Queen Esther: Patron saint of crypto-Jews

Faced with threat of execution for Jewish observance, Sephardi conversos created the festival of Santa Esterica to replace Purim

Saint Esther icon, an example of religious syncretism found in the Southwest (courtesy)

According to tradition, around 1,900 years before the Spanish Inquisition, a baby girl named Hadassah was born in the Persian Empire. She was orphaned at a very young age and her cousin Mordechai assumed custody of her. Under his tutelage, she internalized the spark of her Jewish identity.

After a few years, an opportunity presented itself, and Mordechai placed her in King Ahasuerus’ harem. He told her that her name was now Esther.

Mordechai told Esther that she was still a Jew, but that she must not let anyone know. If she was lucky, one day she could be the queen of Persia. It is said that she was a vegetarian, to avoid eating non-kosher meat. Queen Esther seemed to be fully assimilated, yet she never forgot who she really was. She hid her Judaism, and eventually married King Ahasuerus. 

When the Spanish Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, many Jews converted to Catholicism outwardly. Inwardly, they kept practicing Judaism in secret, becoming anusim, conversos, or crypto-Jews.

Queen Esther was an inspiration to the anusim in that she modeled a way for them to remember and retain their true, hidden Jewish identity while integrating into the society around them. The conversos implemented a strategy to be able to continue practicing Jewish customs while hiding their observance by inserting a Jewish tradition into a Catholic practice or “syncretism” — the mixing of rituals from different religions.

When the Roman Catholic Church formally recognizes a person as a saint, this person is canonized. A person who has not been canonized may, however, still be referred to as a saint if it is believed that they are “completely perfect in holiness.” The crypto-Jews took advantage of this loophole.

Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther. They called her Santa Ester or Santa Esterica. They were able to continue honoring Purim by reinventing it as “The Festival of Saint Esther.”

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Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther.

The Festival of Saint Esther originated in Spain. When Spain issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, many Jews and conversos escaped to Portugal, taking their traditions with them. Their respite was short-lived and in 1497 the Portuguese king Manuel I married Princess Isabella, the daughter of the Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. A clause in this marriage contract extended the Spanish expulsion to Portugal, ousting the Jews once more.

The New World beckoned as a safe haven and the Spanish and Portuguese anusim were among the first settlers in the territories controlled by Spain in what is now Mexico. The Spanish Inquisition followed them to Mexico, however, pushing the conversos north.

The establishment of Nuevo León in the American Southwest is notable in that it was almost entirely carried out by crypto-Jews. Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, a Portuguese converso, received a royal charter to settle this land without religious scrutiny of the pioneers who followed him. The Festival of Saint Esther was disseminated in the New World by these conversos. It was generally the women of the family who maintained this tradition.

The Festival of Saint Esther had two parts. The first part of the holiday was called the Fast of Queen Esther. The women fasted for three days. This fast replicated the fast Queen Esther asked of Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan before she approached King Ahasuerus.

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Execution of Mariana de Carabajal at Mexico, 1601 accused of secretly being Jewish. Source: From Palacio, ‘El Libro Rojo’, reprinted in the Jewish Encyclopedia (public domain)

It was too risky to celebrate the Festival of Saint Esther publicly. This was because the Spanish Inquisition considered such an activity to be Judaizing, or the adoption of Jewish beliefs. However, the archives of Mexico’s Inquisition retain testimony about this fast.

In 1643, Gabriel de Granada confessed that in his family, the women divided up the fast between them. Each would fast for one day. The punishment meted out by the tribunal of the Inquisition for Judaizing was “relaxation,” which meant burning at the stake.

Fasting had a special significance for the forced converts. In “The Fast of Esther in the Lore of the Marranos,” Moshe Orfali explains that the conversos felt that they lived in a constant state of sin. Fasting helped them atone.

The second, celebratory part of the festival was the Feast of Saint Esther. In her article “Women, Ritual, and Secrecy: The Creation of the Crypto-Jewish Culture,” Janet Liebman Jacobs relates that the women lit devotional candles in honor of Saint Esther. It was an occasion of mothers bonding with their daughters. They cooked a banquet together. The mothers took advantage of this opportunity to teach their daughters special family recipes that adhered to the remembered laws of kashrut.

