OGDEN — Growing up in Ogden, when there were few Latinos in the city, Arlene Anderson was typically the only Latina in her classroom.
“It was very white, very white,” she said.
She remembers occasional uncomfortable exchanges related to race, like the time the neighbor girl said she couldn’t play with Anderson, on parents’ orders, because her skin was too brown. Still, it didn’t arouse hostility or push her to speak out.
“Honestly no, because that’s just how I thought life was,” she said.
It reached a point, though, where Anderson, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, was ashamed of being a Mexican-American. She recalls the transformation she went through each day to fit in at school. Her parents immigrated from Mexico to the United States in the 1950s and she is one of nine girls in her family, three born in Mexico and six, including Anderson, born here.
“You wake up, you’re speaking Spanish and you’re eating Mexican food. Then you go to school and you have to switch,” said Anderson, a product of the Ogden School District and a Ben Lomond High School graduate. “You are constantly living two lives, being bicultural.”
Later at Weber State University, meeting other Latinos, she started changing, embraced her background and developed pride in her Mexican heritage. The shift underscores the growth of the Latino population in and around Ogden, its increasing ubiquity and, along with that, perhaps, an increasing willingness within the community — at least among some — to step forward, speak out and be counted.
Now, Anderson, whose last name before marrying was Zisumbo, takes an active role in Ogden, advocating for the Latino community and, more broadly, the city as a whole. She helps immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship at classes offered through the Weber County Library System, works with local immigrant advocacy groups and served on a special committee that aided the city of Ogden in budget planning for the future. She currently works in information technology in the health care sector, and earlier in her career she pushed for bilingual initiatives to help hospital patients who didn’t speak English.
“The reason I’m involved is because we have community members living life in the shadows, who don’t have a voice,” she said, alluding to the undocumented population. “We’re here. We want to be heard. We want to be part of the community.”
Likewise, she encourages undocumented immigrants to keep heart. One of her older sisters, born in Mexico just before her parents moved to the United States, faced deportation in the 1970s. Though they resolved the situation, it was a traumatic experience that briefly split the family, and the issue hits close to home.
The sister, Olga Fischer, had been born sooner than expected in Mexico, just before the family’s move to the United States in the 1950s. Anderson’s late parents, J.C. and Carmen Zisumbo, and the two oldest daughters had the papers they needed to cross, but Olga didn’t so they enlisted help to sneak her across the border. That Fischer was undocumented came to light years later when she was attending Weber State, forcing a return with her parents to Mexico to fix the problem.
She’s acquainted with many undocumented immigrants, Anderson said, “and I tell them to not give up hope. Things will change.”
‘UNDERSTANDING THE POWER’
The experience of Anderson’s parents and sisters in many ways exemplifies the transition for Latino newcomers finding a space for themselves in the United States.
J.C. Zisumbo first came to the United States for work in the 1940s from the Mexican state of Michoacan, still a teenager. He got work with the railroad, laying track, and after a few trips back and forth across the border, ultimately made a permanent move here to Utah given the plentiful jobs in the sector. It was backbreaking labor, but for a man without a formal education, it was a way to make a living, to provide for his wife Carmen, their three daughters at the time and the six additional daughters yet to come, including Anderson.
Anderson’s parents encouraged their daughters in school, but lacking education themselves, they couldn’t offer much help with homework. “So we were self-motivated in school,” said Alicia Zisumbo, the youngest daughter in the family, now living in Woods Cross.
In fact, Zisumbo said, they helped their dad prepare for tests he had to take to advance in his railroading career. Ultimately, the focus on education paid off and all nine Zisumbo daughters attended college, two getting associate degrees, five finishing with bachelor’s degrees and two getting master’s degrees.
Similarly, they overcame the prejudice and racism they faced — some of it, at least — not through confrontation, but by diligence. Hilda Brown, of Layton, the middle daughter, remembers the neighbor kid forbidden from playing with them because of their darker skin complexion. The child’s dad ultimately had a change of heart.
“He came around, I think by my dad just showing how we are decent people. You just followed the rules and you did it,” Brown said.
Still, Anderson doesn’t exactly tout the quiet-and-stoic route in advocating for Latinos. Her daughter is now a student at Ben Lomond High School, her alma mater, and she notes with a measure of envy the existence of groups at the school like Latinos in Action, meant to empower Latino students. “Those are the kinds of things I wish we would have had,” she said.
And the experience with Fischer sticks with her, the uncertainty she felt when her sister’s undocumented status came to light, threatening to split the family and forcing her to return to Mexico, though only temporarily, it turns out. Families continue to be split apart because of U.S. immigration policy, Anderson said, “and that’s what’s devastating.”
Indeed, these days she’s more apt to speak out. It’s not necessarily about in-your-face confrontation, though, but rather, understanding and using the power structure.
“I have actively sought out ways I can connect with people to raise awareness,” she said. “It has to do with understanding the power.”