because I knew one day I would make it and come back for [her].”

Nez made his way to Salt Lake City to participate in the LDS Placement Service Program. He was eager to live with a “normal family” and see what their lives were like. The next three years, attending South High School, were some of the greatest years of his life, but the joy and satisfaction of success at school made him question, “Is my Navajo life home or my Salt Lake life home, or is it somewhere in the middle?” At that point, he still did not have a good answer.

Several years after school Nez quit his job, got his portfolio together and succeeded in building his own graphic design company, Cal Nez Design, in Salt Lake City. After finding his success and realizing his dreams he returned to the home of his childhood, the reservation. When he got home, things were different. Shops were closed, people he knew were gone; this was not the home he remembered or the one that he came looking for. Was this still his home?

Nez remembers vividly the day when he finally was able to feel at home again on the reservation. He recalls sitting on a mesa as a young boy looking out over half of New Mexico. The day the feeling of home returned he had taken his laptop and stepped onto that same mesa. As he sat overlooking New Mexico, computer in hand, his homes connected and he linked his traditional life to his modern life.

Many other Navajo men feel similar to Nez. While they live modern lives, they love to return home to New Mexico and feel the peace of going back. Paul Lillywhite, a St. George stone mason employs several of these men. Lillywhite said that although they have very little money, they drive home every weekend to visit their family and their friends, “to go home.”

Lillywhite described home as “a feeling of a connection to a place and a connection to the people there, a place of shelter from the world, a place to re-group.” He understands there are differences in the type or location of home, but he also understands what Nez means when he says, “Home is here it doesn’t matter where I’m at.”

Nez said his biggest challenge in life is “finding the identity of … Native Americans.” The search for this identity is the search for home. Nez spent many years seeking these answers. Eventually, he came back to visit the reservation. This, according to Nez, is exactly as it should be.

“As Native Americans, the goal in the journey is to come full circle; to make it home,” he said. Nez found home on the reservation, at South High School, and in Sandy, Utah, where he currently lives with his family.

As Lillywhite says, “A home is really where the things that you love, and the people that you love are.”