Despite her husband's senseless death, Alma Armendariz continues their shared lifework of assisting immigrants
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HEBER CITY -- The day she buried her husband, Alma Armendariz reassured her fellow Mexican immigrants and Anglo friends at his graveside.
" He's gone, but I'm here' " was the widow's message that early fall day last year at the Heber City Cemetery, recalls Susan Nielson, one of the first friends Alma made when she, her husband, Aniceto, and four children came here in 1995.
"She had so much to be sad for, but she was thinking of everyone else," Nielson says. You'll still have help' is what she was saying."
The Sept. 25, 2005, murder of Aniceto Armendariz, a Holy Cross Ministries outreach worker, ripped a big hole in the net that supports immigrants who move to Wasatch and Summit counties along northern Utah's Wasatch Back.
But Alma refused to allow the net to break. She and her husband had worked too hard to make the American dream come true for other immigrants, as it had come true for them.
"I thought if they see Aniceto is gone, they are going to think they are alone," Alma says. "It wasn't only because of my husband, the work we were doing. It was a thing we did together.
"We were co-workers, partners, husband and wife. We were 24-7," says Alma, her English nearly perfect after more than a decade in Utah.
Her strength has helped those who depended on the Armendariz team.
"I feel like they are a single person, like he's still here," says a friend, Agustin Alonzo, speaking through an interpreter.
Aniceto, 42, was shot and killed along U.S. 40 above Jordanelle Reservoir on a Sunday evening. He and his wife were returning home from the Spanish-language Mass at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Park City, where he was an ordained deacon.
A van pulled alongside his pickup truck and someone fired two rounds from a shotgun, hitting Aniceto in the head. The truck rolled, but Alma was not seriously injured.
Two men were arrested nearby, one at the Stillwater Lodge, the other in a field.
Cunny Pelaez, 20, is charged with aggravated murder. His father, Antonio Pelaez-Vasquez, 56, is charged with first-degree murder and possession of cocaine, a third-degree felony. The men, both undocumented immigrants, also are charged with illegally possessing a dangerous weapon.
Pelaez's trial, which was scheduled to begin in early November, has been postponed while his competency is evaluated. Pelaez-Vasquez's trial, which will follow, also has been delayed. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Wasatch County Prosecutor Thomas Low says that while it's clear Aniceto was not involved in anything shady, coming up with a motive has been "problematic."
He has explored about 10 possibilities, none satisfactory.
"You usually know why people do what they do," Low says. "Everybody wants to know. I want to know.''
Aniceto had taught Pelaez in the Santa Cruz Driving School he ran in Heber City for Holy Cross Ministries, and he may have helped a family member seek refuge from domestic violence.
The Rev. Robert Bussen, pastor of St. Mary's, suspects Aniceto's killing arose from a current of resentment in the immigrant community.
"They [Aniceto and Alma] made it in the American dream because they worked hard and sacrificed . . . and that doesn't sit well with those who haven't yet made it," Bussen says.
Whatever the motive, he says, "It's rooted in this: jealousy."
Finding family and faith
Alma and Aniceto had been together almost since childhood.
He was 14 and the youngest of 10 children when his divorced mother moved into Alma's neighborhood in Parral in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Alma, from a devout Catholic family, was more than three years younger. Aniceto, never much of a churchgoer, would go with her to church youth group, but only to discourage rivals.
"He didn't pay attention. He just made fun," says Alma, now 41. "He was a funny, funny boy!"
When she was 15 and he was 19, they ran off to marry. Their first son, Hector, was born four years later, after they had gone to school. Alma became a practical nurse; Aniceto, an electrician.
Two years after Hector was born, the couple had twin boys, Josue and Joel.
Even with kids, Aniceto remained a cut-up. "It was like I was raising four boys," Alma says.
She and her mother would take Aniceto along to prayer meetings and Bible-study groups. One night Aniceto went alone. He came home smiling and, after that, turned his considerable energy and good humor to serving God. After training, he taught the faith to others.
The couple built a home and welcomed a daughter, Karevi, now 14.
But the couple wanted more for their children, and they hoped to find it in America.
Attracted to Heber City in 1995, when the hospitality and ski industries were fueling a construction boom in Park City, the family of six stayed for 20 days with a cousin before buying a 20-foot camp trailer for $1,000.
They leased a space without any hookups at an RV park next to Jordanelle Dam. The boys, then 8 and 10, loved it. There was a mountain and a stream just outside. The family cooked over the fire pit for a time.
Aniceto worked construction, and Alma cleaned the shower, laundry room and restrooms at the RV park.
They lived this way for six months, into the cold, deep snows of December.
Alma still tears up when she remembers the frustration and humiliation of trying to rent a home in town. Once she used a pay phone to call on a for-rent ad. She spoke some English but couldn't understand the woman who repeatedly gave the rental's address. Twice the woman's husband grabbed the phone and yelled at her.
"I asked Aniceto if we could go home," Alma says. "I said, I cannot handle it anymore.' "
Aniceto, meanwhile, had developed pneumonia.
