The moment Naomi Rodriguez entered Caffe Latte on Monday morning, she encountered a woman in distress -- an elderly Jewish woman overwhelmed by the realization that she had missed a doctor's appointment. A concerned Rodriguez took a moment to reassure her.
"It's going to be okay," said Rodriguez, in a soothing tone that put the woman at ease.
Perhaps this was an omen. Early this year, Rodriguez was hired as community affairs specialist for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. In a new role created for her, Rodriguez is the liaison for the State of Israel to the Latino community. Rodriguez advises the consul general and the deputy consul general of Israel in matters pertaining to Latino politics, commerce, and culture.
"Everyone has apprehensions when you're applying for a new job," Rodriguez said over breakfast. "But the Israeli Consulate immediately made me feel part of an extended family. There was an instant connection."
Consul General Yuval Rotem is impressed with his new hire. "Naomi is very committed, very devoted and diligent," she said. "She understands politics within the Latino community."
"He was very progressive in his thinking," Rodriguez said of Rotem. "He said, 'I need a Latina to help us outreach.' He wanted diversity in the consulate. I was the second non-Jew he hired."
Rodriguez was equally impressed by Rotem's desire to reach beyond the Jewish community through diplomacy.
"In my opinion, these next years are all about coalitions," Rodriguez said.
Even if Antonio Villaraigosa does not win the mayoral election, there is no doubt that this is a fertile time for Jewish-Latino relations in Los Angeles.
"Ever since I came over here a year and a half ago, I really thought we need to broaden the agenda of the Israeli Consulate," Rotem said. Rotem and Rodriguez are very aware that both Latino and Jewish cultures share emphases on family, community, tradition and religion.
They have already brought Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to a La Opinion editorial board briefing. Two weeks from now, Israeli President Moshe Katzav will meet with Latino leaders. The same will happen when the Chile-born Gadi Baltiansky, spokesperson for Ehud Barak, hits town.
"We will work together with the consul of Mexico on joint ideas how to bring Latinos and Jewish people together," Rotem said.
Rodriguez was born in Victorville to Mexican-American parents. The beginning of her childhood was idyllic. She grew up on a ranch, where her neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Roy Rogers.
"Dale Evans used to babysit me," Rodriguez said of the singing cowgirl, who passed away earlier this year.
Rodriguez's parents, devout Christians, ran a small shelter for troubled East L.A. youth on their property.
Then her family was rocked twice by tragedy. When Rodriguez was 3, her father was killed by a drunk driver while leaving church. Then, when she was 10, Louis, her older brother, who had become the patriarch of the family, fell asleep at the wheel while on his delivery job. He died the day before his wedding. He was only 22.
No longer able to support her family, Rodriguez's mother moved her children to Riverside, Rosemead and Azusa.
Now 25, Rodriguez brings more than seven years of public service experience to the consulate, having worked for State Senator Gloria Romero when she represented the 49th Assembly District and for City Councilman Nick Pacheco.
Even Rodriguez's undergrad years at California State University Long Beach (CSULB) were marked by accomplishment. She beat out three male rivals for student body president at a campus of 30,000 students. As CEO and president of Associated Students, Inc., Rodriguez oversaw a budget in excess of $22 million, supervising more than 200 employees. Somehow, Rodriguez managed to slip in a year studying international politics at Nottingham Trent University in England.
"She's a superstar, and I'm her number-one fan," said Dr. Robert Maxson, president of CSULB. "I'm in my 20th year, and she is one of the finest students I've ever come across."
At a recent Associated Students banquet, she was surprised with a scholarship named in her honor.
Rodriguez has worked a sexual assault hotline on behalf of L.A. Women's Center since her early teens. Come July, she will also sit on the YWCA's board, and she has been selected by the prestigious HOPE (Hispanas Organized for Political Equality) program, an intensive internship that engages Latinas in social action efforts.
For the consulate, Rodriguez is organizing cultural exchanges, such as a celebration at Tamayo's, a landmark East L.A. restaurant dedicated to artist Rufino Tamayo, in September, which is Hispanic Heritage Month. She is also planning an October delegation of 20 prominent Latino leaders to visit Israel. Invitations have been extended to David Lizárraga, CEO and president of Telacu; the heads of Telemundo and Univision; and Jonathan and Dolores Sanchez, owners of Eastern Group Publications, whose publications include the bilingual Eastside Sun, originally a Jewish-owned Boyle Heights paper. Later, a Jewish delegation will visit Mexico.
When and if she finds the time to pry herself from her full plate of work, Rodriguez pursues dancing, a lifelong passion. As a child, she performed with Mickey Rooney's Talent Towners. Rodriguez recalled that it took three auditions to make it into the dance troupe. She didn't quit, and her persistence then, as it has since, paid off.