I recall overhearing very derogatory and racist remarks about Latino Americans when I was a child. In those conversations, everyone from below the border was referred to as “a Mexican” or “cheap labor.”
Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to do work in some Central and South American countries – Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador – and I had the chance to spend time in Panama, Mexico, and Belize as well. I learned a lot about these cultures and gained a much deeper appreciation for the Latino Americans in my home American community. I also learned the deeper narrative about why and how so many have immigrated to the United States.
Jews and Latino Americans live parallel lives, but according to a recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee they do not mingle. “Latinos see Jews as part of the white establishment, not as immigrants,” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute. “We need to convey to them that we share a history of immigration.”
Jews and Hispanics should work together. The communities share many values, including the desire to maintain their distinctive cultural identities. A recent American Jewish Committee survey showed that while many Hispanics did not know Jews, many had favorable views about them:
â€¢ 78 percent believe Jews have a commitment to family life.
â€¢ 66 percent believe that Jews have a strong religious faith.
â€¢ 61 percent believe that American Jews make a strong cultural contribution.
â€¢ 53 percent believe that Jews support civil rights.
Still, there is a lot of room for growth in our relationship with the Latino community. Another survey conducted in 2001 showed that:
â€¢ 36 percent of Latinos believe “there is anti-Semitism in the Latino community.”
â€¢ 44 percent of Latinos and 39.6 percent of Jews believed that “the relationship today between Hispanics and Jews in the United States” is not excellent or good but just fair.
â€¢ 36 percent of Latinos and 20.3 percent of Jews believe there is an “anti-Latino sentiment in the Jewish community.”
â€¢ 20 percent of Latinos believe that the Catholic church did enough during the Holocaust; only 6.2 percent of Jews believe that.
â€¢ 20 percent of Latinos believe that the United States is too supportive of Israel; only 6.2 percent of Jews believe that.
On a positive side though, 72 percent of Latinos and 76 percent of Jews believe that it is very important for “Hispanics and Jews to work together in order to strengthen laws to prevent discrimination.”
There is so much potential for collaboration, mutual learning, and friendship.
Oddly, Hispanics and Jews may have more than cultural values in common. For example, many Hispanics do not know of the history and cultural legacy of Spanish Jews. In addition, a number of Hispanics would be surprised to know that they carry Jewish DNA, and may be descended from conversos – Jews forcibly converted to Christianity. A 2003 genetic test of men living in New Mexico, southern Texas, and northern Mexico revealed that 10 to 15 percent had some Jewish DNA. Many Hispanics named Alvarez, Rivera, Lopez, and Mendez have found that they may have Sephardic Jewish ancestors. In Chicago, the Alliance for Jews and Latinos celebrates these common roots annually.
Of course, there are obstacles. In 2011, a Hispanic councilwoman in Santa Ana, Calif., accused a local Jewish businessman of “ethnic cleansing” and compared him to Hitler. Fortunately, many Hispanics called for her to resign, and she did issue an apology. At the same time, some Jews have forgotten their immigrant legacy. Polls in 2011 revealed that a majority of American Jews approved of the Arizona law designed to combat illegal immigration, which was perceived by many as a racist attack on all Hispanics.
Some fringe Jewish factions have taken a hard stance on a group they offensively refer to as “illegal aliens.” Of course, they forget that significant numbers of Jews have entered America illegally over the last two hundred years. The narrative that all Jews came to the United States legally has been shown to be completely false. Many Jews facing persecution fudged their passports and many Israelis and Jewish immigrants today are here illegally.
We are overdue in cultivating a strong Jewish-Hispanic relationship. Over the last 50 years, we’ve done a good job at Jewish-black and Jewish-Christian relations. In response to tensions in the Middle East, many have begun to improve Jewish-Muslim relations. We must tend to Jewish-Hispanic relations too.
Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate nationally in 2012 and played a significant role in key swing states including Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. Seventy-one percent of Hispanics voted for President Obama (versus about 27 percent for Mitt Romney); this is similar to the votes of American Jews and Muslims. This rapidly growing group will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in future elections.
Jews have been very successful change-makers in the world because we’ve often been outsiders throughout history. But today we’re accepted in America. So the new question becomes how we can continue to play the role of outsiders now that we’re insiders. How can we continue to exist on the periphery, to be a voice for those on the margins, and to be the social agitators for a more just and holy world when we’re fully included on the inside?
We generally have related best to minorities on the periphery of society. For this reason, among many others, we should be closer with our Latino American brothers and sisters.
As a community, we should explore more opportunities to invite Latino Americans into our community. We should leave our bubbles and meet others in their communities. Jewish Latinos can play a crucial role in building bridges between Jews and Latinos and we all can do our parts as Jewish ambassadors.
We should stand with all minorities seeking to be treated with basic human decency. This is our covenant. This is the dream: that all people may live freely in the world. May we as the Jewish people continue to act as global and local leaders building bridges and standing in solidarity with all minority partners for a more just, equitable, and free world.