Utah restaurants serve as gathering places, here’s why BYU professor chooses immigrant-run restaurants


Latinos are Utah’s largest minority group, with nearly half a million living in the state, according to the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. While immigrants face a variety of challenges, many are creating spaces for connection in their new home.

Carola Nava moved to Utah in 2017 from Bolivia, and like many immigrants, she got to work buying and running a restaurant with her husband.

And while both Nava and her husband are Bolivian, they chose to run a Mexican-Salvadorian restaurant called Mexsal to cater to some of Utah’s most concentrated groups of Latinos.

However, Nava said that people from many countries visit her restaurant. She listed Colombians, Venezuelans, Chileans, and Argentinians as some of her most frequent customers.

Alvin Zamora, a waiter who had worked at Mexsal for a year, said he liked working there because he meets “people from around the world, and every day there are new stories [and] new clients.”

Working in a latino restaurant, Nava and Zamora have a front line view of the range of experiences immigrants face on a daily basis.

“I have heard experiences that are easy and beautiful as well as hard and difficult,” Nava said.

For her personally, the decision to come to Utah was an easy one. However, the hardest part was leaving behind her daughter who is attending college in her home country.

Nava said living apart from her daughter has been a very difficult experience in her life, and she hopes her daughter can move here soon to be with her.

In addition to leaving family behind, many immigrants and refugees experience language barriers and culture differences, Nava said.

With everything immigrants and refugees sacrifice, one BYU professor has taken a unique approach to supporting them. 

“I can do good in the world and enjoy this wonderful food by choosing to visit restaurants like this,” International Relations Professor Darren Hawkins said.

Professor Hawkins studied immigration in Spain, and realized he could support refugees and immigrants just by choosing to eat at their restaurants. Although he doesn’t go out to eat often, when he does, he tries to choose a restaurant owned by a refugee or immigrant.

Hawkins said refugees and immigrants are here because “they are needed, and our economy wouldn’t function as well without them.”

While immigrants support the economy in various ways, their restaurants are also a way of sharing their culture with others. When Hawkins visits their restaurants, he likes to get to know the workers and owners and their stories.

Restaurants can serve as a gathering place, with Carola’s restaurant providing a prime example. And for Professor Hawkins, that’s worth supporting.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email