The festive, public Purim celebration was transformed into a private meal held at home. As a result, many Jewish traditions were transmitted from mother to daughter.

The crypto-Jews also had their own special way of honoring Esther year round by enshrining her in a piece of art.

All Spanish colonies had a special type of religious art form called santo. Santos were statues made of wood or ivory which depicted the Virgin Mary, saints, or angels. In Latin America and the American Southwest, these statues were called bultos. The bultos were carved from wood, and then coated with a mixture of glue and gypsum, called gesso. They were then painted with vivid homemade pigments.

In crypto-Jewish homes, Queen Esther was fashioned into an icon and transformed into a bulto of Saint Esther.

Santo art was also expressed as devotional paintings called retablos. Traditionally, these were executed on sheets of metal such as copper or tin. Since there was a shortage of metal in the New World, the retablos were made of wood. Like the bultos, they were coated with gesso and painted. The paints were made from natural materials such as plants, insects, ash, and clay. Then they were varnished with tree resins. Crypto-Jews also commissioned retablos of Saint Esther.

It is less common to find bultos or retablos of Saint Esther in the American Southwest today. This is the legacy of Archbishop Peter Davis, who was the Archbishop of Santa Fe from 1964 to 1974. According to Jacobs, the archbishop wanted to get rid of all the Jewish rituals in New Mexico. He told his parishioners that there is no Saint Esther in Catholicism. and explained that the celebration of Esther is called Purim, and that Purim is part of the Jewish faith.

Despite Davis’ best efforts, it is still possible to find bultos and retablos of Saint Esther in crypto-Jewish homes today. In “The Book of Esther in Modern Research,” by Leonard Greenspoon and Sidnie White Crawford, for example, Santa Ester is portrayed as holding “a hanging-rope in one hand, and a crown in the other, weighing the danger of execution against the safety of royal immunity.”

Charles Carrillo is a contemporary artist who creates Saint Esther icons. (courtesy)

There are also contemporary artists creating icons of Saint Esther. Charles Carrillo is one of New Mexico’s most prominent santeros, or artists that carve and paint saints. Carrillo earned a doctorate in archaeology from the University of New Mexico. While working on a dig, he became inspired by the work of the santeros. He conducted a lot of research, and became a self-taught artist whose mission is to preserve the homemade materials, techniques, and designs of the master santeros of 18th century colonial New Mexico. In 2006 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award.

According to Carrillo there is a large community of crypto-Jews in New Mexico.

“They came here in the 1500s,” he told me. “I haven’t done one in a long time, but sometimes I still get a commission to create a Santa Ester.” There is an old saying in New Mexico, “A cada santo llega su función,” meaning that there is a saint for every occasion.

“My Santa Ester always has dark hair,” Carrillo said. “It’s a New Mexico tradition. I want my artwork to reflect her attributes. Esther means ‘Hadassah’ in Hebrew. Hadas is a myrtle or fragrant plant,” he explained.

In Carrillo’s retablo, Santa Ester is wearing a crown adorned with myrtle. She holds a myrtle branch in one hand. The rosette at the top of the retablo is decorated with myrtle branches. Santa Ester holds a scepter in her other hand that marks her as a queen. Her scepter is decorated with a pomegranate, an ancient Jewish symbol of fertility, promise, and fulfillment.

The red curtains framing Santa Ester are traditional in a New Mexico retablo. They are an allusion to a stage and symbolize that this has been revealed to us, and that we had better pay attention before the curtains close.

The Spanish Inquisition was formally ended in 1834. It is rational to believe that crypto-Judaism was something that existed in the past and is no longer occurring. However, it has persisted, and there are many anusim that continue their secret practices to this day while living in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Latin America, and the American Southwest.

Several organizations have been established in recent years to help anusim conduct research about their family background. Name Your Roots was formed in Israel by a group of academics who hope to help facilitate research into converso family names and customs. Shavei Israel, was created to assist those descendants of Jews who wish to return to Judaism.

