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Common Threads

This Week's Yiddishkayt L.A. Festival Will Explore the Longtime, Complex Ties Between L.A.'s Latino and Jewish Communities That Many Say Might Determine the Shape of the City's Future

October 21, 1998|DANNY FEINGOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was a coalition that started to change the face of L.A. politics, uniting two ethnic communities and electing a groundbreaking minority to citywide office.

The year was 1949, a quarter century before Tom Bradley rose to power on the strength of a now-storied cross-town alliance between Jews and blacks. The politician then was Ed Roybal, who broke the Anglo stranglehold on the City Council with the help of a progressive labor coalition, most of whose members were Eastside Jews and Latinos.

Roybal's historic ascendancy is but one chapter in the mostly ignored relationship between L.A.'s Jewish and Latino communities. These ties will be explored in two programs being presented as part of the Yiddishkayt L.A., a weeklong citywide festival continuing through Sunday.

On Thursday, there'll be a screening of "Salt of the Earth," a heralded documentary about a zinc mine strike, made in 1953 by a team that included blacklisted Jewish filmmakers and Latino activists from L.A. On Saturday, a panel discussion-concert, "Latinos and Landslayt," will delve into the common Eastside labor and folk traditions of Jews and Latinos.

"It's clear that there are all kinds of interesting and complex relationships that happen between the two communities around politics," says Judy Branfman, a Jewish activist and community historian who organized the events, together with Tomas Benitez, director of Self-Help Graphics, which provides gallery space to artists from the Eastside.

"There's definitely a tradition of shared space and history," Benitez agrees. That history is complex and sometimes murky, alternately characterized by passion and apathy, empathy and ignorance. But while often overshadowed by other inter-ethnic relationships--black-Jewish, black-Korean--the interface of Los Angeles' Latino and Jewish communities has played an important role in everything from local Latino political empowerment to the struggle for fair housing and employment laws.

Moreover, given the increasing electoral strength of Latinos and continued Jewish political clout, it likely will be a critical factor in shaping L.A.'s future.

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To many, this spring's racially tinged state Senate campaign between Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon in the San Fernando Valley may have seemed like the first time that Jewish-Latino relations appeared on the radar screen. But ties between the two groups go back at least to the 1920s and have been characterized largely by a common interest in progressive economic and social change.

"Both communities were usually on the same side politically on all the important issues," says Bert Corona, an activist who began his career during the Depression and who currently serves as executive director of La Hermandad Nacional Mexicana, which conducts citizenship drives in the Latino community.

"Both had to fight against racism and discrimination. Both have fought for better housing, improvement of social conditions and more equitable political representation. Although there's been a disparity in the income earned by two groups, on political and social issues, we have stood together."

While both Jews and Latinos established communities on L.A's Eastside, it was the labor movement that first brought the two groups into close contact. Jews had a heavy presence in local trade unions, particularly those in such industries as garments, painting, upholstery and textiles. When Mexicans began arriving in L.A. in large numbers in the teens and '20s, it was Jews who helped integrate them into the unions.

Racial Discrimination An Enemy in Common

Solidarity against economic exploitation extended into other areas as well, most notably racial discrimination. Thus during the infamous 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case, in which Mexican Americans were wrongly accused of murder, Jews were instrumental in the defense committee (along with Latinos and Irish Americans), and it was a Jewish attorney who represented the defendants.

But it was during the Roybal campaign of 1949 that a bona fide alliance emerged between the two groups. This convergence had its roots in a relationship between famed Jewish radical Saul Alinsky of Chicago and Roybal, who had attended Alinsky's seminar on community organizing and who subsequently ran unsuccessfully for L.A. City Council in 1947.

"The day I was defeated, Alinsky sent me a telegram saying, 'What are you going to do next?' " recalls Roybal, now 82. "A month later I wrote and told him that I was going to form an organization that would start the process of voter registration. I wrote what I called the five-year plan as to what I would do and ended it by saying, 'What are you going to do to help me?' "

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