Jews, Latinos Uncovering Their Heritage
A conference focuses on immigrants who hid their religion after fleeing to Mexico's frontiers to escape the Inquisition in the 1500s.
By Daniel Hernandez
Times Staff Writer
January 27, 2006
Five hundred years ago, when it was still illegal for them to sail to the New World, hundreds, maybe thousands, of Sephardic Jews from Spain secretly found ways across the Atlantic.
Many were escaping the Inquisition, which eventually spread to the colony's capital, Mexico City.
In the late 1500s, facing the threat of arrest and death, some Jews in Mexico journeyed to the colony's northern frontier, eventually settling in what is now New Mexico. They were Jews in secret, or crypto-Jews. For generations, their Mexican American descendants have practiced Catholicism but retained customs suggestive of a Jewish past, such as observing the Sabbath.
This was the historical foundation established at the start of a conference this week that explored past, present and possible future connections between Jews and Latinos.
The conference, called "Latinos and Jews: A Conference on Historical and Contemporary Connections," brought together scholars, activists and people curious about their heritage.
The gathering, in a packed classroom at UC Irvine, focused on two major points of intersection for Jews and Latinos: the history of crypto-Jews and Jews in colonial Mexico, and the intermixing of Jews, Latinos and others in Boyle Heights, which scholars called Los Angeles' first multiethnic working-class neighborhood.
The example of New Mexico came up repeatedly - the two communities are linked, even if those links aren't always apparent.
"The fabric of Jewish history and heritage is so much richer than we thought," said Stanley M. Hordes, adjunct research professor at the University of New Mexico and author of "To the End of the Earth: The History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico." "There is not a mutual exclusivity between being Spanish and Jewish," he said.
The all-day discussion Monday was at turns spirited, humorous and contentious. At one point, a few participants had a brief but pointed exchange on the prevalence of anti-Semitism among Latinos and Catholics.
George Sanchez, a history professor at USC, has spent years interviewing former residents of Boyle Heights. His presentation centered on a period when the neighborhood's vibrant multicultural patchwork was evident in the makeup of Roosevelt High School, which was founded in 1923.
There was a point in the school's history, Sanchez said, quoting one of his many interviews, where "you could divide the sports activities by race, with varsity football dominated by huge Russians - and some Jews - Mexicans and blacks in varsity track and tall Slavics in basketball."
Many audience chortled to themselves, but everyone laughed when Sanchez finished: "Debating was mostly the Jewish students."
Young people back then, Sanchez said, saw beyond their ethnic differences to create a common culture. "In Boyle Heights, as elsewhere, youth often played a critical role in initiating inter-ethnic relations, be it in interracial marriage, political coalition-building, or multiracial dance venues," Sanchez said.
The conference, co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the UC Irvine Center for Research on Latinos in a Global Society, comes at a critical point in the history of Jewish-Latino relations.
Only in recent years has interest rapidly grown in the possibility that innumerable Mexicans and Mexican Americans could add a bit of Jewishness to their often mishmash background of European, Indian and sometimes African, Arab and Asian heritage. In New Mexico, some Latinos are using DNA studies to determine whether they have Jewish roots.
Jewish and Latino advocacy organizations have begun round-table discussions about potential political and cultural alliances, with many noting the 2005 election of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as an example of such coalition-building. Polls showed that Villaraigosa captured 84% of the city's Latino vote and 55% of the Jewish vote.
Villaraigosa's election led some participants at the conference to recall the election in 1949 of Edward R. Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council. The first Mexican American elected to the council since 1881, Roybal represented a heavily Jewish electorate in his Eastside district.
As a few conference panelists and participants noted, Jewish activists have been far more proactive in reaching out to Latinos than the other way around. The backgrounds of those attending the conference proved the point.
When Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, asked those in the audience to raise their hands if they identified as Jewish, most of the room responded. When he asked for the Latinos to raise their hands, only a few did.
Still, participants and speakers said they were encouraged by the dialogue.
"[Latinos are] the emerging community in L.A. and the Jewish community has been slow to become aware of the richness of the Latino community, and the potential for conflict as well," said Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
Boyle Heights was once home to the largest Jewish community west of Chicago. Most in the community were Ashkenazi Jews. The neighborhood is overwhelmingly Latino today and just south of Cesar Chavez Avenue - which used to be Brooklyn Avenue - the Breed Street Shul is waiting to be reopened.
Built in 1923, the home of Congregation Talmud Torah fell into disrepair as Jews moved to the Westside. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California stepped in to prevent the demolition of the shul in the 1990s. Now a renovation effort is underway to make the building a neighborhood cultural center.
The shul is an artifact of a rich cultural history that includes Jews, Latinos and many others, said Steve Sass, president of the historical society and director of the Breed Street Shul Project.
"What I understand is that people were used to living side by side, they were all immigrants, English was not their first language, there was a Depression," Sass said. "This was the other Los Angeles... We need to learn from that, learn from before, when people lived in proximity and were learning about each other's culture."
Sass was joined at the shul Wednesday by Juaquin Castellanos, a longtime Boyle Heights activist and Mexican immigrant. Castellanos is a recent addition to the Breed Street Shul Project's board of directors. "And I'm learning a lot - holidays, things like that," he said.
He gestured toward busy Cesar Chavez Avenue, adding that, even among Latinos, "We still call it Brooklyn."