At gala dinner, Mexican President Pena Nieto thanks American Jews for pro-immigration stand

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto praised the Jewish community of the United States for supporting the rights of Hispanic immigrants.

“You have raised the banner of this cause,” he said.

The president addressed 150 Jews from North and South America at a gala dinner last night at Mexico City's Centro Deportivo Israelita. The event marked the culmination of a three-day conference hosted by the American Jewish Committee to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.

Guests in sharp evening attire stood as the handsome, young president entered along with three top-level cabinet members. 

AJC Executive Director David Harris welcomed Pena Nieto, affirming the Jewish community’s support for his efforts to bring economic reform and equality to the country.  Conference co-chairman Bruce Ramer introduced the president by stressing the value of “the trilateral relationship” of the United States, Israel and Mexico.

American Jewish Committee conference co-chairman Bruce Ramer shakes hands with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

In his extended remarks, Pena Nieto did not mention Israel. He did stress the Mexican-Jewish contribution to the country’s development, then returned to the plight of the Mexican-American community.

“Your loud voice protects the rights of the immigrant community in the United states,” Pena Nieto said, “You are great partners.”

Pena Nieto also thanked the American and Mexican-Jewish community for supporting his efforts at developing Mexico's economy and reducing inequality. 

“The cause we share is development of Mexico. You have been part of this,” he said.

Guests included Israeli Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled as well as ambassadors from Azerbaijan, Armenia Turkey, and several other countries.  

After the president spoke, he remained for dinner, dessert, and a performance by the Centro Deportivo Israelita dance troupe, who performed traditional Mexican dances to Jewish music. The president stayed to the end.

“He brought the government with him, and he stayed,” one impressed Mexican-Jewish businessman said. “He’s saluting our people.”

The entire conference began Nov. 9 with a rare ceremony inside the Metropolitan Cathedral.  Mexican television and press turned out in force as the AJC audience gathered in front of the massive gold-leaf main altar to hear a panel of Catholic and Jewish leaders mark the 50 year anniversary of Nostra Aetate.

Billed as a “dialogue,” the event unfolded more as a series of brief speeches lauding Pope Paul VI’s October 28, 1965 declaration that reversed centuries of official Catholic anti-Semitism.

“The Second Vatican Council,” said Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Archbishop of Mexico City,  “was one of the most important events of the 20th century.”

Rivera, who is Mexico’s highest-ranking priest, said that Pope Francis would be very happy to see Jews and Catholics gathered together in Mexico’s central cathedral.

“We have to learn to walk together,” said Rivera.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to Mexico, declared that Nostra Aetate means, “fighting any form of anti-Semitism, insults, discrimination, or persecution.”

Both priests emphasized that Jews and Catholics can be partners in responding to the pope’s call to address climate change and environmental degradation.

Nostra Aetate, said Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, established that, “it is wrong to present Jews as rejected and condemned.”

Rosen recounted several meetings between the American Jewish Committee and the current pope, and praised his deep connection to the Jews.

“Not since St. Peter has a pope known the Jewish community as well as Pope Francis does,” Rosen said.

While the church officials emphasized that Nostra Aetate was a way for “enemies” to reconcile, the Jewish speakers saw the landmark statement as the Church finally coming to terms with its anti-Semitic teachings.

“What we are celebrating is true teshuva,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “repentance,” though its root meaning is “return.”  “The Church is returning to its origins.”

The AJC promotes partnerships among Jewish communities and between Jews and the wider society.  While much of its most important work is behind the scenes—and off the record–this conference focused on very public displays of cooperation between Latin and North American Jewry and Jews and Latin America.

Salomón Chertorivski, Secretary of Economic Development of Mexico City, drove that theme home with a keynote speech during a dinner hosted by the Mexican Jewish community at the Gran Hotel (Jewish-owned, and the location of an opening scene from the new James Bond movie).

The up and coming young Mexican Jewish politician praised the great strides in Mexican development but urged the well-heeled audience to work with Mexico to help close the country’s gaping divide between rich and poor.

The greatest risk to the Jewish community, he said, is a Mexico  “fragmented” along class lines.

During the day, panel presentations on issues pertaining to Jews, Israel and Latin America took center stage.

Israel’s Ambassador to Uruguay, Nina Ben Ami, and Israel’s Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled discussed the challenges of representing Israel during the Gaza War, and cooperation between Israel and Mexico through the Mashav program.

At a state-of-the-Jews session one afternoon, Jewish community leaders from Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil presented the situation of their communities.

