This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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On the surface, La Morena Cafe was little more than an old building turned mom-and-pop Mexican joint.
But the small restaurant, also called the Guadalupe Center Cafe, became the cradle for Utah's Latino civil rights movement in the 1960s through the 1980s.
Many describe it as simple, with decor mismatched in style and color. But La Morena was home to Salt Lake City's growing Latino population for more than three decades.
The restaurant "played a catalyst. From there, the Latino civil rights movement began," said Archie Archuleta, a veteran of the movement in Salt Lake City. "It was the cafe out of which everything else came."
"Everything else" meant the Latino reaction to discrimination and mistreatment during a surge of Hispanic immigrants to the state from 1940 through the 1970s.
At a time when only a handful of global cuisine restaurants dotted Salt Lake City, La Morena was founded in 1967 at North Temple and 300 West by Father Gerald Merrill of the Catholic Guadalupe Parish to serve as a gathering place for the local Latino community. Merrill later turned it over to community leader Suzanne Weiss, and the cafe became a center for not only the best chile verde, but also learning and community.
At the cafe, Weiss led the Voluntary Improvement Program (VIP), where volunteers would teach English as a second language to Latinos, Archuleta said. That program eventually evolved into Guadalupe School, which still operates today, said Beth Jones, development director for the school.
"People would gather at night after working and [Weiss] started instructing the adults in English. She noticed over time that a lot of adults would bring their kids to these classes," Jones said. "That's when they started discussing the struggle of the kids in the education system. Weiss decided education for children was needed."
Over time, Guadalupe School has become a K-6 charter school at 1385 N. 1200 West with programs for teaching English, providing guidance for in-home births, toddler education and preschool, Jones said. The school is still "urgently focused" on minority demographics, she said, with 70 percent of its students English language learners and 100 percent from low-income families.
La Morena was also the birthplace of SOCIO, the Spanish-Speaking Organization for Community Integrity and Opportunity. The coalition of Spanish speakers was instrumental in helping the University of Utah, then-Weber State College and state government place Latino teachers and administrators in schools, Archuleta said.
VIP and SOCIO morphed into establishments such as the Utah Migrant Council, Utah Rural Development Corporation, Escalante Housing, the Multicultural Senior Center and the Centro de la Familia de Utah.
At the center of all these organizations created to help the Latino community, Archuleta said, was La Morena.
Plus, the food was delicious.
"I moved to Utah in 1970, and if you asked where the good Mexican restaurant was, you were pointed to La Morena," said Zina Lemke, assistant director at Guadalupe School.
Most people remember their favorite dish as the chile verde, which Archuleta called "outstanding."
The dish had "chunks of pork and diced onions and chiles in a tasty sauce that isn't too hot," according to a 2004 Salt Lake Tribune review of the restaurant.
The original cafe was located on North Temple and 300 West until it closed its doors in 1986, after Adnan Khashoggi bought the property and started building the Triad Center.
In 1995, new owners Maria and Manuel Ramirez reopened the La Morena at the Triad Center after Khashoggi's Triad Holding Company went bankrupt. The new location revived the authentic cuisine for a few years at 1458 W. North Temple.
But as did many dining businesses in 2001, the cafe took a hit after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when people were staying home in the evenings. Plus, with large influxes of Latino immigrants came an increasing number of Mexican restaurants in the area, and the novelty of La Morena dwindled, said Vicki Mori, director of Guadalupe School. The restaurant eventually closed. Previous 'Whatever happened to...'