Eric Garcetti: A new Jewish face for L.A.?
During a recent candidates’ forum at Sinai Temple, Los Angeles City Councilman and mayoral hopeful Eric Garcetti began his opening statement by thanking his hosts, the audience, and the moderator, Rabbi David Wolpe.
“It was wonderful to be here for High Holidays,” Garcetti said, “and it’s great to see this room, which I’ve come to for so many dinners and events, filled with folks … who care about politics.”
Garcetti may speak with the eloquence befitting a former Rhodes Scholar and demonstrate the manners of a naval reserve officer, but one longtime member of Sinai Temple didn’t like what she heard.
“He’s not Jewish,” said Eileen Hinkes, who said she was leaning towards the lone Republican in the race, Kevin James. “I think he [Garcetti] played the ‘Jewish card’ to try to appeal to this audience. ”
Garcetti is the son of a Jewish mother and a father whose parents were Italian- and Mexican-American, and he identifies as both Jewish and Latino. He has been to Israel on multiple occasions, and he’s a frequent attendee at IKAR, an independent congregation in Los Angeles. Still, the experience of having his identity questioned isn’t new.
“Growing up with an Italian last name, I think a lot of people thought I was neither Mexican nor Jewish,” Garcetti said in an interview a few days after the Jan. 29 debate. “This is who I am. If I left politics tomorrow, I’d still be eating what I eat, talking to my family the way I do, worshipping the way I do.”
Garcetti, 42, is one of three candidates claiming some type of Jewish identity in the race to be Los Angeles’s next mayor. The others are City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who converted to Judaism as an adult and City Controller Wendy Greuel, who is married to a Jewish man and is a member of a synagogue. In campaign appearances, all three have emphasized their commitment to L.A.’s Jews, a small but disproportionately influential segment of the citizenry that could cast as much as 20 percent of the votes in the citywide primary election on March 5.
Running against two longtime City Hall colleagues, Garcetti’s argument is that he is best able to spur economic growth in the city. In his 12 years representing the 13th district in City Council, including six as Council president, Garcetti said he “has not shied away from tough decisions in tough times.”
“You could stand by the sidelines, which might have been politically easier, or you could jump in and actually do things, like pension reform and reducing the number of people who work on the city payrolls, and bring down our costs,” Garcetti said, referring to a September 2012 plan that reduced benefits and raised the retirement age for newly hired city workers. “And I did that.”
At a time when the city is facing an estimated $222 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year, Garcetti still believes things are less bad than they were before actions taken by city council improved the situation.
Garcetti takes credit for enacting some reforms to pensions for future city hires and reducing the number of employees paid by the city’s general fund, which have helped narrow the budget deficit.
For the city to close the gap, Garcetti said L.A. needs to focus on economic growth and not just cut costs or tax more. But similarly, Perry’s campaign slogan (“Tough enough to make Los Angeles work again”) hits the same theme, and Greuel has said that her number one priority is, “jobs, jobs jobs.”
To differentiate himself, Garcetti has touted his work in fostering development in Hollywood, one of 12 neighborhoods in the council district he represents. Hollywood has grown dramatically during Garcetti’s tenure in office, and though some have criticized aspects of the neighborhood’s transformation – the complaints include gentrification that pushed out some long-time residents and dramatically increased traffic — Garcetti claims the public favors the development that has taken root there, and he has overseen approval of plans for more building in the future.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who know the Hollywood of 15 years ago who say that its not better today,” Garcetti said, referring to the dramatic decrease in gang activity in the neighborhoods, as well as more and better restaurants and entertainment venues.
Until recently, Garcetti has refrained from attacking his opponents — perhaps because he was holding a narrow lead over Greuel according to some polls – but he dismissed Greuel’s claim to have identified $160 million in wasteful and fraudulent spending.
Garcetti presents himself as a native son, and not just of a single neighborhood, but of the city in all its diversity.
“My dad grew up in South L.A.,” Garcetti said of former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti. “My great-grandparents and grandparents grew up in Boyle Heights; my mom grew up in West L.A.; I grew up in the San Fernando Valley; now I live in the heart of the city. There’s not a part of this city I can go to without feeling a direct connection.”
In his district, Garcetti said he has tripled the number of parks for his constituents, from 16 when he took office to 48 today, and he says he’s running for mayor because he’s “dissatisfied” with the state of Los Angeles and wants to make Los Angeles great again – which is how it felt to him as a teenager in Encino in the 1980s.
“It was a place where you felt like anything was possible; nothing held you back,” he said, sitting on a bench in Historic Filipinotown, in one of the new parks he helped to create. And while L.A. in the ’80s had “big problems,” including segregated schools and a police department that wasn’t representative of the city, Garcetti said, “what we did have was real middle-class opportunities.”
To bring back some of those opportunities, Garcetti is hoping to improve the city’s infrastructure – in public appearances, he’s talked about the possibility of tunneling under the 405 Freeway to bring public transit through the Sepulveda Pass – while also improving its business climate. And if he becomes mayor (Garcetti tends to start his sentences like that with the word “when”), he said he’ll aim to emulate mayors of other great American cities, like New York’s Michael Bloomberg.
“I love his conscience and his storytelling ability, and I like Rahm’s fearlessness,” Garcetti said, referring to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Then he went on to mention Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whom he called “a very dear friend,” saying “I like the way he has connected government to people’s daily lives.”
In his essence, despite his long political career, Garcetti comes across still as a clean-cut former professor (he taught international relations at Occidental, and USC) with an impressive academic pedigree (with degrees from Columbia and Oxford). He has won over some business leaders even as he courts support from organized labor and emphasizes his environmentalist and progressive agenda. Garcetti also is running as an incumbent against the backdrop of high unemployment – barely below 10 percent in Los Angeles County. As is often required of a candidate, even as Garcetti stays on message, he does a lot of code switching, or shifting between languages, depending on his audience.
As a result, Garcetti’s multifaceted identity has tripped up some members of the communities whose heritage he shares. Assembly Speaker John Pérez, who has endorsed Greuel, told KPCC in December, “There isn’t a Latino candidate running for mayor that I know of.”
