The Racial Politics of Americanizing the Barrio Diet (1920s)

Is what you eat political? Do you accept the claim that your food choices determine your social order in this world? And do you accept that conforming to white American norms in eating is important in transforming people of color into better citizens? Will assimilating ones food choices make people of color less prone to crime and revolutionary tendencies?

AmericanizationThroughHomeMakingPearlEllis

Believe it or not, this is something that has been explored and well discussed in our communities for over a century.

In the 1920s in Southern California there were social reformers who were sent on transform the eating choices made by the public, especially among the immigrant working-class.

One of the most notable reformers to arise in this era was a lady by the name of Pearl Idelia Ellis, of the Department of Americanization and Homemaking, of Covina City Elementary Schools. She was the author the guide “Americanization though Homemaking” which was published in 1929, detailing her work.

Ellis’ work was based in Southern California, which put her in contact with local Mexican American homemakers. Where she would set an agenda for transforming their food choices into ones which made them more like the Anglo Americans they were expected to model.

In 1915 the California state legislature had passed the Home Teacher Act, which would allow school districts to employ teachers “to work in the homes of the pupils, instructing children and adults in matters related to school attendance,… in sanitation, in English language, in household duties,… and in fundamental principles of the American system of government and the rights and duties of citizenship.” This legislation was largely born out of an Americanist panic which arose at that time, as nativists insisted that society demanded that these so-called uncultured immigrants be Americanized.

This legislation enabled reformers like Pearl Ellis to take her work directly into the homes of the people she was trying to effect, with the official authority of state and local government behind her. While the work of Ellis extended into modeling almost every form of homemaking, she took special attention to food. She spent much time and energy with special concern for the nutrition of families and trying to influence their food choices.

PearlEllisPrefaceShe would encourage certain food choices for Mexican American mothers: giving up tortillas, and replacing them with sandwiches on store-bought white bread, made with mayonnaise and “commercial spreads,” and minced meats. They were further encouraged to give up essential staples of their diets like beans, and replaced them with lettuce and mixed salads (example: boiled spinach with mayonnaise, mixed fruit with mayonnaise, cherry-topped banana with mayonnaise, and even “pineapple and avocado salad with mayonnaise to carry out the color scheme”.)

In this manner she instructed mothers in making what she determined to be affordable and suitable food choices. She even went as far as to provide menus for their school lunch choices: “One glass of milk; one cheese sandwich; one lettuce sandwich; one graham cracker sandwich; one apple or pear; one cooky [sic]”.

She would set for people a top-down approach in how to transform Mexican homes into Americanized homes, starting with their choice for a child’s lunch. And based on the assumption that the dietary issues of the community was not based on a lack of food, but rooted in their poor choices of foods.

Professor George Sanchez of USC sheds some light on this for us:

“Food and diet management became tools in a system of social control intended to construct a well-behaved citizenry. A healthy diet was seen not only as an essential for proper health but as fundamental for creating productive members of society. In the eyes of reformers, the typical noon lunch of the Mexican child, thought to consist of “a folded tortilla with no filling,” became the first step in a life of crime. With “no milk or fruit to whet the appetite,” the child would become lazy and subsequently “take food from the lunch boxes of more fortunate children” in order to appease her or her hunger. “Thus,” reformers alleged, “the initial step in a life of thieving is taken.” Teaching immigrant women proper food values would keep the head of the family out of jail, the rest of the family off the charity list, and save taxpayers a great amount of money.”

(Mothers and Motherhood: Readings In American History; “Go After the Women: Americanization and the Mexican Immigrant Woman, 1915-1929)

The ideas of Americanization would not just be taught to mothers, but it would carry over into the education of girls in the school system. As young Mexican American girls were taught these values in order to model them for the home. With the idea that gradually one could transform the tastes of the family into more Americanized ones; which was further reinforced by the school lunch system.

The very table and every meal plate thus became battlefields for cultural assimilation.

Though make no mistake about it, their proposed model American-style diet was even intended to do nothing less than help maintain social order itself.

