It’s called Happy Valley, but if you are not at least third or fourth generation, you might be considered an outsider and are likely to meet racial and religious discrimination, anti-feminism and unfair hiring practices in this utopia. That’s the opinion of people who don’t conform to the “norms” of Utah County. If you’re not part of the local “culture,” if you learned the LDS culture in another state, or don’t believe that men are the supreme beings, you had better buckle up for a rough flight.
“Living in Utah County is an endless endurance test,” said Thomas Rogers from Spanish Fork. “It’s bare feet on a bed of nails syndrome.” Rogers has lived in Utah County for 10 years and says he has suffered discrimination from members of the dominant culture, which he claims was the major cause of discontent in his former marriage.
As a prominent Utah County attorney explained, “If you weren’t raised in the county, you never belong. It doesn’t matter what faith you are, the culture won’t let you in. You are either on the inside trying to get in, or on the outside trying to stay out. Accept that fact and your time in Utah County will be happier.”
Michaela Gates, a student, seconds that opinion. “My family have been California LDS forever,” she said. “I was looking forward to coming to Utah to study. I feel on the edge of breakdown. I am thoroughly disappointed and disillusioned. I have never before experienced such pompous prejudiced people, with such a narrow uneducated view of the world. They are totally judgmental. The only thing that keeps me here is my refusal to give in and abandon my personal goals.”
Nonetheless, Michaela had to make a choice in the end. Should she sacrifice her well-being or move to a less bigoted community? She left.
The word “transient” takes on new meaning in Happy Valley. Conjure an image of a cultured, educated population that is there to fill gaps in the workforce—skilled people who are needed to boost the economy. Most arrive innocent of the culture and with a genuine desire to fit in, said Jim Shroyer of Springville Community Presbyterian Church. “If you weren’t of the frame of mind to get along with the local people, you shouldn’t have come. But once you are here, it takes a strong sense of identity to stay intact.”
Trying to do that, says Killie Murphy, is extremely difficult. Being true to yourself while still being accepted in this valley is almost impossible. “Your very soul is eroded with the constant battle to believe in yourself. You are never accepted, only controlled.” She agreed with the philosophy of Thomas Rogers. “You either move on, or gradually, almost unknowingly, submit to control. There is no separation of church and state, and if you are not part of the culture you must be conquered and controlled. There is no room for individuality.”
The Murphys were drawn to Utah by her experience with Mormon family values. “We had lots of LDS friends in California. They carried themselves respectfully,” she said. “We thought our family, which was large by California standards, would fit right in with Utah family values. We thought it would be a much warmer community [than it is], with people helping people. We haven’t seen much of that and we are disappointed. The philosophy of helping each other exists only in very small circles,” Killie said.
“I was appalled to find that the state that is historically known for its large number of children and family oriented culture is so lacking in Christianity. My social belief has always been that one should do unto others what you want them to do to you.” Murphy has come to believe the Utah philosophy is more like, “do unto others what in the long-distant past, others did to you,” hence the discrimination against everything and everyone who doesn’t conform to Utah County norms.
Making things even more difficult for Killie is the male attitude toward females, which she calls the “God-on-earth” mentality. She refuses to accept the idea that men peck first and women peck last. “The whole male arrogance thing bothered me. Men between the ages of 35 and 55 are especially hard to deal with,” she explained. “There’s no doubt they believe they are in control,” she grinned, curling her nose, “but no man is in charge of my soul.”
The Murphy’s two oldest children came to Utah with already established personal attributes. Both were trained musicians and liked sports. Shaun was an accomplished athlete with the potential for a scholarship. Ryan was quieter, sensitive and artistic. Both boys had always been very socially active and were looking forward to joining new clubs and activities in Utah County. But the family was hit with what their mother called a “double whammy.” The first is that almost all social activities revolve around the Mormon church. The second is the ease with which drugs were available on the street.