But to watch Garcetti on the trail is to see someone at ease with the boundaries he’s crossing. In October 2012, during a conversation on stage with an African-American radio host and marketer, Garcetti briefly showed off a few breakdance moves, which he said he had honed in middle school. (Garcetti didn’t mention the school’s name — he graduated from the tony boys’ prep school that later became Harvard-Westlake.) Garcetti has been known to speak fluently in Spanish during interviews on Spanish-language TV, and Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek endorsed him with videos both in English and her native tongue.
“To be an effective mayor you have to be able to cross borders every single day,” Garcetti said. “Demographic, income, geographic, ethnic boundaries and feel comfortable and fluent everywhere.”
Mexican cousin of Ben-Gurion is newest Jewish star
Mexican singer Adam Kleinberg, a distant cousin of David Ben-Gurion, became the Jewish world’s newest star.
Kleinberg, 21, whose great-grandmother was Ben-Gurion’s first cousin, beat out 30 finalists from around the world to win the Hallelujah music contest. He sang the song “Zeh Lo Kal,” or “It’s Not Easy” by Israeli band HaYehudim.
The finals were held on Aug. 25 in front of a live audience in Hod Hasharon.
The 30 finalists spent three weeks in Israel touring and performing.
Some 260 Jewish young people ages 16-26 from around the world submitted video auditions for the contest, resurrected after nearly 20 years.
Kleinberg won the top prize of $8,000 and will record a duet with a popular Israeli singer; the song will be distributed to Jewish radio stations throughout the world. He will also go on tour, singing in Jewish venues around the world.
Oliver Ghnassia, 20, from Brussels, was the first runner-up, and David Kobiashvili of Russia came in third place. They were awarded $4,000 and $2,000 respectively.
‘Accidental Mexican’ Ilan Stavans probes cultural identity in first play
As an “accidental Mexican” born to an Eastern European family, author and essayist Ilan Stavans has hurdled critics to become one of the nation’s foremost commentators on Latino culture. As a Mexican American, he has written widely on immigration, the clash and fusion of languages and the quest for acceptance.
As a Jewish Mexican American, he has made himself a wrecking ball aimed at the walls — literal and imagined — that make virtual strangers of his varied ethnic roots.
“I’m very interested in borders or the absence thereof,” said Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. “We live in a world where every country is perfectly delineated with lines, where we can have fences or where we can have helicopters and dogs and patrols. To what degree are those borders replicated in our minds? How do we cross a border that is fictional or imaginary, or do we carry them with us forever?”
Cultural identity and the roles people play for the sake of assimilation are themes Stavans probed in his 2005 short story, “The Disappearance,” which follows a Jewish Belgian actor who seemingly fakes his own kidnapping by a neo-Nazi group. Stavans last year partnered with Massachusetts theater group, Double Edge Theatre, to adapt the story into a play, which will premiere at the Skirball Cultural Center Oct. 16-17.
The production marks the first time Stavans has helped adapt one of his works for performance — an endeavor inspired, in part, by the performer he’s known longest.
“It all comes from having seen my father at the theater. He was very influential for me,” said Stavans, who, as a child, watched his father become a popular stage and soap opera star in Mexico City. “I don’t feel that I have cut loose from my past — I feel that my past is still with me. I have spent my entire life as a writer trying to return to it.”
Stavans’ grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland and Ukraine, escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism. They wanted to settle in the United States, but strict immigration quotas pushed them south. Stavans grew up in Copilco, a multiethnic, middle-class enclave in the southern part of Mexico City, and attended a Yiddish-language school.
Being one of a handful of Jewish people in his neighborhood was sometimes difficult.
“On the one hand, it made me feel special and unique, but it also made me feel vulnerable,” Stavans said. “I grew up with a sense of being a minority — that just by accident, I was Mexican. We were Jewish because our ancestors were Jewish, but we were Mexican because someone had put his or her finger on the map and said, ‘We need to escape; let’s go here.'”
Stavans dabbled in filmmaking and theater and began writing novels. He dropped out of college and traveled in Europe and Israel but never felt comfortable calling either place home. Back in Mexico, he got his bachelor’s degree from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in 1984. At age 25, he moved to New York City to pursue the life of an intellectual. But the transition wasn’t easy.
“When I came to this country, I became an altogether different person,” Stavans said. “I was never a Mexican in Mexico; I was a Jew. Upon arriving to the U.S., and particularly to New York City, I somewhat magically ceased to be Jewish. All of a sudden, I became Mexican.”
Amid shifting ethnic labels, Stavans also grappled with the newest piece of his cultural puzzle: being an American. He dove into academics, earning graduate degrees at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. An Amherst professor since 1993, he has, over the years, built a reputation as a prolific writer, lexicographer, translator and cultural analyst.
Throughout his career, Stavans said he has been criticized “a million times” by both Latinos and Jews, who claim he isn’t an authentic enough face for either culture to act as its spokesperson.
“I’m an appetizing target because I’m not your standard Latino or your stereotypical Jew,” he admitted. “But criticism is a source of energy. As long as you present work that is grounded, responsibly structured and aesthetically refined, criticism simply means that the work matters.”
Stavans’ numerous books include “The Hispanic Condition: The Power of a People” (1995), the autobiography “On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language” (2001), “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” (2003) and the newly released “Resurrecting Hebrew” (2008), which chronicles the revival of the language in the late 1800s by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Stavans also edited “The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories” (1998), “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda” (2003) and the three-volume “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories” (2005), among others.
His short story, “Morirse Está en Hebreo,” was recently adapted as the 2007 feature film, “My Mexican Shivah,” in which his father, Abraham Stavans, had a role.
Not bad for an exile who didn’t even pick up English until his mid-20s.
“I feel very close to the Jewish diasporic tradition that traverses borders, both with countries and languages,” Stavans said. “There is something within Jews that defies established borders — or maybe that is inspired by them — to break them, to go beyond them. Diaspora is in our blood; it’s the source of our intellectual and spiritual sustenance. We can carry in our books the DNA that will keep that Jewishness alive through the next diaspora.”
The question for Stavans is how that Jewishness might be expressed.
Fictional actor Maarten Soëtendrop glides from stage to stage at the peak of his success in Stavans’ “The Disappearance.”
