Living and Working [Il]legally in America — It’s Not Just for Latinos Anymore
Hardly a day goes by without some news about them — the undocumented. Congress debates the issue of how to handle them, and pundits argue even as the number of illegal immigrants grows. Supposedly, there are more than 12 million of them in the United States. Thinking about them, we tend to see the shadowy figures on this week’s cover: Mexicans or Central Americans scurrying across the road at night, abandoned by their coyote in the desert dust. They pick our fruit, cut our lawns and bus our dishes. But what does illegal immigration have to do with us?
More than you might think. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), during 2004 alone, 540 Israelis were deported or about to be deported. If that many Israelis were caught, it stands to reason that there are many thousands more — in Los Angeles as well as the rest of the United States — who have not yet been located by authorities. And we know from interviews we conducted that — besides Israelis — there are many Jews from Latin America and elsewhere who also fall into this category.
Morris Ardoin, who handles media relations for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), said that he knows of no way to determine how many Jews are in the United States without a valid visa or working in contravention of the law. “Making a guess on that would be a shot in the dark,” he said. “Like asking how many stars in the sky.”
Maybe there aren’t quite as many as there are stars in the sky, but there are undoubtedly many thousands of illegal Jewish aliens throughout the United States and in Los Angeles, and they have their own stories to tell. The following are three very different stories of the Jewish experience of illegal immigration.
Border Protests Not Fight for Civil Rights
Speaker after speaker at the recent immigration march in Los Angeles told the 500,000-strong primarily Latino crowd that racism and anti-immigrant sentiments lie behind the debates on Capitol Hill about border enforcement. This was the focus at the march and subsequent student walkouts, even though the House and Senate have debated competing immigration reform legislation, which has included discussions of some sort of guest worker or amnesty plan.
Nonetheless, speakers ignored the nuances of the debate, concentrating instead on angry allegations that any efforts to deal with illegal immigration status amounts to “anti-immigrant bigotry.” Many pundits have argued that we are seeing the rebirth of the civil rights movement. As a longtime participant in that struggle and one who has consistently opposed nativist sentiments, I dissent.
There is something quite troubling about these protests, which charge that attempts to control the flow of immigrants into America are “anti-Latino” and thereby “racist.” To justify these claims, activists argue that there is a generalized hostility to Latinos that is best represented by opposition to illegal immigration.
This claim, however, is hard to substantiate in an era of diminishing racism throughout society, with interracial marriages on the rise, Hispanic businesses growing faster than any others and Latinos viewed as the new political power in many parts of the nation. What precisely are the injustices that this “new civil rights movement” will address — other than the view that there should be no distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigration status?
There are other reasons to resist the claim that recent protests are a rebirth of the civil right movement. America’s civil rights movement fought the denial of voting, employment, public accommodations and education rights to black Americans who were, in fact, citizens. It can hardly be argued that Hispanic Americans or legal immigrants from any other area of the world are today being denied rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Nonetheless, we are told by immigration activists and their allies in the leftist political community that it is racist to restrict entry only to legal immigrants and enforce laws against those here illegally.
Let me be clear: I would never favor the inhumane treatment of anyone, including illegal immigrants. But I don’t support turning a blind eye to illegal entry in a way that mocks the rule of law. And it’s neither just nor accurate to call that position “anti-Latino.”
Of particular concern is the degree to which Latino youngsters have embraced the rhetoric of the Latino left, arguing as they did, in the midst of school walkouts, that Latinos suffer the weight of a “racist American system.” Marching with the ever-present Mexican flag, students chanted, “Si, se puede!” (yes we can), proudly declaring that they had hit the street in support of “la raza” (the race).
The civil rights movement of old was clear about its priority: the freeing of black Americans from the suppression of white supremacist ideology. But the classic civil rights movement, at its best, also seized the high moral ground by asserting, as King did, that participants were about making America a better nation for all of its citizens, regardless of skin color, religion or national origin.
Only later, when Black Power figures began to jockey for leadership, did raw ethnocentrism and anti-Semitism emerge in ’60s-era black politics. The narrow nationalism of Black Power politics turned off most Americans, and the ethnocentrism of Latino activists will do likewise.
We can all agree, I hope, that there are those around the edges of the immigration battles who are distasteful nativists, people opposed to immigration of any kind, legal or otherwise. But conversely, those who argue that a desire to control America’s borders and enforce immigration laws is “anti-immigrant” only make sense in the realm of leftist and extremist political thought. This view actually asserts that people in other nations have a right to come here, no matter what our federal laws say is the proper order of things.
In line with this perspective, a recent Zogby International Poll, conducted on both sides of the border, found that a majority of Mexicans say the U.S. Southwest “rightfully belongs to Mexico,” and that Mexican citizens should be allowed to come to the United States freely, without U.S. permission. By contrast, the majority of Americans said they want to restrict immigration and don’t support granting amnesty to illegal immigrants currently in the country, as President Bush has advocated via his guest worker plan.
If nothing else, the recent demonstrations and student walkouts have dramatically ramped up the national debate on this issue. It is no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room, the estimated 11 million to 20 million illegal residents. Where we go from here depends on the ability of this nation’s political leadership to craft effective and fair public policy.
Yes, we must deal in a humane fashion with those who have come here looking for a better life. We also must finally address the concerns of a distressed populace — and here I am talking about those American citizens who are negatively affected and rightly troubled by our porous borders.
Joe R. Hicks is a social critic and vice president of Community Advocates Inc. He is the former head of the L.A. branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Twice Upon a Time
The adoring crowd, a beaming Antonio Villaraigosa, a message of inclusiveness and leadership — the image could have been from four years ago, when Villaraigosa’s campaign for mayor energized much of Los Angeles.
But this time, Villaraigosa also got the more votes than the other guy, and then some, scoring an astounding 59 percent, to make incumbent James K. Hahn a one-term mayor.
Under a clear night sky, framed against a canopy of downtown skyscrapers, Villaraigosa projected energy and hope amid cheers that drowned out question marks and rumblings of unease in his very different, second-time run for mayor.
Across town in Hollywood, incumbent Mayor James Hahn got his first taste of political defeat, without ever admitting defeat. His campaign was the quixotic victim of perceived insufficiencies: a candidate with not quite enough money, too little charm and, to critics, a shortage of achievement, purposefulness and ethical fiber.
Polls had suggested a Villaraigosa win, but the 19-point spread stunned politicos. Villaraigosa led among Jews and Latinos; Valley residents, Eastsiders and Westsiders — pretty much the entire city (and 48 percent of African Americans) chose Villaraigosa. Jews accounted for 17 percent of the total vote and 55 percent of them chose Villaraigosa. For Valley Jews it was 54 percent; 58 percent on the Westside, according to L.A. Times exit polling.
Straightaway, Villaraigosa sought rhetorically to knit together a disparate metropolis that is frequently disengaged and clannish.
“We are all Angelenos tonight,” he said at midnight. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. It doesn’t matter whether you grew up on the Eastside or the Westside, whether you’re from South Los Angeles or Sylmar. It doesn’t matter whether you go to work in a fancy car or on a bus. Or whether you worship in a cathedral or a synagogue or a mosque. We are all Angelenos and we all have a difference to make.”
