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.”

Mundo Hispano publisher discusses her life, newspaper

by JAIME WINSTON

Sandra Plazas is the coach of a soccer team for at-risk youth, vice president of an advertising agency and publisher of Mundo Hispano, a newspaper she owns with her mother.

Large businesses advertise in the publication, including Nordstrom and Coca-Cola. The advertising agency, Hispanic Marketing and Consulting-La Agency, has been Plazas’ most financially successful endeavor and the soccer team encourages teenagers to do well at school and in life.

“But it was not always this nice,” Plazas said

Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Plazas fled to the United States in 1991 when she was 20.

Her mother, Gladys Gonzalez worked for the Colombian branch of Chase Manhattan Bank when the company was threatened by guerilla warfare. The bank closed its doors and officials offered to help Plazas and Gonzalez relocate to New York or California. But the family chose Utah instead because of their faith in the Mormon church.

It wasn’t easy for Gonzalez to find work in Utah. “She was either overqualified or underqualified for every job she applied for,” Plazas said. Gonzalez eventually found a job cleaning floors at banks in Utah County.

Plazas also faced struggles when she arrived. “I couldn’t hold a conversation,” she said. The only English that Plazas knew was the little she learned in high school. “Now I love the United States, but at that point I didn’t,” she said.

In addition to new challenges, Gonzalez and Plazas also shared journalistic experience. Gonzalez had three years of college experience in the field, but left when her daughter fell ill with meningitis and was put in the hospital for about three weeks. “She felt that she wasn’t there to take care of me and that’s why I got sick,” Plazas said. “She wanted to make sure I was safe.”

Years later, Gonzalez returned to school to pursue a degree in business. But Plazas followed in her mother’s journalistic footsteps and graduated from Externado University of Colombia in Bogotá with a degree in journalism and communication.

In 1993, Plazas and Gonzalez put their education to use and started Mundo Hispano. They saw a need for a Hispanic news publication in Utah and began cutting and pasting articles on a dining-room table.

Plazas said the early years of the publication were the hardest and many told her there weren’t enough Hispanics in Utah to keep the newspaper running. “There were times I was burned out and I said I don’t think I can make it anymore,” she said.

Plazas and Gonzalez didn’t give up. To increase publication and target the Hispanic market, they enticed advertisers by offering free advertising space. It encouraged businesses to trust the publication, showing them that the newspaper was serious in its goals.

One of the main goals of the newspaper is to serve as a connection between the Spanish and English speaking communities in Utah. If Plazas ever decides to sell the newspaper she wants the buyer to have the same ambitions she does. “We believe this can be a bridge of understanding,” Plazas said.

For more than a year, the mother and daughter team printed 1,000 copies per month with two pages in both English and Spanish. Since the Spanish articles usually turned out much longer and it affected the format, only the editorial is in both languages today.

The newspaper also focuses on resources for Utah’s Hispanic population. To do this, Plazas and Gonzalez need to have cultural understanding.

“There are 25 cultures within the Hispanic community in the state,” Plazas said. “There are different dialects and they don’t want to be boxed as a whole.” Since there is such diversity among Spanish readers, the newspaper uses dialect from Spain, where the language originated.

The newspaper has had success reaching the community with 10,000 copies distributed each month and 2.7 readers per copy. The publication has a reporter in Mexico and one in Colombia. Plazas wants to find correspondents in Argentina and Europe as well to enhance the newspaper she runs with her mother.

Plazas works closely with Gonzalez at the newspaper, she also spends time with her children on the soccer field. Before she became involved in journalism, Plazas said she was a tomboy and loved soccer. She was the only girl on her high school’s team. The coaches of opposing teams wouldn’t worry about her though, until she started scoring goals.

Plazas’ children, Carlos, 15, and Paula, 12, also play soccer. She started a team so her son would have a chance to play when he didn’t make it onto another team. “My uncle used to tease me and tell me I bought a team for my son,” she said.

Today, many of the same players are still on the team, which started around 1998. Each team member has to keep a high grade point average in school, be well-behaved at home and help their community in order to play.

“They were all at-risk kids,” Plazas said. “Some counselors have told them they don’t have what it takes to make it.” Most of the players are considering college; some are looking for scholarships in soccer. “Before, those kids didn’t even know what a scholarship was,” she said.

Plazas said the soccer team has been her greatest accomplishment because she helped change the children’s lives for the better.

Another area Plazas makes a difference is politics as a member of Utah’s Hispanic Legislative Task Force. The group meets at the beginning and middle of the legislative session to study bills being presented and decide their position on them.

“In legislation right now there are immigration bills right and left,” Plazas said. She encourages others not to ignore issues surrounding migrant communities and said they work low paying jobs, yet pay taxes that benefit Utah.

Immigration bills are just some of the issues Mundo Hispano covers. At times, Plazas and Gonzalez argue over how to cover problems in the community. “Sometimes she feels that she’s right just because she’s my mom,” Plazas said. Despite their disagreements, Plazas feels that the newspaper serving the Hispanic community.