The situation ranged from positive if not problem-free to dire, with the majority at the positive end of the scale.  The Colombian government, for instance, is deeply pro-Israel—the only Latin American country that has refused to recognize a Palestinian state. 

The philo-Semitism extends to its people—some 6,000 Colombian Christians have converted to Judaism, and rabbinical officials worry about the increasing demand.

Generally, the problems the Jewish leaders faced tended to be problems shared by their wider societies—their fate is tied to the fate of their countries.

There were, however, deep concerns voiced by experts about the situation of Jews in Venezuela, whose ruling party has aligned itself closely with Iran and Hezbollah.  AJC officials said they continue to monitor the situation there with concern.

But at the gala dinner for Mexico’s president, the focus was on partnerships that are working.

AJC Executive Director David Harris addressed the President of Mexico directly, thanking him for deepening Mexico’s relationship with Israel and declaring, “Mr. President, know that day and night, 24/7 you have friends in the U.S. We at AJC have stood with you and we stand proudly with you tonight.”

Peres ends Calif. tour with meeting with Hispanic leaders

Israeli President Shimon Peres ended a weeklong visit to California with a wide-ranging discussion with Latino leaders.

Sunday morning’s event with Peres at a Beverly Hills hotel drew some 120 invited guests, predominantly members of the Latino community and religious leaders, their Jewish counterparts, a smattering of Hollywood personalities, and numerous politicians eager to reach out to Latino and Jewish constituencies at the same time.

An audience question about the influence of the Latino electoral vote triggered a fervent declaration by Peres on American exceptionalism, a catchword of the current Republican presidential primary campaign.

“The United States is the only country with global responsibilities and there are some things only America can do,” Peres said. “When you [Americans] vote, you vote for the future of your own children, but also for the children of other nations.”

An emotional moment came during a question-and-answer period in a one-sentence statement by Pastor Carlos Ortiz, director of Hispanic outreach for Christians United For Israel. Following up an earlier literary allusion by Peres of “I am alone, you are alone, let’s be alone together,” Ortiz declared, “There are 80 million Christians here that say Israel is not alone.”

Peres, 88, showed his familiarity with Latin American literature and politics, but no sign of fatigue after a packed seven-day schedule that included visits to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and in Los Angeles a mass Jewish community meeting and a trip to the DreamWorks Animation studios.

Israeli deputy consul general Gil Artzyeli, a fluent Spanish speaker who organized the Sunday event, also noted that the evening before, Hollywood had assembled the largest gathering of stars and studio heads to ever meet an Israeli dignitary.

The Israeli was introduced by John A. Perez, speaker and legislative leader of the California Assembly, which led to some banter about the correct spelling and pronunciation of their respective last names.

JINSA leads Hispanic group to Israel

The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs is sending 16 U.S. Hispanic leaders to Israel.

The group, leaving this Saturday, will meet “with police and military personnel, business leaders, religious figures and government officials, including President Shimon Peres,” according to a JINSA release.

The group includes business executives, community leaders, state lawmakers, a police chief and a judge.

A congregation grows in Whittier — Hispanic outreach blooms

Something extraordinary is going on at Whittier’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, which has been in its present site east of Los Angeles since the early 1960s. As the area’s Jewish population base has dwindled — and as the Conservative congregation has aged — Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in the area.

“One of the purposes was to educate our neighbors about Judaism,” Beliak said. “But it was also to reach out to those in the Hispanic community who may have had some kind of Jewish connection: people in mixed marriages, those with a Jewish parent or grandparent or those who may have had a Jewish boss they felt close to. Was it with the hope of converting some to Judaism? I would say yes, that, too. All of the above.”

In recent years, several neighbors trickled in and converted, becoming part of the congregation, but it was last February that the real change took place. Beliak asked Argentine-born Rabbi Aaron Katz to teach a class — in Spanish — about Jewish history, philosophy and traditions. The class started with six students of Mexican and Central American background, most having been brought up in Catholic households.

Katz was surprised when the class quickly expanded, some bringing in spouses, friends and children. It was clear to him that the participants felt a deep spiritual connection to Judaism — they weren’t there merely to learn, they came for faith-driven reasons. These people wanted to practice Judaism.

Several in the Grupo Hispano, as a couple of the members referred to the group, said that they had grown up in homes with what they later realized were Jewish traditions: no eating of pork, devotion to study. They have no proof that they’re descended from those forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago, but several said that the first time they stepped into Beth Shalom it felt familiar, as if they had “come home.”