This was vintage Villaraigosa, the hard charger of four years ago, who inspired excitement and loyalty even while losing to Hahn. The 2005 Villaraigosa campaign, however, differed tellingly from that of 2001; it was more bruising to Hahn and exceedingly cautious in staking out what Villaraigosa intends to do.
By Election Night, no one needed polls or returns to deduce the winner. The Villaraigosa event had the air of a multicultural coronation, with table after table of free tamales, Korean noodles, sushi and barbecue. Two blocks of Boylston Street were cordoned off. The press had its own filing patio; VIPs had a private indoor shindig. The stage setup resembled a presidential campaign rally, with a huge American flag as backdrop and an arch of red, white and blue balloons.
By 9:30 p.m., the streetscape swelled and bobbed with celebrants even as a line of well-wishers stretched around the block, waiting to get through four security screening stations.
At Hahn headquarters, at Element in Hollywood, no metal detectors were needed; this, in contrast, was a party searching not for weapons, but a pulse, looking more like a decently attended art-gallery opening than a political rally. The TV screens steadfastly refused to show anything but the Hahn-for-Mayor logo. There was no press filing area; reporters took interview subjects to a smoggy outdoor smoking patio on the side. Straight back from there, in a private area, anyone could catch glimpses of a calm and genial Hahn standing under a pepper tree, waiting it out with family members and his closest supporters. The party room itself could have seated the audience for a small dance recital, but the bar was long enough, sporting at least five shelves of spirits.
Bobbi Fiedler, the Republican former school board member and former member of Congress, looked like she needed a trip to the bar. She refused to call Hahn’s defeat, but her face foretold enough. She called Hahn “a man who has been working hard getting the job done as opposed to tooting his own horn.”
Hahn backers also included Evelyn Fierro, a San Pedro public affairs specialist and self-described liberal Latino, who had supported Villaraigosa in 2001. She lauded Hahn’s decision to fire black Police Chief Bernard Parks, a move that angered many black Hahn supporters in South Los Angeles.
Hahn had “the guts to stand up to people and bring in the best police chief [Bill Bratton, who is Anglo] in this country,” Fierro said, “knowing it was questionable politically. But he did what was best for the city. And this is how they’re rewarding him.”
Over and over again, Hahn was portrayed by the faithful as underappreciated, especially, they said, when compared to the more photogenic Villaraigosa.
“Our television society is taken by a flashy smile and charismatic personality, and can’t quite accept somebody who is low-key, smart and hardworking,” Fierro said. “Mayor Hahn deserves a second chance and the only reason he won’t make it is that he’s a low-key personality. What does that say about the citizenry of Los Angeles? How shallow can you be?”
But you didn’t have to love Hahn to fault the Villaraigosa of 2005, said David Hamlin, a public-relations consultant with ties to L.A.’s progressive community.
“I think you’d have to conclude that the guy everyone was excited about has decided it’s more important to win than to lead,” he said.
City Controller Laura Chick, in contrast, gave city voters, including Jewish ones, credit for deducing the better choice. She’d endorsed Villaraigosa in 2001, but backed Hahn for reelection early on, when Hahn looked unbeatable and before others entered the race.
“I thought Jim Hahn would be elected to a second term,” said Chick in an interview during the Villaraigosa bash, “and I wanted to show him that he could have confidence that I would be at his side.”
Instead, she lost confidence in Hahn, accusing him of resisting changes to city contracting practices, which had come under fire amid allegations that private firms made political donations to improve chances of winning city business. Recent voter-approved changes to the city charter, Chick added, “made the mayor of Los Angeles the No. 1 person on the firing line of accountability. What Jim has done is try to distance himself from that accountability…. The mayor’s staff, the mayor’s commissioners, the mayor’s general managers were opposing [reforms], and the mayor did nothing to change that.”
As for Villaraigosa, Chick gives an edge to the 2005 vintage over the Villaraigosa of 2001.
“He is a man who has been tempered and mellowed and humbled by the taste of defeat,” Chick said. “He’s also had hands-on city experience for two years as council member and understands much better the dynamics of city politics and the problems facing us.”
Villaraigosa’s success among Jewish voters in polls leading up to Election Day was no surprise to Chick.
“The Jewish community has always been interested in progressive reform and Antonio is a leader in those kinds of politics,” said Chick, who is Jewish. “And the Jewish community has tasted firsthand being the underdog. It identifies with Antonio as a member of a minority ethnicity with shared experiences.”
“But maybe, most importantly,” she added, “the Jewish community is very involved in civic life in Los Angeles, involved in giving back. I think they have identified in Antonio an elected official who can maybe correct some inequities that stand in the way of our city being truly great.”
Jews also need to be pragmatic about building coalitions in a city with a declining Jewish presence, noted Attorney Andrew Friedman, at the Villaraigosa rally.
“Twelve years ago, there were seven Jewish city council members,” Friedman said. “Today there’s only three. If we want our agenda to be accomplished, we must build bridges to all the other minorities.”
For some left-of-center progressives, Villaraigosa’s inclusiveness strayed too far right for comfort. Villaraigosa’s backers included property owners who oppose unionizing security guards, a top priority on labor’s agenda. Some property owners, in fact, made a point to side with Villaraigosa over Hahn. In the end, Villaraigosa’s fundraising swamped Hahn’s, though the mayor had his millions, too, as well as the backing of the County Federation of Labor.
All told, it was topsy-turvy and melancholy season for the powerful political apparatus of the County Federation of Labor. On Tuesday, most of the rank and file ignored their leadership’s directive and voted for Villaraigosa, who, after all, made his name as a labor stalwart. The result was a bizarre mirror image of 2001, when much of the labor leadership had enthusiastically backed Villaraigosa, but a plurality of union members voted for Hahn. Notably missing from the Hahn party was County Fed leader Miguel Contreras, an architect of labor’s rise in Los Angeles, who died this month at 52 of a heart attack. Contreras was a close friend of Villaraigosa’s, but had backed Hahn because Hahn delivered on his commitments to organized labor.
Villaraigosa’s “just win” strategy sounds defensible enough to Democrats who ponder the Al Gore or John Kerry administrations that might have been. But the alternative in Los Angeles was not George W. Bush, but an ideologically compatible fellow Democrat, who was enough of a coalition builder to earn the simultaneous support of labor and the Chamber of Commerce.
Hahn never did persuade enough people that Villaraigosa was too risky to elect. But Villaraigosa’s flirtation with the moneyed establishment put a scare into some longtime leftwing supporters who probably voted for him anyway. Members of the moneyed establishment, for their part, probably still regard Villaraigosa as slightly scary, but at least they went to bed Tuesday night knowing they had backed the winner. Hope and opportunity can work in mysterious ways.
Villaraigosa still has his true believers, of course, including Jewish attorney Julie Gutman, who felt devastated by the 2001 loss to Hahn.
“Antonio is a consensus-builder,” she said, “a unifier. He brings people together. He has the energy, leadership and vision to make Los Angeles the best city in this country.”
David Finnigan contributed to this article.
Blocs Play Key Role in Villaraigosa’s Win
With his election as mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa now has the chance to deliver on the coalition approach he offered to the voters in the recent campaign. If he succeeds, Los Angeles government may start to find solutions to problems that have previously seemed intractable. If he fails, he will leave a city more balkanized than before, and one that will have a harder time than ever solving its problems.
