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: Uniting the community for 15 years and counting

by PHI TRAN

Mundo Hispano, once a small publication, has grown into Utah’s largest Spanish language newspaper. Sandra Plazas, the general editor and co-founder of the paper said it is more than just a newspaper; it is a bridge of understanding between the American and Hispanic communities in Utah.

Plazas said that Mundo Hispano believes that each community has something to say and through communication, people will learn from each other. It is “a mission of getting to know each other,” she said.

Mundo Hispano has become the voice of the Latino community. It covers the important aspects that affect the community such as legislative issues.

“It’s also a tool for us to help teach our kids,” Plazas said. “It’s hard for a lot of kids here to maintain their language because everything around them is in English.” Mundo Hispano can help people with their fluency in Spanish.

Plazas came to Utah with her mother, Gladys Gonzalez, in 1991 from Bogota, Colombia. At the time, Plazas was 20 years old and had just graduated from Universidad Externado de Colombia with a degree in communication.

Gonzalez had a business degree from Los Libertadores University and worked for Manufacturers Hanover Trust, now Chase Manhattan Bank. She also had three years of journalism experience.

Yet finding a job in Utah proved to be difficult. Plazas said employers would tell them that they were either over- or under-qualified.

They ended up cleaning floors. It was unacceptable, Plazas said they did not want to do this forever and they thought, “What could we do that will give us a future but is something that we enjoy doing?” This was the motivation behind creating Mundo Hispano.

Some people criticized the idea of creating a Spanish newspaper in 1993. One person told them, “You’re crazy! How are you going to do that? There is nothing Spanish in Utah.” A Salt Lake Tribune representative said, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life. The [Hispanic] population in Utah is never going to be big enough to actually support your newspaper.”

Plazas responded to these comments with a quote from one of her favorite movies, The Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come.” She and her mother decided they would take their chances because they believed the Hispanic population would grow and they were right. According to the 2006 U.S. Census Bureau, Utah’s Hispanic population is at 11.2 percent.

Although both Gonzalez and Plazas had an extensive background in journalism it was still difficult launching a newspaper because they had to do everything themselves. They reported, wrote and edited the news, designed the layout and even delivered the newspapers. Because they were so low on resources, they still had to work full-time jobs to pay their salaries and support their families. Plazas said they worked 52 hours straight without any sleep. “As hard as it was, I think it has been great because it has given me the opportunity to learn every little aspect of my business,” she said.

Mundo Hispano has gone from a mere 1,000 copies per month to a circulation of 10,000 per week. Seven freelance writers contribute articles as well as one correspondent in Mexico City and one in Colombia. The paper has a readership of 2.7 per copy, which means there are approximately 23,000 people reading the newspaper. Plazas said that they plan to expand the newspaper in the future. She said she would like to see Mundo Hispano distributed statewide with correspondents in Europe in the next five years.

In addition to Mundo Hispano, they own a marketing consulting firm called the Hispanic Marketing Consulting La Agency, which helps businesses by showing them how to target the growing Hispanic population. One important aspect that Plazas said the agency teaches other businesses to remember is that the entire Hispanic community cannot be boxed into one category. In fact, there are 25 different Hispanic cultures in Utah alone and Plazas said the challenge for most businesses is accommodating to all the different cultures.

Needless to say, this mother-daughter team has accomplished a great deal since they moved to Utah in 1991. Mundo Hispano is a family business that they created from the ground up. “It has been our baby,” Plazas said. People have put a lot of trust in the newspaper.