The Belgian population goes into an uproar when the Jewish actor is kidnapped by a band of neo-Nazis, reappearing 18 days later in an alley, bloody and beaten. But when Soëtendrop — a Holocaust survivor — confesses to plotting the whole scheme, suspicions swirl over his intentions, his past and whether, in a larger sense, Jews can ever find stable footing as perpetual outsiders in foreign cultures.
“I wanted to address the ghosts that Jews carry within themselves when living in a country where we are a minority,” Stavans said. “I wanted to explore the changing nature of Jewish identity — how do we react to the environment? Are we hypocrites because we keep one truth for ourselves and present another truth to society at large?”
The work is based on the true story of a prominent Belgian actor, Jules Croiset, whose self-staged kidnapping Stavans read about in The New York Times in 1988.
The story’s themes of secrecy and betrayal appealed to Stacy Klein, founder and artistic director of Double Edge Theatre, who wanted to collaborate with Stavans after reading some of his material.
Klein invited Stavans to see the Ashfield, Mass., group’s interpretation of “Don Quixote” in 2006. At the beginning of the piece, Stavans recalled, the performers staged a bonfire in which they were burning books.
“They knew I was going to come to that particular performance, and they put on top of that pile of books three or four of my own books,” he said. “I was shocked to see that my books were being burnt right in front of my eyes. It was a very provocative statement. I thought what they were doing was quite interesting and a relationship started.”
Stavans attended several Double Edge rehearsals, sometimes taking part in their improvisations.
“The shaping of the play was very untraditional,” he said. “Rather than the writer sitting in his office and deciding where to start, I gathered everyone in the troupe, read my story and each of the actors began improvising different aspects of the story.”
Not only is Double Edge’s production of “The Disappearance” Stavans’ first theatrical adaptation, but it will also serve as the author’s acting debut — Stavans said he plans to join the cast onstage during select dates in roles he won’t reveal beforehand. “It’s going to be a surprise for the audience,” he said.
After an engagement at the Skirball Cultural Center the show will travel to Legnica, Poland, and New York City.
On Oct. 15, also at the Skirball, Stavans will give a lecture titled, “Who Stole the Statue of Liberty? Immigration in America Today,” in which he will discuss the modern immigration experience.
For tickets or more information, call (877) 722-4849.
Oy Caramba! Serve a Simcha Fiesta
Your special family simcha (celebration) is just around the corner and you aren’t feeling enthusiastic — the caterer’s offerings feel predictable, and the room you’ve rented seems impersonal.
Whether you’re organizing a bris, congratulating a bar or bat mitzvah, welcoming a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law into the family or celebrating a birthday or anniversary, honoring the people we love in an inviting, intimate setting with exquisite food is one of the best gifts someone can give. Choosing to hold your celebration at home is to select the warmest venue of all.
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, chefs and co-owners of Border Grill and Ciudad restaurants, are big advocates of entertaining at home.
“If you want to have a really special party, where everyone will feel not only loved and appreciated but comfortable and relaxed, decorate the house with bright, happy colors and serve them Mexican food,” Milliken said. “It puts people in the mood for a party.”
South-of-the-border cuisine is the perfect fit for at-home celebrations — it’s colorful and conducive to being shared.
Dress your dining room in oranges, greens, reds, blues and yellows. Cover the table with a bright tablecloth and add an earthenware tureen of pimento red, richly flavored tortilla soup; a cast-iron kettle of glistening black beans; piping hot, multiflavored tortillas nestled in a hand-painted tortilla warmer; twin bowls of red and green rice; a brightly colored platter of halibut Veracruzana; an assortment of red, yellow and green salsas; and handmade reed baskets of quinoa fritters, with a bowl of Mexican red Romesco sauce. Also, don’t forget the different fillings, toppings and stacks of tortillas clumped together at a special interactive taco-making table.
Olvera Street or local Mexican art stores, such as Artesanias Oaxaquenas in Santa Monica, have authentic paper flowers and ethnic accessories.
“Orchestrate your party. When guests arrive, serve them cool drinks and hot and cold appetizers. Guests are more forgiving if they have a drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other,” Milliken said.
Welcome them with refreshing watermelon lemonade, horchata and margaritas — alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions. Pass trays of appetizers and scatter additional offerings about the room — miniature tacos and tamales, guacamole and salsas.
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless fillets of halibut, sea bass, snapper or other firm-fleshed fish, cut in four portions
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 serrano chilis, stemmed and sliced in 1/4-inch disks
1/2 cup lime juice
1 tomato, cored, seeded and cut in strips
1/2 bunch (1/4 cup) fresh oregano leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup Spanish green olives, sliced
1/2 cup white wine
3/4 cup fish stock
Season fish fillets evenly with salt and pepper. Heat one very large skillet or two medium skillets over medium-high heat for a minute; coat pans with olive oil.
Add fillets and turn heat to very high. Sear until golden brown, about two minutes, then flip to sear the other side, about one minute. Transfer fillets to a rack over a plate to catch the juices; reserve.
Return the pan (or pans) to high heat. Add onion and sauté, stirring frequently for one minute or until it starts to brown. Add garlic, chili slices, lime juice, tomatoes, oregano and olives and sauté briskly for an additional minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by half.
Pour in fish stock, bring to boil and reduce to a simmer. Return fish fillets, along with their juices, to the pan. Cover and cook gently for two minutes or longer, depending on thickness of fillets. Taste broth and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Serve with a generous puddle of broth and garnish of vegetables.
Makes four servings.
5 garlic cloves, peeled
10 Roma tomatoes, cored and quartered
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 cups vegetable stock
1 dried chipotle chili, stemmed and seeded (optional)
3/4 pound tortilla chips
Garnishes: 1 bunch (1/2 cup) cilantro leaves; 1 avocado, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped; 1/2 cup Crema; 2 limes, cut in wedges
Puree garlic and tomatoes in a blender until smooth. Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over low heat. Add the onion, salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until pale brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Stir in tomato puree and cook 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently.
Pour in vegetable stock and add chipotle chili (if desired). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Stir in tortilla chips and cook 10 minutes longer, until chips soften. Remove and discard chili.
