¡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!

Do you like the Pico Union model? Do you have a community center, church or synagogue that you would like to host community resource events like ¡Vida Sana! ? The PUP model is inspiring people all over the city of Los Angeles to consider opening up their communal sites and religious space to utilizing this model project for the benefit of their communities. Let us know how we can help you get inspired and make this happen in your neighborhood!

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?

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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.

An Anti-Fascist Chanukah, Los Angeles (1940)

Hollywood and Boyle Heights celebrating Chanukah together

Shmuel Gonzales the Barrio Boychik, lighing the menorah in Hollywood

Shmuel Gonzales the Barrio Boychik, saying the Hebrew blessings and lighting the Chanukah lights in Hollywood with the hosts of “Two Jews Talking” Podcast.

This year I had the great pleasure of joining my dear friends Josh Heller and Erika Brooks Adickman of the fantastic Two Jews Talkingpodcast to help them light-up the holiday of Chanukah. I’ve had the honor of being on their show a couple times previously, so I was totally thrilled to be asked to come back to celebrate the holidays with them.

We came together on the eighth and final night of Chunukah at Tabula Rasa Bar in East Hollywood to kindle the fullness of the Chanukah lights and spread light across city. This event was part of Infinite Light, a city-wide festival powered by Nu Roots – “a movement of young people building community across L.A.” which is funded by generous grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Now Josh knows what my interests are, so he asked for historical stories about Chanukah in the early 20th century which shed light on the history of Jews in Hollywood… and maybe even throw in some stories about labor movement or antifascist organizing. Something to inspire us in this dark time of political resistance.

Now this was a tall order… one that I thought might require a holiday miracle!

And just then I remembered reading an old newspaper article from the Bnei Brith Messenger from December 1940, about a very special Chanukah celebration which in that year would bring together the people of Hollywood and my neighborhood of Boyle Heights to address fascism.

I had a really great time! I’m really grateful to have spent the holiday with some dear friends, and to share the season’s joy with new friends as well.

For those of you who weren’t able to join us and hear the interview, you can listen to the live recording from the party on the latest episode “Two Jews Talking” podcast in the link below:

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https://art19.com/shows/2-jews-talking/episodes/1937e0ea-1db7-4b97-a77b-2a9f8017a007/embed?theme=dark-blue

And below you will find a more detailed written history and some fascinating sources on this topic.

Chag urim sameach… happy festival of lights!


The history of Chanukah Balls and Banquets in the early-20th century.

Jewish Chanukah 8-Day Feast Begins. “The holidays are welcomed especially by the children, for Chanukah has become largely a children’s festival.”
From the Los Angeles Herald, December 16, 1919

In the first half of the 20th century in Los Angeles, Chanukah was seen as mostly a child’s holiday. The synagogue Hebrew schools would host all day celebrations for the small children. And for the the older youth, the ladies of society would host balls in the grand ballrooms to encourage the mingling of Jewish young people.

Then around 1915 these events would become more and more cause-related, and often tendered to in some way be focused on the national matters, matters which were important to Jewish people and the American nation at large. In this spirit they would begin to hold charity events for causes, such as war relief amidst the First World War.

And in the zealous national theme of the holiday of Chanukah – and in the spirit of the times in regard to the aspirations of many people for the establishment of a haven for Jews in Palestine – for those so inclined to the almost Maccabean sentiments of the time, the holiday events would also at times begin to take focus around Zionism. Though it must be noted that this would most certainly become a secondary cause for many Jews, in the face of more pressing domestic and international issues.

Then taking the lead in organizing Chanukah functions starting in the 1920s was the AZAAleph Zadik Aleph – a fraternal group dedicated to patriotism, Judaism, love for one’s familial elders, and charity; today they are a junior auxiliary of BBYO – the Bnei Brith Youth Organization.

And that was what celebrations for Chanukah were like in the early 20th century; something between a mixer for Jewish young people and a charity ball.

It is out of this mold that would emerge a tradition of Chanukah celebrations being held by junior auxiliaries and charitable societies, in order to rally people around a cause.

Also worth noting is that over the years children’s Chanukah celebrations in Los Angeles would also be enriched by the magic of Hollywood; with local theaters being booked to show, “Motion pictures of a religious and historic nature will be shown, through the courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Parents also are invited.”