After a couple of months of study, members of the group asked Katz for their own services. So, since June, in a separate room within Beth Shalom, Katz has led them in Spanish-language services, as does another Argentine-born rabbi, Daniel Mehlman.

The Grupo Hispano is also learning Hebrew prayers and songs. It has become a community within a community and now numbers about 30.

Katz said that when he came to the United States four years ago, he had no intention of becoming a congregational rabbi again. He wanted to teach and study, which he’s done at several institutions.

“When I started giving classes to this group,” he said, “I thought it was just a teaching assignment. But their interest and enthusiasm drew me in. So now I’m once again a rabbi with a community. It’s these people. They made me a rabbi again.”

Nearly everyone in the group seems to be in the process of converting or intends to do so soon. Some have already done so.

How has the existing congregation dealt with this?

“Some have grumbled,” Beliak said. “But for the most part, the new members have been welcomed warmly.”

One congregant, 80-year-old Zelda Walker, said, “It’s wonderful! I’ve seen the conversion of two already. I’m delighted to see the community take in new members.”

Other congregants echoed the same thought. Recently, the two groups had Tisha B’Av service together, and now, after the Grupo Hispano has its separate Spanish-language service, members join the English-language congregation for Torah reading and Kiddush.

“Hopefully, in the coming months we will enjoy a renaissance,” wrote Beliak in the shul’s newsletter, Mishpacha, now published in English and Spanish.
Beliak said that the new members are extremely interested in matters of faith and have revitalized his shul.

“They have a yearning for divinity, as sincere as anyone I’ve ever known,” he said. “A sense of the spiritual. They are the ones setting the standard. In their own way, they’re more interested in being observant than the existing congregation.”

“This group,” Katz said, “is intensely involved in the spiritual aspect of our religion. That’s rare in Los Angeles or anywhere else. Of course, the social part is important, but [the Grupo Hispano] is looking for something more, and so am I. For many, it’s going to be their first High Holy Days, and they’re thrilled.”

Beth Shalom is located at 14564 E. Hawes St., Whittier. Parking is at 14579 Mulberry St.

On Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m., there will be a joint service of the two groups at Beth Shalom’s sanctuary. On Sept. 23-24 at 9 a.m., there will be separate services in Spanish and English, then the two groups will join for Torah reading.

On Kol Nidre, Oct. 1, the two groups will be together, and on Oct. 2, the Spanish-language group will have its own Yom Kippur service, then join the others for Torah reading.

For further information, call (562) 941-8744, visit

Born in East L.A.

The East L.A. community of Boyle Heights has always been a neighborhood dominated by immigrants. Today, it’s a poor Hispanic neighborhood. But Hershey Eisenberg, 75, remembers a different Boyle Heights: It was during the Great Depression, when the community was poor and Jewish, but the sense of community was very rich.

"We always went visiting," says Eisenberg, who slept on a Murphy bed in his modest house. "We didn’t have TV. We were very provincial out here."

"Everything happened back East…. I’d get up and run down to the drugstore to see if DiMaggio got a hit that day. We were a big small town," he says.

Although the populace of that small town — located just east of downtown Los Angeles — changed dramatically after World War II when Jews migrated west and north, Eisenberg and his peers continue to keep memories of their childhood world alive through the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights. The 125-member social club, which meets biannually, boasts a predominantly Jewish membership, but also includes members of Latino, Japanese and other ethnic groups that lived there at the time.

"You really get a warm feeling every time you meet your friends and talk to each other," says Jake Farber, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles chairman, who is a high-profile member of Wabash Saxons and once served as its treasurer. "It’s a great thing for us. If Gene [Resnikoff] and Hershey did not keep this up, I don’t know if we would have this kind of organization."

Eisenberg, the reluctant leader of the group, considers himself just another member and does not even assign himself a title. But in truth, Eisenberg and Resnikoff have organized Wabash Saxons events and fundraisers since the 1970s.

In 1988, the various Boyle Heights factions were brought together under the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights umbrella. The group consolidated as an amalgam of Roosevelt High-spawned athletic leagues in the 1940s, which had names like the Cardinals, Stags, Jasons, Palavers and Saxons.

"We met at Salavatore’s in Montebello, and we started with 25 guys," says Resnikoff, 78. "Since 1990, we have been meeting twice a year on the closest Friday to June 6, the invasion of Normandy, and Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor."