Serve hot, with cilantro, avocado, Crema, lime wedges and some extra-crisp fried tortilla chips for adding at the table.
Makes six servings.
Quinoa Fritters with Romesco Sauce
These delicious fritters may be made ahead, frozen and reheated.
2/3 cup quinoa, preferably organic
1 1/3 cups water
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup grated Spanish manchego, romano or parmesan cheese
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
4 scallions, white and light green parts, finely chopped
1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup vegetable oil
Lemon wedges for juice
Wash the quinoa and drain well. Place a small, dry saucepan over high heat. Add the quinoa and toast, shaking and stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent scorching, about five minutes. Transfer to a large saucepan and add water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook covered until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, combine quinoa, flour, cheese and salt. Add scallions, basil, egg and yolk. Blend thoroughly with a mixing spoon until mixture has consistency of soft dough.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. With your hands, roll dough into walnut-sized balls and press to form small cakes.
Fry until the bottoms are golden brown, less than a minute. Turn and fry the second side until golden. Drain on paper towels. Drizzle with a lemon juice; serve with Romesco for dipping.
Makes 18 pieces.
2 large, thick slices of country bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup red-wine vinegar
1/3 cup blanched almonds, toasted to golden
1 1/2 red peppers, roasted and peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tomato, cored, seeded and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup olive oil
Soak bread with red-wine vinegar for 10 minutes, pressing to moisten thoroughly, and transfer to a food processor. Add almonds, red pepper, garlic, tomato, salt and pepper and puree until smooth. With the motor running, add olive oil in a thin stream, until mixture is the consistency of a thick creamy sauce. Thin with warm water as necessary.
Serve at room temperature.
Capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1/2 loaf French bread or baguette with crust cut into small cubes
1 pound brown sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 pound tofu or regular cream cheese, chilled and chopped
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch glass casserole or lasagna pan. Melt butter in a medium saucepan, add bread cubes and stir to coat evenly.
Spread cubes on a baking sheet and bake 15 minutes or until lightly brown and crisp. Remove bread and turn oven temperature up to 400 F.
Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Stir in cinnamon and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped apples, walnuts, cream cheese and toasted bread cubes. Drizzle with the reserved sugar syrup and mix to evenly distribute. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan.
Bake uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Then bake an additional five minutes without stirring, until the top is golden brown and crusty and liquid is almost gone. Drizzle with powdered sugar. Serve warm. If desired, plop a dollop of nondairy ice cream on top.
Makes eight to 10 servings.
What could be cooler than a nice, tall glass of iced watermelon lemonade? Serve sandia (Spanish for watermelon) in a clear pitcher to highlight its brilliant color. A garnish of thin lemon slices looks nice against the pink of the juice.
4 cups watermelon chunks, seeded
2-3 tablespoons sugar (to taste)
1/2 cup cold water
5 ice cubes
Juice of 1-2 lemons (to taste)
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Serve over additional ice.
Makes four servings.
All recipes courtesy of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.
What makes a ‘real’ Jew?
After being alive for 16 years, I would think it would be easy to classify myself into a certain category, and that by now I would know what, who and why I am what I am. But as I grow older, it has become more complicated for me to label myself — secular, religious, Jewish American Mexican, Mexican American Jew.
This is probably a result of the fact that the older I get, the more in-depth I learn about my religion and the more I begin to formulate my own thoughts and opinions about it and about myself. While for a long time I have been able to articulate thoughts on certain religious matters, I have to admit that those opinions were, for the most part, strongly or loosely based on those of my parents and teachers. For example, I was a secular Jew because my mother told me that she was a secular Jew. I considered myself to be a Mexican American teenage girl, who happened to be Jewish, as well, because that was the way I was raised. We would celebrate Shabbat when it was convenient to, and would observe only the “famous” Jewish holidays — Chanukah, Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
I considered a Jew to be a person who knew about the Torah, kept kosher, celebrated Shabbat and who went to temple every Friday night — and anyone who did not, was, in my eyes, not a “real” Jew. This consequently meant that I was not a “real” Jew. The thought of this not only made me hate the religion’s standards — which I myself had set — but it caused me to feel very confused about myself. I wasn’t sure which temple I liked, how to celebrate each holiday, and even how to eat. Everyone I met seemed to have different views than I did, and no one was able to help me understand where I fit in best.
When I started Milken Community High School’s middle school after finishing the sixth grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, I further realized how unacquainted I was with my own feelings toward my religion. Although we had Judaic studies every year, I felt unable to drift away from my parents’ beliefs and create my own.
Then, in 10th grade this past year, I was accepted into the Tiferet Israel Program, for which I left the comfort of my parents’ home and lived in Israel on my own for four months, along with 38 other Milken 10th- graders.
I was relieved to find that one of my friends, Tali, happened to be in Israel at the same time, on a separate school program. Tali, a girl I met at tennis camp, was one of the only people I knew who shared my beliefs — we both agreed that it was not necessary to follow all of the rituals of the Jewish religion. It was not until we reconnected in Israel that I found out her father is an Orthodox rabbi who works at Chabad. This immediately made me wonder how a rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi, a “real” Jew, could raise a “fake” one. I asked Tali what she considered herself to be, and whether or not she felt comfortable with her decision of moving away from her family’s opinions and creating her own. She answered that she respected her parents’ beliefs but did not completely agree with what they stood for. When I asked her if she felt as Jewish as her father, she responded without any hesitation, “I am just as Jewish as my father and mother and you are just as Jewish as them as well.” Hearing those words finally come out of someone’s mouth besides my own was like lifting the world off my shoulders. From that point on I no longer felt uncomfortable with my beliefs, and I no longer felt out of place.
Every day it became clearer to me that there was not one specific way to define a “real” Jew. By observing the amount of pride and devotion that all the Jewish Israelis felt toward their religion, I began to understand that simply believing in God and being proud of the fact that you are Jewish automatically makes you as Jewish as you can get. I was able to see on many different occasions the variety of Jews, and how I did not have to fit into any one of them in order to be Jewish. When our group went to the Kotel, for example, I was able to see ultra-Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews, and Jews that don’t fit into any of the categories praying toward the Wall, and every one of them accepts the other as a member of the Jewish faith.