Villaraigosa won, in part, because Mayor James K. Hahn’s coalition of African Americans and white Republicans and moderates evaporated. It partially re-formed for the mayor on Election Day, but not enough to carry him to victory.
Political fortunes aside, Hahn’s coalition also complicated his governance as mayor. It was difficult for Hahn to turn an alliance of African Americans, strong supporters of the public sector, and white Republicans, skeptical of government, into a problem-solving coalition. Firing Police Chief Bernard Parks pleased the Valley, but enraged South Los Angeles. Fighting secession pleased South L.A., but enraged Valley activists.
In each case, those who favored Hahn’s approach were much less grateful than those who were outraged by it. Hahn’s experience shows that just getting votes from two different groups is not the same as enjoying a trusting, enduring coalition. The less trusting the coalition blocs, the more they demand from the leader, and the easier it is to disillusion them.
This is all background to asking: What is Villaraigosa’s coalition? It is actually at least two coalitions, one tucked inside another like Russian nesting dolls. The first coalition represents those who voted for Villaraigosa in 2001; the second ring consists of those who shifted from Hahn to Villaraigosa, principally because of policy decisions made by the mayor. The first coalition is between Latinos and liberal whites, particularly Westside Jews. Even in his 2001 defeat, Villaraigosa drew a majority of Westside Jews, while Hahn took Valley Jews and the overall Jewish vote. But this time, Villaraigosa got out front with Jews on both sides of the hill, won the endorsement of former mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg and coasted.
In fact, this Latino-liberal-Jewish base has appeared before in opposition to Proposition 187 in 1994. Latino and Jewish leaders have been quietly cultivating each other for the past 10 years, as the black-Jewish Tom Bradley coalition eroded. So this coalition has some legs and some history.
The second coalition is a lot newer, and more tentative, but also critically important to the city: the one between Latinos and African Americans. African Americans have seen the rise of Latinos and have worried about it.
In 2001, African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Hahn over Villaraigosa; only younger black voters went with the Latino candidate. Villaraigosa won in 2005 in large part because many black voters abandoned Hahn after he fired Chief Parks, and also because many African American leaders endorsed Villaraigosa.
We know that African Americans were unhappy with Hahn; it remains to be seen whether that alienation can turn into a long-term alliance with Latinos. Meanwhile, some black and Latino high school students have had fights in the schools, an expression of ongoing black-Latino mutual discomfort. It will be a critical task to ease tensions between the city’s two largest and most mobilized minority groups.
Villaraigosa has at least a three-sided coalition to deal with, not to mention the other groups that will expect some attention and civic improvement (such as Valley residents angry about Hahn’s assertive anti-secession stance or airport neighbors furious about Hahn’s LAX expansion plan). Ironically, those who switched from Hahn may have more specific demands (namely, different policies than those pursued by Hahn) than those who supported Villaraigosa in 2001.
Nonetheless, Jewish voters will hope for a great deal from Villaraigosa. A coalition approach should appeal to those in the Jewish community who fondly remember Bradley. Jewish voters, especially on the Westside, are the city’s main reform constituency.
They will be watching closely to see if the new mayor takes action to clean up contracting at City Hall. Traffic, growth and planning issues (including the selection of a new city planning director) will be carefully watched among Jewish voters both on the Westside and in the Valley.
Fortunately for Villaraigosa, his disparate coalition is not as ideologically divided as Hahn’s black-white conservative alliance. While Jews and African Americans, for example, do not have much mutual involvement these days, they are also not ideological opponents. At the end of the day, keeping Jews and African Americans happy will take exactly the same qualities that it will take to keep everybody else happy.
Underlying the excitement of the first modern Latino mayor of Los Angeles is a city of Jews, blacks, Latinos and others who look with hope for a mayor who governs decisively and fairly for all.
Professor Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, was the Election Day political consultant to the Los Angeles Times Poll in 2005.
Orthodox Lobbyist in Eye of Ethics Storm
Missions to Israel are a staple of Jewish organizations, but when Pepe Barreto leads a group tour there in August, it’ll represent something new.
Barreto is perhaps the most popular drive-time host on Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles and a major player in a new drive to boost travel to Israel among California Latinos.
The campaign is a key part of a program outlined by Daniela Aharoni, the recently arrived director of the Israel Government Tourist Office for the Western United States. With Hispanics/Latinos making up nearly half the population of Los Angeles County and one-third of the state, this demographic will be of ever-growing importance in the years to come.
“We have found that Latinos are free-spending tourists, with a strong religious interest in the Holy Land,” said Aharoni, sitting in her office with an expansive view of midtown Los Angeles.
Aharoni served previously as deputy director of the Israel tourist office here from 1994-98, and she has been amazed at the rising influence and economic status of Latinos during the intervening seven years.
While American Jews remain Aharoni’s main clientele, she is also putting increased effort into attracting the Christian community.
“If we can convince the pastor of a church to go, his congregants will follow him,” said Aharoni, who is now organizing specially tailored seminars and promotional material for pastors and ministers.
Next year, Aharoni plans to explore the possibility of increasing tourism from the large Korean community in Southern California.
Her jurisdiction includes 13 Western states, Alaska and Hawaii among them, and she acknowledged that it’s tougher to sell Israel tourism in her territory than in the Northeast and Midwest.
“You have a much longer travel time to begin with, and Israeli sunshine isn’t that much of a selling point to people in California or Arizona,” she said.
After a near-disastrous slump in tourism to Israel during the past four years of the intifada, the statistics are beginning to look better. In 2000, the last “normal” year, a record-breaking 2.7 million tourists arrived in Israel. Two years later, the figure had plummeted to 206,000, rising to 379,000 for 2004.
The upswing is continuing, with figures in January and February of this year in the key North American market showing a 15 percent to 20 percent improvement over the same months last year. If the general Middle East situation doesn’t worsen drastically, Israel expects a total of 1.7 million tourists in 2005, 1.9 million in 2006 and 2.1 million in 2007.
Despite the gloom of the intifada years, Israel has been busy improving its tourism infrastructure and added a host of new attractions, Aharoni said. Off the top of her head, she reeled off the Davidson Center and archaeological park near the Western Wall, a new Yad Vashem historical museum, Israel Park in Latrun, Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv and Begin Museum in Jerusalem. There’s also easier access to Masada and new facilities and projects in Sefad, Tiberias, Akko and Eilat.
Aharoni’s office will trumpet Israel’s old and new attractions at the May 15 Israel Independence Day festival in Woodley Park in Van Nuys. A week later, on May 22, Eilat will join 20 other Los Angeles sister cities at a fair at the Page Museum gardens, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Aharoni hopes that the easing last month of the U.S. State Department warning against travel to Israel will further encourage tourism from the United States.
Aharoni’s father arrived in Israel as a youngster from northern Iran, near the Kurdistan border. The tourist office director, who was born in Jerusalem, regrets that she didn’t learn Farsi (she’s picking up Spanish), but is now learning how to cook Persian-style.
After army service, Aharoni studied at Hebrew University and Israel’s official School of Tourism. She first joined the Ministry of Tourism in 1988 and has been working in the tourism field since, both for the government and in the private sector.
“Tourism is absolutely vital to Israel and its economy,” she said. “For every additional 100,000 visitors, 4,000 new service jobs are created.”
For information about Israel tourism, call (323) 658-7463 or visit www.goisrael.com.
