Skip to main content

The City Journals

Salt Lake City honors late activist Robert ‘Archie’ Archuleta

Mar 05, 2019 11:22AM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Hundreds attended the memorial for Archie Archuleta, held at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. (Photo Credit: Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

A man who had spent his lifetime liberally making time for others, had finally met his ultimate time.

Saturday, March 2, eight days after his death, the late Robert “Archie” Archuleta was honored by a slate of dignitaries at the podium and stage of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, and by hundreds of other admirers, many of whom were family, friends, co-workers or colleagues, filling the downtown theater to near-capacity. Post-event, community members laughed, cried, chanted, and mourned, and were treated to Mestizo Coffee’s generous provision of coffee, cocoa, and baked goods.

Archuleta is broadly recognized for advocating for services for the indigent and for thinking and acting out-of-the-box to serve underserved communities. His informing existing power structures about the reality of minorities changed the way school districts operated and paved the way for Latino teachers and administrators to participate in the education of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County’s ever-growing Latino population.

“He always had time for people – to say hello, to look you in the eye,” recounted Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center. “He always helped, never asking how much time it would take. The answer was always ‘yes!’.”

“A radical compassionate, and compassionately radical,” pithily surmised former mayor and international human rights activist Rocky Anderson.

And in an alliterative, breathless roast that would have likely earned the smile of the late Archuleta (even amid critique of some ethnic studies scholars), current Salt Lake City Major Jackie Biskupski titled him “The Cesar Chavez of Salt Lake, The Gandhi of Glendale, the Padrano of Poplar Grove.” (“Padrano” is Spanish for "godfather.")

Letting music communicate more than words, Archuleta’s grandson, Jack Lester, who said he learned to play classical guitar from his grandfather’s own
guitarra clásica, wordlessly played his tribute.

Activist, ambassador, non-bureaucratic administrator

Growing up in a farming family, Archuleta became the first in his family to graduate from college. Years later, the farmer had learned his trademark concept – “Speaking up!”

The NAACP honored Archuleta, who partnered with the NAACP back in the 1950s, ushering in Utah’s Chicano rights movement, as “an icon of activism in Utah.” He was given the key to the city by current Salt Lake City mayor Biskupski and served as the head of Minority and Community Affairs for another Salt Lake City mayor, Anderson, and was the recipient of multiple lifetime achievement awards from different civic organizations.

Crossroad Urban Center’s Bailey wondered aloud at the memorial service if the center would even exist today without Archuleta’s tireless activism dating back from the 1970s.

Archuleta was a civil rights leader and, though a one-time employee of Salt Lake City, not a person anyone would mistake for a bureaucrat. But, from the tributes given at his memorial, it was clear that Archuleta’s greatest calling seemed to be a humble one — a teacher.

‘Through the lens of education’

Archuleta was an elementary school teacher for nearly 35 years, then later went on to become an adjunct professor at Salt Lake Community College. But even when not officially affiliated with any organization, he was steadfast in teaching and mentoring.

The only person of color on the Salt lake School Board, Nate Salazar, paid tribute to Archuleta “through the lens of education.” Salazar praised Archuleta being a visionary in understanding that “not all students have the same needs, come from the same circumstances, or share the same affiliations as the main culture.” Salazar called out Archuleta’s role in establishing Salt Lake Community High School, the valley’s first alternative high school, as well as the multicultural Title I Horizonte school.

“He mentored many of us in this room,” stated Utah Rep. Angela Romero. She noted that Archuleta, who lived around the corner from her in Salt Lake’s Glendale neighborhood, mentored her in leadership.

The greatest lesson he taught her?

“Sometimes, you’re going to stand alone, but if you do the right thing? You’re a leader.” Romero played that back to the late Archuleta, indicating his death had earned a tribute from Utah’s Gov. Gary Herbert. Romero read the tribute at the memorial.

Renaissance Community builder

While Archuleta advocated for Glendale and Poplar Grove and for the greater Salt Lake, it was clear that he is a Renaissance Community builder.

“This is Archie’s community, isn’t it?” KRCL Radioactive host Billy Palmer, who served as the master of ceremonies for the memorial, rhetorically asked.

The answer? “Every community is.”

“Just look around you,” invited Richard Jaramillo, who assumed the presidency of the Utah Coalition of La Raza organization, after Archuleta had served in the role for nine years, “[This audience represents] a fraction of the lives he has influenced.”

In terms of community, Cynthia Buckingham, executive director emeritus for the Utah Humanities Council, credited Archuleta’s unique negotiation skills as a community asset in a discussion with the City Journals.

“He could help negotiate different points of view to yield solutions,” she noted, recalling Archuleta’s helping bridge the divide in Salt Lake City with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reimagining (and funding, to the tune of $1.5 billion) Main Street to become the City Creek development. Archuleta’s role in the Alliance for Unity organization led to what is today the Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake’s Glendale neighborhood.

Ute spiritual leader Larry Cesspooch, who delivered a Ute tribal blessing at the start of the memorial program, echoed Buckingham’s words.

“[He had] a very soft voice, that could penetrate where angry voices couldn’t,” Cesspooch recalled.