by DAVID SERVATIUS
She calls it the “Field of Dreams” mentality, a reference to the iconic 1989 Kevin Costner film. If you build it, they will come. It is why, Sandra Plazas says, she and her mother, Gladys Gonzalez, went to work in the dining room of their two-bedroom apartment in the early 1990s to create the region’s first Spanish-language newspaper.
“People were saying to me, ‘You’re crazy! How are you going to do that? There are no Hispanics in Salt Lake City,'” Plazas recalls. “And I kept thinking, ‘No, not yet.'”
The mother-daughter team, both new arrivals in the Salt Lake Valley at the time, worked day and night and eventually launched Mundo Hispano in 1993. The new tabloid-style newspaper was free, printed monthly and had a circulation of 1,000. The first issue took more than a month to produce.
The pair worked alone for the first five years, doing everything, but as Plazas had predicted, the readers came quickly. Today the paper is printed weekly and boasts a total readership in the tens of thousands, with distribution from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south and a full-time staff running things from day to day.
The two initially had to give away space at no cost, but slowly the advertisers came, too. Each week, the back cover now showcases companies like Home Depot, Coca Cola, McDonalds and Zions Bank. This fall, Mundo Hispano will celebrate 15 years of being what Plazas calls “a bridge of integration between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities along the Wasatch Front.”
Plazas says she is currently on a mission, not only to bring people together, but also to make her newspaper an invaluable source of information for local Hispanic communities. One way she says she tries to do this is by closely monitoring the activities of state and local government, and by reporting on these activities in a way that helps readers understand the connection to their own lives.
“People are arriving in Utah every day with vastly different levels of cultural understanding and assimilation,” Plazas says. “A vibrant local media is important to all of them.”
Her role as the founder and editor of the newspaper has led to involvement with the Hispanic Legislative Task Force, a group of about 15 local community leaders who meet when the state legislature is in session to analyze proposals relevant to the community and advocate either for or against them. She says she spoke with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. during the recent battle over legislation that would have denied in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.
“I pointed out that it would be much more difficult to achieve his goals for economic development in the state without an educated public,” she says.
Plazas, 37, was born in Colombia and raised in that country and Ecuador. She fled Bogotá with her family and moved to Salt Lake City in 1991 at the height of the narcotics-related violence that was rocking most of Central America at that time. She says that extortion and threats of retribution were commonplace.
“My country is a great country,” she says. “But when they say they are going to kill you, they mean it.”
When she and her family got to Utah, Plazas says the only work they could find was cleaning floors in a bank, which marked an ironic turnabout in their lives. In Colombia, her mother, a college graduate with a business degree, had worked in the banking industry. The family had employed maids of its own at home. But, surprisingly, the language in their new country was an even bigger challenge than family pride.
“You think you speak English well because you speak it so much more than anyone around you,” she says. “Then you come here and it’s, like, ‘What?’ No one speaks what they teach you in school!”
Plazas, who has a degree in communications and describes herself as “a bit of a dreamer,” says she became a journalist because she wanted to show people the truth behind things. She originally saw herself as a war correspondent, but has since come to prefer softer and more individual-oriented stories.
She has interviewed her favorite author, Isabel Allende, and one of her favorite musical artists, Gloria Estefan, for stories. She profiled George W. Bush for an assignment while he was in Salt Lake City campaigning the year before he became president.
In the future, Plazas says she will be working to increase Mundo Hispano’s advertising sales in order to generate more revenue. With the extra money, she plans to increase the number of pages, increase circulation and, ultimately, grow it into a daily newspaper with statewide distribution.