In her work titled “Americanization though Homemaking,” published in 1929, Pearl Ellis contended:

“The old adage, ‘ As a man thinketh so is he,’ might be easily translated to, ‘As a man eatest, so is he,’ for his thinking is controlled to a greater extent. Than we are wont to realize by his eating and digestive processes… Employers maintain that the man with a home and family is more dependable and less revolutionary in his tendencies. Thus the influence of the home extends to labor problems and to many other problems in the social regime. The homekeeper creates the atmosphere, whether it be one of harmony and cooperation or of dissatisfaction and revolt. It is to be remembered that the dispositions, one angelic, become very much marred with incorrect diet and resultant digestive disturbances.”

Yeah… how about that take on dietary pseudo-science based in classism.

Now think about that, vato, next time you find yourself eating your bologna and mayo, on white bread, that somehow found its way into your face!

And seriously, I also hope people give this all some real good consideration before you even listen to some politicians suggest replacing a big part of our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with “Blue Apron” type meals sent down to us from a government-based central planning, developed by the current administration and rolled-out by private corporate contractors. Think of how bad it could go, if our food is directly chosen for us by them; with food being sent to us regardless of our specific dietary needs and cultural customs.

History tell us that people who lack cultural sensitivity take the reins, they do more damage than just make culturally inappropriate food choices. They also tend to want to change our diets as a form of maintaining the social order.

Topics of further discussion:

  • The social pressure to Americanize ones diet was also experienced by other immigrants as well, especially among the Jews in the “corn beef belt” of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. The dietary choices of Ashkenazi Jews from the east were often considered too exotic and rich; they were expected to conform to a more Americanized diet. In some cases Jewish social service organizations even encouraged what they considered cheaper and more mainstream treif (non-kosher, religiously inappropriate) foods. When the Los Angeles Council of Jewish Women in 1928 published their “Helpful Hints for Jewish Housewives,” they included recipes for Virginia ham, pork chops, oysters and other non-kosher recipes as well as advertisements for Best Foods Mayonnaise, Maxwell House Coffee, and branded canned vegetables and other processed foods.

  • Lunchtime social pressure to assimilate. In Fred Okrand’s interview for the UCLA Center for Oral History Research, “Forty Years Defending the Constitution, Oral History Interview” Tape 1 side 2 – Feb. 4th, 1982, Okrand speaks of his classmates at Lorena Street School in Boyle Heights: “… The kids would make fun of me…because they would be eating sandwiches on white bread, on what we would call kvachehdikeh, soft white bread. But my mother was a Jewish woman; she would go to the varshehveh bakery on Brooklyn Avenue and get good Jewish rye bread. And I remember being ashamed somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren’t….” He was shamed for eating cheaper and darker Jewish rye bread, instead of grocery store-bought white bread.

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Nancy From Eastside Clover, Lincoln Heights (Queer History)

Nancy Valverde (1932 – present) is a barber, as well as a notable lesbian and gender-nonconformist. She was repeatedly charged and incarcerated in Lincoln Heights Jail  for “masquerading.” Her story is one of challenging bias and injustice; and eventually winning. Her life has been the subject of much interest by queer historians in recent years, and through their documentation she has become well-known as a butch lesbian icon. Though to many on the Los Angeles eastside, she is simply known as “Nancy from Eastside Clover.”

Today I want us to take a look at the life and celebrate the life of a very special queer hero from the barrio.

 

The Early Life of Nancy Valverde

Nancy was born in the southern New Mexico town of Deming, and when she was 9 years old her father brought her to Lincoln Heights, East Los Angeles.

When asked about her childhood and school age years, she would talk about the awkwardness of having all the girls chattering about the cute boys and asking for her fawning input, but that she just ended up feeling alienated and like an outsider. And of the reactions she got from people for being different.

Though her formal education was  really short. She didn’t really have much schooling except for grammar school. As she had gone to work in the fields with her family by the time she was 11 years old, seasonally picking Apricots in Santa Paula and cotton in Tulare County up near Bakersfield.

