Olivas Vila Aoy1 arrived in Salt Lake City in March 1884.2 A well-educated, 61-year-old3 native of Spain, his presence on the streets of Utah’s capital was peculiar—most of the state’s predominantly Mormon population was of British or northern European ancestry, and few spoke Spanish. It was Aoy’s first visit to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he expected to stay two or three weeks. Four years earlier, he had joined the Church in New Mexico, where for over a decade he had edited newspapers in a constellation of small mining towns along what became known as the Turquoise Trail.4
While in Salt Lake City, he visited the art studio of George M. Ottinger, famous in Utah for his paintings of Mexico and of Aztec culture. As a young man, Ottinger had traveled throughout Mexico, fascinated by the cultures of its native peoples.5 In Aoy, he found a kindred spirit.
Aoy’s own interest in America’s indigenous peoples had begun about 25 years earlier, when he too traveled to Mexico. The trip came at a turning point in his life. Prior to the journey, he was training to become a Franciscan priest in Havana, Cuba. After a heated disagreement with the vicar general over the necessity of priestly celibacy, Aoy was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.6 With no other ties in Cuba, Aoy set out for Mexico by boat. He landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and lived there among the Maya for a few years, where, according to one tradition, he “adopted their mode of life, their clothing and their customs.”7
During his time among the Maya, he developed an abiding concern for this people’s future. The once vast Mayan civilization, now drastically reduced in numbers, chafed under Spanish-Mexican rule. Relegated to the bottom of a caste system that privileged their European conquerors, some Maya even took up arms to fight for independence.8 Aoy may have become aware of the plight of the Maya while in Havana, where he very likely encountered Mayan rebels who had been sold into indentured servitude to work on Cuban plantations.9
Though Aoy remained in the Yucatán for only a few years, his experience there left a lasting impression. The mistreatment of America’s native peoples by his fellow Europeans became distasteful to him.10 Already attuned to the needs of the downtrodden, perhaps by temperament or by his training to become a Franciscan, he left the Yucatán with a renewed zeal to defend the oppressed and underprivileged wherever he found them.
Aoy moved to New Orleans in the 1860s, where he served during the U. S. Civil War as a reading and writing teacher for four Union regiments composed largely of freed black slaves.11 After a brief stop in St. Louis, where he again worked as a teacher, he moved to the small town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Seeking a way to improve the lives of those around him, he became active in politics, taught himself the printer’s trade, and published newspapers devoted to the cause of scientific advancement and a better life for the laboring classes.
He started with “no more skill as a printer than might have been expected from an office devil,” or apprentice, and “with no more type and material than might have been packed off on a man’s back.”12 But despite his inexperience, he quickly earned the respect of those around him as well as a modest living from the newspapers. The miners in the small New Mexican towns and camps that his papers served often called him “Padre Aoy,” referring to his Franciscan past.13
Aoy’s newspapers, sometimes published in both Spanish and English, were outspoken in their support of what were called progressive ideas, including “the elevation of the sober and industrious class of society without distinction of sex, color, nationality, etc., through the means of organized action and mental culture.”14 Education, in Aoy’s view, was a key to unlock human potential and improve one’s circumstances. In addition to running his newspapers, Aoy also taught Spanish to interested pupils.
It was in New Mexico in 1879 that Aoy met Lawrence M. Peterson, a Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saint elder from Manassa, Colorado.15 Peterson gave him copies of Church literature, including issues of La Voz del Desierto, an early Mormon newspaper published in Mexico.16 These publications introduced Aoy to the Book of Mormon’s promise of an important place for America’s native peoples in the unfolding of God’s work. This message, together with the cooperation and idealism he found in LDS communities, resonated with Aoy, and he was soon baptized.
Aoy began thinking of ways to use his skill and experience on behalf of his new faith. He wrote to Peterson, insisting that northern New Mexico was a “locality destined by God to plant a new Stake of Zion inaugurated from the beginning with a good permanent school and the publication of a paper.”17 He was particularly interested in teaching and helping the large populations of Mexicans and native Pueblo Indians in that region.
During that first visit to Salt Lake City in 1884, Aoy examined George Ottinger’s paintings of Aztec Mexico. These two men, with their shared passion for Mexico’s indigenous cultures, must have had a lively conversation. Then, whether from Ottinger or from someone else in Salt Lake City, Aoy learned of an important project then underway.
