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.
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 generations already; some buried in East Los Angeles Cemeteries.
This seems to been confirmed by the original Los Angeles Timesarticle I just found. This news report is actually taken from the fourth and final moratorium march, 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.”
The death of Gustav Montag death would shock his comrades and the public. His death would ultimately become the last death of the Chicano moratorium; tragically ending this series of marches on the same sour note with which they had begun, with the brutal killing of unarmed protesters; in a cruel display of an excessive use of force against the largely peaceful demonstrators.
In the past couple years I had many people retell this story to me and inquire about where this martyr of the movement is buried, though I have not yet been able to locate the resting place of the martyr Gustav Montag (z”l). 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 Moratorium… Ruben 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”!
“It should not surprise us that in these pictures capturing the Anti-Nazi protest of November 1938, we also see the faces of black and brown people protesting alongside their Jewish eastside neighbors.”
On the night of Tuesday, November 22nd, 1938 the Jewish public was backed by their multi-ethnic community in Boyle Heights in protesting the Nazi savagery being inflicted on the Jews of Germany and Austria in the days following the eruptions of Kristallnacht.
The protest parade was backed by the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), and organized by a more diverse coalition known as the United Anti-Nazi Conference (UANC). Also supporting this event, was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Committee. (CRC).
The history surrounding this notorious night is best described by historical scholar Caroline Elizabeth Luce:
“The collaboration between the UANC and the JLC in their fight against fascism reached its peak in November 1938 when members of both organizations staged a massive protest in Boyle Heights to honor of the victims of Kristallnacht. Under the aegis of the UANC, some 10,000 to 15,000 people marched down Brooklyn Avenue, gathering on the steps of the Breed Street Shul for a massive rally, at which both Rabbi Osher Silberstein and Chaim Shapiro denounced the “savage terrorism,” “inhuman atrocities,” and “massacres of the Nazis.” The crowd primarily consisted of the neighborhood’s Jewish residents, who carried signs with Yiddish slogans and performed skits in Yiddish and English reenacting acts of Nazi persecution. But non- Jews, or “sympathizers” as the Los Angeles Times described them, joined the protest as well and both Rev. Floyd J. Seaman and Democratic Congressman Charles Kramer spoke about the threat Nazism posed to American peace and democracy at the rally. The attendees signed a pledge calling on President Roosevelt to sever all economic and political relations with Germany, and vowed not only to work to fight the “horrible savagery against the Jews in Nazi Germany” but also to work to create a “secure haven” for refugees in America.”
“Footnote by Luce: ‘The details on the protest come primarily from two sources: a front page article in the Los Angeles Times from Nov. 23rd, 1938, who characterized the attendants as “Jewish citizens and sympathizers” and these photographs of the event that appear in the Collection of Los Angeles Daily News Negatives, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections’”
The Los Angeles public in Boyle Heights was on that night responding to the wave of anti-Jewish violence in Germany which had begun less than two-weeks before on the night of November 9th, 1938. And which for two days ripped through the entire German Reich with brutal, coordinated attacks against its Jewish population.
The event became known as Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass, so named because every Jewish community in the German territories were left covered in shards of broken glass in the end. The shattered remains of the countries synagogues which were damaged, and in many cases destroyed. And the broken storefronts and display cases of Jewish businesses, which were also smashed and looted.
During this wave of violence some Jews were beaten to death by Nazi brown-shirts and police, while others were sadistically forced to watch. Even a few non-Jewish Germans – who were mistaken for Jews – were beaten to death. The violence of this pogrom directly resulted in the deaths of 91. Though hundreds more were believed to have also died as a result of panicked suicide amidst the violence.
Also during this operation the world would get a startling preview of the holocaust, as more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. The treatment of prisoners in these camps was brutal, resulting in the deaths of some 2,000 to 2,500 men. Though, most would eventually be released during the following three months, on the condition that they leave Germany.
