OGDEN — Luis Lopez was 19 when he came to the United States. He couldn’t speak English and lacked many skills.
Today, he is six credits away from earning a master’s degree in education.
The 34-year-old administrator at Weber State University said he is living the American dream.
He initially came to the U.S. from Mexico on a tourist visa to support his niece, who was having heart surgery at Primary Children’s Medical Center. Every six months he returned to Mexico to renew the visa, until he met and married his wife, Judy, a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“She was born in Mexico, too, but her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 3 years old,” he said.
Lopez became a U.S. citizen four years ago, which he describes as one of the best days of his life.
“It was very emotional going through this,” he said. “I became a citizen along with 300 other people or so, who altogether represented more than 80 countries.”
Lopez began working as a car washer at a local dealership. From there he worked for various companies — loading roof shingles and semitrailers at Freeport Center, cleaning carpets, heating and air-conditioning companies and fast-food establishments.
His first job out of college was with Ogden School District at Mound Fort Middle School. He worked for the Colors of Success program, a gang-prevention program aimed at helping at-risk students stay out of trouble.
“In my view, the most successful strategy to help kids with difficult backgrounds is to gain their trust. If they trust you, they will listen and follow your lead,” he said. “The same goes for the extended family.”
Lopez said one story that sticks in his mind involves a former student he ran into a few months ago. The student, now 20, told Lopez he never forgot a conversation the two had about the importance of continuing his education. Because of that conversation, the student plans to study to become an electrician.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Lopez attended school until his senior year and then finished his education in Utah. He and his wife have three children and a Jack Russell terrier.
At the university level, he is working on a project to open a community center in inner-city Ogden to make it easier for under-represented communities to attend the university. He is also developing a Spanish-language radio show in Ogden to teach and help the Hispanic community navigate the education system.
“El grito de la prosperidad” — which means “The cry for prosperity” — can be heard from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays on 1490 AM.
Lopez said he believes immigration is the most pressing issue in the Hispanic immigrant community.
“The lack of fair, just and realistic immigration laws has created a lot of problems for communities on both sides of the ethnic spectrum,” he said. “The unfortunate consequences of this are that families get caught in the middle and people get hurt, many of them innocent children.”
Another issue within the community, he said, is education.
“Our Hispanic kids are lagging behind most ethnic groups by large percentages in high-stake test scores, and they also have the highest dropout rates in the nation,” Lopez said. “Hispanic adults also have low education attainment when compared to other ethnic groups.”
Lopez said voting and civic engagement are important issues regarding the Hispanic community. He said the only way the community will advance is by engaging actively in the political process.
“The lack of unity and organization among my community is, perhaps, what affects us the most,” he said.
Lopez said the Hispanic immigrant community is hard-working and noble, and like so many, they want to be part of the American dream. The problem, he said, is they don’t know how.
“Immigrants are often criticized for not learning English and not assimilating into the American mainstream culture,” he said.
“But what the critics don’t understand is that it is not as easy as it looks. Every person’s priority, regardless of race, is to provide a roof and put food on the table for their families.”
Then, he said, they can think about other things, but too often, meeting the basic needs becomes a lifelong struggle. In the end, there should be no excuses that keep immigrants from learning English and respecting the culture in which they live in, he said. He believe most Hispanic immigrants want this.
“But it is always a two-way deal — it is the mainstream culture’s responsibility to reach out, extend a hand and evaluate what we can do as Americans to help the newcomers,” he said.
“I call this ‘bridging the cultural gap.’ It is everyone’s responsibility to do something if we want to build a better society.”