Judge Harry Pregerson of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a Roosevelt student body president in 1939, was the first Boyle Heights native to speak to the group. Others included Harold Williams, former executor of the Getty Foundation, and boxer Art Aragon.

It was only fitting that when the members and relatives of the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights met in June for their biannual luncheon, the event was held at Taix, a restaurant with Depression-era roots — a time when Caesar Chavez Avenue was Brooklyn Avenue, and when Brooklyn Avenue was the heart of Jewish Los Angeles.

"The Heights was very Orthodox," recalls Eisenberg. The Jewish borders spanned from First Street (bordering Little Tokyo) to State Street to the Los Angeles County Hospital. About 30 shuls — from Breed Street Synagogue to Cornwall Street Shul — served the area.

While Jewish neighborhoods built around Temple Street and Central Avenue predate it, Boyle Heights has become our city’s definitive old Jewish quarters.

"It’s the Lower East Side of Los Angeles," says Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles, which is currently restoring the dilapidated Breed Street Synagogue and turning it into a community center.

Sass notes that the continuity of the Wabash Saxons’ ties are unparalleled.

"They had these newsletters," he says, "and while they were away during World War II, their wives would continue to publish their newsletters while they were away. It’s like this big extended family."

While the synagogues were where Jewish teens would socialize, the playground and adjacent library on Wabash Avenue were big destinations for Heights youths. Wabash Playground was where Coach Lee Helsel, a USC graduate who was not Jewish, formed the Saxons in 1939. These teen clubs were grouped by age (Saxon Ones through Saxon Fours).

"The thing that motivated them all was athletics," Eisenberg says. "My cousin was a Saxon One; I was a Saxon Two. Then the war came, and almost all of us went to the service.

During World War II, 36 Boyle Heights youths served in the military, many of them stationed in Europe. Out of that number, 35 returned home. But one, Willie Goldberg, was killed in combat.

"Roosevelt High School was the melting pot," Eisenberg continues. "We had Japanese students. We had a big Malkan Russian population who lived in the Flats."

Eisenberg recalls occasional friction between Jewish teens and Mexican gang members. But overall, he says, "we all got along very well. The first year I went to Roosevelt, we had a black kid, Jesse Dumas, who was president."

Eisenberg’s father made $18 a week working at May Co. on Brooklyn Avenue. "I always thought we were rich because I always had shoes," Eisenberg says, "The Mexican kids used to come to school barefoot."

"It was just a unique neighborhood that you didn’t have to leave," Cardinal member Herb Rothner says. "We had social activities right there. It was like a shtetl."

Now a Tarzana resident, Rothner remembers his childhood in the early 1940s, running around with Wabash Saxons members Eisenberg, Jack Marks, Jack Standel, Dave Barris, Irving Weinberg — all schoolmates and Aleph Zadik Aleph alumni.

For Rothner, the club is more than just nostalgia. "It brings back old memories and old friends," says Rothner, "but we do a lot of things in the community."

Indeed, the Wabash Saxons are very philanthropically focused and community oriented. American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI) has been a pet charity for the group. In 1973, the group purchased three ambulances for Israel bearing the slogans "Brooklyn Avenue Special," "Spirit of Boyle Heights" and "Wabash Avenue Cannonball." This year, members successfully raised the funds to purchase a new ambulance, which will be dubbed "Spirit of Boyle Heights II."

"We had a point where we had $50,000 and we needed $60,000," Eisenberg says. "One of the guys called up. He said, ‘How much you need?’ I said, ‘$10,000,’ and he said, ‘You got it.’ The ambulance is being made right now at the Ford factory to ARMDI’s specifications."

"Nobody says no," Resnikoff says. "Whenever we ask for it, we get it."

"I was in Israel many years ago," Farber recalls. "We were driving, and I told the driver turn around. We drove up to an ambulance that was one of ours. It said ‘Spirit of Boyle Heights’ on it. I was so proud, I took pictures, and when I came back, I told them, ‘We really do have an ambulance there.’"

Today, few vestiges of Jewish life remain in Boyle Heights. Zellman’s Men’s Wear, which opened in 1921, finally closed its doors six months ago. Roosevelt High is predominantly Latino. Nevertheless, the Wabash Saxons still direct much of their philanthropic efforts to the Heights. Farber and his brother have set up college scholarships at Roosevelt in memory of their mother.

"There’s a real generosity of spirit in the group," Eisenberg says. "Five years ago, when Roosevelt High needed football helmets, in one mailing we raised $8,500 in 10 days. Someone once asked me, ‘How come you give money to Boyle Heights? There are no Jews there.’ We never even think about it. We just give it away right away. We have no money in the treasury."

