Surprising results revealed in survey of Latino Jews living in U.S.

April 12, 2017
From left to right: Tali Klein, AJC Ass’t Director of BILLA, L.A.; Ambassador Carlos Garcia de Alba, Consul General of Mexico in L.A.; Dina Siegel Vann, AJC Director of BILLA; Eva Dworsky, AJC LA International Relations Co-chair; David R. Ayon, Latino Decisions Senior Strategist and Advisor

“Latino Jews” — who are they?

That was a question posed by a study carried out in late 2015 by David Ayon, senior strategist for the opinion research group Latino Decisions. Requisitioned by an arm of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and underwritten by the Ford Foundation, the survey probed focus groups of Latino Jews who live in five U.S. cities — Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago and Houston. Ranging in age from 22 to 78, more than 60 participants were asked in-depth questions about identity, national attachments and community engagement.

The results were presented on the AJC website last year and have been shown to groups around the country, including one in Los Angeles on March 28 that included diplomats from Latin American countries as well as Southern California Latino and Jewish leaders. The inquiry, Ayon said, was unique in that it placed, at the center of the research, “a small but thriving population” of approximately 200,000 Latino Jews now living in the United States.

Most Latino Jews are cut from the same cloth as the majority of U.S. Jews — descendants of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who left Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century or early decades of the 20th century — but immigrated to Latin America instead of the United States. The term “Latino Jews” also includes some Sephardic Jews, those who left Turkey and other countries in the Levant after World War I and immigrated to Latin America.

Jews, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, who settled throughout the continent, from Mexico to Argentina, soon adopted Spanish as their language (or Portuguese in Brazil), built synagogues, started Jewish social clubs, opened businesses, became professionals and often have played prominent roles in the civic, economic and artistic life of their adopted countries.

In recent decades, sometimes because of political or economic turmoil, many Latino Jews have left Latin America and immigrated into the U.S. (as well as Israel and other countries.) As a result, Ayon said, the Latino Jews who took part in the survey’s focus groups have undergone a “double Diaspora.”

For Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC’s Belfer Institute on Latino and Latin American Affairs, the most surprising part of the survey focused on the question, “Who are Latino Jews?” Presented with seven identity choices — American, Hispanic, Immigrant, Jewish, Latina/o, Latin American and Latin-American country of origin (e.g., Mexican, Argentine, etc.) — participants registered their preferences, in order: Jewish, 95 percent; Latin-American country of origin, 69 percent; Latin American, 51 percent; Latino/a, 44 percent; immigrant, 41 percent; Hispanic, 34 percent; and American, 31 percent.

“This tells us a number of things,” Siegel Vann, who grew up Jewish in Mexico City, told the Journal. “No. 1, that Jews in Latin America, even in Argentina, with the largest concentration of Jews in any Latin American country, felt like ‘insider-outsiders’ — one foot in, one foot out. The first marker of identity for them was Jewish, not the country they came from. They did not say ‘I’m an Argentine.’ No, no, no. They said, ‘First of all, I’m a Jew.’

“That tells me that the [Jewish] community might have felt they were integrated into the life of the country where they lived, but, at the end of the day, we’re all insider-outsiders.”

Siegel Vann pointed out that the focus group results indicate these same Latino Jews, after immigrating to the U.S., once again feel they are insiders-outsiders. Even though more than 80 percent are U.S. citizens, and most of the rest are permanent residents, fewer than 1 in 3 identifies as American. “In previous generations … it was a moment of pride to say you were American, but now that’s changed,” she said.

There are reasons why Latino Jews in the U.S. don’t feel American, Siegel Vann said. In L.A. or Miami, which have large concentrations of Latino Jews, there’s less pressure to integrate into American life. More significant is that even though Latino Jews felt they had good reasons to leave Latin America, they often did so with regrets, in contrast to previous generations of immigrants to the U.S. Some Latino Jews still own property in Latin America, and almost all have family and friends there. As a result, most still identify with the Latin American country they came from (69 percent) rather than as American (31 percent).

Siegel Vann said when earlier generations of Jews came to the New World from Lithuania or Poland, for example, they were eager to shed that past identity. “But Latino Jews who have come to the U.S. over the last 30 years don’t feel that,” she said. “Most express appreciation that the Latin American country where they lived took them in, opened their doors and permitted them to have a good life.”

Besides establishing who Latino Jews are, Ayon said, the survey aimed to consider how this “unique group can leverage their main identities to build domestic, global and transnational bridges.” The implication is that Latino Jews, at least from the focus group sample, have education, money and a strong connection to Israel but haven’t yet been sufficiently integrated into mainstream Jewish organizations.

Siegel Vann said it is in everyone’s interest for that to happen. She said the survey report recommends that the “experiences [of Latino Jews], their personal and professional relationships and their passion for Israel can help advance any number of [Jewish] organizational programs or efforts.” She added that her institute already has launched a number of cooperative Jewish and Latino programs focused on three issues.

“One, immigration reform,” she said. “Immigrants are this country’s lifeline, so we think it’s important to pass immigration reform now. The second issue is hate crimes and hate rhetoric, as they apply to both Latinos and Jews. And the third issue is foreign policy, the relations between the U.S. and Mexico, and U.S. policy toward Israel.”

Siegel Vann said the political and social importance of Latinos in the U.S. is growing. Latinos and Latino Jews “don’t generally inhabit the same spaces, but we have to come together and become aware of the commonalities, the linguistic, cultural and historical ties the two communities have. Latino Jews could play an important role in being the link between Jews and Latinos, so what we’re trying to do is create more and more spaces for this interaction and cooperation to happen.”

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