Chanukah parties were sponsored and held in theaters which showed motions pictures of “a religious and historic nature,” shown through the courtesy of Warner. Bros. Studios.
Bnei Brith Messenger, Dec 4. 1940 Chanukah

In the backdrop of Hollywood, Chanukah in Los Angeles would flourish as a holiday.

The year Hollywood and Boyle Heights Celebrated Chanukah as a Resistance to Fascism

Now tonight we are going to talk about one Chanukah celebration that would bring the Jewish community of Hollywood out to Boyle Heights in the year of 1940 for a matter that was very important to the Jewish people, the American nation, and all the nations of the world. To address the threat of fascism which was ravaging Europe, and causing discord domestically in American.

This Chanukah luncheon would attract some of the finest people of Los Angeles and Hollywood society to the banquet hall of the Jewish Home for the Aged, then located in Boyle Heights.

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Ida Mayer Cummings (oldest sister of Louis B. Mayer of MGM) and actress Mary Pickford would fund-raise for charities together for over two decades. Photographs provided courtesy of the Alicia Mayer Collection.

Among them would be the famous silent film actress Mary Pickford. For over 20 years the Hollywood actress would involve herself in philanthropy and charity fund-raising. It is important to note that among the most notable stories in Boyle Heights history are those of her charity events she co-hosted along with the Junior Auxiliary for the Jewish Home for the Aged. The actress was often the celebrity draw for charity banquets such as these.

Though the most important and interesting person behind the success these events would be Ida Mayer Cummings, the older sister of Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios. She was a notable socialite and charity fund-raiser who was connected to all the important people of business, industry, as well as the religious, civic and philanthropic leadership. And by all accounts, an amazing organizer and larger than-life character who touched many with her gripping appeals.

In the researching of this story I have been in contact with Ida’s great-grand-daughter Alicia Mayer, who has been help in opening up the family photo albums and scrap book. And sharing some interesting details about the Mayer family and their charity work. She relates that Bob Hope said of Ida that “she was the only woman he knew who could grab a man by the lapels over the phone.”

And she knew more than a few things about how to bring a crowd of influential people together as well.

This one holiday event for Chanukah in the year of 1940 drew out a record crowd of the big movers and shakers of the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood itself – over 500 guests. This luncheon attracted an amazingly diverse group of studio heads, actors, politicians, a bishop, a rabbi, members of the most wealthy families of the city, as well as thrilled young socialites.

They had all eagerly come out that day to hear a most special keynote speaker to address the current crisis threating the Jewish people and the world.

Ida + Mrs William Gibbs McAdoo daughter of Woodrow Wilson watermark

Ida Mayer Cummings with Eleanor Wilson McAdoo at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights in December 18th 1940. Picture courtesy of the Alicia Mayer Collection.

The greatly anticipated speaker was Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, the youngest daughter of former President Woodrow Wilson. She would address the Nazi threat in Europe and the sad spirit of isolationism which had gripped the American public, and the anti-refugee rhetoric which was prohibiting Jewish refugees from immigrating to America.

Keep in mind that it was already two years after Kristallnacht erupted in Germany and the invasion of Austria, and a whole year after the invasion of Poland… yet, it was still a year prior the attack on Pearl Harbor which would eventually draw the United States into the war.

Mrs. McAdoo contended that “democracy and humanity are at stake.” And charged that the United States “seemed to be indifferent to the present war.”

All this spoken correctly at a time when the war was going from bad to worse. Little did the people attending this banquet know that on this very day Hitler would order the execution of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasions of Russia.

Rabbi Solomon M. Neches of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, the Palestinian-born Jewish leader who was considered the orthodox Chief Rabbi of Los Angeles at the time, also addressed the crowd with a dvar torah/sermon, as reported in the Los Angeles Herald:

“The first words of the Lord recorded in the Bible are, ‘Let There be Light’. No one can live in darkness. Every year the Jew rededicates himself to the spreading of the light through the world.

“We shall continue to do so despite Adolph – we do not mention the rest of his name. Adolphs or no Adolphs, Israel will still go on. What we suffer is only temporary.

“Surely, in the final reckoning, light will triumph over darkness.”