Members are happy to have this seven-decade connection to an era in Boyle Heights that now mainly lives on in the history books. Farber maintains a direct connection with the area. His business, Alpert and Alpert Iron and Metal Inc., is on the Boyle Heights border near Vernon.

"It’s a great thing seeing these people," Farber says. "A lot of them I’ve known for 70 years or more. Hershey was a little baby living on the same street as we did."

Max Fine, who once worked as a reporter in the Kennedy White House, flew in from Washington, D.C., to reunite with his childhood cronies at the Taix event. Fine was raised by a single mother, who worked as a seamstress, during the worst economic conditions. Yet he still has fond memories of the Jewish social scene, which included Wabash Menorah Center, the Jewish community center at Soto Street and Michigan Avenue.

"You have to have grown up in Boyle Heights during the Depression to understand what brings me back here every year," Fine says. "It established a camaraderie as kids, and it’s never ended."

Forging a New Vision

While visiting Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, Henry James wondered how the sweeping tide of immigrants would ultimately affect “the idea of” America. Comparing the incorporation of foreigners to sword- and fire-swallowing feats at a circus, James reflected on what it meant for America to share its patrimony with those “inconceivable aliens.”

Yet throughout American history, immigrants and minority groups, seeking to make room for themselves, have broadened the definition of America. Minority experiences have acted as a powerful force in the creation of America’s self-image.

For the first half of the 20th century, Jews were the paradigmatic American minority by which all other minority experiences were understood. In the second half, African Americans, the descendants of a forced migration, set the standard for a racial debate that altered the nation’s vision of itself. Now, with Hispanics poised to become the largest minority group, Mexican Americans — who make up two-thirds of all Latinos in the United States — could change how the nation sees itself in the 21st century.

Their unique perspectives on racial and cultural synthesis may fundamentally alter the nation’s attitudes, for they are the second largest immigrant group in American history — the largest when including illegal immigrants. Mexicans, themselves the product of the clash between the Old and New Worlds, could shift this country’s often divisive “us vs. them” racial dialogue.

A Census Bureau study released January found that about 10 percent of United States residents are foreign-born, midway between the high of 15 percent at the turn of the 20th century and the low of 5 percent in 1970. And Mexicans are by far today’s biggest immigrant group. As such, they are the most likely to leave a permanent imprint on the culture.

For instead of simply adding one more color to the multicultural rainbow, Mexican Americans may help forge a unifying vision. With a history that reveals an ability to accept racial and cultural ambiguity, Mexican Americans could broaden the definition of America unlike any earlier immigrants.

The early 20th-century debate about the &’9;”melting pot” evolved as Jewish writers envisioned an America that might better accommodate Jews. Their historic experience as a minority prompted them to take the lead in reimagining America for an entire wave of immigrants. The playwright Israel Zangwill, in a 1908 drama about a Jewish immigrant rejecting his faith’s prohibition against intermarriage, developed the optimistic American civic faith that a fusion of ethnicities will create a stronger nation. For Zangwill, the United States was both a safe harbor and a crucible that melted Old World ethnics into a distinctly new American culture.

But by the 1960s, America’s exclusion of African Americans from the mainstream forged a new vision based on multiculturalism. Though it encompassed other minority groups, including women and gays, blacks gave the multicultural movement its key moral impetus. The civil rights movement had begun by advocating racial integration, but by the late 1960s its message had fused with a reemergent black separatism that fueled the nascent multicultural movement.

Multiculturalism — the ideology that promotes the coexistence of separate but equal cultures — essentially rejects assimilation and considers the melting-pot concept an unwelcome imposition of the dominant culture. Race became the prism through which all social issues were perceived.

But because their past and present is characterized by a continual synthesis, a blending of the Spanish and indigenous cultures, Mexican Americans could project their own melting-pot vision onto America, one that includes mixing race as well as ethnicity. Rather than upholding the segregated notion of a country divided by mutually exclusive groups, Mexican Americans might use their experience to imagine an America in which racial, ethnic and cultural groups collide to create new ways of being American.

It was never clear where Mexican Americans belonged on the American racial scale. In 1896, two white politicians in Texas grew worried that more Mexican immigrants would naturalize and vote. They filed suit against a Mexican-born citizenship applicant, Ricardo Rodriguez, because he was not white, and so, like Asians and American Indians, not eligible to become a citizen. Citing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which citizenship was granted to Mexicans in the conquered region of the Southwest after 1848, the court rejected the suit on the grounds that Rodriguez’s national origins qualified him for citizenship regardless of his racial background.