The problem was, there was no place for these people to go. In nearly every place in the world the conditions were such were Jews were being expelled from their home countries, while other countries restricted immigration to the resulting unwanted refugees.
It needs to be stressed to this generations – which is so far removed from the realities and the context of the humanitarian crisis of the time – that this event was not the start of the refugee crisis. It was the mid-stream result of one!
And it also needs to recognized that while these pictures here may arouse a communal sense of pride – in that the diverse people of our local community responded to such violence and inhumanity by loudly demonstrating for the United States government to accept more refugees – we ought to soberly reflect upon the fact that the American public did not want these refugees.
Looking back at this event, I am struck by the realization that these protesters were here pleading the case of Jewish refugees a year prior the start of World War II – three years before the US would enter the war – and before start of the holocaust. In these photos we are looking upon a pivotal moment prior to these tragedies, when many Jews could have been saved from the coming calamity.
I cannot help but be grieved by this realization, that our community’s activism and protest which we see in these pictures went largely unheeded. That these cries to save our Jewish brothers from one of the most brutal regimes in history, they fell on the deaf ears of an isolationist and racist American public of that era.
However, we will see that these early organizing efforts to unify the community for civil rights gains were not entirely fruitless!
The Anti-Nazi Protest of November 22, 1938
Skits were perfored in Yiddish and English reenacting acts of Nazi persecution.
Residents of Boyle Heights protesting Nazi persecution of Jews, Nov. 1938,
When the Nazi party came to power in 1933, their well-announced aim was to make Germany judenrein – cleansed of Jews, who were being scapegoated for the societal and economic issues of the country. This they tried to achieve by making life so difficult for Jews that they would be forced to leave the country. Including baring them from most trades, professions and educational institutions; as well as limiting their rights of full-citizenship.
Then in 1935 with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazi Germans government began stripping the citizenship and residency of Jewish people of foreign ancestry; including persons who themselves were actually born in Germany. This resulted in leaving many Jewish people not just jobless, but also stateless.
By the start of 1938, a quarter of the German Jewish population – some 150,000 people – had already left the country. Though this crisis went from bad to worse when Germany invaded and annexed Austria in March 1938, bringing another 185,000 Jews under Nazi rule. This left hundreds of thousands of Jews waiting in desperation for any country in the world to open their gates to them.
As described by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter… Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees. In the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans believed that refugees would compete with them for jobs and overburden social programs set up to assist the needy.
“Congress had set up immigration quotas in 1924 that limited the number of immigrants and discriminated against groups considered racially and ethnically undesirable…. Widespread racial prejudices among Americans – including antisemitic attitudes held by the US State Department officials – played a part in the failure to admit more refugees.”
As we see, even in the United States the feeling was that we did not have the resources to help these people. And even in this country, there was still the widely held sentiment at the time that Jews were racially undesirable as well.
With nowhere to go, the Jewish refugees of Germany and Austria were being pushed from one place to another. Which was an issue of great concern to the world powers.
Under great political pressure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for an international conference which took place in Paris in July of 1938, to address the refugee crisis.
Again citing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“In the summer of 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met at the French resort of Evian. Roosevelt chose not to send a high-level official, such as the secretary of state, to Evian; instead, Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend of Roosevelt’s, represented the US at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees.
“Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how ‘astounding’ it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when ‘the opportunity offer[ed].’”
It is my strong belief that this disregardance given by the international community to the plight of these Jewish refugees emboldened these next and further sufferingsto be inflicted upon Jews.
The next month in August 1938 the German government began the process of canceling and demanding renewal of all residency permits for Jews of foreign origins. This included German-born Jews of Polish descent who had lived in Germany for generations and yet who were not considered German citizens by legal birthright; due to their Polish Jewish ancestry they were deemed Polish by the Germans. While at the same time, Poland began announcing that it would not accept any more migrant Jews of Polish origins past October 1938.