And by 13 years old, she was already working in a local neighborhood restaurant in Lincoln Heights, helping the matron of the kitchen. When the restaurant was sold by the man who owned the building, it was sold to Mexican Americans who started a bakery there. Nancy would continue on working for them for the next few years, delivering pastries all over Los Angeles. Though keep in mind, this was years before she had a driver’s license. Driving her baked loaves and pan dulce up to the once thriving Mexican enclave of Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium sits today. Where later in life she would also witness a woman being dragged from her home, as it was demolished and she was left homeless.

A lot of the experience of discrimination begin as a Mexican American, feeling like a second-class citizen. Which quite naturally resulted in producing in her a certain sense of rebellion. Though nothing seemed to be more of a rebel statement at the time than her gender non-conformity, wearing pants and short hair. She began to realize she was different at the age of 15, all the while thinking of herself as growing into being comfortable in her own skin.

Nancy’s Arrest for Gender Nonconformity, the Crime of “Masquerading.”

In 1948, Nancy Valverde was just 17 years old when she was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. She was charged with the crime of masquerading, an old law on the books which prohibited men and women from wearing gender-nonconforming clothing. The authorities pointed to her short hair and the zipper fly of her pants as evidence, which got her sentence to three months in jail. A criminal charge that got her kicked out of her mother’s house.

And that was just the beginning of her persecution by the Los Angeles Police Department over several years. She often ended up in the lock-up for lesbian women known as the Daddy Tank at Lincoln Heights Jail.

Lincoln Heights jail had mostly become notorious for its “Drunk Tank” when it opened in 1930. And then through the next couple decades still, drunks would be locked up for 30 to 90 days, then released – often to inevitable destitution on skid row – and then picked-up against and it starting all over again.

In the same manner they had a gay men’s section of the jail called the “Fruit Tank,” as well. People would be held for some time, released and then before long picked-up again by harassing police.

Nancy would be dragged in to jail repeatedly. And be placed in the lesbian lock-up.

Sometimes she was even held in the jail without being officially booked, so at times her friends could not find her for days and sometimes weeks.

Nancy insists that the hostility shown to her was because the authorities were against lesbians. Though she makes the point of addressing that as well when talking of her incarceration:

“I was a juvenile. I wasn’t supposed to be there with those older women. Of course, I didn’t mind it,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t even know the word ‘lesbian.’ The first time I heard it was in jail.”

All the while Nancy contended that the clothes she wore was a matter of comfort, while working to financially support herself. The jail would seem to have a revolving door for Nancy, a cycle she tried hard to break out of.

In 1951 she visited the Los Angeles County Law Library in hopes of finding some legal defense. In her research she was able to find rulings from 1950 that stated that women wearing men’s clothing was not actually a crime in Los Angeles. She informed her lawyer and was able to use this in her defense. And so eventually the police stopped arresting her.

Even though the LAPD stopped incarcerating her, the harassment didn’t stop. The beat policemen were known to have made a habit of knocking loudly with their nightstick on the window of her Brooklyn Ave barber shop, to intimidate her and scare away customers.

Though Nancy worked many jobs to make ends meet, her main occupation was as a barber. Though it is important to note that like many of the situations in her life, getting her barbers license was also came with challenges. She found herself being unable to be admitted to barber school because her lack of education. Though eventually she was able to overcome this when a man came up to her and informed her that she could proceed to getting her barbers license if she could pass a basic IQ test. Which she did, and was issued her barbering license. However, like much of her life, she was treated unequally by the other barbers who were all male. And was paid less than the other barbers, because she was a woman.

On top of all this, she also the target of harassment from inside the community, from the cholos and gang members who also went after her for being a lesbian. Even though she was well liked and accepted in the local bars by those who got to know her, long before there were any gays bars around here she would frequent the local watering holes, and be acknowledged just as “Nancy from Eastside Clover,” simply as their friend from the barrio.

Career, Family Life and Retirement

She also worked in the eastside as a bartender, as well as doing odd jobs and home repair work around town. Not to just support herself, but also a family.

In 2013 she spoke about this time in her life to Advocate Magazine, in a segment titled, “9 Tales of Young Love and Old Memories: Nine residents of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing share stories of love from the past and present.” It was recounted:

One day, she ran into a woman named Mary Sanchez, whom she had met before at a bar with mutual friends. By chance, Sanchez was moving her belongings out of her apartment, and Valverde offered to assist her.