Civil Rights Goes Beyond Ethnic Lines
When the nation’s largest and oldest Mexican American civil rights group selected a new leader recently, the committee that recruited her included the organization’s chairman, a man who is neither a Mexican American nor an immigrant. Meet Joe Stern.
For Stern, the immigrant experience began at home. Growing up in a Cleveland suburb, he remembers his maternal grandfather regaling him with tales about coming to America as a poor Jewish immigrant from Austria and making his way here, despite anti-Semitism and the challenges of scratching out an existence in a new land. Arriving penniless in New York, Stern’s grandfather eventually made his way to Ohio, where he went on to open a successful supermarket chain.
His grandfather’s travails and triumphs helped the young Stern develop a lifelong empathy for immigrants. He decided that one day, he would somehow smooth the rocky road newcomers often face in the United States, a country whose attitude toward immigrants often rises and falls with the vicissitudes of the economy.
Today, 54-year-old Stern is a partner at the blue-chip New York law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. He lives comfortably on the Upper West Side, jets around the globe and runs marathons.
But the abiding love of the underdog and quest for social justice Stern learned at his grandfather’s knee never left him. That’s why he contributes to such civil rights groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Defense Fund. It’s also why he serves as chair of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a civil rights group fighting for educational equality and political advancement for the nation’s 40 million Latinos.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Stern would at first blush seem an unlikely candidate to hold such a prominent position in the nation’s foremost Latino civil rights organization. Although he heads Fried, Frank’s Latin American practice, Stern speaks little Spanish, took only a few courses on Latin American history in college and has no Latino roots.
Still, Stern said the similarities between Jews and Latinos outweigh the differences; both groups prize family, self-improvement and have firsthand experience with the dislocations of immigration. For Stern, Judaism’s emphasis on justice and making the world a better place have given him a strong foundation for his advocacy work.
"I don’t think you have to be Jewish to have a sensitivity to the most recent wave of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Latin America, but I think our immigrant experience may help," he said. "Again, I don’t think you have to be Jewish to have a passion for civil rights, but it doesn’t hurt. MALDEF is one of the foremost civil rights organizations in the country, and I do really believe that when anyone’s rights are denied, we’re all in danger."
Stern first got involved with MALDEF through his activist law firm, which has a longstanding relationship with the group. A director since 1991, he has worked overtime lately, playing an important role in the recent hiring of Ann Marie Tallman as MALDEF’s president and general counsel.
"Joe’s really stepped up and done right for this institution," MALDEF board member Frank Quevedo said of Stern’s efforts in finding a new leader, who beat out 80 candidates and is expected to attract more corporate support.
Tallman’s appointment represents MALDEF’s break with the "last ties to any notion of ethnic nationalism and ethnic provincialism," said Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. Although the group has long taken money from businesses and foundations, Tallman, an ethnically mixed attorney who speaks almost no Spanish and hails from the corporate world, symbolizes a more mainstream MALDEF, he added.
Stern, in his 13 years with the organization, has held a variety of positions, including heading the organization’s fiscal and fund-raising committee. He became chair in 2002, just as the group opened a new office in North Carolina to serve the northeast. Stern’s charm, intellect and ability to bring people together have earned him the respect of his MALDEF colleagues, board member and Washington attorney Thomas Reston said.
"It’s quite evident from anyone who talks to him that his is not a rote, by-the-numbers interest in civil rights. It’s a deeply felt passion and a deep commitment to fairness," said Reston, who successfully litigated on behalf of MALDEF in the mid-1970s to expand the Voting Rights Act to cover parts of California and the Southwest.
Stern’s commitment to Latinos and civil rights is matched only by his newfound dedication to Judaism. Bothered by his ignorance about his own religion, he began taking classes at a local synagogue and became fascinated with the Bible and its meaning. At the age of 49, Stern had a bar mitzvah.
"I figured I should at least do what a 13-year-old does, and I’m very happy I did. It was a public way of embracing being Jewish," he said. "Judaism has made me a richer, deeper person."
The Same Boat
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros once gave a speech about the tremendous growth of the Latino population in the United States.
"I hear what you’re saying," a non-Latino woman in the audience said, her voice filled with anxiety. "But can’t anybody do anything about it?"
Cisneros, who in 1981 became the first Latino mayor of a major U.S. city (San Antonio), didn’t share her fear. The enormous growth of the Latino population in the United States — and especially in the Los Angeles region — presents many challenges, but it also offers many opportunities. Not least among the latter is the opportunity for coalitions with other groups, like, for instance, us.
Many people in the Jewish community, to their credit, get this. Yuval Rotem, Israel’s ambassador to the Western United States, initiated a series of formal and informal gatherings with Latino and Jewish activists and politicians, including Cisneros and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys). This year, as in 2002, these culminated in a twilight cruise aboard Fantasea Charter Yachts out of Marina del Rey.
"The Jewish community has always understood it doesn’t have the numbers, and it has to be in alliance with people who do," Cisneros said during his speech on the cruise. "There is a practical reason to make common cause."
Here are a few other reasons: one out of every three Californians is of Latino descent. One out of every two kindergarten students is of Latino descent. There are 35 million Latinos in the United States. By 2050 there will be 100 million. By 2010 more than half Los Angeles’ population will be Latino.
Some see this reality not as a common cause but as a common threat.
In his new book "Who Are We?" Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington argues that Latino immigrants threaten America’s values, identity and way of life. In the March/April issue of Foreign Policy, Huntington presented the heart of his argument: that the contiguity, scale, illegality, regional concentration, persistence and historical presence of Hispanics in America make this immigration an imminent threat. Latinos are slow to assimilate, he argued, and the end result will be "a country of two languages and two cultures."
Huntington’s conclusions are highly arguable, and, to my mind, ultimately unpersuasive (for the piquant back-and-forth, visit www.foreignpolicy.com). He acknowledges that by the second generation, the overwhelming majority of Latinos — 93 percent, to be exact — are primarily English speaking.
Beyond that, as New America Foundation’s Gregory Rodriguez has long pointed out, Latinos are not a monolithic ethnic group, and have never built "parallel ethnic institutions," as have Jews and other minorities, or supported a separatist movement. Rodriguez wrote that Huntington ignores "Mexicans’ history of racial and cultural blending and the reams of survey data that show Mexican Americans place great faith in U.S. institutions."
The problem is not the numbers, but our fear of these numbers, and our lack of preparedness.
"Jews in Los Angeles can pull away from public schools and put gates on their communities," Berman said on the cruise, "but little by little the demographic and political complexion of our community is changing. For us to turn to a strategy of insularity when the country is changing is very dangerous."
We can choose not to engage for now, but the price for that will be grave. How well we manage the growth and change depends on how quickly we can fix four broken systems in our region — healthcare, housing, transportation and education — and how carefully we manage a fifth: our environment. Whatever coalitions we form should plunge headlong into these issues. Immigrants don’t trek to Los Angeles to become better Mexicans or Guatemalans; they come to be Americans. Improving these systems makes that task easier and faster.
Reading Huntington’s article put me in the mood, as theoretical treatises usually do, for reality. So last Sunday I took my daughter to Fiesta Broadway, the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in America. The street was closed to traffic for several blocks, and filled with 500,000 people. As far as I could tell, two of them were Jewish — us — and not many more were non-Latino.