As President of the Junior Auxiliary for the Home for the Aged, Ida Mayer Cummings addressed the crowd. That year Chanukah just happened to coincided with Christmas that year, which doesn’t always happen. It is likely with this in mind that she made the following statements and reflections for the holidays:

“Our Chanukah lights are set on a background of darkness, the gloom of a world at war, with bigotry rampant. Against this blackness our Chanukah lights gleam the brighter, with promise of a future of peace and goodwill, that same peace and goodwill stressed in the Christian Christmas.”

This was followed with the saying of the national anthem and singing of songs, and many rounds of thunderous applause.

This was an amazing display of resistance to fascism. They were resisting the normalization of the Nazi darkness that had descended upon and was spreading across Europe. They were boldly standing up to the isolationism which had a firm grip on the American public at the time.

However, what is largely unknown this side of history is that this assembly was also resisting Nazism and fascism here in the city of Los Angeles as well. Just a few miles away in downtown Los Angeles, the American manifestation of the Nazi party was actively recruiting and advocating for Nazi Germany at the headquarters of the German American Bund.

Despite the strong Jewish presence in Hollywood… or I should say, in spite of the Jews in Hollywood… Nazi-sympathizing and antisemitism had made much inroads into Los Angeles society, and through out the country. In an age in which nationalism was still fashionable and in a time when people attended controversial political meetings was common, national socialism could be founded in the mix. As well as various assortments of fascist sympathizers as well.

Indeed, early on Mary Pickford herself – this most famous actress of the silent film era, known simple as “America’s Sweetheart” – early on she was know for being vocally pro-fascist, praising Mussolini when he came to power. Pickford even praised Hitler as late as 1937. Like many people she thought these men were strong leaders who were out to make their nation strong for their own people, and sympathized with their aims and rhetoric. However, in the next few years she appears to have shifted in her views when their genocidal intent became clear and evident. Pickford would feel so repentant that she would even write a whole chapter confessing this in her memoirs titled, “Sunshine and Shadow” printed in 1955.

What is important to note is that Mary Pickford would make amends for years to come through charity work starting around 1940, especially focusing on advocating on behalf of the elderly. And so she quickly become very active in helping Ida Mayer Cummings with the Junior Auxiliary for the Jewish Home for the Aged, and would remain actively involved with them for the next two decades. Pickford would actually raise enough money to build an entire new wing for the Jewish home, which was dedicated and named in her honor.

It is also important and right to point out that Pickford was as a conservative – she was far from being a Hollywood liberal and radical – yet she unabashedly threw her support behind the Jewish people and the antifascist cause at this Chanukah luncheon in 1940.

The turn out of Los Angeles and Hollywood society to the Jewish Home for the Ages in Boyle Heights on this special holiday was certainly impressive… and also really bold.

Actually, it was more bold that you might imagine.

NaziFlagDowntownLosAngelesBroadwayHeadquartersThere is one shocking fact that was kept secret from the public until it was recently revealed by scholars, how from the Nazis headquarter in downtown Los Angeles there where American fascists who were even planning terrorist attacks on the Jewish public. They were plotting to kidnap 20 Jewish Hollywood studio heads and their allies, and execute them in order to kick off an American pogrom. While also planning on going on a terrorist rampage with machine guns, to kill as many people as possible in the densely populated Jewish community of Boyle Heights.

This plot and its foiling detailed in a pair of excellent books recently published. “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America” by Steven J. Ross, and “Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles” by Laura Rosenzweig.

These types of threats were being thwarted by Jewish anti-fascists and their supporters in Hollywood, and yet somehow remained a closely guarded secret by these leaders, many of them sitting in that very room.

And that is what really strikes me. That what these people were doing was not just politically bold to take this position regarding American’s disgraceful foreign policy of isolationism in the pre-war years… they were actually resisting fascism… fascism which was not just a threat to Jews in Europe, for indeed they were also showing resistance to the normalization of fascism that could be seen on the streets of Los Angeles.

It amazes and inspires me that against this backdrop, they boldly choose to come out and face the darkness with light!

Special thanks to Alicia Mayer, great-grand-daughter of Ida Mayer Cummings who was the oldest sister of Louis B. Mayer’s family; for opening up the family photo albums and scrapbook archives, and sharing this information to help me make this storytelling possible. 

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Kever Avot: Visiting the Graves of the Ancestors

The Jewish tradition of visiting the cemetery during the High Holy Days

EAST LOS ANGELES – It is a very special Jewish custom that during the Days of Awe – the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – that one visit the cemeteries, to consider our mortality like that of our forefathers. And to visit the graves of our ancestors.