Announcements for scouting and other social events were given out on Sunday at Mormon worship. The message seemed to be: “Come to our church if you want a social life.” Children whose parents are of other faiths and not in the mainstream of the local culture are subtly excluded from social activities. The impact can be distressing. Children cannot see past the fact that if their parents went to another church, they would be socially included, not excluded. Killie wonders if this is not a deliberate act of recruitment into the LDS church.
While Utah County parents focus on church and social programs, they seem to be in denial of the area’s drug problem, Killie said. It took a tragedy at Springville High School before the problem was addressed, and it was soon swept out of sight. “Law enforcement begins at home,” she said. “But many parents are ignorant of the rules. Even when they are aware of them, they seem to think they don’t apply to individuals, which puts everyone exclusively above the law, and makes law enforcement very difficult.”
The hardest thing to deal with, Killie believes, is that nothing is ever up-front. No one ever comes out with an opinion. There only seem to be collective opinions. It’s very difficult to raise your family to be open-minded, to teach them that diversity is good and that one should know and respect other people’s cultures, when you are raising them in such a close-minded culture. “I know my children are discriminated against in the school system, if only by the fact that seminary classes are taught right there next to the school premises. Instruction in any other religious dogma is not afforded the same consideration.”
While she acknowledges there are some fine teachers, attendance at parents nights indicates that about 90 percent of the teachers in her children’s school are Utah-trained and have lived their lives within a 400-mile radius. They address the parents assuring them that they are good Mormons. They even talk about their LDS missions. “I question their reason for doing this. It’s not only small-minded, but sends a clear message that the Mormon culture is the premise for instruction. That is discrimination.”
Where does that leave the Murphys? About where they came in. While they feel manipulated and controlled, they are also trapped. The economic reasons that brought them to Utah still hold fast. They hope that as more and more people move to Utah, it will become easier to manage the discrimination.
Clarissa Martinez is bright and uplifting on a gray winter’s day. She has a spontaneous, friendly personality, a quick wit and an inquiring mind. She is also feisty in the face of aggression and prejudice—prejudice she has encountered both in and out of school, she explains. “I try to respect the religion and culture of everyone,” she says. “My mother taught us that. She raised us to think things through and look at things from all sides. Once we had done that, we could say what we liked within the confines of the family. She always warned us that politics and religion were hot topics, and to avoid them when we were outnumbered. When the majority is against you, shut up!”
Clarissa, however, can’t live within the confines of that philosophy. “If your skin is not white in Utah County, then you are judged and found wanting,” she said. “People here are really sheltered, they have no exposure to anything. The culture is very controlled. Everyone assumes that everyone is Mormon and every 7-11 [convenience store] is just another Mormon church.”
There are, Clarissa believes, good and bad people in every culture. “Just because you are undocumented does not mean you should automatically be categorized as bad. Not everyone has the same opportunities in life.” She’s referring to the Hispanic summer workers. Most of the seasonal people are men who work very hard doing jobs that most Utahns don’t want to do. They live as cheaply as they can and send most of their money home to their families. “Does this make them bad?” she asks.
Racial antagonism is not just directed at the “summer people,” but toward all Hispanics, she believes. “We are generally treated badly, not with respect. It is very stressful.” Raised to be religiously and ethnically tolerant, Clarissa has friends from several nationalities and ethnic groups. One of them is Melissa, who is black. “I thought the Hispanics were racially discriminated against,” Clarissa said, “but it’s worse if you are black.” Clarissa recalled the day her neighborhood had a community party. “I picked up Melissa and we went. It was terrible. People looked at us as if we were some strange animals. They stared and stared, and then they ignored us.”
Recently, she had to visit Pleasant Grove High School to pick up a grade report. The woman at the office was abrasive. “It was obvious she didn’t think I should be there. The next lady I went to was just as rude and unpleasant. People are so cold here,” Clarissa said.