They crowded around hundreds of booths offering product samples of everything from Wishbone dressing to Lactaid. They ate hot dogs and tamales. I didn’t see Samuel Huntington there, but no doubt he would have had a different perception of this uninterrupted flow of humanity. He might have seen a "beachhead," as he put it, of a half-million potential separatists. I saw a half-million Americans, which is to say, eager consumers.
"American Jews have taught us how to be part of America and still maintain our culture," Cisneros said. "These things happen in the American Jewish community not accidentally but because of planning and resolution."
With planning and resolution, Latino-Jewish coalitions can be instrumental in proving Huntington’s worst fears wrong. Because just as we were on the evening of Rotem’s cruise, we are all on the same boat.
Happy Cinco de Mayo.
Community activist Karen Bass’ victory in the 47th Assembly District’s Democratic primary provides a valuable opening for coalition efforts between the Jewish community and a new generation of African American and Latino activists.
Los Angeles has a long and distinguished history of biracial coalitions. Rooted in the 10th City Council District, then divided among African Americans, Jews and Asian Americans, the coalition behind Tom Bradley stormed the gates of City Hall.
Bradley was first elected to the City Council in 1963 and then to the mayoralty in 1973, a position he held for 20 years. The Los Angeles black-Jewish coalition became a national model for interracial politics and governance.
But the Bradley coalition has largely fallen by the wayside as the city’s politics have fragmented and as the leadership ties that sustained the coalition have atrophied. While promising efforts to build bridges between Jews and Latinos are beginning to bear fruit, they are still young.
The open 47th Assembly seat seemed likely to hurt rather than help intergroup coalitions. The 2001 redistricting had reshaped the district represented by former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson from a surefire black seat to one potentially contested between African Americans and whites.
The district was moved westward and northward and now includes such white liberal — and significantly Jewish — areas as Westwood, Cheviot Hills and Beverlywood. Whites represent 37.8 percent of the population; African Americans, 40.1 percent; Hispanics, 22.6 percent; and Asian Americans, 8.5 percent. The voting population, however, is more skewed toward blacks and whites.
With three strong black candidates — Bass, Rickey Ivie and Nate Holden — fragmentation of the black vote and intergroup conflict with whites seemed possible. A white candidate could have potentially won the race but without broad-based support in the district.
Bass took the creative way out of the box: She reached out to Latinos, organized labor and white voters, including Jews. The three black candidates received a combined 88 percent of the vote, with Bass drawing a near-majority 48 percent. Clearly, Bass received strong support both from African Americans and white voters. Out of possible conflict came something much more promising — potential bridges among African Americans, Latinos and Jews.
I was less surprised than I might otherwise have been, because of my knowledge of Bass’ previous work. I first met Bass about a decade ago. A federal agency had contracted with me to study how a particular organization in South Central Los Angeles managed to impact the alarming dispersion of liquor stores.
I visited the offices of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Training — later shortened, thankfully, to the Community Coalition — where I met Bass, the organization’s energetic director. She was working to prevent the rebuilding of some liquor stores that had been burned down during the violence of 1992. The office was brimming with energy, with young staff and volunteers, African American and Latino.
There was a serious conflict of interest between those who wanted the stores reduced in number and those whose livelihood depended on the stores staying open. In New York City, a similar conflict became highly racialized, as calls arose to "kick Koreans out" of inner-city communities.
By contrast, Bass’ dedication to keeping the conflict nonracial helped Los Angeles to keep the focus on the behavior of individual liquor stores and not on the ethnicity of the owners. Bass insisted that it did not matter who owned the stores, only how the stores were operated.
Because she and her organization stuck to that philosophy with such consistency, no traction could be created for an anti-Korean campaign.
I spoke with leaders of Korean American organizations who saw themselves under attack on the liquor store issue. Those I interviewed were very unhappy and resentful about the coalition’s pressure but recognized and appreciated that Bass kept the racial aspect to a minimum. Bass was also adamant about reaching out to Latinos in South Central Los Angeles and actively incorporated them in her organization’s activities.
Bass’ victory in the 47th Assembly District marks another new turn for the politics of urban Los Angeles. New participants — organized labor, Latinos, young minority activists — are reshaping the city’s traditional politics of black and white.
While African American candidates are likely to keep dominating the offices in Central, Mid-city and South Los Angeles for some time to come, their constituencies are shifting. The Jewish community should keep its eyes and ears open to these developments and look for new ways to connect to a promising, exciting and boundary-crossing politics of the next Los Angeles.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press, 1993). His article, “The Battle Over Liquor Stores in South Central Los Angeles: The Management of an Interminority Conflict,” appeared in the July 1996 issue of the Urban Affairs Quarterly.
The Cost of Latinization
For the most part, Jewish leadership in Los Angeles and elsewhere can be expected to oppose the recall of longtime "ally" Gov. Gray Davis and, in a pinch, support his Mini-Me proposed replacement, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (see page 12). "Go along to get along" expediency and Pavlovian liberal sympathies provide much of the explanation.
Yet, as is all too often the case, the more pressing, long-term issues will be lost. Not only has Davis presided over a disastrous decline in the state’s finances and an unprecedented debasing of its political culture. Now he has become handmaiden to the undermining of our most precious principles, the sanctity of citizenship.
By signing a bill to allow illegal aliens to receive driver’s licenses, something he had hitherto strongly opposed, Davis has opened the door to a massive debasement of citizenship itself. Once allowed driver’s licenses, there seems little to prevent illegal aliens — many of whom have only marginal attachment to the nation — from becoming full participants in our political culture, including the right to vote.
Will this move backfire? It should and could. Citizenship has always been seen as a precious thing, particularly among immigrants. It reflects both the openness of American society as well as the obligations one takes to become part of a democracy. The swearing-in ceremonies in Los Angeles and other immigrant centers are testament to the power of the American ideal.
Opposing the de facto legalization of all illegals is not the same as opposing Proposition 187. That measure sought to punish as well the children of illegal aliens and would have deprived people of essential medical services. It was mean-spirited and poorly drafted. Opposing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens represents entirely something else: an affirmation of the importance of citizenship.
After Sept. 11, it also should be noted that the measure damages the slender controls we have to contain terrorism. This has always been a concern of those who opposed the legislation, including Davis himself. Future Mohammed Attas will now find it even easier to get on planes and enter public buildings, including such prime targets as Jewish institutions.
But the key concern here is not really about our security in this direct sense. It relates instead to the fundamental nature of the country that we live in. In their long history, Jews have done best when membership in society was measured not by race or ethnicity, but as a function of citizenship. This was true to some degree in ancient Rome, in the British empire, under the French Republic after 1789 and, most importantly, in the United States.
Citizenship is about responsibility and shared goals. As American citizens, Jews have been protected by the same laws as non-Jews. This principle also has made America an attractive place for a wide range of peoples, including millions of Asians and Latinos, who have fled from racist or authoritarian regimes.
Citizenship is also about being a nation of laws. In states such as 19th-century Russia, contemporary China or 20th-century Mexico, ethnic power and grievance alone could be used to justify state action. Laws could be amended, twisted and shaped to the liking of labor, the political and big business insiders. If you have elections, you change the rules and count the votes as you please.
Although such things happen in America, they are against the grain and the basic constitutional order. Yet now we see something else on the horizon — an attempt to change an entire state by allowing the massive de facto legalization of aliens. That this is part of an explicit racial agenda makes this even more dangerous, particularly for exposed minorities like Jews.