I recently went to the annual Kever Avot memorial service at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles. Several families from my synagogue have loved ones buried here and so were in attendance on this day. And I also have many friends who have loved ones buried here as well. So I came out to pay my respects to our eastside mishpacha and some of my favorite Jewish heroes.

 

So what is this custom of visiting the cemeteries during the holy days?

In the Jewish calendar there are two very important dates in the fall. The first is Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year; when every year one acknowledges the Divine as being King over us all. On that day we celebrate with anticipation the hope of being declared for a good new year by the King.

Though on Yom Kippur the day is more solemn; it is the day of atonement. When we consider G-d as the King sitting in judgment over us for based on our deeds; and therefore we seek atonement for our sins through repentance, prayer and charity. It is a day of fasting and people wearing white garments like a burial shrouds. On this day we remember that we are but mere mortals, who will one days perish and all that will remain is the memory and merit of our deeds.

And likewise it is also said in the Jewish tradition, on Rosh HaShanah the declaration is written in the Book of Life, who will live and who will die in that year. And on Yom Kippur, this fate is then sealed.

So in the ten days between these two most holy days, one is encouraged to visit the grave sites of their loved ones and teachers. To reinforce this understanding in the most vivid way.

Although I must make the case that most Jews also come out to visit the graveyards on these days between the high holy days for less pious and mystical reasons.

The graveyard visits became a pervasive custom since days of old for more obvious reasons; because when the holidays come people just miss their loved ones so much. And it’s felt most deeply during the high holy days.

It can be overwhelming sometime, when someone you love and have spent a lifetime of joyous holidays memories with, and then for them to no longer be there. And sometimes it just really hits one at the core, as you hear that holiday melody your zaydie taught you. And as you make that recipe that you and your bubbie used to make together. And as a mother and father passes away, while they remain alive to you in your vivid holiday memories; it can be entirely overwhelming.

The Jewish tradition recognizes this. It has given us several ways of affirming that sense of loss and turning it into soulful remembrance. One is the visiting of the resting places of our dearly departed. The other is special memorial services with solemn prayers that are recited during the midst of the holidays; the Yizkor service; the name comes from the Hebrew word zachor, which means to remember.

And that is how the tradition of the Kever Avot – which in Hebrew literally means the grave of the ancestors – has come to be.

In this video I invite you to come with me to observe this tradition today at Home of Peace Cemetery, and a quick peek into the lesser known Mount Zion and Agudath Achim orthodox cemeteries.

Home of Peace Cemetery is the oldest of the Jewish cemeteries that in continual use to this day, and is the relocation of the original “Old Jewish Cemetery” founded by the Hebrew Benevolent Society near Chavez Ravine, near the base of today’s Dodger Stadium until it was evicted at the start of the 20th century; as discussed on my Lost Cemeteries of Los Angeles Tour.” In the years between 1901 and 1903 almost all of the 360 burials were transferred to this then newly dedicated Jewish sacred burial site. Making this site one of the most deeply historical Jewish sites in all of the city.

And to me, it is all together lovely. Where I hope to come to my final rest some day.

DID YOU KNOW? In the most ancient times of Jewish history the Yizkor service was only recited once a year; during Yom Kippur. However, eventually it became four times a year according to the widespread Ashkenazi tradition of Central and Eastern European Jews. In the aftermath of the massacres of the middle-ages and crusades that had decimated their communities. Thereafter people were so grieved that they began demanding more liturgical opportunities during the holidays to acknowledges their loved ones. In the Sephadic and Mizrahi tradition this is generally not the custom, though it is has come to be adopted by some western-influenced Sephardic synagogues in America.

My Arrest as an Anti-Fascist Protester in Orange County, Calif.

Southern Californians Counter-Protest against the so-called “Alt-Right”

Shmuel Gonzales, activist historian, arrested at Counter-Protest of Alt-Right in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Shmuel Gonzales, activist historian, arrested at Counter-Protest of Alt-Right in Laguna Beach, Calif. Being extracted military-style by five police officers in riot gear after he was himself attacked by fascists.