I wondered what it feels like for a devout Catholic like Carrillo to create an icon that he knows is for crypto-Judaic purposes. “I am honored to be asked,” he said. “Ultimately, we all believe in the same God. It is my tradition to paint the images so the story may be told.”


Project for this next year: I would love to commission the creation of a Saint Esther retablo for my small little Jewish community which meets in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles; and maybe even one day the creation of a mural! Are there any interested artists and local partners who are able to help me make this happen?

“The first law in the world that offered protection to Jewish refugees was Mexican”

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Translation of news from Enlace Judío México e Israel – During the dedication of the Centro de Documentación e Investigación Judío de México (CDIJUM) this passed Sunday, a valuable historical document came to its archive, in commemoration for this new site for the Mexican Jewish community.

Recalling the history of MS St. Louis, the president of the Comité Central de la Comunidad Judía de México, Moisés Romano Jafif, celebrated the dedication of the CDIJUM and presented to the audience the bill prepared by Alfredo Félix Díaz Escobar, who said it has its origin in the story of the tragic fate of the more than 900 Jewish crew members who were frustrated in their hope of fleeing from barbarism to our continent.

Félix Díaz presented this initiative to the Congress of the Union, which ended up being approved, for the benefit of Jewish refugees from Germany amidst the full development of the Holocaust in Europe.

After the declaration of war exercised by Mexico against the Axis in May 1942, restrictions were taken against the nationals of Germany, Italy and Japan who were residing at the time in Mexican territory, such as the seizure of property. Jewish immigrants or future refugees of German origin would fall under the framework of these measures. The deputy decided to reverse this for the benefit of the victims of Nazism by law.

Félix Díaz when he presented the initiative before the chamber of deputies on October 6, 1942, and argued for the defense he was asking the Mexican State to give the Jewish refugees, as recorded in the Journal of Debates:

“It is evident that the Israelites are the first victims and the most threatened of Hitlerism. If the civilized world fights for its freedom and for the basic principles of civilization, the Israelite people fight for their own life, and it would be unjust that the just measures that civilized countries, like ours, implant against the hostile foreigners of the nations with which we find ourselves in a state of war, they would harm the Israelites in the same way; this fact would give the unprecedented result that the victims of Nazifascism were likewise the victims of democracy”

The text of the actual legal initiative is as follows:

Article 1 Excluded from the restrictions of the state of war imposed on the nationals of Germany, Italy, Japan and other enemy countries, the Israelites of such origin or nationality.

Article 2 In each and every one of these cases the institution of the Israelite Colony, officially recognized by the authorities of the country, will be responsible and will certify:

  • a) The Israelite origin of the interested party.
  • b) The political and ideological loyalty of the interested party towards the cause of Mexico and the democracies.
  • c) The accuracy of the information you provide with respect to your co-religionists.

Article 3 In the exclusion of the Israelites from the restrictions imposed on nationals and natives of the countries referred to in Article 1, everything related to the freezing or seizure of property, residence rights in the national territory, freedom of movement is included. general and all those points related to individual rights and guarantees that have been decreed or decreed against hostile foreigners.

Article 4 This decree will come into force on the day of its publication in the “Official Gazette” of the Federation.

The bill was the first of its kind in the world enacted for the reception of refugees from the Second World War and the protection of Jews from any type of persecution, according to Cecilia Félix Díaz, daughter of the deputy.

Politician and writer, son of the Sinaloan poet Cecilia Zadi, Félix Díaz was a career soldier who enrolled in the activities of the Mexican Revolution in the second decade of the twentieth century. Within the national potics, which he joined in the 1930s, Félix Diaz not only formed the Comité Nacional Antinazifascista, (Antinazifascist National Committee), but also the Comité Nacional Antisinarquista, which, as the name implies, opposed the Mexican synarchism movement, one of the main groups opposed to the arrival of Jews in the country, which he described as being a “fifth column” of the Adolf Hitler regime in our country.

Félix Díaz, decided to promote his law initiative partly because of the friends he had in Europe who were living through the persecution directed against them, his daughter told Enlace Judío. Jewish families like Jalamsky, Constantine or Ramiansky were great friends of Alfredo Félix Díaz because of the support he gave to the Jews who came to our country.