In the 1920 census, Mexicans were counted as whites. Ten years later, they were reassigned to a separate Mexican “racial” category, though in 1950 they were white again. Mexican Americans and Hispanics as a whole are commonly viewed as a mutually exclusive racial, linguistic and cultural category in a country of competing minorities. But Mexican Americans do not share the overarching ethnic narrative of Jews or the shared history of suffering that has united African Americans. For all the discrimination and segregation Mexican Americans suffered in the region, the Southwest was never the Deep South. In any case, as the memoirist John Phillip Santos wrote recently, “Mexicans are to forgetting what the Jews are to remembering.”

By the late 1990s, both the largely ethnic-Mexican Hispanic Congressional Caucus and the powerful California Latino Legislative Caucus had adopted “Latino issues are American issues” as their mantra. Mexican Americans are using their growing political power to enter the American mainstream, not to distance themselves from it. The new chairman of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas, was once a high- ranking Border Patrol official and the architect of Operation Hold the Line, the labor-intensive strategy to stem illegal immigration along the West Texas border.

Perhaps assuming that Mexicans would (or &’9;&’9;should) follow the organizational model of Jews or African Americans, East Coast-based foundations contributed to the founding of national ethnic-Mexican institutions. The New York-based Ford Foundation was instrumental in creating three of the most visible national Mexican American organizations — all modeled after similar black organizations.

But with the exception of some scattered homegrown social service organizations and political groups, Mexican Americans have developed little parallel ethnic infrastructure. One national survey has shown that Mexican Americans are far more likely to join a non-ethnic civic group than a Hispanic organization. There is no private Mexican American college similar to Yeshiva University or Morehouse College. In Los Angeles, which has the largest Mexican population in the country, there is no ethnic-Mexican hospital, cemetery or broad-based charity organization. Nor does Los Angeles have an English-language newspaper for Mexican Americans similar to the black Amsterdam News and the Jewish Forward in New York.

Though the Spanish-language media is often referred to as the “Hispanic media,” it generally serves first generation immigrants and not their English-dominant children and grandchildren.

In the late 1920s, Rep. John C. Box of Texas warned his colleagues on the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee that the continued influx of Mexican immigrants could lead to the “distressing process of mongrelization” in America. He argued that because Mexicans were the products of mixing among whites, Indians and sometimes blacks, they had a casual attitude toward interracial unions and were likely to mix freely with other races in the United States.

His vitriol notwithstanding, Box was right about Mexicans not keeping to themselves. Apart from the cultural isolation of immigrants, subsequent generations are oriented toward the American mainstream. But because Mexican identity has always been more fluid and comfortable with hybridity, assimilation has not been an either/or proposition. For example, Mexican Americans never had to overcome a cultural proscription against intermarriage. Just as widespread Mexican-Anglo intermarriage helped meld cultures in the 19th-century Southwest, so it does today. In fact, two-thirds of intermarriages in California involve a Latino partner.

According to James P. Smith, an economist and immigration scholar at the RAND Corporation, by 2050 more than 40 percent of United States Hispanics will be able to claim multiple ancestries. “Through this process of blending by marriage in the U.S.,” he says, “Latino identity becomes something even more nuanced.”

The fact that people of mixed ancestry came to form a greater proportion of the population of Latin America than that of Anglo America is the clearest sign of the difference between the two outlooks on race. Mexican Americans bring the New World notion encompassed by the word mestizaje (racial and cultural synthesis) to their American experience. In 1925, the romantic Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos wrote that the Latin American mestizo heralds a new post-racialist era in human development. More recently, the preeminent Mexican American essayist Richard Rodriguez stated, “The essential beauty and mystery of the color brown is that it is a mixture of different colors.”

“Something big happens here at the border that sort of mushes everything together,” says Maria Eugenia Guerra, publisher of LareDos, an alternative monthly magazine in Laredo, Texas, a city that has been a majority Latino since its founding in 1755. As political and economic power continues to shift westward, Mexican Americans will increasingly inject this mestizo vision into American culture. “The Latinization of America is so profound that no one really sees it,” asserts Kevin Starr, the leading historian of California, who is writing a multivolume history of the state. The process of they becoming us will ultimately force us to reconsider the very definition of who we are.