My name is Samuel “Shmuel” Gonzales, I am an activist historian and community organizer from Southern California; many of you might know me as the author of the Barrio Boychik blog, which is dedicated to presenting our local heritage of civil rights activism, with special focus on the historical and present inter-section of Jewish and Latino civil rights organizing. As a Mexican American of the Jewish faith, I also proudly serve as teacher of Jewish education and leader in sacred Hebrew ritual, serving Southeast Los Angeles and North Orange County.

Today I will be presenting to you some unique archival footage I took at a counter-protest of the America First Rally – an anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rally organized by the so-called “alt-Right” – at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, California on Sunday, August 20, 2017.

Where I was ultimately arrested.

On this day I was in attendance to stand with local friends and business people as they stand against hate. Among them my good friend and a father figure to me, Irv Weiser; whose family came to this country as refugees following the holocaust. I came to stand shoulder to shoulder with him as he protested against this nationalist hate rhetoric.

There were just a few dozen anti-immigrant/refugee protesters that day, a mixed race group of far right extremists that noticeably even had neo-Nazis and white supremacists participating in the event; while there were several hundred counter-protesters in attendance.

After the right-wing protesters group dwindled they started making incursions into the counter-protest, to get in people’s’ face and to agitate the crowd; they caused some minor scuffles and were shooed back by the police.

While documenting the event on video, I followed the right-wing group back. By this time the right-wing protesters on the other end were encircled and engaging a crowd.

I engaged the right-wing protesters in their rhetoric angering them several times with just verbal rebuttals, while also taking video of the protest.

In this video you will see the presentation in which they call illegal immigrants and refugees drug dealers, rapists and murderers. I will be present standing with Irv Weiser behind me, and to my right shoulder would be the local news media; including Fox and Latino news outlet Estrella TV.

After the further dwindled group begins to repeat their presentation, I again begin to engage their rhetoric. Speaking truth in to hate. Engaging these extremists to the point of agitation.

As I was still documenting this event on video with the camera running, I went in for a close-up shot as we argued, and one of them quickly approached and hit my hand, sending my camera flying.

At that point I was immediately arrested by five officers in riot gear from the Laguna Beach Police department. I was arrested, instead of these nationalist extremists who wanted to assault me.

And that was just the begin of a long ordeal. I would be arrested, taken to central jail – where I would be subjected to racist and anti-semitic treatment by the jailer. We are going to talk more after presenting the video from the protest.

What is most important to note is that I have an upcoming court date set for next week: Monday, September 18, 2017 at 8:30am, at Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach, California.

At that time I will be arraigned for the false charges of resisting arrest.

For these reason, I am now releasing this video at this time.

First, in order to prove my innocence.

Second, to start an honest conversation about the realities being faced today by progressives in the front lines of our current anti-fascist resistance.

So without further ado…. The protest video….

[Video Notes: Protest Footage, begins at 4:05. Arrest takes place at 35:00. ]

Afterwards:

So now we’re back to talk about what transpired from the moment my video footage ends.

As you can see from video and pictures presented from media sources, I was taken into custody by five Laguna Beach Police officers in riot gear. It is immediately after my camera is struck – even before I have a chance to respond or react – that I am taken into custody by these officers.

Me, the Mexican American kid in the yarmulke that got attacked, was arrested by the police and was sent to jail instead of my attacker.

Now, before we go on I want to make this point clear. These so-called “alt-right” Trump supporters are confederates of white supremacists and fascist; period.

These people’s goal is incitement, under the guise of legitimate political protest and the protection that is granted.

Oh yeah, they were there to just engage is healthy political discourse, so that why they just brought out these fine gentlemen they know from their local white supremacist prison gangs!

Look how they love to push forward their token minorities, like this wannabe white supremacist here; Colombian born fascist Juan Cadavid – who goes by the fake name Johnny Benitez, who organized these protests.

Alt-Right leader, Juan Cadavid a.k.a. Johnny Benitez; wanna-be white supremacist

Alt-Right leader, Juan Cadavid a.k.a. Johnny Benitez; wanna-be white supremacist

RELATED ARTICLE: OC GOP Rejects Alt-Right Figure Johnny Benitez Over Alleged Anti-Semitism

These groups scream with indignation at being equated to white supremacists while holding banners alongside people with iron cross tattoos and swastikas. Guys that you can smell the whiskey and the effects of the meth amphetamines on their breath as they spew their vitriol; these are just everyday white thugs.