“The next day, my back was shot,” Valverde says. “Destiny. I believe in that — the invisible forces.”

Valverde stayed in bed while Sanchez, who was pregnant at the time, cared for her. She told Valverde about the troubles she had been having with her boyfriend. By the time Valverde’s health improved, Sanchez had ended the relationship, prompting Valverde to offer to help support her and her unborn child.

“I said, ‘I’m not lazy, I work,'” she remembers telling Sanchez. “And she looked at me really sad, as if she’d heard that line before.”

Already two weeks behind on the rent (a total that, at the time, amounted to $14), Sanchez managed to convince her landlord to let her become the building’s manager. They were able to stay together in the apartment.

Valverde and Sanchez became a couple and sustained their relationship for 25 years. However, they broke up after Sanchez’s child grew to become an adult suffering from drug addiction, causing a rift between the pair.

“I couldn’t see myself putting up with an addict for the rest of my life,” says Valverde, sadly. “And I walked out. I miss her every day of my life.”

Throughout her lifetime, Valverde helped raise four children of women she loved. She raised one child, Salvatore, for six years, before his birth mother, who initially rejected the baby, returned to take him away.

“They said lesbians could not raise kids,” Valverde says.

But 10 years ago, Salvatore tracked down Valverde, and the two reunited. Valverde keeps a picture of him and his wife in her apartment, along with a photograph that the pair took together when he found her as an adult.

After a long career as a barber and laborer, she retired to assisted living. And is now a resident of the 104-unit Triangle Square senior housing facility in Hollywood, created by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

“This is the best place that I’ve lived in,” Valverde says of Triangle Square. “People know what you’re about.”

Which is really something special. After a long life of struggling for her sense of place up against so many societal prejudices which stood against her. Since her childhood she had to work hard to get by, she had to contend with the rejection of family, and then even had to contend with the gangs that also terrorized her for being a lesbian. Now she has a safe place in this world.

The Legacy of Nancy Valverde

After she moved to Triangle Square she was found by lesbian historians, journals and playwrights. And based on their documentation of her life story in recent years she has become regarded as a Mexican American butch icon by those who admire her.

She inspired Raquel Gutiérrez of the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan, who wrote The Barber of East L.A. based on her life.

The life of Nancy Valverde is also documented and featured in the documentaries On These Shoulders We Stand and Nancy from East Side Clover; and in the books Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, and Lavender Los Angeles.

Nancy Valverde has a tremendous life story. Her life experience is one that is both reflective of a terrible history of homophobia and gender politics in the 20th century. And the experience that she suffered through was something that was not uncommon in other big cities, but it was more complicated here due to the conditions and culture of Los Angeles at the time.

Now let us keep in mind that Nancy is not transgender, she is a butch lesbian. She was not trying to pass as a man, meaning she was not trying to “masqerade.” She even had people testify in her defense that they knew she was a woman and that she was certainly not trying to fool anyone either. That is just who she was and who they knew her to be.

Most white, queer and transgender scholars state that her attire would hardly be noticed today. And note that even at that time it might have likely gone unnoticed in many other big cities. However, it must be stated that Los Angeles was especially intolerant in respect to gender non-conformity and any attire that broke with white cultural norms; all this coming to a head during this height of World War II.

In addition to that Los Angeles, unlike some other cities, would eventually target both male and female cross dressers. This was something of a particular obsession for mayor Fletcher Bowron, who was mayor of Los Angeles from 1938 to 1953. He was known to have a specific abhorrence for women in pants. In 1942 he declared to the city council that he loathed “to see masculine women much more than feminine traits in men.”

Now keep in mind that is all going on during the middle of World War II, as women are going to work in local industrial jobs as the men went off to war, as they work their asses off in the factories to help support the war effort. Nonetheless he looked at these women in their practical work attire as a desecration of gender and womanliness.

While Bowron was alarmed that he could not prevent this of women in defense factories, he contended with his council members that this needed to be stood against and banned in City Hall. In that year of 1942, the city council was urged by him to pass a regulation that prevented women employees from wearing pants at City Hall.