All of my experiences in Israel made me able to officially classify myself under a category that I fit into. I now consider myself to be a Jewish Mexican American teenage girl, and I am proud to have it be in that order. I no longer feel disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and for the first time in my life, I feel as Jewish as any rabbi who works at Chabad — or any Jew in the world.
Rebecca Suchov just completed the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.<BR>
How a Yid from Chicago became the Judio next door
Ron Cohen — a tough-talking, barrel-chested, Chicago-born 57-year-old — said that he regularly crosses the border from El Centro on Fridays to spend Shabbat with the Medrano family in Mexicali.
“I was the one who got many of these people together,” said Cohen, whose wife is Mexican. “A couple of years ago, I was here in Mexicali and walked into Alfredo Medrano’s digital editing lab just by chance. And I see a menorah there.”
“So I say, ‘Why do you have that?’ And he’s a little wary: ‘Why do you want to know?’ So I show him this,” Cohen said, displaying his Magen David necklace.
“And I tell him, ‘Cause I’m a Jew.’ So then I went about linking up the Medranos with Jose Orozco and all the others.
“That’s the meaning of my life, connecting people,” he said. “I find out that someone wants to practice Judaism, or at least know more about it, and I put them in touch with others already on that path. That’s how this community has grown.”
“Look, this is a congregation looking for a home, looking for someone to minister to them. Wouldn’t it be great if someone up in the States donated money for them so they could have their own shul? I mean, even a small one, where they could have a Torah and the place would become the social and cultural center of this community,” Cohen stressed.
“I’m always thinking about what can be done to raise money for this group,” he continued. “I mean, even if it’s just enough to get prayer books in Spanish and Hebrew. If we could get 30 or 40 siddurim to start out with, it would be terrific. I’ve got some ideas on how to raise money. Here’s one: For Purim we can make Mexican-style pinatas that represent Haman. Fill them with candies. I know we could make a few bucks on that idea.”
Illegal aliens; Dems and Reps; Shocked, just shocked!
Roberto Loiederman’s article, “Living and Working [Il]legally in America” (Sept. 8), achieved its desired results. The Jewish guilt arose in me with each passing word like hot gases about to blow off the top of a volcano.How can I deny illegal Mexicans and others illegal entry into this country, when some of my own people have done the same thing? It was a very clever way of making me see my own racist tendencies that apparently Loiederman and the editorial staff at The Journal wanted me and other Jews who think like me to see.
It doesn’t matter how you try to explain it, some thickheads just will never get it. This is not about race; it is about sovereignty.
This issue is about the giving up of America and all its values and culture. It is about the transformation of that culture into something else, into something foreign.
We have millions of illegals who are draining our resources in this country. Public schools, emergency rooms, city services, to say nothing of the more hazardous conditions on public roads because nonlicensed and noninsured drivers are big problems, especially here in Southern California.
Loiederman must understand that America cannot support Mexico’s poor. It is estimated that 15 percent of Mexico’s workforce is now living in the United States.
For Loiederman to point to his own background to try and cloud the all-important issue of open borders is a travesty as an American and as a Jew. Once again, I shake my finger at The Jewish Journal and tell you that you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for supporting such positions.
Republicans and Democrats
Shame on the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) for making the outrageous and ridiculous assertion that Democrats are “turning their backs on Israel.” (Republican Jewish Coalition ads in Jewish Journal, Sept. 8)It is bad enough for them to deliberately distort the facts. But it is even worse when it is done as part of a reckless strategy to politicize support for Israel — a strategy that will have negative, long-term consequences for the vital U.S.-Israel relationship.
I readily acknowledge that President George W. Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and many other Republicans have been reliable friends of Israel. But they have been no better friends than the vast majority of Democratic leaders — including President Bill Clinton, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — all of whom are unwavering supporters of the Jewish state.
The RJC chose to feature former President Jimmy Carter in their political ads, but notwithstanding his comments to the contrary, he is an outlier on this issue and does not represent the mainstream of Democrats. Even more ludicrous is the notion that Cindy Sheehan speaks for any meaningful number of Democrats on the subject of Israel.
If Democrats wanted to sink to the RJC’s level, we could just as easily trot out statements made by a number of prominent Republicans and claim that the GOP, therefore, is hostile to Israel.
In the increasingly polarized American political system, support for Israel is one of the few issues that remains truly bipartisan. This gives Israel confidence that no matter which party occupies the White House or controls the House and Senate, America will always be committed to Israel’s security and right to exist free from terror.
The RJC is making a conscious effort to destroy that bipartisan consensus in the pursuit of illusory, short-term political gains. But they are not acting on behalf of Israel when they set one party against the other. This cheap ploy will inject uncertainty into the U.S.-Israel relationship and ultimately make Israel less secure.
If Republican leaders really care about Israel’s well-being, then they should renounce the RJC’s dangerous campaign and devote their energies to strengthening the longstanding, bipartisan consensus on supporting Israel.
Rep. Howard L. Berman
Does the outrageous ad from the Republican Jewish Coalition (“The Democratic Party Just Abandoned Joe Lieberman,” Sept. 15) imply that Larry Greenfield and his compatriots would’ve supported Lieberman had he won the Democratic primary?As a liberal who strongly supports Israel and equally strongly opposes the war in Iraq, I resent the portrayal of me and others like me as Democrats, who by voting against Lieberman, would abandon Israel. Can partisan politics in our country get much uglier?
When I was growing up, the term “Jewish Republicans” was an oxymoron. They did not exist.
Now I see in The Journal advertisements for the Republican Jewish Coalition, wherein they castigate Neville Chamberlain as the great appeaser, which he no doubt was. However, they fail to mention that he was the leader of the British Conservative Party, and together with his Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, were extremely friendly with Hitler.
This party, the Conservatives, was of the same ilk as America’s Republican Party, which was adamant in keeping America out of “Europe’s War,” as they were wont to call it. Well, they can’t change history, no matter how they try.