Like these idiots here… who insist that they aren’t white supremacist, that the racist prison gang created tattoos they are sporting are just symbols of their individualism.

Tweaker Trump Supporters

Trump supporting spewing racial bullshit to the media. Claims he’s not a Nazi – despite the SS tattoo on his face and the Swastika on his neck – he claims that the tattoos are just signs of his individualism.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: “Laguna Beach Anti-Immigrant Rally Turns Into Left/Right Shoutfest, with PD in the Middle.” – Benitez invited the neo-Nazi Hammerskins.

And that is what pisses them off more than anything… not just that I destroy them when it comes to policy. It’s that I destroy their claim that all the drugs, gangs and violence is brought in the neighborhood by immigrants and refugees. Instead I point the finger right back at them.

And that… that is really what set them off the most. I pointed out their dishonesty and hypocrisy, and that is what instigated them to try to shut me up and shut me down.

They hit at my camera… and I was immediately arrested.

Though it should be noted that according to observers, five police officers in riot gear, were already heading my direction in a single line when this incident took place, then extracted me, military style, from the crowd.

I’m still stunned by the pictures of my small little frame being hauled away from the crowd with such overwhelming force. Like I’m somehow such a fierce threat.

As I was being dragged from the crowd, the media began to ask me questions.

Such as Estrella TV who asked me , “We got it on camera! Why did they hit you?”

My response being: “They attacked me for speaking truth to hate. They hit me because they couldn’t handle my responses!”

The media began to ask me more questions about my motivation for counter-protesting. At which time I begin to passionately speak about the history of American Jews fighting fascism here in California; how we have historically had to fight against the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazism and all forms of nationalism… here in our very own communities.

RELATED VIDEO: “See how the rally in Laguna Beach unfolded” (Orange County Register)

Yes, I had a lot of emotions cycling through me in the moments after being arrest. Though as you see, at no time did I ever resist arrest.

protester-is-arrested-after-the-america-first-pro-trump-group-clashed-picture-id836153394

oc-shmuelgonzales-laguna-beach-protests-20170820-photo-gal-002

A group called America First! rallies against illegal immigration and in support of a stronger border as they meet up with counter protesters in downtown Laguna Beach.

The media began to ask me more questions about my motivation for counter-protesting. At which time I begin to passionately speak about the history of American Jews fighting fascism here in California; how we have historically had to fight against the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazism and all forms of nationalism… here in our very own communities.

Laguna-protest-arrest-1024x710

Again, I’m still stunned by the pictures of me being taken away from the protest with such display of force.

 

 

Protest FOX News Arrest Post

For some time no one knew why I was even being arrested. In the end it became clear, I was arrested simply for exercising my First Amendment rights – for speaking truth to hate.

The arresting officer, officer Bammer of the Laguna Beach police department, informed me that I was being cited and released. He said I was being charged with CPC 148(a)(1) / resisting arrest – for not following police instructions. Loosely interpreted to mean that I was doing something he didn’t want me to do. I informed him that I did not hear any order to disperse or receive any verbal instructions. I also insisted that I did not in way threaten anyone but had been struck at, myself, though the officer contended that the right-wing protester had only pointed in my direction when the camera went flying

When I was taken into custody sometime around 7:30 PM I was informed I would be ticketed and released within a couple of hours. I was then taken to another site where I was held for some time.

While in custody, I was repeatedly asked throughout the night whether I was the leader of the counter-protest, to which I responded that I was not.

The police went through my wallet and identified me as a Jewish religious figure – an “assistant rabbi” for my area – and kept asking berating questions about my fitness of character as a religious leader. They also went through my professional business contacts, whose cards were found in my wallet, asking accusatory questions about them.

I was then held in an Orange County Sheriff’s bus – in a small cage and in handcuffs – for the next four to five hours, joined by only one other person after the first few hours. We were ultimately transported sometime after midnight to the Orange County Sheriff’s Central Jail in Santa Ana.

The condition of the jail cells was pretty gross. There were several people passed out on the floor, and there was even bloody gauze left on the floor. There were 8 people, including myself, being kept in the holding cell.

Though nothing that night was as grotesque as the racism and antisemitism I was subjected to while in custody at the jail.

After several hours I was taken to be fingerprinted by a middle-aged white jailer, at which time the following verbal incident took place.