Cecilia Félix Díaz described her father as someone from the left and a defender of universal values, as well as an admirer of the Jewish people due to their contributions to philosophy, literature and science, both in Mexico and in the world.

During the event, Dr. Alicia Gojman de Backal acknowledged to Cecilia the importance of Félix Díaz for the Jewish Community of Mexico, of whom she has conducted extensive research and has written several articles. “I have no words to thank you,” she said emotionally.

Her granddaughter, Sara Paola Galico Félix Díaz, told Enlace Judío she felt very grateful and moved by the Jewish community for the tribute paid to her grandfather. “My grandfather made this law, and against all odds, it was approved. It was a law which would be an example for many parts of the world, where it began to be replicated; and this legislation began to be a reality for all the lives that had been suffering a monstrous act such as the Second World War,” she said.

Galico Félix Díaz said that the Mexican legislator was a fundamental influence on her to champion social causes and values, which she considers her driving force in the country’s political life, which she says “I learned from my mother, and my mother learned them from my grandfather”.

Currently, Galico Félix Díaz has control of the Mixed Tourism Fund of Mexico City in the administration of Claudia Sheinbaum, the body in charge of promoting the Mexican capital city nationally and internationally. Previously, he held a seat in the Chamber of Deputies for the Morena party in the LXIII legislature, between 2015 and 2018.

Reproducción autorizada con la mención siguiente: ©EnlaceJudíoMéxico
Translated by: Shmuel Gonzales, East Los Angeles, CA

The Solidarity and the Martyrs of the National Chicano Moratorium (August 29, 1970)

Today is the 48th anniversary of the National Chicano Moratorium protest which began August 29,  1970 in East Los Angeles, which attracted as many as 30,000 people to protest the drafting of young Mexican Americans into the Vietnam War.

National Chicano Moratorium, Aug. 29, 1970. East Los Angeles, Calif.

In this photo we see an African-American student in the very front lines, holding the National Chicano Moratorium banner at the front of the parade, while a young Chicano holds it on to the other side of the banner.

On account of the lack of educational and vocational opportunities extended to Mexican Americans because of persisting racial discrimination of that era, our people were most often being denied deferments from the war. And consequently it became clearly evident to the public that our brown-skinned young people were being disproportionately sent to the front lines as cannon fodder for this war. So in the face of this reality, our people began to protest. They fiercely organized when they realized that Latinos accounted for about 20% of the wartime deaths in Vietnam while making up less than 5% of the population of our country at the time.

The protest was organized by local college students and activists from the Brown Berets.

However, it should be noted that the National Chicano Moratorium had a multi-racial backing and presence on the front-line of this protest. As you will see in pictures and film from the events, there are also black and white people standing in solidarity with the Chicano anti-war movement.

In the police violence that ensued, Ruben Salazar, then the news director of KMEX Channel 34 and a Los Angeles Times columnist, he would be killed by the sheriff’s department.

However, our dear Ruben Salazar would not be the only death in the actions known as the moratorium, actions which raged for months; there would be four deaths in total; among the dead were three other people. One is Lyn Ward, who was a Brown Berets “medic” who was killed when a burning trash can containing combustibles exploded; and also another Chicano simply identified as José “Angel” Diaz.

And the fourth fallen person was a person who did not identify as a Chicano at all. In-fact the oral legends and passing historical accounts identified him as a Jewish college student from East Los Angeles.

This is how the account is generally remembered (taken from Wikipedia):

“Some of the deaths seemed accidental but Gustav Montag got into direct confrontation with the police, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Its front-page article the next day recounted that several protesters faced police officers with drawn rifles at the end of an alley, shouting, and kept their ground, even when ordered to disperse. The article stated that Montag was picking up pieces of broken concrete and throwing them at the officers, who opened fire. Montag died at the scene from gunshot wounds. The police officers later said that they had aimed over his head in order to scare him off. A photo accompanied this article, showing Montag’s body being carried away by several brothers. Montag was not a Chicano, but a Sephardic Jew who was supporting the movement.”

I have spent a few years investigating this account, trying to authenticate this story.

