Tom Reams learned to speak Mexican Spanish on a mission to California, but after meeting his Venezuelan wife at a Latin dance class more than 13 years ago, he was “adopted” by the Venezuelan community, who taught him to speak Venezuelan. He’s now the treasurer of the Asociación Venezolana de Utah, the Venezuelan Association of Utah, a nonprofit organization that was started in May to provide resources to Utah’s 9,000 Venezuelan residents. The association meets every Wednesday at the Salt Lake County north building, room N3005, and will be hosting a holiday party that’s open to everyone on Friday, Dec. 28, at 7 p.m,. at the Utah State Fairpark. Visit AsociacionVenezolanaDeUtah.org for more info.
Why was there a need for Venezuelan Association of Utah?
The original founders started it when they were going to have some elections in Venezuela. So, they got together and said, “We need to drive to San Francisco, where the consulate is, so we can go and register to vote.” When they got together, they saw that there’s more of a need for the Venezuelans than just going to register to vote.
There’s been Venezuelans here for 20-odd years, but we’ve never had a nonprofit association that’s just working for the Venezuelans. There really wasn’t a way for Venezuelans to organize themselves—for parties, or starting a business. There’s been parties and stuff like that, but usually it’s someone who’s organizing it and making some money off of it—the band that’s doing it or whoever.
We formed the association in May. Carlos Alejandro Moreno is the president. He’s here as a student from Venezuela, studying at Salt Lake Community College and doing this on the side. I’m the treasurer, and they brought me in because I’m an auditor—I audit nonprofits, and I know how that works. I’m also from Utah, born and raised, and so I know kinda how things work here, and I understand the culture. So I can hopefully bridge that gap.
What kinds of programs does the group offer?
The program that’s going right now is a Venezuelan dance group. There’s no cost and everyone’s invited. You can learn traditional Venezuelan dance—you know, the ladies with the big dresses that they hold up. We want to teach the rest of the community who the Venezuelans are, through their traditions. And also Venezuelan children who are born here and grow up here—my kids are half Venezuelan and half American, and I wanted them to know the culture where they come from. We also want to start English classes and computer classes.
We had our first party in July. We were expecting about 400 people to show up, and over 800 people showed up. We danced the night away, had live music and traditional Venezuelan foods. Those funds we get, we use for our programs. It goes back to the Venezuelan community.
What are your plans for the holiday party?
We’ll have traditional Venezuelan food for the Christmas season. They have food that they only traditionally make for Christmas—they have these things called hallacas that are like tamales with a lot more food in them, and pan de jamon that’s bread with ham in it and a bunch of other things. You really don’t see those dishes until it’s Christmastime. There’s a lot of nostalgia with them. At the end of the year, Venezuelans listen to gaita—very distinct Venezuelan music that originated in the eastern part of Venezuela—Christmas music. We’re going to have that live—there’s only two people who play gaita in the whole state, and we’re going to have them live.
Is the group and parties open to other Utahns or just Venezuelans?
This is a civic organization, so everybody’s invited. We want to bring the Venezuelan community together, let the world know who they are, and support them so they don’t feel alone. The group is open to anyone who wants to help us. If someone has served a mission in Venezuela, or lived in Venezuela, or is interested about Venezuela … anyone can come, anyone can participate, anyone can join in. You don’t have to speak Spanish—I’ll translate.
Also, it’s apolitical. Venezuela is very divided between Chavez supporters and non-Chavez supporters. When I went in, I said, No. 1, no politics, ’cause that’s not going to help. No. 2, no religion because, a lot of times, religion is a divider, not a uniter.