In 1950 legal precedent began to offer some level of defense, that wasn’t present before the war. However, in the post-war years and going into the 1950s, still this era came with increasing examples of harsh treatment as women refused to return to the traditional gender roles they had emerged from.

And certainly, as a Mexican American Nancy Valverde also suffered even more persecution. In an era in which there was increased targeting of Latinos, who had also stretched their legs in society during these years and then ultimately refused to be pushed back into their subjugated roles again as well. And who were likewise often seen as challenging all that with their attire as well.

We will discuss this more in the future as we further explore the history of the repeated criminalization of minorities and non-conformists at the Lincoln Heights Jail, in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned!

Resolving Conflict and Preventing Racial Violence, in the Classic Eastside

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How the Jewish and Latino Communities Resolved Conflict in Post-War Boyle Heights (1940s-1950s)

How can we revolve conflict and prevent violence in our changing eastside communities? What can we learn from history regarding this? What should the community keep in mind as we see the demographics changing here once again? What should we consider as we see an uneasy integration taking place here?

fredross_CSO-voter-registration-1948

Voter registration, during the historic 1948 voter drive in which 15,000 new voters from the barrios were registered by the efforts of the Community Service Organization (CSO). This is what really provided the democratic muscle to help Edward Roybal, our first Mexican-American local representative, get elected to the LA City Council. The CSO received its essential funding and mentoring in organizing from Saul Alinsky, and his Industrial Areas Foundation, under the guidance of his local representative Fred Ross Sr. (see photo,far left). As well as financial support directly from the local Jewish Community Relations Committee (CRC), today known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The reality is that this type of turbulent change, it has happened all before. Community change being met with racial conflicts and classist fears, this has all come around before.

However, it’s important to remember that the people of this community have a profound history of forging inter-community partnerships to conquer prejudice and racial tension.

This was especially true in the late-1940s through the mid-1950s, in the partnerships between the shrinking Jewish community of the area and the growing Mexican American community of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Recently when discussing notable history of the area I had talked with people a lot about the cooperation of Jews and the minority community in the fight against the Nazi fascism during the 1930s and through the 1940s. Of the Jewish and non-sectarian organizations which they founded to fight fascism, and how many went on to be essential backers of minority empowered organizations in the fight against Jim Crow. [see “The Anti-Nazi Parade, Boyle Heights 1938: How Our Multi-Ethnic Community Responded to the Jewish Refugee Crisis.”]

During the years leading up to and then through World War II many Jewish people and minorities had a lot in common still, because the nature of prejudice and the persistence of segregation in that age. In those days their partnerships were essential and seemed quite natural.

Though I believe that history clearly shows us that the partnerships between Jews and Latinos becomes most interesting in the post-war years. Though sadly, most people write off the history of the Jewish eastside after the war. During a time when such partnerships could be considered counterintuitive to many.

The reality is that telling the story of inter-community relations becomes much more complicated after the war, so many just avoid it at all cost. As Jews and Latinos begin to have less in common with each other, which does result in increased friction. Frictions which were not uncommon before the war, and the specter of which fearfully hung over the Jewish community with even greater concern following the war.

In the decade following the wartime riots, the general population was genuinely afraid of a resurgence of riots. And the larger population even fearful of Mexican residents taking vengeance on them, expecting an eminent explosion of Mexican rage in the form of riots.

So what did the Jewish leaders of the area do post-war to fight racial conflict and prevent violence in the changing community? How did they overcome the issues of having to deal with the communal bitterness felt by the growing racial minority groups regarding housing and job market inequity? How did Jews react with even being perceived as exploiters and absentee landlords controlling these older neighborhoods?

The fact is scape-goating of Jews in the eastside has existed as far back as any of us remember. And it is something that the Jewish community out of necessity realized they had to address more assertively when they found themselves in the role of being the smaller minority here after the war.

We need to more honestly tell the story of the communal challenges of that era. Instead of avoiding the hard truths which culminate at this point in history. We need to recognize the reality that even in the “good old days” of the historic interracial community of Boyle Heights of yesteryear which many are prone to idealize today, even then the established community of Jews of the area had to put a great deal of work and invest a lot of money into dispelling racism, classism, antisemitism and preventing misdirected violence.