The key thing here is to understand the nationalist motivations of the legislation’s backers. Until recently their agenda — which essentially seeks to wipe out the border — thrived only at the political margins. It was supported largely by a handful of Chicano history professors, left-wing labor organizers and activists. But now the ill-advised recall has led the unscrupulous and desperate Davis to sign a potentially disastrous order to garner the support of his core constituency, which also includes labor unions seeking to expand their base of undocumented members.
Like much of the Latino caucus in the legislature, Bustamante supports virtually every element of separatism, including bilingual education, a flawed and highly damaging idea whose strongest justification has always lay in an essentially nationalist rationale of preserving a specific ethnic culture.
Equally disturbing has been Bustamante’s refusal to break with his past association with MEChA — a campus group with an openly separatist agenda, whose chairman describes the Southwestern United States as "occupied land."
Overall, there is little positive in the Latino nationalist scenario for Jews. A racially dominated state, based on a swelling of illegal residents, does not bode well for a minority group that has thrived on a citizen-based democracy. Before jumping on to the Davis or Bustamante bandwagons, Jewish leaders and voters might think less about their short run self-interests and more about the best interests of America’s pluralistic democracy.
Joel Kotkin is a Senior Fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University. He is writing a book on the history of cities for Modern Library. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Immigrants and the Recall
Who would have thought that a recall campaign built around the energy and budget crises might end up being decided by attitudes toward immigrants? Yet that may be what happens on Election Day. The controversy over a new law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented residents may reframe the election around the under-the-surface issue of 1990s California: How do we feel about how immigration has changed California? How might the injection of this issue affect Jewish voting in the recall election? Perhaps the last time immigration dominated a statewide election might be a place to look for answers.
The immigration issue burst into state politics in 1994 when unpopular Republican Gov. Pete Wilson used Proposition 187, a measure to deny public services to undocumented residents, to save his reelection. In a famous commercial, shadowy pictures of immigrants apparently crossing the border, with the caption: "They keep coming." Proposition 187 passed 2-1, and Wilson survived.
What saved Wilson devastated Republicans statewide; Latinos came to view Proposition 187 as an assault on their own community. A million new Latino voters joined the California electorate in the 1990s, and Pete Wilson remains an unwelcome name in Latino households. Wilson delivered California to the Democrats, as Latino participation powered Democrats to statewide victories and a sweep of all state offices in 2002.
Proposition 187 created new coalition patterns in California. Previously, conflict over the role of African Americans had structured much of party politics. But with Proposition 187, the role of Latino immigrants emerged as a new and critical cleavage. The strongest opposition to 187 came from Latinos who voted against it 77-23 percent. African Americans, pressured by demographic changes in their own neighborhoods, were ambivalent, but only 47 percent favored the proposition. Not surprisingly, the strongest support for Proposition 187 came from whites (especially men), conservatives and Republicans, all of whom provided huge margins in favor. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, 78 percent of Republicans and conservatives and 63 percent of all whites backed it.
Jews were quite different from other whites, and only 45 percent voted for Proposition 187. Most Jewish organizations spoke out against it. The fact, however, that a minority of African Americans and Jews were to some degree drawn to the reaction against immigration showed how sensitive and volatile the issue was in those days. Yet for neither group did Proposition 187 become the wedge to remove them from the Democratic Party loyalty they have shown since.
The recall election is already polarizing white voters, particularly Republicans on one side, and minority voters, mostly Democrats, on the other. Independent candidates are becoming irrelevant, and the partisan, ideological, racial and ethnic lines are emerging with full clarity. The driver’s license issue will keep driving those wedges into the electorate, particularly as Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to strengthen his shaky hold on Republican conservatives and Cruz Bustamante seeks to maximize his support from Latinos. Each has something to gain. Schwarzenegger, having avoided debates and specifics on important matters of state policy, can take a visible position on an issue without alienating conservatives. Bustamante can try to reach the minority of Latino voters who currently say they may vote for Schwarzenegger.
If the battle is close, white Democrats (and especially Jews) might hold the balance of power. Historically race and ethnicity have proven to be the most reliable ways to move white voters from the Democratic to the Republican column. Democratic candidates have to struggle to win enough white votes to overcome this effect, and Jewish support has therefore been crucial to Democratic candidates. Jews have been more resistant than other whites to these race-based appeals, but have on occasion leaned rightward.
Jews are likely to vote in their usual disproportionate numbers, and in this intensely fought election a high-turnout voting group is exceptionally important. And, as usual, in racially tinged political battles, Jews will be somewhere between the minority and the white position. How far along either path Jewish voters travel on Election Day, may determine this historic election.
Driver’s licenses may be the path to a Republican takeover of the governor’s office. But that road has perils for Republicans as well. Nowadays, dreaming of California as it was before immigration seems out of place. Members of both parties in Congress are debating proposals to normalize the status of undocumented workers. In that context, driver’s licenses are hardly far away anyway. Republicans are desperate to win support from Latino voters as they worriedly examine census data showing the declining demographic power of their largely white voting base. But Republicans should also be concerned that appeals to their own conservative and in some cases nativist voters, perhaps nostalgic for a white-dominated California of years past, will not endear them to Jewish voters, either.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.
Selling Israel to Progressive Latinos
Although progressives’ cause-of-the-month is criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, it has been endemic in the Latino left for years.
These progressive Latinos claim solidarity between themselves and Palestinians based on their supposed shared experience of being "people of color" resisting an invading "white" conqueror. Many Latino student organizations have formed alliances with Muslim and Arab groups in support of Palestinians, while rarely acknowledging Jewish groups, and often standing in direct opposition to them. The Palestinian-Latino left relationship is so entrenched that in the 1980s, for example, members of La Raza Unida Party (a Chicano political party) sent a delegation to meet with Yasser Arafat to discuss their respective situations.
This stance in and of itself is not anti-Israel, although it can easily be construed as such when fringe groups like La Voz de Aztlán are mistaken as an accurate reflection of the sentiments of the Latino community. But Latino students’ championing of the Palestinian cause should cause concern for Jews, since the end result can be an entire generation of Latinos who equate Israel with a terrorist state not worthy of existing.
As a young Latino progressive, I believe in the state of Israel, despite what I feel to be sometimes unfair actions towards Palestinians. I’m sure that many of my peers who protest against Israel and claim allegiance with Palestinians would feel the same way I do if they knew the special ties between them and the Jews, and how the ideal of Israel can serve as an example for us and our parents. This week, with the opening of the Latino-Jewish festival, would be a good time to start.
Amid a Southern California demographics change of increasing Latinos, and with more Latinos involving themselves in politics, it is imperative on the behalf of Jews to show Latinos why Israel is important. Moralistic and theological arguments are not enough; the best way to do this, is for Jews to reconnect with a community that they have largely ignored for decades and emphasize still-salient ties. Latino-Jewish relations are currently at the point where each side has a set construct of the other community, making it complicated and nearly impossible to understand each groups’ special issues. If Latinos and Jews cannot relate on a personal level, then how can Latinos be expected to support an idea as complicated and special as Israel?
Each side’s respective dehumanization of the other must be changed before any discussion of Israel is brought into discussion. Many Latinos stereotype Jews as uncaring Westside socialites who never bother to venture into the Latino sections of Los Angeles. Conversely, some Jews see Latinos as unmotivated Third World migrants and are weary of their growing political clout.