Prior to his conversion, only portions of the Book of Mormon had been translated into Spanish. Trozos Selectos del Libro de Mormon (Selected Passages from the Book of Mormon) was published in 1875. At the time of Aoy’s visit to Salt Lake City, Meliton Gonzalez Trejo—another Spanish convert and the chief translator of Trozos Selectos—had just begun work on a complete Spanish translation with James Zebulon Stewart, a former missionary to Mexico.18
Rather than returning to New Mexico, Aoy remained in Utah and joined the translation team. Moses Thatcher, the Apostle charged with supervising the effort, was living in Logan, Utah, as were Trejo and Stewart.19 Aoy also moved there, and for over two years he assisted in the work of translating and publishing the Book of Mormon in Spanish. While there, he was endowed in the Logan Temple.20
At the time he joined the team, a first draft of the translation was nearly complete, but it needed revising. Aoy, fluent in both English and Spanish, made hundreds of small but important changes to the text during this process.21 For example, the word millions of Spanish-speaking Church members use today to refer to the Book of Mormon plates—planchas—was suggested by Aoy.22
When the time came to publish the book, his printer’s experience was a boon to the project. Under James Z. Stewart’s direction, Aoy served as proofreader and, for a time, as typesetter.23 A native Spanish speaker, he could accomplish this detailed work more quickly and accurately than the English-speaking pressmen at the Deseret News office.24
The completed translation, published in 1886, was an important milestone. Church leaders and missionaries viewed it as essential to reaching “more of that people for whom the Book of Mormon is specially intended—the American Indians—than any other translation would.”25 Though Trejo and Stewart were credited on the title page as the book’s primary translators, Aoy played a critical role. Elder Thatcher wrote to President John Taylor, “I hardly know how we can get along with the printing without the assistance of Brother Aoy.”26
Stewart later wrote that while translating the Book of Mormon, Aoy “felt very much exercised over the Indians of Yucatán.”27 After all, part of the book’s stated purpose was to remind the Latter-day descendants of the people it describes “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.”28 A restless Aoy felt impelled to do something more. It was not enough that the Book of Mormon had been translated into Spanish. He felt obligated to take the book to the Maya, whom he viewed as the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples.
Together with Emil Buchmüller, an acquaintance in Logan, Aoy drafted a proposal to establish a mission among the Maya “for the benefit of the aborigines of this Occidental Land of Promise.”29 They hoped to do more than just preach. They planned to establish schools supported by cotton farms and even to marry Mayan women.30 Aoy and his fellow prospective missionaries were “anxious to devote the rest of their lives to the cause of education in general, and to the improvement of the Lamanites in particular.”31
Aoy sent the plan to President Taylor, who gave them his blessing and ensured that Aoy was compensated for his work in publishing the Book of Mormon.32 Aoy then embarked once again for Mexico.33 His route took him through El Paso, Texas, where he stopped to await his luggage. While there, he became aware of another group who needed his help.
When Aoy arrived in El Paso in 1887, Spanish-speaking children there were unable to participate in the English-only public schools. Forgotten in the calculations of the Anglo community, these children would struggle to fully integrate into El Paso society without a school that could teach them English. Aoy “found a touching eagerness among the poorer Mexicans for such a school, but no money to provide for it.”34 As a compassionate Christian, inveterate teacher, and educated Spanish speaker, Aoy must have felt called to be there in that moment. He decided to postpone his mission to Mexico.
Aoy met with the concerned parents and formed an association to start a school. He used his own savings—including the money he was paid for the translation—to rent a classroom and buy basic supplies.35 “He saw that he must expect no remuneration other than the gratitude of parents and children and the satisfaction of helping in a good work.”36
For seven months, he taught his class of 30 to 40 students, wishing he had the means to accommodate more. Then his money began to run short, threatening the future of the school. His personal sacrifices for the well-being of the children in his classes began to threaten his own health and well-being. Fortunately, through the efforts of sympathetic acquaintances, his efforts came at last to the attention of the school board, who resolved to fund a “Mexican Preparatory School.”37
Aoy never did leave Texas. Because there were no branches of the Church in El Paso at the time, he lived as a Latter-day Saint in isolation, devoting himself to his school and his students. He died eight years later, in 1895, revered in Hispanic El Paso as an education pioneer. The school he started and which now bears his name is the oldest operating school in the city. His vision of “welding the two classes of [the] population” through bilingual education became his legacy.38
Though he did not go on a mission to the Yucatán, Aoy never gave up on the idea. He often spoke to friends in El Paso “of returning to spend the rest of his life” among the Maya, but his health and advancing age made such an adventure increasingly unlikely.39 Perhaps elevating the lives of Spanish-speaking children of El Paso was where God wanted him to be all along.
The author acknowledges the research of Conrey Bryson, Mark Cioc-Ortega, Bill Baxter, Nicholas Corona, Christy Best, and Michael Landon and the insights of James Goldberg and Matthew Geilman. The interpretation of the sources is solely the responsibility of the author.