The reality is that inter-cultural and inter-faith respect of classic Boyle Heights was not just a given. Living next to people of other races and cultures, it did not necessarily integrate people to one another, nor effortlessly create mixing and understanding.

Again, it took real effort and true intention to accomplish this sense of community cohesion with a diverse population of residents here. Which begs me to ask: So why is it that today people expect it to just happen all by itself? Why is the current establishment of our community federations really doing nothing to support direct inter-community cooperation and inter-racial socialization? How is that today they do not see fit to really contribute anything to mitigate a long history of tensions which are revisiting us here?

I dare say that my fellow community, cultural, religious and interfaith leaders of today really need to learn some pages from our local history. And reflect on how to help our community of today resolve the currently rising tensions, in tried and true ways.

I ask us to consider these selected pages of history here:


“RESOLVING CONFLICT, PREVENTING VIOLENCE”

from Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century

By Shana Bernstein

The Zoot Suit Riots’ legacy factored prominently into postwar calculations about the value of cooperating across community divides, especially as the mounting housing crunch and employment discrimination escalated racial tensions in minority areas. As tensions threatened Angelenos’ safety, they stirred Jews’ and Mexicans’ — along with the rest of Los Angeles’ fears that violence would once again erupt in their city. The American Council on Race Relations’ 1945 study titled The Problem of Violence: Observations on Race Conflict in Los Angeles: explained: “There was general apprehension on the part of many who had seen the evidences of friction increasing and apparently cumulating, who had lived through the ‘zoot-suit’ riots.” These people, the study reported, “feared that post-war Los Angeles with its restricted employment opportunities for Negroes and Mexicans, its wretchedly inadequate housing facilities and its greatly increased population would become a battle ground on which Americans battled each other.” The threat of violence forced Angelenos to realize that wartime attempts to improve race relations in the city had fallen short.

Sometimes the tensions and competition for resources did result in violence, both between whites and minorities and among minority groups. Much of the violence was perpetrated against minorities, especially African and Mexican Americans, by whites….

[pg. 151-152; continuing selection with, pg. 154-156.]

These were the living conditions of the Mexican families, living in the settlements of FIckett Hollow, Boyle Heights. (1950)

These were the terrible living conditions of the Mexican families, living in the settlements of Fickett Hollow, Boyle Heights. (1950)

East Los Angeles Jewish and Mexican community, among whom relations were particularly strained as the two groups’ financial, social, and geographic distance increased, viewed potential violence as an especially salient issue. As Jews in Los Angeles, as elsewhere, confronted housing restrictions and employment discrimination, they, unlike Mexican Americans, also made economic strides, became increasingly integrated, and gradually moved toward the more affluent west side. The Mexican origin population, on the other hand, was “Southern California’s largest and, in many ways, most disadvantaged minority,” according to a 1949 report by Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. The group’s poverty, lack of networks to other communities, low voter turnout, and high percentage of non-citizens, according, to reports like these, impeded attempts at securing financial backing to pressure politicians to improve their conditions. A 1946 investigation of racial minorities’ conditions by the ACRR concluded that the Mexican-American community was in even more dire straits other than poor Los Angeles minorities.

Increasingly different class status distanced Jewish and Mexican Americans from one another. In the schools, the ACRR’s report The Problem of Violence observed, “The great barrier to the acceptance of Mexican children by Jewish children is the middle-class bias of the Jewish parents expressed in excessive concern over dirt and disease.” Divergent police actions towards the two groups also, it explained, served to “contribute to the increase of community tensions between middle-class Jews and lower-class Mexicans. The “class bias” was intertwined with a racial bias, too, as Jewish Americans were becoming increasingly integrated into American society and accepted as white, while Mexicans increasingly faced categorization as brown “others.”

Mexican-Americans saw their Jewish neighbors moving to nicer neighborhoods while their own conditions stagnated or deteriorated, breeding “frustration and bitterness.” Alinsky’s Industrial Area’s Foundation reported, “These, in tern, found expression in intergroup hostility and scape-goating with particular reference on the Eastside to the adjacent Jewish community.” Jews who moved west frequently kept east side businesses and retail properties, which sometimes provoked charges of exploitation from their former neighbors. Associating Jews with exploitation stemmed in some cases from anti-Semitic assumptions, since many non-Jews also became absentee landlords.

