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Jewish Journal

The Same Boat

by Rob Eshman

April 29, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros once gave a speech about the tremendous growth of the Latino population in the United States.

"I hear what you're saying," a non-Latino woman in the audience said, her voice filled with anxiety. "But can't anybody do anything about it?"

Cisneros, who in 1981 became the first Latino mayor of a major U.S. city (San Antonio), didn't share her fear. The enormous growth of the Latino population in the United States -- and especially in the Los Angeles region -- presents many challenges, but it also offers many opportunities. Not least among the latter is the opportunity for coalitions with other groups, like, for instance, us.

Many people in the Jewish community, to their credit, get this. Yuval Rotem, Israel's ambassador to the Western United States, initiated a series of formal and informal gatherings with Latino and Jewish activists and politicians, including Cisneros and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys). This year, as in 2002, these culminated in a twilight cruise aboard Fantasea Charter Yachts out of Marina del Rey.

"The Jewish community has always understood it doesn't have the numbers, and it has to be in alliance with people who do," Cisneros said during his speech on the cruise. "There is a practical reason to make common cause."

Here are a few other reasons: one out of every three Californians is of Latino descent. One out of every two kindergarten students is of Latino descent. There are 35 million Latinos in the United States. By 2050 there will be 100 million. By 2010 more than half Los Angeles' population will be Latino.

Some see this reality not as a common cause but as a common threat.

In his new book "Who Are We?" Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington argues that Latino immigrants threaten America's values, identity and way of life. In the March/April issue of Foreign Policy, Huntington presented the heart of his argument: that the contiguity, scale, illegality, regional concentration, persistence and historical presence of Hispanics in America make this immigration an imminent threat. Latinos are slow to assimilate, he argued, and the end result will be "a country of two languages and two cultures."

Huntington's conclusions are highly arguable, and, to my mind, ultimately unpersuasive (for the piquant back-and-forth, visit www.foreignpolicy.com). He acknowledges that by the second generation, the overwhelming majority of Latinos -- 93 percent, to be exact -- are primarily English speaking.

Beyond that, as New America Foundation's Gregory Rodriguez has long pointed out, Latinos are not a monolithic ethnic group, and have never built "parallel ethnic institutions," as have Jews and other minorities, or supported a separatist movement. Rodriguez wrote that Huntington ignores "Mexicans' history of racial and cultural blending and the reams of survey data that show Mexican Americans place great faith in U.S. institutions."

The problem is not the numbers, but our fear of these numbers, and our lack of preparedness.

"Jews in Los Angeles can pull away from public schools and put gates on their communities," Berman said on the cruise, "but little by little the demographic and political complexion of our community is changing. For us to turn to a strategy of insularity when the country is changing is very dangerous."

We can choose not to engage for now, but the price for that will be grave. How well we manage the growth and change depends on how quickly we can fix four broken systems in our region -- healthcare, housing, transportation and education -- and how carefully we manage a fifth: our environment. Whatever coalitions we form should plunge headlong into these issues. Immigrants don't trek to Los Angeles to become better Mexicans or Guatemalans; they come to be Americans. Improving these systems makes that task easier and faster.

Reading Huntington's article put me in the mood, as theoretical treatises usually do, for reality. So last Sunday I took my daughter to Fiesta Broadway, the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in America. The street was closed to traffic for several blocks, and filled with 500,000 people. As far as I could tell, two of them were Jewish -- us -- and not many more were non-Latino.

They crowded around hundreds of booths offering product samples of everything from Wishbone dressing to Lactaid. They ate hot dogs and tamales. I didn't see Samuel Huntington there, but no doubt he would have had a different perception of this uninterrupted flow of humanity. He might have seen a "beachhead," as he put it, of a half-million potential separatists. I saw a half-million Americans, which is to say, eager consumers.

"American Jews have taught us how to be part of America and still maintain our culture," Cisneros said. "These things happen in the American Jewish community not accidentally but because of planning and resolution."

With planning and resolution, Latino-Jewish coalitions can be instrumental in proving Huntington's worst fears wrong. Because just as we were on the evening of Rotem's cruise, we are all on the same boat.

Happy Cinco de Mayo.

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