What I have found out is that while this story might be true, it seems that it might have at least one fact wrong. The student is identified as a Sephardic Jew; and to some eastside people this would have seemed to have made sense to them as to why he might join in such a movement; if he was a Jew of Spanish extraction.

Though as a Sephardic Jew myself, this doesn’t sound exactly right.

The name Gustav Montag, both the first and last name, suggests that he was actually an Ashkenazi Jew, of German Jewish roots. And I can tell you with great certainly that we did have Ashkenazi Jewish families by the name of Montag who had lived in the area for many years; some buried in East Los Angeles Cemeteries.

So it appears to me that this mysterious martyr of the National Chicano Moratorium was quite possibly not a Sephardic Jew, as the urban legend tells the story, but instead a white Ashkenazi Jew; a white Jewish young man who joined in the solidarity with the Chicano movement, as leftist Jews had since Chicano student organizing began back in 1963.

This seems to been confirmed by the original Los Angeles Times article I just found. This news report is actually taken from the fourth moratorium held several months into the movement on February 2, 1971:

“The Toll of Sunday’s outbreak:

Dead: Gustav Montag, Jr., 24, a native of Sternowitz, Austria, who lived with relatives at 2208 Tuller Road. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department said he was evidently struck by a ricocheting gunshot pellet that pierced his heart.

The coroners office said Montag had recently dropped out of East Los Angeles College, where he had been enrolled in a Hebrew course.”

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In the past couple years I have asked around quite a bit, though I have not yet been able to locate the resting place of the martyr Gustav Montag. I hope to one day be able to fill in the details of this story, and pay my respects at his resting place if such a site exists.

Rest in power martyrs of the National Chicano MoratoriumRuben Salazar, Lyn Ward, José “Angel” Diaz… and our Jewish brother Gustav Montag.


Film from the events of the National Chicano Moratorium:

Note: In this film “Chicano Moratorium: A Question of Freedom“, by Loyola-Marymount film student Tom Myrdahl which captures the events, it opens with my dear friend John Ortiz, que descanse en paz, marching with pride on the horizon of change. John passed away this passed year. Rest in power, our friend and “professor”!

National Tamale Day

March 23rd is National Tamale Day – At one times the tamal – and its closely related north of the border variation known officially as the tamale – was a treat as all-American as the hot dog and hamburger, and could be found on street corners across the entire country by the end of the 19th century.

This is “The Tamale” in East Los Angeles, which opened in 1928. It is shaped in the popular shape of tamales at the time.

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EAST LOS ANGELES- “The Tamale” was built in 1928. It’s an example of programmatic architecture – where buildings are made to attract customers, often looking like what they sell inside. This building is no longer a restaurant. It has changed hands many times, and has been used as a hair salon and even a dental office. It was recently up for sale. Sadly, it is not land-marked for preservation and there are limited protections because of its location outside of the City of Los Angeles, located in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

The shape and wrapping of this tamale was a result of the process becoming automated by the California Chicken Tamale Co. in 1892; giving rise to the San Francisco style tamale. The automation of tamale making would also give an interesting uniform shape to our local XLNT brand tamales, founded in 1894, which had a plant located off of Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles.

This machine-made process not just made them easier to make, it also made it possible to produce and sell across the country.

In 1892 the founder of California Chicken Tamale Co. would take his product first to Chicago, where it would be met with great success. And eventually make their world debut during the 1893 World Columbian Fair in Chicago, and would proliferate as a craze across the country.

And in Chicago a new tamale recipe would also be popularized and take the market by storm, the corn meal style tamale filled with chili con carne; which seems to be inspired by Southern and Mississippi Delta related ingredients and flavors African-Americans brought with them as they migrated. And maybe even influenced by similar dishes and recipes from the delta region. These style tamales would also be popularized by African-Americans, and sold in mass on corners across the country. [See: “The unique Chicago tamale, a tuneful mystery.”]

Now back in Los Angeles tamale carts managed by street vendors had existed as far back as anyone can remember, the presence of tamales here stretching back to the Spanish-Mexican settlement of the area. And by the start of the 1890s in the American-era, even before they had become well-known elsewhere, tamale carts had already begun to take their place at the old Placita.