This growing divide between two communities that seemingly had little in common after the war counter intuitively helps explain their interest in collaboration. Because Mexican Americans’ daily struggle for survival left little money to fund organizations such as the CSO, they sought support from other Los Angeles ethnic communities, including Jews. The Jewish community’s motives for assisting a group increasingly distant from its own population seem less apparent. CRC [the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish community; the predecessor to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles] leaders, discussing the Mexican, American community, justified support for the CSO by explaining that it “deflects the hostility which exists in that community against the Jews, to constructive social issues of benefit to the Mexican-American and the Jew alike.” The CSO could “by its very existence, prevent race riots such as have happened before in this city.” CRC leaders claimed it already had “no doubt prevented serious repercussions which might have otherwise happened on the East Side.” CRC executive director Herzberg countered a member’s protest that the CRC should stop funding the CSO, since it was not “closely related enough to the activities of the Jewish community,” by explaining that its “prophylactic value” was “a relatively cheap investment” for the Jewish community. Herzberg’s comment that the CSO would help prevent “gang fights and similar anti-social acts” also reveals underlying assumptions about Mexican Americans’ violent potential. Fears of violence also shaped Jewish community interest in the African-American community. The CRC reported Jewish concern about the implications of demographic transformations in the Watts neighborhood, specifically the increasing African-American and Mexican-American populations. Mounting unemployment created a situation of “increasing problems of social relations” that “could be explosive as far as the Jewish community is concerned.” Many of the retail stores on the main street of Watts were owned and run by Jews, it reported, explaining that the year before, “a vigorous anti-Semitic campaign” arose as unemployed residents demonstrated their frustration about limited job opportunities. The report also identified mounting tensions between the African-American and Mexican-American communities in the neighborhood. In response to such tensions, the CRC expressed to the director of planning of the City Planning Commission that it was “deeply concerned about some of the conditions of living in the Watts area of our city.”

A colony on Fickett St. showing a number of bungalows built in a canyon in Boyle Heights. This was one of the poorest barrios in the neighborhood.

A colony on Fickett St. showing a number of bungalows built in a canyon in Boyle Heights. This was one of the poorest barrios, which impoverished Mexicans were relegated to; out of sight and concern to even people of good conscience.

Amidst these complex attitudes, which reflect some degree of prejudice and misunderstanding of each other, both Mexican-American and Jewish-American communities viewed bridge-building projects as critical for their mutual survival. The CSO particularly hoped to secure Jews’ participation since, as Ross explained, “this is the other large group on the East Side and Jewish-Mexican American relations have left a good deal to be desired for some time.” Ross attempted to obtain Jewish community support by emphasizing to the CRC how the CSO’S work improved “deplorable” East Los Angeles neighborhood conditions that “had been reflected in a history of hostility between Spanish speaking colonies and the Jewish Community surrounding the Jewish Community surrounding Temple Street.” The CSO reported in 1949 that two years of efforts had redirected the “scape-goating” of nearby “disadvantaged groups” (specifically the “adjacent” Jews) and had “pav[ed the way] for cooperation with other groups particularly with those in the Jewish Community.”

In short, memories of World War II-era violence and fears of its recurrence helped inspire postwar collaboration. In cases like the CSO, such fears even resulted in important new postwar civil rights initiatives which continued the earlier thrust of reform and demonstrate the continuity between 1935 and World War II era collaboration and its later Cold War incarnation.


In a previous post I actually went into great detail about the CSO, when talking about the connection between the early garment worker’s movement of the 1930s-1940s, and the rise of the CSO in 1940s-1950s, and the continuity of these social justice aims which eventually gave rise to the United Farm Workers in the 1950s-1960s.

However, I think it is import to revisit some of this important chapter in history:

The Importance of the Community Service Organization (CSO)

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 Sr., 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. [it would later become know as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; 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 CSO’s efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”

Elect Roybal, LA CIty CouncilRoyball 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 Royball 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, and the rise UFW as an outgrowth of CSO. See “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa.”]