One starting point in breaking down these stereotypes is pointing out the likeness of the Latino and Jewish immigrant experience. Like their Eastern European Jewish counterparts of the 20th century, Latino immigrants today flee repressive regimes and horrific economic conditions in search of a better life in the United States. By each side taking note of this, Jews can better understand the current situation of many Latinos, and Latinos can view the Jewish success story as an assimilation model to emulate.
Having connected on such a personal and historical level, Jews can start explaining Israel in an immigrant context that can be better appreciated by Latinos. For example, Jews have always raised money to support Israel. Many Latino immigrants, likewise, remit much of their hard-earned pay to improve living conditions in their home countries. But Israel is rarely depicted as an immigrant project and Latinos instead have to navigate through mainstream media reports of American government (as opposed to community) funding for Israel. If Latinos were to know the individual monetary (not to mention personal) investment proffered by Jewish Americans to Israel, Latinos would be much more concerned about its gradual destruction, since the parallel between Israel and their home countries would be unmistakable.
Viewed this way, the actual meaning of Israel will become a common theme that can be considered a shared ideal for both groups. Dispossession from their ancestral homelands is a central tenet of the Jewish and Latino experience, and Jews have managed to stake a claim to what was once theirs. Though Latinos are not seeking a homeland for themselves, they nevertheless pine for the land of their youth, back before it was ravaged by revolutionary and economic chaos. Emphasizing Israel as the culmination of an immigrant dream, rather than a God-mandated search, would play much better for overwhelmingly Christian Latinos who could care less about the religious aspect of Israel.
To make all of these points possible, the historical Jewish-Latino relationship in this city — one that has been largely forgotten by both sides — must be renewed. The barbed-wire fence surrounding the still-magnificent Breed Street shul is the only reminder for today’s Latinos that Jews once lived among them in Boyle Heights. Jews forget that their support of councilmember-turned-Congressman Ed Roybal, during the 1950s, was one of the first indicators of Jewish political influence in traditionally anti-Semitic Los Angeles, and also paved the way for other cross-ethnic coalitions that continued up to last year’s mayoral race. Though inroads have been reestablished by the Jewish and Latino elite, the common communities on both sides must be included in this dialogue in order to begin having a fuller understanding of Israel by all — most importantly, the students.
It’s up to American Jews themselves to reach out and teach us in the Latino community. If they don’t, then Jews shouldn’t be surprised when they see a young Latina claiming she is a Palestinian, denouncing Israel as a terrorist state.
Is Demography Destiny?
The new U.S. census figures have generated banner headlines this month, though no one seems to have a clue what those numbers portend. The big news, of course, is that America’s Latino population has ballooned almost 60 percent in the past decade, surpassing 35 million. More than 43 percent of Californians younger than 18 are now Hispanic, compared with about 35 percent a decade ago. In both the city and county of Los Angeles, Latinos have replaced whites as the largest ethnic group.
"The Anglo hegemony was only an intermittent phase in California’s arc of identity, extending from the arrival of the Spanish," Kevin Starr, the state librarian, told The New York Times. "The Hispanic nature of California has been there all along, and it was temporarily swamped between the 1880s and the 1960s, but that was an aberration."
Since most Jews are white, we find ourselves being a kind of minority squared, a minority within this new white minority. But Jewish groups have long seen this trend coming. They began their outreach to the Latino community years ago and have stepped up efforts in the recent past. What they have discovered is a community much more complex than the demographers’ numbers would lead us to believe. The word Latino hardly describes the tremendous linguistic, cultural, economic, political and national diversity of the region’s "non-white Hispanics." In Los Angeles, demography is not destiny but a test, perhaps a triumph, of democracy.
Now consider Israel. There are 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and 300,000 Jews. For Israel to incorporate largely Palestinian areas would mean the certain dissipation of the Jewish character of the state, either through the democratic process or by enforcing an apartheid-like hegemony over a non-Jewish majority. Thus Israeli leaders from Yitzchak Rabin to Benjamin Netanyahu have sought out a compromise with Palestinians that would essentially trade land for security. The United States’ former lead Mideast negotiator, Dennis Ross, has said that demographics makes an eventual rapprochement and agreement inevitable, although Yasser Arafat seems determined to prove him wrong.
On Saturday night we’ll read the Passover story. "Behold," said Pharaoh, "the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply." If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know "dealing wisely" was Pharaoh’s way of saying, "Kill them." So Moses led us away, to multiply elsewhere. Does Arafat see himself as Pharoah, hoping to drive the Children of Israel into the sea? Or does he imagine himself Moses, leading a tribe that will eventually outnumber its enemy? In Israel, demography is destiny.
These refelctions on head-counting come at a time when human genome decoders have determined that at the genetic level, the concept of race is scientifically meaningless. "Race is a social concept, not a scientific one," Dr. J. Craig Venter, head of the Celera Genomics Corporation in Rockville, Md. told The Times. "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world." It turns out that .01 percent of our genes is reflected in our external appearance: in other words, in our obvious Black-ness, Caucasian-ness or Latino-ness.
Jews, of course, are not a race, despite Hitler’s best efforts to categorize and exterminate us as one. We belong to a religion and a culture that embraces all races. There are black Jews and Latino Jews, and though the mind boggles, there is nothing other than a century of animosity to prevent there being Palestinian Arab Jews as well. To be a Jew is not, at the end of the day, a question of race, nationality, skin color, genetics or birth. It is a matter of what you believe and how you behave.
In this light, the admonition of the ancient rabbis against counting Jews seems sublime. When all the head-tallying and label-fixing is over, we must remember that quantity is less important than quality. In the end, it is not bodies that matter most, but souls.
A Nanny’s Story
There are a thousand stories in the naked city of Los Angeles, but when it comes to nannies, there are at least a million – nannies who have a free reign of the household, nannies who make good salaries, nannies who get help from their employers to buy cars or put a down payment on a house. But there are the other stories as well – the nanny who works long hours for little pay, with no holidays, no sick days, no breaks. “I knew when I was here without papers, I didn’t deserve to be here,” says nanny Carmen Davis, “but still, that didn’t mean I deserved to be treated without respect.”
Davis, 33, from Colima, Mexico, is registered with Nana’s World, “the best professional service for all your domestic needs,” in Sherman Oaks, owned and operated by Esther Matalon, a Sephardic Jew from Chile. Matalon is a straight talking, tough-minded businesswomen who has built her agency from the ground up, placing Latinos, Israelis and east Europeans in well-off families from the Valley to Pacific Palisades; about half her clients are Jewish. Since she started in business 14 years ago, she has seen her employees walk a thin line between the good, the bad, and the ugly – between trust and mistrust, between closeness and contempt.
“There should be a code of respect for nan-nies,” she says. “If [an employer] trusts a nanny enough to take care of his children, then he should trust [her] as a person. They should treat her like a human being,” Matalon says in a challenge to her clients.
The story about Davis is a happy one, although she admits it wasn’t always that way. Through Matalon, she worked for three years with a Jewish family in Agoura Hills, one of the best job experiences she ever had.From day one, Carmen’s employers (who wished to remain anonymous for this article) tried to make Carmen feel at home. “They really cared about me, always asking about my family, always nice and polite about the way they treated me,” Davis says. “If I got sick and needed to have a day off, or whatever, they understood.”
