Jewish Journal

Double Identity

Jewish Latinas make peace with their dual heritage.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Jun. 27, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Vocalist Vanessa Paloma can not wait to sing at Fiesta Shalom on June 30. For the Angeleno, who performs Ladino music with her band, Flor de Serena, Fiesta Shalom, a celebration of her Jewish and Latin ethnicities, is a far cry from the mixed feelings she used to experience about carrying passports in both cultures.

"I always wanted to feel like I had a country," said Paloma, who grew up in Puerto Rico and Colombia, "I have a country in Israel, but at the same time, my heart is pained by what has happened in Colombia," she said, referring to the political unrest there.

Paloma's cultural ambivalence is not uncommon among Jewish Latinas. For many of them, hailing from places such as Mexico, Brazil, Venezuala and Argentina, moving to Los Angeles was an important step in a personal journey to reconcile what it means to be Latina and Jewish.

The Jews of Central and South America have their roots in the Spanish Inquisition, when 1 million Jews fled Spain. Over a 150-year period, Sephardim immigrated to destinations such as North Africa and Europe. Jews accompanied Christopher Columbus when he sailed to the New World from the Port of Palos on Aug. 3, 1492 -- the day after the issue of the Edict of Expulsion. Prominent Jewish colonies were established in Brazil as early as 1548, the majority of them in the Dutch zone of Bahia, where Jews could observe freely. Jewish immigration followed to French Guiana in Cayenne and continued through Central and South America, with larger communities forming in Cuba and Argentina.

In 1996, Paloma and Los Angeles found each other, and that's when her Judaism came alive following a University of Judaism class. Further exploration led Paloma to Ohr HaTorah and to Israel, where she traced her family's roots back to Catalunya, Spain.

"It was like coming back home," Paloma said of her year-long stay in Jerusalem. "I thought, Oh, my God we're all the same here. We're all wandering Jews. That was very powerful for me."

Claudia Sobran and Nina Katoni, Brazilian Jews, met at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

"There is a lot of things we have in common -- language, the way to relate to people," Katoni said.

Both Katoni and Sobral grew up in Brazil, where there are approximately 160,000 Jews -- about 120,000 in Sãn Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and the rest in the small yishuvim -- Recife, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Campinas.

Sobran grew up in Sãn Paulo feeling like a cultural pariah, but she maintained a Jewish connection through her mother, an executive assistant at a congregation. Katoni, an architect for Fox Studios, said it wasn't easy growing up and dating Jewish men in Rio de Janeiro.

"It wasn't very cool to be Jewish," said Katoni, 48, who grew up in a Zionist home and attended Rio's Colegio Hebreu Brasileiro. "It was very difficult, the dichotomy of growing up Jewish in a Catholic country. Do you mix with the mainstream or do you maintain your traditions at home?"

Debi Mizrahi had a different experience, raised in a very Jewish enclave in Mexico City.

"I always went to a private Jewish school, and was not connected with Mexican culture at all," Mizrahi said. "It wasn't till when I went to the University of Anthropology that I had connections with non- Jews."

Today, these Jewish Latinas have found solace in Los Angeles with mixed success. While Los Angeles does offer outlets where Jewish Latinas are embraced -- Beverly Hills-based Sociedad Hebraica Latinoamericana, helmed by Martha Ziperovich; the Hispanic-Jewish Women's Task Force, which will be honored at Fiesta Shalom -- overall, living in Los Angeles has been an adjustment, where the culture is simultaneously more comfortable and more distant.

"It's very hard," said Mizrahi, who on June 21, became an American citizen. A resident here since 1993 who married an Israeli, Mizrahi still grapples with the Jewish and Latina identities. Now add American to her list.

"On one hand, I feel very happy, but [on] another, I feel that I don't belong here. Even relationships with friends are so different than what [I was] used to in Mexico. Much more close and much more in touch [there]; here more formality and privacy. That's much harder for me."

Mizrahi stays connected with her Mexican side through cultural events and, to a lesser extent, the Americanized Mexican food. But she misses the close-knit Jewish community of her youth. Her girls, ages 8 and 5, enjoy speaking Spanish more than they do the Hebrew they learn through Chabad.

"I haven't found a temple [where] I feel comfortable," Mizrahi said.

"Social action, tikkun olam -- those are the things that really attracted me to the Jewish community," said Sobran, who connected after enrolling her children at the Silver Lake-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center. "As an immigrant, that really becomes very important. In the process, my Jewish identity became a lot stronger."

Katoni moved to Los Angeles in 1987, where she married her Israeli-born American husband. She found that "it was very interesting to come to America because over here, the Jewish values and culture is much more stronger. I think I've given up some of my Brazilian cultural values for raising my children in America," such as the Portuguese language, which her 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old twins have not picked up. "Except for the music and going back to visit my parents and some foods, I don't have anything that I brought with me."

Paloma, on the other hand, has found some cultural balance.

"I love arepas and watching soccer and speaking Spanish and Latin music," Paloma said. "But I also love that it's so multicultural. That's what I really love about Los Angeles"

She no longer craves to belong to just one place or culture.

"In a way there's a completion of a circle," Paloma continued. "I don't feel this bipolar feeling of being American and Colombian. I cook kosher Colombian at home. I'm more observant than my family. It has really come together in the last few years. It was very difficult, because I didn't know where I came from. It's about finding my place. I feel I am Jewish and American and Latina separately and together."

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