Again, historian Shana Bernstein notes:

“While the CSO is represented as a Mexican-American activist group in much Chicano scholarship, it was an interracial endeavor from its very beginning and its membership was diverse well into the 1950s. The grassroots CSO drew its main support from a combination of older Mexican-American activist groups who had participated in the 1930s-era movement and newer ones who emerged out of the war as veterans. It also received significant support from other Angelenos, most importantly Jewish Americans. Its early organizers encouraged multiracial membership. “Although they great majority of CSO members are Mexican-Americans, we have gradually had members of other groups come in,” Ross Reported of its 1948 meetings. “At the last meeting, for instance, we had 15 reps from the adjacent Jewish community, 4 Negros and around 18 so called ‘Protestant Anglos’” In 1949 Ross reported to the CRC that “Orientals, Negroes, Jews and Christians” compose the approximately 12 percent of membership that was not Spanish-speaking. In the early to mid-1950s, the organization’s chairman Tony Rios reported that 15 percent of its more than 3,500 members (approximately 3,000 from three L.A. County branches and 500 from San Jose) were “from the Negro, Jewish, and the so-called Anglo-American communities.”

Community Service Organization meeting in 1955. Photo: www.fredrosssr.com.

Community Service Organization (CSO) meeting in 1955. Photo: http://www.fredrosssr.com.

The contributions in civil rights organizing which began here in Boyle Heights with inter-racial cooperation in establishing the CSO, it would bear fruit even beyond this community. Inspiring the pursuit of even larger gains of empowerment of working-class Mexican-Americans. Though it was a multi-ethnic endeavor. And their achievements of this era, they were attributed to their inter-community cooperation.

 Interracial Programming of the Eastside Jewish Community Centers

While Bernstein and I tend to often focus on the labor and political organizing history of this area, it is very important to note the more well known cultural and social activities which contributed to better race relations and for strengthening community cohesion.

The eastside Jewish Community Centers most notably provided programming for all of the community; it was open to Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. Indeed as much as 15% of the members of the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center were not Jewish, as well as about 3% membership of the more Orthodox Zionist-based Menorah Center in City Terrace. While these centers offered programming for the members of the local Jewish community, they also sought to meet the needs of all their neighbors as well.

“Students arrive for after-school activities at the Eastside Jewish Community Center on Soto Street, c. 195-. Formerly the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center… sponsored integrated sporting leagues as well as programs designed to introduce cross-cultural understanding, In the 1950s, center director Joseph Esquith was removed because his policy of keeping the facilities available to anyone, regardless of politics, was considered subversive. (Los Angeles Daily News Photographic Archive, Department for Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)”

“Students arrive for after-school activities at the Eastside Jewish Community Center on Soto Street, c. 1950. Formerly the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center, the Eastside Jewish Community Center sponsored integrated sporting leagues as well as programs designed to introduce cross-cultural understanding. In the 1950s, center director Joseph Esquith was removed because his policy of keeping the facilities available to anyone, regardless of politics, was considered subversive. (Los Angeles Daily News Photographic Archive, Department for Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)”

Though these numbers might seem modest, this did make a major impact in forging the community’s sense of interracial fellowship; offering after-school programs, sports and swimming. In an atmosphere free from the racial segregation which was common in most other neighborhoods and at many public facilities.

After the war, and after the steep decline of the Jewish population of the area in the decade to follow, these Jewish community centers began to refocus their efforts to further bring the causes of the current non-Jewish residents into their walls. And also giving space to socially progressive causes of the area’s working-class immigrants.

As we will further explore, this progressive stance eventually came with major consequence and persecution for the remaining Jewish community leaders here on the eastside. During the McCarthy era Red Scare which was feverishly consumed with the weeding out of communists. In a political atmosphere where promoting socialism, internationalism and labor progressivism made many people targets for being labeled communists enemies of the state.

Inevitably,  it was their open door policy to people of all backgrounds and political persuasions which would in the end doom these Jewish community centers later on in the 1950s.

To be continued…..

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