Plazas making difference in Utah’s Hispanic community

by JEFF DUNN

Sometimes inspiration can come from an unlikely source. For Sandra Plazas, it came from a door-to-door salesman.

Two years after the first copies of Utah’s first bilingual newspaper came off the press, Plazas and her mother, Gladys Gonzalez, had had their share of difficult challenges. When the two began Mundo Hispano in May 1993, they didn’t have a staff of writers, editors or designers, and the women were forced to multitask to get everything ready for press. Financial issues added to the burden, and by 1995, the women were tired and discouraged and ready to quit.

“I didn’t think I could make it,” Plazas says.

The salesman learned of the family’s struggles in getting the paper off the ground and offered encouragement. He told of his own father who had given up too soon on a business venture years before.

“He said, ‘When a tough time comes, after that you find a solution. Don’t give up.”

They didn’t. Though impossibly long hours continued for the next few years, the women persisted, and in 1998 the paper turned the corner.

“For the first five years, I didn’t know what a vacation was,” she says. “I forgot that even existed. It was a lot of work. Thank God for technology.”

More than 10,000 copies of Mundo Hispano now are printed every week, with issues being distributed from Ogden to Payson. The paper became the official Spanish language portal of KSL in 2006.

“The thing I learned best is persistence,” Plazas says. “Even when times are tough.”

The paper’s co-founder says the mission of Mundo Hispano is to bring people together, not pull them apart. That, she says, is what makes the paper stand out against the backdrop of other bilingual and Spanish-language papers in the U.S.

“We focus on integration, they focus on separation. That’s the difference,” she says.

Plazas hopes the paper provides people the opportunity to get to know Utah’s Hispanic population.

“We are humans,” she says. “We may speak a different language, but we’re still from planet Earth. We believe that as each community learns from each other there is going to be a lot more understanding.”

Though Plazas has never made a personal profit off the paper, she says she’s more concerned with Mundo Hispano having a positive impact on the community.

“We believe the newspaper has a mission of integration, of getting to know each other,” she said. “And that’s why we do it.”

The integration effort has required Plazas and Gonzalez to work countless hours side-by-side. The editor says she and her mother have learned to work well together over the years.

“It’s not usual to work with your mother for 15 years and still be friends,” she said, smiling. “We fight sometimes.”

Sandra Plazas fled political unrest in Colombia in 1991, looking for safety and new opportunities with her mother and brother. The Mormon family relocated to Salt Lake City because they wanted to be close to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said.

But Plazas and her brother were frustrated when their mother, who had worked in a high position in a Colombian bank, could not find comparable work in Utah. Instead of working in American banks, she began cleaning them to make ends meet.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t happy,” she said. “Now I love the USA, but at first, I didn’t. When you come here you’re starting just like everyone else.”

Plazas said it took her a year before she was conversant in English. She attended language classes full time while juggling a full work schedule during her first 12 months in Utah.

“It was really, really hard,” she said. “I hated it with a passion. I can’t tell you how much I hated it.”

Despite her initial struggles with acculturation, Plazas has become a significant player in Utah’s Hispanic community. When she’s not working at the paper or her and her mother’s ad agency, La Agency, which provides much of their income, Plazas takes time to coach an underprivileged boys soccer team, aptly named Mundo Hispano.

“That has been one of my most rewarding moments, to show those kids a different world,” she said. “It’s been an incredible experience for me.”

The former youth soccer player says she requires the boys, who are 15 and 16, to keep up on their grades and stay out of trouble to be eligible to play on the team. Plazas encourages her players to succeed in school and says she wants them to aim for college.

“I believe that any kid, if you raise the bar and give them expectations, they will step up,” she said.

The coach often serves as a mediator between the players and their parents. She told of one instance where a player had got into trouble for sneaking out at night to be with his girlfriend. The parents called her and asked for advice. She first talked to the son and then the parents until the issue was resolved.

“I don’t lie when I say I am like their mom,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not easy. One thing I try to teach them is not only getting but giving back.”

Plazas says she is certain the team has made a lasting impact on the players.

“If I talk about achieving success in life in general, I would say the soccer team [is the greatest]. I know I have changed the life of at least one of those kids.”