Remember the 1970s TV show Welcome Back, Kotter? One of the juvenile delinquent "Sweathogs" who made teaching a laborious chore for Mr. Kotter was Juan Epstein. A Puerto Rican-Jew, the Epstein character was an extremely rare representation of any sort of Latino-Jewish coupling. True enough, Latinos and Jews don't exactly go hand in hand like chocolate and peanut butter. At least they didn't used to.
The Latino population of Southern California has exploded 450 percent since the last episode of Welcome Back, Kotter aired in 1979. Latinos have emerged as a political power to be reckoned with, and San Diego Jewish business and political leaders have made an effort to open dialogue with the Latino community.
The San Diego Latino-Jewish Coalition (which is hosted and funded by the San Diego American Jewish Committee) has been meeting at least monthly on a regular basis since September 2002. Modern San Diego roots for Latino-Jewish dialogue can be traced to Congressman Bob Filner, a Jewish-American who spent several months in a southern jail in 1961 as a "Freedom Rider" during the Civil Rights Movement. Filner's 50th congressional district is more than 55 percent Latino, one of the most diverse in the nation. Filner sought to establish a dialogue between the Jewish and Latino communities in order to find common ground, and on May 8, 2000, the American Jewish Committee and the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee (a social services agency with a plurality of Latino employees) met to discuss ways and means for the first time.
Nearly three years later, San Diego Latinos and Jews are still engaged in dialogue, still striving to understand each other's differences and similarities.
The most recent SDLJC get-together occurred Oct. 22 at the Marriott in Old Town. The featured speaker, Gregory Rodriguez, a senior fellow with the New America Foundation and a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times' opinion section, delivered the speech, "Why Mexican and Jewish Americans Don't Understand Each Other."
Rodriguez, named in an Esquire list of the "best and brightest young Americans who will revolutionize the way we think," supplied this Zen answer to the question embedded in the title of his talk: "In the past, they didn't have to." Latinos and Jews had as much need for dialogue as, say, Easter Islanders and Czechoslovakians.
Rodriguez argued that the biggest difference between Latinos and Jews that people should know about is their respective identities. Mexicans, for example, are still forging their identity in the U.S., he said. "We are bastards, a mixed people going back only 500 years," said Rodriguez, speaking passionately and at warp-speed.
Born of two traditions-Spanish and indigenous-Mexicans have an "uncongealed identity," Rodriguez said, Mestizo pride and self-realization has been legitimized only because of strength in numbers. Long before becoming the fastest-growing ethnic group, Mexicans, who are mostly Mestizo, were rejected by the indigenous population and Spanish conquistadors.
Contrary to hyper-patriotism in the U.S., "nobody talks about the forefathers of Mexico," Rodriguez said. "Is there a statue of Cortez anywhere? Do you see one of La Malinche?" (Also referred to as Dona Marina, La Malinche was Cortez' translator and Mexico's symbolic mother. She is said to have given birth to the first Mestizo.)
"The Jewish identity," Rodriguez said, "can be traced back thousands of years." He noted that for the last 2,000 years, Jews have been toasting each other during the Passover holiday, saying, "Next year in Jerusalem."
"Would you ever hear a Mexican say, "Next year in Mexico City'?" Rodriguez asked.
Jews and Latinos also differ in organizational structure, Rodriguez suggested. Of American Jews, he said, "No other group has a better self-made organizational structure." National Latino organizations, by comparison, were mainly set up in the 1970s by gringo entities, such as the Ford Foundation.
Rodriguez lives in Los Angeles, home to the largest Mexican population outside of Mexico City, and also home to the third largest concentration of Jews. But in L.A., one wouldn't find an ethnic Mexican hospital, university, cemetery or broad-based charity, Rodriguez said. Mexicans in L.A. don't yet have their own version of Cedars-Sinai Hospital or University of Judaism.
In Rodriguez' opinion, a political conflict could arise between Mexicans and Jews in L.A. "The notion that Latinos and Jews are equal is untrue," he said. "Jews are the elite in L.A., and Mexicans are the new emergent group." And when the new emergent group naturally tries to place itself in the establishment, there's a "natural tension that's going to happen," he predicted.
Asked by CityBeat if the same power-grab scenario could happen in San Diego, Rodriguez conceded that he was most familiar with L.A. politics and wouldn't speculate on the conditions here. However, Sam Sokolove, executive director of the San Diego Chapter of the American Jewish Committee-and, coincidentally enough, a CityBeat film critic-said after the speech that in San Diego, Latinos and Jews "have recently acquired key political positions," and it's a significant, positive development that breeds optimism. Sokolove predicts a harmonious relationship between the two groups.