Need for good schools should unite Jews and Latinos

We’re in the middle of one of America’s greatest ethnic transformations, the winning of political, cultural and economic power in Los Angeles by men and women
whose roots are in Mexico and other countries south of the border. But many of us whose ancestors immigrated here decades ago feel this trend is irrelevant to our lives.

We haven’t been completely blind. How could anyone not notice that the mayor is Antonio Villaraigosa? Even the most obtuse can see that other powerful politicians, as well as cops, business leaders, entertainers, public school teachers, doctors, supermarket checkers, gardeners and a substantial portion of the Los Angeles Dodgers — and their fans — are Latino.

Latinos make up 46.5 percent of Los Angeles County’s population, compared to 29.9 percent non-Hispanic whites, 12.9 percent Asians and 9.8 percent blacks, according to the U.S. Census.

But in contrast to the 1960s, when the fabled and overblown black-Jewish alliance was obsessively chronicled and debated by Jewish academics, journalists, essayists and community leaders, the rise of the Latino population has not seemed to capture much Jewish interest, either pro or con. That is especially true now, when so many activist Jews are focused only on Israel.

I’m not the first person to notice this. Back in 2001, Joel Kotkin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “… the two communities — one long established, the other ascendant — have had remarkably little to do with each other politically.”

In 2000, Gene Lichentstein, then the editor of The Jewish Journal, observed in his column, “We live apart, a great a geographic divide separating us, almost as though we were citizens of different countries.”

Why should anyone care? Is there any good reason for Jews to work with Latinos on community issues?

In the first place, the major policy voices in the Southland are increasingly the adult children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants who made the perilous journey north and saw their families succeed in life.

That sounds familiar — immigrant parents or grandparents on a perilous journey to a new life. Sounds like the story of my family and yours. Jews and Latinos have a lot in common. That should be a recipe for brother and sisterhood.

But it’s not enough of an answer for Jewish parents who send their kids to a public school where many of the students hardly speak English or shoppers who grumble while the store workers chatter away in Spanish.

Searching for a more down-to-earth answer, I called on Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, executive director of the city of Los Angeles’ Human Relations Commission, as well as some of his staff. The commission, created after the 1965 Watts Riot, sends its workers into the city’s hottest areas of racial tension, where they try to keep people cool — or to cool them down when tensions explode.

Gathered around the table with Freehling and me were Deputy Director Patricia Villasenor and staff members Joumana Silyan-Saba, Elizabeth Macias, Gary R. De La Rosa and Francisco Ortega.

We talked about an earlier time, when Latinos and Jews lived together in Boyle Heights and Roosevelt High School was a true melting pot. Proximity and left-wing politics united the two groups before, during and immediately after World War II.

De La Rosa recalled that while the more affluent Jews moved from Boyle Heights to the Westside and the Valley in the post-war years, working-class Jews settled in less expensive suburbs, such as Monterey Park, Montebello and Huntington Park. De La Rosa grew up with Jews in Monterey Park.

Other communities were not integrated. Ortega said, “I grew up in Lincoln Heights and had no perception of Jews.” Eventually, he married a Jewish woman, and they and their children are members of a synagogue. He noted the presence in Los Angeles of Jewish Latinos — immigrants from Mexico and South America.

As we talked, I saw one clear and powerful reason why Jews need to link up with Latinos — the public schools.

Middle-class Jews who can’t afford to send their children to private schools need good public elementary, middle and high schools. Latinos have the same stake in schools strong enough to prepare their kids for prestigious universities, both public and private.

Yet the Los Angeles Unified School District schools are a hard sell for many Jews.

The numbers put them off. LAUSD is currently 71 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African American, 10 percent white and 4 percent Asian.

In addition, the schools are a microcosm of Los Angeles’ racial troubles. Students eat at separate tables, self-segregated by race. Silyan-Saba said that it’s tough persuading the parents to get along in various parents councils.

Economic class separates middle-class whites from working-class Hispanics and race mixes in. Some whites, she said, look down on Latinos. Some Latinos are suspicious of whites.

But the need for good public schools provides a critical argument for Latinos and Jews to join strengths, particularly in parents groups, which have become increasingly important to improving our public schools.

And we’ve got the perfect man to lead the effort, Villaraigosa. He has worked hard to cultivate Jewish support in his political career. His synagogue attendance record is probably better than that of many Jews. He wants to run LAUSD. A judge recently derailed his effort, at least for a time, but the mayor promised to remain a force in school affairs.

Let him lead a campaign to unite the Latino majority and the small but influential Jewish minority behind something they can agree on — safe public schools good enough to send their graduates to top college campuses.

In such an effort, there’s no doubt that Latinos and Jews need each other.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at