What kind of support system does Clarissa have? How does she rise above the racial slurs? “I had a very good childhood, in a loving, fun family. I was home-schooled with a tutor. I was exposed to a diverse education. I was loved unconditionally and was never under any pressure to conform to a system.”
By contrast, she says, her friends raised in the local culture do not appear so fortunate. “They are under so much pressure, they are often depressed. They just have to be perfect. If they do something wrong, it feels like they have let everyone down. People just don’t have a life of their own.”
Clarissa tries to function on a different level. She is involved in community work, and has a good social life and is active in her church. “I am me,” she grins confidently. “I just tell people up-front, I’m Hispanic, I’m a Democrat and I’m a Roman Catholic. I’m also an American citizen, so if you have something to say, say it now!”
Prejudice in Utah County is not limited to immigrants. Rita Lilac has a long lineage in Utah County. When she found herself isolated during a long, drawn-out divorce, financially encumbered with two small children to support, she hoped that at the very least her church would support her spiritually. Her son, little more than an infant, was gravely ill. There was every possibility that he might not survive. Her daughter was kindergarten age. “I expected kindness. I got that from my close friends, but not from my church,” she said.
When Rita’s son took a turn for the worse, her boyfriend moved in with her. He could tend the little girl when she was at the hospital for those long, stressful hours. But the local bishop and his counselors frowned on the relationship. “They treated me as less than human,” Rita said. “They should have been helping me, but they were intent on destroying me. I did what I had to do to keep my family nurtured and they excommunicated me for it. They merely announced it in church and one of my friends came by and told me.”
Rita says she had committed a mortal sin—standing up for what she believed and thinking for herself. “You must never think for yourself. You must just follow, no matter at what personal cost to you and your family.” Rita knew she could live a good Christian life outside the confines of a church. She has never forgiven the LDS church, nor has she forgotten the cruelty directed toward her daughter because she did not do as the bishopric instructed her. “Watching the subversive cruelty dished out to my daughter made me realize that the act of going to church did not create a Christian. Children would come up to my little girl and say, my mom said not to play with you, because your mom is bad. My daughter was excluded socially in a very cruel way. They found me guilty and punished my family,” Rita said.
Twenty-five years later, her daughter lives a life totally detached from Mormonism. She is her own person and has been raised without constraints. Rita, too, lives her life unfettered by hypocrisy, she says. She has a reputation for being a kind and loving person, but still feels the same anger against uninformed prejudice that she felt all those years ago. When her small son lost his battle for life, her boyfriend was there for her. Today, he is still there for her. After 25 years of marriage he still refers to her as his “lovely bride.”
Many immigrants to Utah County are women accompanying husbands hired to do high-impact jobs. Ingrid Lars is a newcomer and hopes to leave while she is still a newcomer. Highly educated with time on her hands, Ingrid was prepared to volunteer her expertise. But every offer bumped into rock resistance. “Treatment of women in Utah is appalling, and nothing is ever going to change it. The culture has no tolerance for anything that isn’t Mormon. I don’t know anyone who has had a positive experience here.”
Ingrid says she thinks many in Utah County have a phony idea of religion. “We lived in Provo and [Mormon] children weren’t allowed to play with our children. I was constantly having to look out for my children’s welfare.”
Ingrid tells a story about a group of small children bullying a little boy. The little boy’s granddad had died. “You have to come to our church or you’ll never see your granddad again,” they taunted. Such indoctrination, at such a young age, is scary. “The sad thing is they don’t even realize they are being rude,” she concluded.
Georgette and Brad Smythe came to the Utah Valley 20 years ago when Brad accepted a government-funded position. When they came to Utah, they were young, childless and possessed a strong sense of self-worth. People, she said, had to accept them as they were—they had no intention of changing or conforming. They wanted to show people that you could be a good Christian without being Mormon. “We never felt that the community wanted to push us out, but we always knew that we would never fit in.”