As Los Angeles Times once recounted the story:

“They dominated downtown by the 1890s, specifically from the old plaza near what is today Olvera Street southwest toward 6th Street, between Temple and Main, blocks that attracted itinerant men, new residents and laborers looking to waste their week’s earnings in the many saloons. As dusk fell, an army of 2-by-4 pushcarts and wagons wheeled their way through this Tamale Row, setting up shop until last call and beyond.”

These tamale carts were essential to laborers, residents, migrants… and even the frequenters of saloon nightlife, they depended upon them. In time they even came to service the local working-class anarchists and socialists who held meetings close by. This certainly made them a target by local business owners and politicians. And eventually tamale carts were banned from the Placita in 1924.


XLNT Tamale Cart – One of the original tamale carts of Los Angeles. Founded in 1894, they have been using the same recipe since 1906.

Then just a few years later in 1928, in a wide and open stretch of what is today known as Whittier Blvd., in the unincorporated territory of East Los Angeles, this tamale structure in the tradition of programmatic architecture arose. Offering a diner-like experience in which to enjoy tamales.

Now notice the items that they are serving here in the tamale cafe.

They are serving tamales; as well as chile con carne. Most likely both of them were provided by XLNT, one of original tamale carts which started a successful tamale empire in Los Angeles; making the tamales and the brick chile base. In the style of the time, the tamales were often served unwrapped and with chile con carne spooned over the top as a sauce. This “hot tamale” style is still a popular favorite with some old school Angelenos to this day.

This building is an interesting look at a fascinating period in Los Angeles history, indeed American history. I hope that one day The Tamale is historically land-marked and preserved!


HOW ABOUT THAT:

In Los Angeles street vending has had a big influence on our local food fare. Many immigrants made ends meet by food vending, not just Mexicans; but Shiks, Pakistanis, and African-Americans as well. And by the end of the 19th century tamales were already one of the hottest selling items across the country.

In the classic film “War of the Worlds” in 1953, one of the most important scenes is when the townsfolk notice the smoking crater which is concealing the space ship. Crowds of residents, journalist and officials all come out to see the spectacle. And with all these people waiting around the local entrepreneurs talk about making it into a tourist attraction. One of the characters, a Mexican man with an accent, suggest they can sell to the visitors: “…tamales, enchiladas and hot dogs.”

Now what can be more American than that, and also more Southern Californian?

Oh and by the way, the actor who played the Mexican pulled off the part, he had the look and accent down, almost like he had come from the barrio himself. The part was actually played by a Canadian-born Jewish actor named Jack Kruschen.

Related articles:

¡Vida Sana! Pico Union Project Community Wellness

To support healthy bodies, minds and hearts

The neighborhood of Pico Union one of the most important immigrant, working-class communities in the city of Los Angeles. In the shadow of downtown and overlapped with the adjacent garment district, most of the residents of this inner-city are Central American working-class families, as well as hard-working Korean and African-American families.

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¡Vida Sana! Pico Union Project Community Wellness. Giving out free fresh produce from the farmers markets and providing resources for healthy living; every 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month from 2:30pm to 4:00pm @ Pico Union Project, 1153 Valencia St, Los Angeles, CA 90015.

And in this neighborhood of Pico Union, on the corner of 12th Street and Valencia there stands a grand old synagogue, the original location of Sinai Temple, founded in 1909; the oldest standing synagogue in the city. Today it is the Pico Union Project (PUP), founded by Jewish music sensation Craig Taubman, when he purchased the building a few years ago and restored it to use as an interfaith house of worship and multi-cultural community center. A community center where we bring together diverse partners from different cultures and faiths to serve the needs of the community in so many inspiring ways.

One of the events which really displays the spirit of Pico Union Projects the best is the bi-monthly ¡Vida Sana! Community Wellness events held on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of each month from 2:30pm to 4:00pm at the site of the Pico Union Project (get directions). Where we give away free fresh produce and fruits from the farmers markets, have arts and crafts for the children, host nutrition classes for adults, and connect people with community resources for the whole family.

¡Vida Sana! comes out of an outgrowth of the seasonal community resource fairs that PUP has hosted since it’s inception just a few years ago. Excited by the outstanding success of these events and moved by the great needs of the community we are part of, Craig recognized that we needed to hold these events more often.

