SALT LAKE CITY — When retired Judge Andrew Valdez told his brother he was being bullied and robbed as a kid, his brother gave him some advice.
“He told me I was gonna have to stab (the bully) to keep him away from me,” Valdez said in an interview with local teens. “Because in those days, if someone was picking on you, you had to attack that person first. ... And I look back on that now, and I was very lucky that I didn’t do that because that would have changed my life.”
Valdez, who grew up on Salt Lake City’s west side, eventually became a 3rd District Juvenile Court judge.
The story is part of one of the nine in-depth interviews a group of 19 Salt Lake City-area Latino teens conducted with Utah Latino leaders. Their work, including videos and transcripts, is now online for all to see, learn from and be inspired by.
The website from the project, “Faces and Voices of Chicano/Latino Leaders,” includes photos taken by the students and video of them interviewing each other about their own lives.
The year-long leadership training program was designed by the Center for Documentary Expression and Art (CDEA) and the Utah Coalition of La Raza.
The students were from four high schools: Highland, Horizonte, West and the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science.
Other leaders interviewed included, among others, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City; Isabel Rojas with the United Way of Salt Lake; and artist and Mestizo coffee shop founder Ruby Chacon.
The website was unveiled Wednesday, nearly four years after the teens first embarked on the project.
Leslie Kelen, executive director of the Utah-based CDEA, said the project aimed to both document the lives of local Chicano/Latino leaders and show students how successful Latino leaders overcame adversity.
“We thought that the Chicano/Latino leadership could very well open up to these young people in ways that would provide them a unique kind of education about what it was like to live in Utah,” Kelen said, “to encounter issues of prejudice and racism, police abuse, a variety of very challenging scenarios and to show them how they, for better or worse, had dealt with that.
“It made them feel, certainly, less alone in their lives,” Kelen said of the teens, “and it made them feel that people could overcome difficulties.”
Common threads emerged in the interviews, including that negative stereotyping of Latino youth was and remains a challenge in schools; that many of today’s Latino leaders grew up in poverty; that having adult mentors and family support was important to overcoming obstacles; and that they had to fight discrimination.
“Sometimes as you’re growing up and you see people that are leaders you kind of think they just were handed that,” said Aura Gutierrez, now 21, who worked on the project as a senior at Horizonte. She said she learned from doing the interviews: “It wasn’t really handed to them. They had to work for it.”
Gutierrez, who now works at Horizonte and attends Salt Lake Community College, said it inspired her to not let obstacles stand in her way.
“Some of our problems are nothing compared to what their struggles are,” Gutierrez said, “and it kind of tells you, ‘Hey, stop crying about it, and do something about it and reach further.’”
The kids also decided to film each other. Their work hasn’t yet been compiled, but excerpts can be seen in a trailer called Outside/Inside.
In the trailer, one Utah boy talks about crossing the border into the U.S., as a child, without his parents. A girl recalls how worried she was after she crashed the family car, because she’s an undocumented immigrant. Another girl discusses her disillusionment with life when her dad was deported.
Kelen said it wasn’t something organizers expected to film when they first started the project, but students wanted to do it.
Gutierrez said the students filmed themselves for the same reason they filmed the leaders.
“It was to pass it down to younger generations and kind of give them the message,” she said, “that they’re not alone and they can definitely overcome their hardships.”