So the family put the trailer in storage, stayed briefly with the Nielsons and then got on a Greyhound bus for the 26-hour trip home to Chihuahua.
Their American dream did not die so easily, though.
Within months, Alma and Aniceto began thinking about Latinos 9 who they knew were pouring into Wasatch and Summit counties 9 and wondering who would help them navigate the confusing, and not always welcoming, U.S. system.
Alma remembered reading about missionaries to Africa and India as a child and yearning to help the poor. Her mother had told her it's not just about money. It's about giving oneself. She felt it was time.
"We had a feeling in our hearts to come back and do something," Alma says. When she awoke from a dream about Utah, Aniceto suggested they pray.
They wrote to Bussen, and he encouraged them to return. He needed them to provide leadership for the Latino Catholic community.
Bridging the divide
On July 4, 1996, the Armendariz family returned to Heber City.
This time, Bussen helped them rent a home in Midway. Aniceto poured concrete, and Alma, who worked part time as a housekeeper and at the St. Lawrence Thrift Store, volunteered at Head Start 9 where Karevi was in preschool 9 and in the schools. The boys kept up on their studies and played soccer.
By 1999, Alma was working for Holy Cross Ministries, a Salt Lake City-based Catholic charity, as a part-time promontora, or outreach worker, for the growing Latino communities in Heber City and Park City. The family bought their first home.
Within a couple of years, Aniceto joined Holy Cross as an outreach worker.
Alma focused on helping children and pregnant women. Aniceto developed the bilingual Santa Cruz Driving School, teaching scores of immigrants Utah's rules of the road and translating when they applied for driver licenses. He also taught them about personal finance, banking and how to get health and legal resources.
Together, the Armendarizes worked in the Holy Cross after-school program for low- and moderate-income children in Wasatch and Summit counties.
One of Aniceto's most public contributions was healing the angry rift between Latinos and Anglos in the wake of a 2002 law-enforcement crackdown. Law-abiding immigrants felt persecuted; Heber City's leaders argued they were simply enforcing the law and rounding up drug dealers.
Aniceto went to the Heber City Council to express the Latinos' point of view and started talking with then-Mayor Lynn Adams. Those conversations led to the community's first Cinco de Mayo celebration just months before Aniceto's funeral, at which Adams spoke.
Among the Latino community at St. Mary's and its sister parish of St. Lawrence in Heber City, Aniceto was a father figure who encouraged hard work and integrity.
"He liked to speak with honesty about the facts. He didn't want the people talking about each other," says Erasmo Carranza, speaking through an interpreter. "He didn't settle for arguments."
Agripina Sanchez remembers opening her door in Park City to Aniceto, a stranger, one day. Baptized a Catholic, she was taking Bible studies with Jehovah's Witnesses. Aniceto joked about family photos on her wall and invited her to St. Mary's.
She is now in the church's leadership group.
Aniceto was like a brother to Diego Payan, a brother who challenged others to be the kind of people God intended them to be. "He had this special gift from God where he invited you to get closer to God and you couldn't say no," Payan says. "I couldn't."
'No more tears'
On Sept. 6, 2005, the family finally received permanent residence status, and cheered outside the immigration office. Alma was happy. "No more tears," she told her family.
Utah had indeed become home, and Aniceto fit in like a native.
When his sons wanted to snowboard, he joined them on the slopes. He bought a canoe and an ATV, and the family took trips to Moab, Yellowstone and Disneyland.
He was a soft touch for any new toy 9 the poverty of his youth made him unable to deny his children 9 but he made the boys work to help pay for what they wanted, says his son Josue.
In winter, one of his favorite things was to pull stranded motorists out of the snow using his pickup.
Hector, Joel and Josue helped build the house where they still live with their mother. All three sons 9 Hector is 22 and the twins, 20 9 work and attend Utah Valley State College's Wasatch campus.
All the children remember kneeling in prayer before the crucifix each night in their home in Mexico; their father taught them never to miss church.
To the day he died, his sons and daughter would give Aniceto 9 as they still do Alma 9 a peck on the cheek each time they greeted or departed.
When Aniceto died, hundreds of people from Heber City 9 Anglos, Latinos, Mormons, Catholics 9 flooded the Armendariz home bearing food.
"It was insane in this house. At six in the morning, people were coming in with food," remembers Karevi, now a ninth-grader. And it meant everything to the family.
As for the men accused of killing her husband, Alma is more confounded than angry.
"Maybe they don't know God exists," she says. Someday, she would like to be the one to make the introduction.
Prosecutor Low is not seeking the death penalty against Pelaez because the family does not want it.
"The death penalty is not going to solve anything," Josue says.
That day at the cemetery, Alma wanted to dispel the rumor that she and the children would leave Heber City. Then and now, she feels that she was spared for a reason.
"We're still here, and I'm glad," Alma says. "It's a second chance for me. It's been really, really hard. But it's a second chance."