Syd H. Hershfield
It is time for thoughtful Jews who want to preserve Western civilization and Jewish culture and learning for their children and grandchildren to realize that appeasement emboldens our Islamofascist enemies. Appeasement was interpreted as weakness by the Nazis and millions died.
We are fighting a pernicious global enemy that wants to destroy America, Israel, democracy and freedom. We will win this battle only if we understand that our vicious enemy has declared war on us.
We need to understand that the Islamofascists will only respond to strength and commitment. The RJC’s Neville Chamberlain advertisement appropriately speaks to this issue. The choice is clear. Either support candidates of either party who condemn Islamofascism and reject appeasement or be prepared to answer to the words of Edmond Burke that evil triumphs only when good men do nothing.
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.
7 Days In Arts
Aaron Samson wrote and stars in “Not Dead Yet,” a piece inspired by his grandfather’s memoirs of his Russian past: working for Leon Trotsky, the consequent threat of execution by Russia’s communist regime and his quick escape to the United States where he began a new life. The one-man show follows the journey of a grandson, Jacob Samson, back to Russia to find his roots and the missing pieces of the story his grandfather Leo wrote down. It plays today at the Elephant Lab.Runs Saturdays, through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $10. 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 878-2377.
Might wanna throw some buttered popcorn into the picnic basket tonight for the Hollywood Bowl’s movie night program, “The Big Picture.” John Mauceri conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in selections from MGM/UA movie scores, as scenes from the films are projected on the Bowl’s giant screen. The James Bond series, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “West Side Story” are some of the featured films.7:30 p.m. $3-$88. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (213) 480-3232 (for tickets).
Horn in on High Holiday fun with shofar-making activities this week. The Hebrew Discovery Center holds a Shofar Factory Party on Sunday for kids ages 5 and up, while Calabasas Shul holds a shofar-making workshop at the local Albertsons today.HDC: Sept. 5, Noon. $7 (per child, include slice of pizza and refreshments). (818) 348-4432. Calabasas Shul: Sept. 6, 5-6:30 p.m. $5 (per shofar). (818) 591-7485.
The Mexican Jewish community isn’t one that gets much ofa spotlight, but for filmmaker Guita Shyfter, it made sense to focus on her ownroots and community. “Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”) is the result. Thefilm’s uncommon subject matter is made more unique by its treatment: the storyof two women friends coming of age in 1960s Mexico City is told primarilythrough dialogue in Ladino and Spanish, with some Hebrew and Yiddish, as well.It is newly released on DVD. $17.96.
Klezmer goes upbeat in the latest CD by Yiddishe Cup,”Meshugeneh Mambo.” Six parody tracks pay tribute to klezmer comedian MickeyKatz, with the rest offering up original or reworked “neo-Borscht Belt klezmercomedy” tunes, and the titles say it all: “K’nock Around the Clock,” “I Am A Manof Constant Blessings” and “Second Avenue Square Dance.” $15.
Sports nuts despair not. With the close of this summer’s Olympic Games also comes the opening of “Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?” at USC Fisher Gallery. The exhibition features photographs of women from the 1890s to today participating in sports from hunting to ping-pong to soccer. Creator Jane Gottesman has compiled images from myriad sources, including the Associated Press and various renown photographers including Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, April Saul and Annie Leibowitz.Runs through Oct. 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4561.
The Nuart goes behind the music tonight, presenting the L.A. premiere of “End of the Century,” a documentary about the seminal punk rock band, The Ramones. From their interpersonal disputes to their struggles for fame, the doc takes a hard look at the hard-living band that arguably failed to achieve the recognition they deserved until long after they’d split.11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.
Viva la Cinema!
In Veracruz, Mexico, there lived a group of people who for generations had avoided eating pork and lit candles on Friday night without knowing why. In the early 1980s, some members of the group discovered their Jewish roots and converted to Judaism, and now, 20 years later, are still struggling for acceptance from the Jewish community in Mexico.
Their story is being told in "Eight Candles," a 2002 Mexican documentary, one of nine Jewish films being shown in Mexico’s first Jewish film festival.
"This opportunity is amazing, because for this first time the documentary is going to confront its intended audience," said "Eight Candles" director Sandro Halphen, who lives in Mexico City. "I hadn’t found venues to reach out to them."
The Jan 25.-Feb 3 sold-out festival aimed to teach local Jews about their heritage and non-Jews about a community that is sometimes misunderstood.
"We are looking at this festival not as a Jewish event," said Aron Margolis, director of the nonprofit Mexico International Jewish Film Festival. "This is an excellent opportunity for Mexican society to get to know the Jewish community. The Jews in Mexico are known as a community that is very closed and doesn’t let people in to get to know us. But the more they know us, the more they understand us."
There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico, a predominately Catholic country. Most live in Mexico City. The sold-out festival in Mexico City is one of only a handful of Spanish-language Jewish film festivals in the world.
The Mexico festival features nine films, including "The Burial Society" (Canada) "Time of Favor" (Israel) and "Trembling Before G-d" (United States), a documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Chasidic Jews.
Margolis hopes the Spanish-translated films can be shown elsewhere Latin America.
Latino Group Sues Over District Lines
If the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) gets its way, state Senate elections scheduled for March will be postponed until June, and California’s newly redrawn congressional districts will be re-redrawn.
MALDEF has filed a lawsuit challenging congressional and state Senate districts in the San Fernando Valley, Southeast Los Angeles and San Diego. The suit claims that lawmakers, in their attempt to create "safe" districts for incumbents, have divided Latino communities to prevent them from joining to elect new Latino representatives. According to MALDEF, this division of communities violates provisions of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees the right to representation for "communities of interest."
The congressional districts challenged in the lawsuit are held by two Jewish representatives, Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) and Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista). Maria Blanco, an attorney for MALDEF, says, "I think this has been kept at the level of the Latino voters. Our focus isn’t so much about who the incumbent is."
Some in the Jewish community see it differently.
"What MALDEF is essentially trying to do is remove two Jewish members of Congress and replace them with two Latino members. They’re trying to shove all the Latinos in an area into one district so a Latino can win the primary. Berman’s been a champion of Latino legislation for 30 years. They want to replace him with someone whose last name sounds like theirs," says Jewish community activist Howard Welinsky.
