Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience

A brief history of how Jewish immigrants lent their acquired experience in organizing to more recent Latino immigrants.

“Under the direction of Israel Feinberg, the Los Angeles ILGWU membership rose from 30 to 2,000 between 1930 and 1935, making it one of the larger unions in Southern California. Part of the growth resulted from the 1933 strike by Latina dressmakers. By 1938 the ILGWU’s Spanish-speaking branch had a float in the city’s annual Labor Day parade, and Latinas were active within the union.” – Kenneth Burt

(Revised November 2015)

Jewish-Latino relations in the US are built upon a legacy of recognizing a shared immigrant and working-class experience. We have a long history of being natural allies in promoting social advances. And it all began with organized labor.

At the start of the 20th century an influx of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants provided this country with a desperate and eager labor force. Many of these new immigrants going into the garment and dress-making industry. However, the working conditions in this era of the industrial revolution were terrible and even deadly. Women laborers such as these were among those who organized as early as 1900 in New York City, founding the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Often holding meetings in Yiddish.

With immigrants venturing west and industry taking off in the booming years of Los Angeles, ILGWU became established here in 1910.

However, by the 1930s the largest growing group of new union members were Spanish-speaking Latinos. Saby Nehama a Sephardic Jew, a Jewish person of Spanish descent – first organized efforts among Spanish speakers on the east coast. And then whole Spanish-speaking branches were soon established in several major cities. [see “Memories and Migrations: Mapping Boricua and Chicana Histories,” p. 130]

In Los Angeles, the work of organizing would be most fearlessly taken up by Russian Jewish immigrant and political anarchist Rose Pesotta [See: Jewish Women’s Archive: Encyclopedia; also see Wikipedia.] As stated in this account published by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324:

“On September 15, 1933, a young, New York labor organizer by the name of Rose Pesotta landed in Los Angeles. Pesotta once worked in Southern California where she had been discharged from a garment factory and blacklisted for union activity. Now Pesotta was returning at the request of garment workers to organize their industry. Within one month a new International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) local was formed and the garment industry found itself in the middle of a bitter strike with Rose Pesotta leading the charge.

“In 1933, the Los Angeles garment industry employed nearly 7,500 workers, half of which were scattered in an estimated 200 small sweatshops in the downtown garment district. Latinas comprised nearly 75 percent of those workers, with the rest consisting of Italians, Russians and Americans. Nearly half of the female dressmakers made less than $5 a week, which stood as a clear violation of the $16 a week California minimum wage for female workers and National Industrial Recovery Act’s (NRA) Dress Code, which set standards in the industry. Workers who attempted to organize were routinely fired and blacklisted by the employers. The local leadership of the ILGWU, consisting of mostly white men, had no interest in organizing female dressmakers, feeling that most either leave the industry to raise their families or shouldn’t be working in the first place.

“But Rose Pesotta refused to buy into that dismissive attitude. With the ILGWU International’s approval, she began laying the foundation for a new local (Local 96). She reached out to the Latina community through a bilingual radio program and a weekly paper called, The Organizer.

This work of organizing would not just be expanded into other cities, it would also result in cross-cultivation in other forms of civil rights organizing. As historian Kenneth Burt wrote:

In sections of the Bronx, in the West Side section of St. Paul, Minnesota, and in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, Spanish-speaking Latinos replaced Yiddish-speaking Jews as the newest immigrant group.

“Organized labor often served as a bridge between these working-class, ethnic communities. Unions also provided a political voice for the emerging Latino community.

The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) served this function on the Eastside of Los Angeles. The ILGWU engaged directly in civic life. It also helped establish and worked through a variety of Latino and Jewish and organizations, as well as broad-based civil rights coalitions.

The groups in the ILGWU’s sphere of influence included the Jewish Labor Committee and the Mexican American-oriented Community Service Organization (CSO). Early CSO leaders included Maria Duran and Hope Mendoza from the ILGWU.

Directly and indirectly the ILGWU played a key role in the election of Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, and to the adoption of fair employment and fair housing laws in California in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

The historic influence of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Latino civil rights and politics cannot be overstated.

Founded in 1947 in the Los Angeles eastside, CSO was envisioned by Fred Ross, while inspired and funded greatly by Saul Alinsky. As well as later receiving essential financial backing from allied Jewish organizations – most notably the Community Relations Committee (CRC) – a Jewish organization founded originally in the early 1930s as an anti-fascist organization; dedicated to fighting antisemitism, pro-Nazi outreach and organized racism. [also see, “Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. Community Relations Committee (1933-), Special Collections & Archives”]

The Community Service Organization (CSO) was uniquely created to be a “Mexican NAACP.” Ross and Alinsky took notice that Mexicans were by far the largest and yet most ill treated minority. Mexicans still being the only minority group to not be widely organized. And also standing alone in having no political power or decision-making, with less than 10% of Latino citizens being registered to vote. [see “The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights.”]

In the words of Scott Washburn of CSO:

In 1947, in direct response to rampant police abuse, a lack of educational opportunities, widespread discrimination in government services, a strong culture of bigotry that allowed even people of good conscience to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, and ultimately, to the Zoot Suit Riots and Bloody Christmas, the Community Service Organization was founded by Antonio Rios, Edward Roybal, and Fred Ross, Sr. Quickly, the CSO became a training ground for the first generation of Latino leaders, including Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gilbert Padilla. Recognizing the need for a unified Latino voice and for some semblance of political representation, the CSO initially concentrated on organizing voter registration drives in Latino communities all across California. In 1949, the CSOs efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”

cc_ross_cover_130318_mnRoyball would ride a wave of crucial Yiddish speaking political support in Boyle Heights, backing his ascent to City Hall and further still. The future Congressman Edward Roybal would later take his social causes to the halls of the US Congress with him as well.

Fred Ross would continue to expand CSO at the behest of Alinsky, helping establish their presence first in Oxnard and later in San Jose.  Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, trained by CSO in Alinsky style protest, would then take the cause directly into the local fields; thus founding the United Farm Workers, which is widely considered the most influential and visible Latino organization to date. The UFW is the primary historical and still active model for Latino activism to this day.

[Learn more about the discipleship of Cesar Chavez under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky’s, and the rise UFW as an outgrowth of CSO. See “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa.”]

While today American Jews might not be the face of the working-class anymore, many Jewish community leaders have made it an activist goal to fight for workers rights and better immigration reform for Latinos. Maintaining a legacy of support for these and other progressive causes, due to the similar collective memory Jews have of their grandparents and great-grandparents being exploited as poor immigrants.

For more information, I highly recommend Kenneth Burt’s unpublished paper, Garment Workers as Bridge Builders: Immigrant Radicalism and the Search for Economic Justice.”

For further information regarding the UFW and Jewish activism, see a wonderful piece by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz: The Forgotten Story of Cesar Chavez and the Jews.” (HuffPost)

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