Davis’ employer felt the same way. “I hired her because her attitude was upbeat and because of her philosophy – that the child was the most important thing. We developed a really close bond. She gave my [child] a real comfort zone – safe and secure. My wife never worried once when she was at work.”Davis, who is married with no children, began her day at 5:30 a.m. to arrive at work by 7:30 a.m. She started right in. “I would feed the baby, change her diaper, play with her, take her for a walk,” Davis recounts. “When she was growing up, we would go to the park. We made a lot of friends there.”
In the park, Davis and her young charge would find five to seven other nannies with young children to play with. The majority of the nannies Davis met were Latino live-ins who worked for Jewish families. Most were without papers and spoke little English. Their situation was different from Davis’, who had a car, spoke English and insisted on time off to go to school (she is studying child development and English).These nannies worked from early in the morning until late at night, often getting up during the middle of the night to care for children. They had no time for themselves, no paid sick days, no holidays off and no privacy. They were expected to clean the house as well. All for $30 to $50 a day.
One of the women in particular, Davis says, was staying on, not because she liked the family, but because she didn’t want to leave the children. “The family didn’t treat her bad, but they didn’t really care for her. They didn’t even realize how good she was. If I was the mom, I wouldn’t even be able to pay for the love and care she put into those kids.”
How much, then, does a good nanny cost? Matalon reveals that a typical salary for a nanny who owns a car and has papers ranges from $500 to $750. For nannies without papers and with little English, a typical salary can fall as low as $150 to $250 a week. (Matalon’s minimum is $200.)
Davis commanded the top-of-the-line salary. For her friends at the park, though, she realized their options were limited, as hers had once been.
“Once I worked for a lady [when I was first here and spoke little English]… I said, ‘You know what, you make a lot of mess in the morning when you make breakfast; you make a lot of mess at noon when you make lunch (and I wasn’t making this up either) and you eat dinner really late; I can’t stay up this late and get up really early, so we have to have a schedule here.’
“She said, ‘Well, I hired you as a live-in nanny,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but I don’t have to stay up this late.’
She got really upset and told me if I didn’t like this job I could go look for something else. I said, ‘Okay, if that’s the way you want it.’ I went to my room, and less than an hour later, she [knocked on my door] and said, ‘You know, I’m sorry, you were right.’ “
Davis contemplates a few unalienable rights she would like to see granted to nannies, even if they don’t have papers or speak English.
“Give us a separate room. Provide for us food. Make a schedule for the nanny. Just because you have a live-in nanny doesn’t mean she is available 24 hours a day. We should have sick days, a paid vacation. Why not? Nannies like holidays, too.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re trapped. Employers should have flexibility. Once I worked for a woman who wouldn’t let me do anything. I asked her if I could go for a walk after I had finished my work. She said ‘No. I might need you.’ I told her, ‘Once I put the kids to bed, it’s my own time. You know what, I’m not a slave.'”
Latinos and Jews
Sunday, March 12. It’s a warm, sunny day. A wonderful day to drive up to Malibu. So why am I sitting here in Wilshire Boulevard Temple/West listening to six earnest men? They seem intent on telling me (and others assembled here) how important and necessary it is for Jews and Latinos in L.A. to come together.
Jews and Latino’s share many things, Xavier Becerra, the Congressman from L.A.’s 30th district, who just returned from an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel, reminds us. Some in our communities must deal with immigration and with English as a second language. We each have a deep concern for our families and for the elderly in our midst. But we live apart, a great geographic divide separating us, almost as though we were citizens of different countries.
He’s right of course. The other panelists are also bright and appealing — Antonio Villaraigosa, the speaker of the State Assembly (he and Becerra are running for mayor in the 2001 election); Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, American Jewish Committee West Coast director; Dr. Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute; David Abel, a political activist who is also chair of Speaker Villaraigosa’s Commission on Government Finance; and Steven Windmueller, director of Communal Services at HUC (actually a keynote speaker).
They all explain why we need to connect more. That our hope is in joining together. We Jews have organization, wealth, political savvy. We have clout. But the Latinos have the numbers, and they are organizing. We have much to offer one another. And of course there is the unspoken: Perhaps one day soon they will overtake us.
There are maybe 40 people who have forsaken sun to gather together. My subversive side peeks out. Why am I here, I write in my notebook.
The forum, to be sure, is filled with high purpose and ringing words. But the more words I hear, the wider the chasm appears. I look around. People seem interested, but the numbers are small. Several weeks ago more than 400 gathered to listen to academics and a few rabbis discuss intermarriage and Jewish identity at USC’s Institute for the Study of Jewish Life in America. I see few academics here. Few leaders from the different Jewish communities; few from The Jewish Federation, Michael Hirschfeld, director of The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, a notable exception. I know: It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and those not here are wisely spending the day with family and friends.
Lots of words, I scribble in my notebook. But not much that’s going to set us on the road towards friendship; or deep connections. Nothing I hear sounds as though it will change my relationship with anyone in the Latino community, unless I decide to work for the election of Becerra or Villaraigosa.
I rationalize my impatience: I have a low tolerance for pep talks and exhortation. I want something focused more on action, on concrete suggestions that I can argue or agree with; something with an outcome. I jot down some of my own thoughts. I offer these to the panelists.
1) Let the JCRC have joint Latino-Jewish programs on a regular basis, with guest speakers (which already occurs), but also with many Latinos present in the audience. A joint session means something more than Latino and Jewish speakers. It means an assembly of men and women, Jewish and Latino, sharing ideas, points of view and a kosher lunch.
What can we discuss? Education and ways to teach English as a second language. Problems with the INS. The Rampart Division scandal. Also, if we must, the Pope, the Catholic church and the Holocaust.
2) Develop a set of programs, especially for children, at the Jewish Community Centers in the Valley and in L.A. Don’t just announce that the Center is open to all people who live nearby. Initiate after-school activities and recruit children and families within the different Latino communities.
3) Work with the Israeli consul general. He wishes to launch an outreach program directed towards Latinos. The realpolitik here has to do with Israel and Latin America. Cultural contact seems to be the wedge that Consul General Yuval Rotem has in mind. Rotem’s new director of Cultural Affairs, Kobi Oshrat-Ventura, has a Sephardic background and is eager to engage the Latino artistic community. Here universities, art galleries, the Skirball, USC’s Jewish Studies Institute look like appropriate venues.
4) Embark upon joint school endeavors. Take as a model The Milken School and the Israeli schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, who now have student exchanges, weekly e-mail communications (as part of the school curriculum), and joint planning on the part of teachers.
5) Arrange for the Latino schoolchildren to interview their Jewish counterparts (along with their families) and produce a documentary about Jewish lives; and of course engage the Jewish students in a similar way, so that they produce a documentary depicting their view of the Latino world. That’s a starting point for dialogue and interaction.
6) Instead of serious Sundays attending to a panel of smart, thoughtful men explaining what we need to do, perhaps we could actually engage with one another directly. Even in a modest way. Maybe organize monthly Sunday brunches in private homes, so that we cross borders. One month a Jewish, the next a Latino home. Keep the same core groups, but expand them each month. It’s called developing social networks. I’ll come on a sunny Sunday afternoon; heck, I’ll even give one of the brunches… outdoors. — Gene Lichtenstein