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum also takes issue with the claims underlying the redistricting challenge. "The district that Howard Berman serves is a very mixed area. He has shown himself to be an effective representative of a mixed community. The MALDEF lawsuit claims Berman is not an effective legislator because he’s not Latino. I don’t think a Jew can be represented only by a Jew, or that a Latino can be represented only by a Latino."
Dissenting voices in the Jewish community are careful, however, to distinguish between the MALDEF lawsuit and Latino leaders in general. As Welinsky says, "We can’t paint this with one brush; virtually every Latino member of the Legislature voted for the reapportionment. Current Latino elected officials have been very supportive of Israel, as have African American elected officials, for that matter."
Gov. Gray Davis and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg are among the state officials named in the suit, because of their roles in passing the new district lines. MALDEF is not challenging the Assembly districts, which Hertzberg attributes to "the meticulous and open procedures we used throughout the process" of redistricting. Unlike the state Senate and the congressional delegation, California’s Assembly did not hire political consultant Michael Berman (brother of Rep. Howard Berman) to craft the new districts.
Amadis Velez says the lawsuit has nothing to do with potential rivalries between Jewish and Latino candidates. Asked about the goals behind the challenge to Berman’s Valley district, MALDEF’s redistricting coordinator answers with a question: "Let me ask you, do you see this conflict between Jews and Latinos? Because I really don’t see a conflict. With few exceptions, I think Jews and Latinos have worked pretty steadily toward common goals.
"If you look at the district, it doesn’t speak to the needs of Jews or Latinos. It speaks to the needs of incumbents. It’s just not a matter of the ethnicity of the representatives."
MALDEF has asked that state Senate elections scheduled for March 2002 be postponed until June to allow potential candidates time to campaign, and that a panel of judges redraw the districts to include undivided Latino communities. The Central District Federal court in Los Angeles scheduled a temporary restraining-order hearing for Wednesday, Oct. 31, to determine if elections should be postponed. And if MALDEF loses? "There’s always an appeals process," says Velez.
Though all involved are anxious to avoid the appearance of Jewish and Latino conflict, the issues raised by MALDEF’s lawsuit hit a sore spot for some. "For a minority that’s always been a minority, to say you shouldn’t bother to serve your community unless you represent an area where you’re in the majority basically says Jews should get out of politics," Greenbaum says.
Locals’ Dreams for Breed Street
Although East Los Angeles, and the bordering Boyle Heights, is now the heart of Mexican Los Angeles, vestiges of its diverse past still remain. The exterior of Self-Help Graphics, an art gallery and workshop, is covered with multicolored tiles in a visual tribute to the diversity this area was famous for. The gallery is on César Chávez Avenue, formerly known as Brooklyn Avenue, in honor of the New York borough that was legendary for its immigrant communities (the street was renamed in Chávez’s honor, shortly after his death in 1993). Some stores still have "Brooklyn" in their title, such as Brooklyn Hardware and Brooklyn Pants.
A couple of blocks away from Self-Help Graphics lies the historic Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. Located across the street from a supermarket, a Bank of America and a Social Security office, the deserted temple stands in stark contrast to the thriving neighborhood surrounding it.
But this will soon change — if all goes according to the plans of a diverse group of organizations united to restore the shul. The building is scheduled for renovation and will reopen to serve the local community — but in what capacity no one is yet certain.
Ever since the building was designated as a historical monument by the L.A. City Council in 1988, lengthy debates have erupted over what the shul should be used for. Proposals have included converting it to a museum to document the history of the area, or tearing down the still-magnificent building altogether. Some Jewish leaders have even called for the reestablishment of the Congregation Talmud Torah that once used the shul and operated in the once Jewish Boyle Heights.
East L. A. and Boyle Heights have historically been the entry point for emigrants from Europe and Asia. For many years, in addition to Mexicans, East Los Angeles was home to enclaves of Russians, Poles, Japanese and Italians that lived and worked together. Boyle Heights, in particular, became the focal point for Jewish immigrants, and a large community sprang up around the Breed Street Shul, built in 1923. Many of the Jews who lived in Boyle Heights at the time were poor, Yiddish-speakers from Eastern Europe. During the height of the Jewish presence in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights — before World War II — about a third of Los Angeles’ Jewish community lived there. After WWII, many of the Jewish immigrants began to leave the area for other sections of Los Angeles. Over the years, many of the Jewish businesses in Boyle Heights around the shul went out of business until only the shul remained. The shul, which was operated for many years by Rabbi Noah Ganzweig and later his son Mordechai, fell into disuse as its congregants began to leave the area. It eventually closed in 1992.
To the people currently living in the area surrounding the shul, there seems to be a strong consensus of the importance of preserving the building, even if it is not clear what the building is or was. "If you asked 1,000 people in this neighborhood, they wouldn’t know it’s even there," says Miguel Amezcua, who has lived in the area since 1969. "When I was younger, we would just wonder what it was."
Amezcua is an artist-in-residence at Self-Help Graphics. The artists’ collective is one of the Latino organizations that have worked in tandem with the Jewish community in determining the fate of the building. Self-Help Graphics prides itself on offering free workshops to the community and even allowing residents to use its parking lot for free in a city that is notorious for the lack of free parking. With that egalitarian spirit in mind, the organization stresses that — whatever the fate of the Breed Street Shul — it should both include, and be a part of, the overwhelmingly Mexican community that now occupies East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.
Due to the poverty that has always existed in the area, some people have proposed converting the shul into a facility to help the area’s residents. But Amezcua points out: "Helping the residents is a bottomless pit. It’s like the cathedral [the downtown cathedral that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles is currently finishing]. Some people said that the money used on the cathedral should be used to help the poor. Problem is, you can never give enough."
All plans to renovate the shul so far have involved keeping the Jewish presence of the building, which suits Amezcua just fine. "The Jews have precedent towards the Breed Street Shul," Amezcua told The Jewish Journal. "It’s their building. A big part of it should be Jewish. But at the same time, the building should reflect the multiculturalism that has always been a part of the area."