She says they have always been careful not to judge, and they have forgotten what a normal social life is. Georgette believes that people stay much too tired to indulge in a social life. “What with commitments in the church and such large families, people content themselves with once-a-year reunions. Most of the time, women seem totally overwhelmed and tired,” she said. Life for the Smythes changed with the arrival of their first child. “We could no longer do pretty much what we wanted. Everything now has to be viewed through, how will my reactions rebound on my child? We had built-in survival skills for ourselves, but it is a fact that the actions of the parents can bring discrimination against the child.” She believes the family will have to relocate to a more tolerant state for the overall good of their family.
They think carefully about the education of their child. Georgette says that while she is ready to acknowledge there are some good teachers in Utah, they can only do their best within the system, and one shouldn’t expect a quality education. “If you have a large family, you get your money’s worth she said. But if you just have a small family, well, let’s just say you view things a little differently,” she said.
As for discrimination, even when it’s not intended it’s always there. It’s just part of the Utah Valley culture. She cites the woman who built a snowman and stuck the traditional pipe in its mouth. Neighbors objected to the pipe. Here, community is much more important than individuality, Georgette says.
The Presbyterian Church in Springville has been a local landmark since 1887. Protestant Christians were afforded the luxury of worshipping in their own town long before the first Mormon church was erected there. The school was attended by both Mormons and Protestants for many years. Its pastor, the Rev. Jim Shroyer, believes that was key to promoting tolerance for the organization. It has always been active in promoting the welfare of the entire community.
Shroyer says his job is easy because 95 percent of the people he comes in contact with are Protestants. Most of his congregation have experienced a more diverse lifestyle. “The local lingo is Mormon,” he reflected. “Temples and missionaries are an integral part of the culture. It’s like living in a foreign county. One is constantly bombarded with a strange culture. At the end of the workday, one returns home fragmented. I don’t have to experience that.”
Members of his congregation often feel excluded from and discriminated against by the local culture. The church is their sanctuary, their family away from home, he believes. “To whatever extent non-Mormons are not included, it is rarely meant as an insult.” Rather, that exclusion is a result of what he calls the “ghetto mindset”—people are not used to reaching out all-inclusively. Even Shroyer, however, has not escaped unscathed from the Utah Valley bigotry. During joint officiating with the LDS church at a Spanish Fork funeral, he offered his hand in friendship to the LDS bishop. The bishop did not take it, but turned and walked away. That, Shroyer says, was possibly an intended insult.
Sitting atop a hill outside Spanish Fork is a temple. It is unique and beautiful, and passersby are drawn to it. It is a Krishna Temple, and has drawn financial support from members of several different religious bodies within Utah, as well as private citizens. Charu Das and his wife Vi had the vision for the temple. Charu also organizes the annual Llamafest and Indiafest. He says his Utah experience has been a positive one, which he attributes, in part, to the fact that he is not competing in the job market. “We are not competing for economic status. Like Mormon missionaries we don’t confront a culture, we merely live among it.” Charu takes every individual on his or her own merits. Like Clarissa Martinez, he believes there is good and bad in every culture. “Sometimes,” he says “you are casting pearls before swine, but I personally don’t care about such negative aspects.” If people want to pass by on the other side of the street, he says, let them.
“You should judge a culture by its highest echelons, not its lowest,” Charu says. “The higher up [the Mormon ladder] you go, the more enlightened people are.” Ignorance among the lower ranks of a culture is what causes animosity and discrimination at the street level. “People should look for gold in all the places it could be found,” he advises. “Sometimes you have to dig for it, but it’s worth the effort. In the same way, we should acknowledge there is truth. Finding it involves searching, and you have to be willing to see it.”
Editor’s note: Some of the people interviewed for this story feared retribution for speaking about discrimination in Utah County and asked that their real names not be used. Killie Murphy, Rita Lilac, Ingrid Lars and Georgette Smythe are pseudonyms used to identify four women presently living in Utah County.