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Humble beginnings for beloved branch

Include Juan Ramon Martinez's name on the list of LDS pioneers who entered the Salt Lake Valley hoping to help establish Zion.

Brother Martinez joined the Church in New Mexico but felt he was needed in Utah to do missionary work among the Mexican and other Spanish-speaking people. So in the summer of 1920 he stuffed $600 in his pocket, traveled to Salt Lake City and perhaps, upon arriving, even thought, "This is the place."

Soon Brother Martinez met another Latino Church member named Jose Zamora in an area barbershop. He was later introduced to a handful of other Spanish-speaking LDS men living in Salt Lake City. The new friends shared a common language, ancestry and earnest desire to preach and celebrate the gospel among their own people and in their own tongue.

They arranged a meeting with President Anthony W. Ivins, a Spanish-speaking apostle who was serving as President Heber J. Grant's second counselor in the First Presidency. President Ivins, who had lived in Mexico many years, granted the men permission to proselyte and hold meetings in Spanish.

In November of 1920, a handful of Mexican families observed Sunday services in Spanish in a rented downtown restaurant — humble beginnings for what would evolve into the beloved Salt Lake Mexican Branch and, later, the Lucero Ward that operates today. A bilingual history of the unit was compiled in 1998 by longtime branch member Betty G. Ventura. Much of her research on the early years of the branch was gleaned from records diligently kept by the branch's longtime secretary, the late Manuel S. Torres.

Spanish-speaking members living along Utah's Wasatch Front today recently gathered at a Salt Lake City meetinghouse for a weekend of cultural fun, fiesta and fireside. For many, it was their first opportunity to learn the rich, 40-year history of the Salt Lake Mexican Branch.

Since the Lucero Ward (now a unit in the Salt Lake Sugar House Stake) was organized, additional units along Utah's Wasatch Front and in other areas have been organized to accommodate those with special language needs. Church leaders occasionally organize non-native language branches and wards in circumstances where the conventional ward cannot provide for the needs of a non-native language group and when a language barrier exists among a sufficient number of members in a stake. Once members of such non-native units gain some proficiency in the predominant language, they are often encouraged to become part of their conventional, geographical ward or branch.

In the introduction of her history of the Lucero Ward, Sister Ventura notes two elements that ensured the survival and success of the Salt Lake Mexican Branch. First, the hard work and devotion of the Mexican-American saints — faithful members who helped establish the branch and their descendents who persevered until the Salt Lake Mexican Branch became the Lucero Ward.

"Without any doubt, they were chosen spirits who, in every sense, fulfilled what they felt was their mission: to preach the gospel to their own people," wrote Sister Ventura. "They did this first on the streets and in the parks and homes of Salt Lake. And then, by teaching their language to their children and sending them forth on missions, they became the means by which the gospel was taught elsewhere."

Second, Sister Ventura praises the Anglo members who offered their time, talents and hearts to be teachers, branch leaders and friends to their Latino brothers and sisters.

The prosperity of the Salt Lake Mexican Branch was also strengthened by the combined efforts of apostles and faithful, rank-and-file Church members. In early 1921, the fledgling group organized themselves as "The Temporary Lamanite Branch." Three months later, Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve and Rey L. Pratt, president of the Mexican Mission, met with them and officially organized the "Local Mexican Mission." Since the idea of a Spanish-speaking unit in Salt Lake City was so new, the unit was left under the jurisdiction of the Mexican Mission, which was headquartered in El Paso, Texas, and presided over by President Pratt, according to Sister Ventura.

The group continued to hold Sabbath services in the restaurant. In August, they began holding some Sunday meetings in downtown Pioneer Park to attract investigators. On May 15, 1923, the unit was placed in the Salt Lake Stake and the "Local Mexican Mission" became the Mexican Branch. Francisco Solano was named president.

Branch members enjoyed a special relationship with Church leaders who promised the faithful that their numbers would grow and prosper. According to Sister Ventura's history, Elder Ballard visited the tiny branch in the winter of 1924 and encouraged its members to remain valiant.

"If you continue strong and faithful and humble, growing in the Gospel and paying your tithes, the day will come when you will be blessed and will stand before multitudes of your own people," Elder Ballard said.

Other special men visited and encouraged branch members, including President Harold B. Lee, who served as their stake president. President J. Reuben Clark Jr., then second counselor in the First Presidency, offered the dedicatory prayer on the branch's new meetinghouse on June 17, 1951. Elders Joseph Fielding Smith, Spencer W. Kimball and Matthew W. Cowley, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, also spent time with the Salt Lake Mexican Branch sharing their love and counsel.

On July 17, 1960, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve announced the Salt Lake Mexican Branch would become the Lucero Ward. Lucero was the middle name of President Rey L. Pratt, who helped establish the original branch years earlier.

E-mail: jswensen@desnews.com

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