OFFICER: “So you are the leader of the protest out there? You fucking minorities, all having a temper tantrum because you can’t have Hillary as president. You guys are just out there to hate at white people.”

ME: “No, I was just in attendance, to stand with some families of holocaust survivors as they protest. Why would I hate white people? Do you believe that Jews somehow hate white people?”

OFFICER: “Oh, I’m sure many do. You minorities hate America so damn much…”

ME: “Why would we hate America? This is the freest country we have ever been in.”

OFFICER: “It’s not free anymore.”

ME: “Really? I don’t know about that. Because my ancestors suffered terribly in so many other places in the world, this is the most free and safe we have ever been. That is why this country and our values are worth defending.”

OFFICER: “So that’s what it comes down to, some white people killed your Jew family members somewhere and now you hate all white people. You are the leader of a hate organization; standing with Antifa and Black Lives Matter. You’re standing and defending cop killers, you’re just as bad as them…”

I declined to engage this officer in unnecessary direct conversation after that.

Though other sheriffs in the jail continued to try to engage me in similar conversation – not always as racially charged, but still accusatory of me being the leader of the protest and of a hate organization, standing shoulder to shoulder with anarchists and “cop killers.”

The other sheriffs in the jail continued to try to engage me in such conversations up until the very last-minute that I was released, some 14 hours after being taken into custody.

After a long night, I was released around 9:30 AM from the Central Jail, without bail.

I was given my citation and a court date scheduled for arraignment at Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach on Monday, September 18, 2017, at 8:30am.

I have retained an attorney who will be defending me in court on that day.

And as so many of you dear friends and allies have asked…. Yes, I would be honored for you to come out to support me on my court date!

It is our hope that the charges will not be pursued by the district attorney, and that charges for resisting arrest be completely dismissed.

Now at this time I want to thank everyone who has been supporting me through this ordeal.

First, Robert Robertson and Irv Weiser, for being there through this all.

I must especially thank my friend David Herrera, who not only was up all night drumming up the “FREE Shmuel Gonzales” campaign online while I was in jail, he has also helped me get the best legal representation in town. You’re a total mensch!

I also want to thank my amazing activist attorney Jaime Gutierrez, El Luchador del Pueblo.

And I also want to thank all of you who have been lending me your strength and inspiration.

Now I want to dedicate my resistance to the inspiration of one of my dearest friends.

As many of you know, I am not only an activist. I am a Los Angeles community historian, dedicated to preserving and maintaining our local social justice tradition and anti-fascist heritage. My inspiration has come from the oral histories of those who have come before me, from much older friends who have handed down their experiences in protest and their know-how in organizing.

Today I want to dedicate my resistance to my 87 tear old friend Don Hodes who grew up in my neighborhood of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to the United States as illegal immigrants, by way of Canada before the start of World War II. While much of the rest of his extended family remained stuck behind in Europe.

Anti-Nazi Protest Boyle Heights (original)

The Anti-Nazi Protest of November 22, 1938

On November 22, 1938 – when he was just 8 years old at the time – he marched in the Anti-Nazi Parade in Boyle Heights, protesting the savage treatment of Jews by the Nazi German government, and also the threatening rise of American Nazism that was spreading hate and plotting violence from its downtown Los Angeles headquarters.

Don Hodes marched with candles and signs, demanding the admittance of Jews fleeing the Nazi savagery in Europe, which had been barred entrance to the US and every other country in the world prior to the holocaust. Under the guise of them being racially undesirable, and even dangerous and murderous villains, they were being denied entrance as refugees by our government.

AntiNaziProtestBoyleHeightsPicketting

Residents of Boyle Heights protesting Nazi persecution of Jews of a the plight of the refugees fleeing the Nazis, Nov. 1938,

As he marched with people carrying signs declaring that Nazism and fascism have no place in civilization, he also recalls singing a song: “A tisket, a tasket… we’ll bury Hitler in a basket!”

Yes. That is the type of example I am proud to take after!

I am the person I am today because I was privileged to learn about our local heritage from people like Don Hodes and Irv Weiser, people who are like this who are father figures to me. I am proud to take their charge to hold the line of our local anti-fascist heritage in my generation!