Even now, the population of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles is shifting. Although it is still primarily Mexican, Chinese signs are starting to pop up in the neighborhood. Arabs own many of the stores at the intersection of Breed Street and César Chávez Avenue. Steady streams of Central American emigrants are coming from the Pico-Union area to the slightly more prosperous Eastside. The Jewish heritage of the area remains only as a ghostly artifact represented by the shul.
"I think of the shul as an Aztec pyramid in terms of reverence," Amezcua said. "Although the builders are no longer here, we should still respect the original intent and sacredness of the building."
The Jewish community that once thrived here and built the shul is nowhere to be found and has not made an effort to reach out to the new residents. As Amezcua puts it, "I bet you 95 percent of the residents in this neighborhood have never seen a Jew here or even know that this was once the heart of Jewish L.A."
Various people along César Chávez Avenue near the Breed Street Shul offered their opinions as to what they thought the building was and what should be done with it. No one was able to identify it as Jewish, but all had an idea that it was once a sacred place.
"It’s a really nice building. Wasn’t it once a temple for the Hermanos [‘The Brothers,’ a Christian sect]?" asked two young men.
"I once heard from other people that the building used to be a church," offered a woman going to the supermarket. "Then something bad happened and they began performing satanic rituals and sacrificing animals there. That’s why they put barbed wire around it."
One cannot blame anti-Semitism or cultural ignorance for such responses. The community — mostly composed of recent Mexican immigrants — has been isolated so long from Boyle Heights’ Jewish legacy that any recollection of a Jewish community has been warped by years of hearsay. The amazing thing, though, was that even though the area is sorely lacking a community center or open space, there are those who want the building to remain sacred.
"If it was a church, I think they should reopen it," an older resident of the area said. "You just don’t build a shrine to God, then abandon it," she added.
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.
In Honor of Justice
Despite his Italian surname, joked DistrictAttorney Gil Garcetti, “[My heritage] is Mexican-American and my wife is Jewish.So our kids ask, ‘Well, what are we?'”
Garcetti was praising our city’s multiethnicpopulation as he spoke at last week’s Anti-Defamation League SpringLuncheon, touted as a tribute to Israel’s 50th Anniversary but, infact, honoring Deputy District Attorney Carla Arranaga andDeputy Sheriff BerniceAbram. Recognized for their efforts incombating hate crimes in Los Angeles, they were this year’srecipients of the Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate. The luncheon washeld at the Harriet and Charles LuckmanFine Arts Complex on the campus ofCal State Los Angeles.
Both Abram and Arranaga have been instrumental inthe development and implementation of various anti-crime projects.Abram directed the Sheriff’s Department’s Multidisciplinary DomesticViolence Training Project and helped develop the “Field Deputy’sGuide to Domestic Violence” and the California Peace OfficerStandards and Training ’96 Domestic Violence Telecourse.
Arranaga’s accomplishments include working withthe ADL on establishing “Hate Crimes Protocol” and co-chairing theLos Angeles County Human Relations Commission Task Force on HateCrimes.
In her succinct acceptance speech, Abram, anAfrican-American, thanked the largely Jewish audience for the “newwords I learned today: todaraba” (“thank you very much”).
Before introducing Arranaga, Garcetti spoke to TheJournal, praising the deputy district attorney and the ADL for “afabulous job” in the fight against acts of anti-Semitism.
“Because of Carla,” said Garcetti, “she had themcertified to adult court. Probation is not the message we want tosend [to these perpetrators]. They were sentenced to two years instate prison. That’s the kind of thing she’s doing, and it’stough…and she does it almost single-handedly. I’m proud ofher.”
He went on to commend Arranaga, aseventh-generation Angeleno, for her focus on the source of themajority of hate crimes — juveniles — and her commitment to “nipthis problem in the bud” by instituting programs designed to tackleracism at an early age.
When Arranaga took to the podium, she returned theadulation, thanking Garcetti for his “wonderful vision in the battleagainst hate crimes.”
She also said, “I am touched because this honorcomes from the ADL, an organization that I have respected, emulatedand admired.” Thanking her parents “for instilling decency andhumanity,” Arranaga alluded to the importance of strong parental rolemodels.
Representing the family responsible for the prize,Joe Sherwoodsummed up the afternoon’s honors, singling Abram and Arranaga for the”good work that they’ve done.”
Also present at the function was CaliforniaSupreme Court Justice StanleyMosk.
Following the buffet luncheon — a smorgasbord ofMexican and Middle Eastern culinary delights — attendees weretreated to renditions of classical music standards by theIsrael Camerata Jerusalem.
Public Counsel Thanks Steven A.Nissen
A room awash in blues, browns and grays, cracklingwith energy…
No, this isn’t a Max Beckmann exhibit at theArmand Hammer Museum but the sea of three-piece-suit-clad attorneysholding court at a recent silent auction sponsored by Public Counsel Law Center, theagency that provides free legal help and access to low-incomeresidents and nonprofit organizations. The event, with proceedsbenefiting Public Counsel, was held this year at the Century Plaza Hotel in CenturyCity.
Following the auction — which included luncheswith staffers from the Los Angeles Times, hotel and dining packages,and Mattelproducts such as Chinese Empress Barbie (! ) — the crowd movedinto the Los Angeles Ballroom for the William O. Douglas AwardDinner. Sidley &Austin, TheGreenlining Institute and Mattel Inc.received the Law Firm Pro Bono Award, the Community Achievement Awardand the Corporate Pro Bono Award, respectively.
But the man ofthe hour was Steven A.Nissen, the executive director of thestate Bar and the former chief executive officer of Public Counsel.Close friend and Los Angeles Chief of Police Bernard Parks moved the crowdwith his introduction of Nissen, praising his “body of knowledge, hiscode of ethics, and [the fact that] he never works in [his] ownself-interest.” In accepting the award, the visibly moved Nissenpraised and thanked his staff at Public Counsel numerous times, aswell as his wife, fellow attorney LynnAlvarez. (Photo of Steven Nissen, left, with Bernard Parks by BrendanEisen)
Nissen, a Fairfax HighSchool graduate, went on to study law atStanford andUC’s Boalt Hall.In 1984, at the age of 33, he became the chief executive officer ofPublic Counsel and turned a failing organization into “the nation’slargest pro bono law firm.”