So back in 2016 I was sent out to ask the community what they felt they needed from our project.

Among the most important needs expressed was that our local families wanted access to nutritious food and resources for healthy living. In Latino communities like this the rate of diabetes is at about 18%, which is over twice as high as in white communities. Many families are effected by this devastating condition, which is often exacerbated by limited access to nutritious foods and health resources to be found in this corner of the inner-city.

For this reason Pico Union Project began to regularly focus our attentions on community wellness.

One of the major successes of this program is the vision and enthusiasm of Craig Taubman, as well as his unique ability to bring diverse partners together to get awesome tasks accomplished.

First, acquiring donations of unsold food from local farmers markets and partnering with friends of his to have it kept for us in refrigerated storage facilities they own until the days of our events. Thereby allowing us to give away quality fresh fruits and vegetables to our neighbors, all for free. Eliminating waste of this fine produce and feeding so many hungry families at the same time.

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Neighborhood children planting tomato plants in garden boxes built with the help of Seeds of Hope.

He also built a wonderful relationship with Seeds of Hope, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles which works with congregations, communities, and schools, to turn unused land into productive and beautiful gardens and orchards that provide fresh and nutritious foods to areas of need across the county. They have come out to help us plant trees, fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood with the enthusiastic help of the neighborhood children.

Seeds of Hope also provides nutrition and cooking classes, to discuss with parents how they can make healthier food choices, with fun presentations in English and Spanish which offer helpful tips to neighborhood parents on how to made tasty and nutritious dishes, often with the same fresh foods we are providing that day. They volunteers from Seeds of Hope are always thoughtful in providing recipes and culinary tips which are accessible and culturally appropriate to the people of our community, which are more likely to be incorporated into their lifestyle.

¡Vida Sana! even aims to provide fitness activities such as relaxing yoga and fun Latin dancing.

Though it must be noted that these events also provide all kinds of ways of developing wellness, not just of the body, but also of the mind and heart.

Our program has offered art, music, storytelling for the youth of our community. Engaging in arts and crafts with the children. We have even put together community murals with the permission of local businesses, enabling locals artists and youth to take pride and ownership of their community. And develop the creative skills and a sense of self-pride which can last a lifetime.

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And that is just the beginning of what ¡Vida Sana! offers. It has hosted many resources to enrich the lives of our neighbors. Free resources that are useful for the whole family offered by:

  • Good Samaritan Medical Center
  • Red Cross
  • Koreatown Youth + Community Center (KYCC)
  • Archdiocesan Youth Employment Services
  • Abraham Friedman Occupational Center
  • Los Angeles Public Library
  • City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT)
  • Los Angeles County Health Agency
  • Los Angeles Trade Tech College
  • Jewish Vocational Services
  • PV Jobs (Playa Vista)
  • Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
  • Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo’s Office (CD-1)
  • Congressman Xavier Becerras’s Office (34th Congressional District)
  • Consulate General of El Salvador
  • Consulate General of Guatemala
  • Consulate General of Mexico
  • …and this is just to make a few of our community partners.

And our most important neighborhood partner is the Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), which the most important Central American social service organization in the neighborhood; which is lifeline resource for the local residents, especially the day laborers, domestic workers and garment workers that live in this community. They have partnered with us since the very beginning, always stepping up to help us with even the most backbreaking of projects.

However, the majority of the workforce for most ¡Vida Sana! events are volunteers from the public. People who come out with their temple, church or school to help us set-up and hand out fresh produce with us. And individual volunteers who engage in doing crafts and art project with our youth. And volunteers to help with planting fruit trees and flowers.

Will you consider volunteering your time and resources to helping make a difference in the Los Angeles inner-city? Will you consider donating to this important cross-cultural, multi-faith project? Will you consider volunteering your energy and resourcefulness to make a positive impact in the lives of the people of downtown Los Angeles?

All this is possible because everyday people like you give heed the prophetic call and step-up to help us fulfill the mitzvah, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

CLICK HERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION AND TO SIGN-UP TO VOLUNTEER!

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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 his 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.

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!