Don Hodes and Shmuel Gonzales

Don Hodes (left) and myself Shmuel Gonzales (right): This is my friend Don, he marched in the Anti-Nazi Parade of 1938 here in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. He was about 8 or 9 years old when he marched with his family carrying a picket sign. He remembers singing protest songs like, “A-tisket, a-tasket… we’ll bury Hitler in a basket!”

In closing, I want to give a word of warning to my fellow activists, be careful out there. It is very important that people make sure to be careful to not be targeted to become the victim of protest related violence. The sad reality is this, that when push comes to shove, the authorities are prone to seeing the liberals and the minorities as the aggressor, as my arrest so sadly demonstrates.

We will talk more about this in the near future.

For now, most of my energies are focused on my upcoming court date.

See you all on September 18.

Until then…. Shalom chaverim!

Related articles:

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!

Christmas 1941 in Boyle Heights, and the Japanese Internment

This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Jr. High School (Jr. Rough Riders) students in December 1941. What should we notice about this page?

hollenbeckjrhighdec1941

It is at this time a publication with mostly Jewish and Japanese names in the masthead, and the occasional cute spelling slip-ups which reveal there are possibly some Spanish speaker’s hands at the presses typesetting as well. And most interesting, an article by one little Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, about the tone of Christmas in Boyle Heights in 1941, right after the US was thrown into WWII:

CHRISTMAS 1941

Christmas 1941! We are all looking forward to a joyous Christmas season, a time when all would be in a glad holiday mood, a time of peace and good will.

This Christmas season has come but not as we foresaw. It will be a wartime Christmas, for on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire declared war on the people of the United States.

We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us.

They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.

We Americans of all colors, races and creeds must unite to win, that freedom for all people may be possible.

Marilyn Greene

The apprehension felt in this immigrant community was justified.

Shortly after their Japanese Americans neighbors were taken and incarcerated in camps, such as those erected at the stables of Santa Anita Park Racetrack. The neighborhood kids would then take the electric streetcars all the way out there to see their friends. Though the kids were never allowed to go inside and their interned friends weren’t allowed to come out; and absolutely no one was allowed to touch the fence that separated them, but they could only talk from afar. And at best hope to sneak a baseball across to them when the guards weren’t looking.

baseballbat

A caucasian American gives a baseball bat to an interned Japanese American, through a wire fence, at the “evacuation assembly center” at Santa Anita. January 1, 1942.

For their Japanese American neighbors, their property and belongings were most often liquidated, before being shipped off to the hastily made internment camps such as those at the racetracks. Then eventually being interned for the duration of the war in more permanent camps in such places as Manzanar and Tule Lake; the latter being the destination for many of the community leaders and religious ministers, who were separated from their families and isolated.

In the wake of all this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese internment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, a lone position Waxman would also hold in the wake of the violence directed against Mexican Americans in the midst of the so-called Zoot Suit Riots as well.1

The rounding up of our Japanese American families in this mostly immigrant eastside community came with an overwhelming sense of horror, especially for the children. Seeing their neighbors, who were just as American as they were, instantly being treated as enemies of the nation. And traumatized by the implications this had for anyone else who might be labeled “un-American.”

The incineration of Japanese Americans is still widely considered the most tragic and traumatizing event in Boyle Heights history.

Pictures from Manzanar and Tule Lake, where many Los Angeles Japanese Americans were interned:

Topics for Further Discussion:

  • Notice the section to the left titled, “Anxious to help” by Harold Karpman, he talks about wanting to be helpful when questioned by school authorities and the police. He cautions, “Let’s not become panicky at wild rumors, but be on alert to observe closely all possibilities of the rumors being true.” Before going on to say, “Report any un-American activities to your police department, or to any faculty member of this school. Let us all try to keep our American the way we like it and are used to it.”

  • Notice the lower left poem: “American’s All” by Marvin Wernick. Despite all the racism and xenophobia which was gripping the country, some of the children at Hollenback School were countering that in their newspaper; “Black, Red, Yellow, White, / Side by side we stand and fight…. When hatred and and war strike out at humanity, / they share the blows / In Unity….” In a country that was caught up in the wartime winds of ultra-nationalism and questioning the true Americanism of many, Marvin’s poem declares of those who fight for the cause of justice and right, those who fight for their rights of democracy, “For they are the children of America.”

1Al Waxman, was the uncle of former US Congressman Henry Waxman (D-33rd), also formerly of Boyle Heights and members of the Breed Street Shul.

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