“A group of Jewish people expelled from Germany by the German Nazi authorities and living in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 3rd November 1938. More than a thousand are staying in a stable and others are in huts provided by the authorities. The German action is in response to the Polish government’s removal of the Polish citizenship of Jews living outside the country. A total of 17,000 German Jews were expelled from Germany over this issue.” (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
So on October 28, 1938 the Germans acted on Hitler’s order to round-up some 12,000 Polish Jews for “repatriation” and forcibly sent them over the Polish border, over 8,000 of which were immediately refused entry. Leaving thousands of refugees trapped without entrance to Germany or Poland, in the most dire of straights.
Among the refugees was the family of one Herschel Grynszpan, who himself was born in Germany but was illegally living in France at the time. Who upon receiving news of his family’s suffering at the German-Polish border he worked himself up into such a frenzy that he decided to buy a handgun and in protest assassinate a Nazi diplomat in Paris, ultimately mortally wounding a third-level embassy secretary.
It would be the news of the killing of a low ranking Nazi diplomatic staffer in Paris by a Jewish refugee on November 9th, 1938 which would be eagerly seized upon by the Nazis in order to erupt into and justify a much expected, large-scale attack against all Jews under the shadow of the German Reich.
Indeed, there is evidence which suggests that the Nazis began planning for such a coordinated attack already a year prior. [Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and The Jews, volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933–1939, London: Phoenix, 1997, p. 270]
The Nazis were not really able to use this assassination as an example of an international Jewish conspiracy in the end, as they had hoped for in a potential catalyst. As Grynszpan clearly acted alone and could not be tied to a larger plot, furthermore his act was loudly decried by the Jewish establishment.
Though this act did tragically present itself as the provocation needed in order to hold all Jews responsible for the crime of one desperate Jewish refugee, and to somehow vilify all Jews as dangerous illegal aliens as well.
It was just the incident needed to seemingly justify the brutality and terrors of Kristallnacht, and to turn the corner towards a more intense form of violence against Jews under the German Reich.
Considering all this, when we look back at the Anti-Nazi parade of 1938 we can now understand what these people were protesting against. Now we can appreciate the peril of the people they were demonstrating for. They were organizing to try to help unwanted Jewish refugees, whose lives desperately hung in the balance.
Local Civil Rights Activism born out of the Jewish Refugee Crisis
The persecutions and difficulties of the Jews in Europe had not gone unnoticed by the American Jewish public and their allies here in the United States. As they had actually begun to organize protest against the Nazi fascists soon after they came to power and began enacting discriminatory laws against Jews.
The Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) was formed in 1934, in response to the rise of Nazi persecution in Europe. Bringing together several Jewish labor factions for their cause. Fighting for better treatment of laborers, and raising awareness regarding the dangers of European fascism.
And then in 1935 the United Anti-Nazi Conference (UANC) was formed, bringing together a much more ethnically diverse coalition for a broader cause. Luce wrote of them:
“The UANC defined their fight against fascism on much broader terms than the JLC. Their goal was not simply to raise awareness about the Nazi threat in Europe but to encourage the public to see that the same fascist attitudes that propelled Hitler to power in Germany also maintained the Jim Crow system and perpetuated racial and economic inequality in America.
“The UANC’s understanding of fascism was best articulated in the pamphlet, ‘It Can Happen Here,’ that the UANC commissioned local lawyer, writer and activist Carey McWilliams to write in 1935. In it, McWilliams described how fascist leaders like Hitler, Mussolini and their American supporters used ‘demagogic slogans and fancy proclamations’ to convince the public that prosperity could be achieved by ‘eliminating’ political, racial and social minorities. Rather than enact real changes, these leaders simply fulfilled the ‘will of monopoly capitalism,’ ginning up hate and fear ‘to conceal its ghastly failures.’
United Anti-Nazi Conference protesting, with the police restraining them.
“Los Angeles was particularly susceptible to fascist influence because of its tradition of ‘fascist jurisprudence’ – the LAPD’s arrests of those seeking to distribute literature, protest or otherwise exercise their first amendment rights – and because Hollywood was a ‘fertile field’ for anti-Semitism because of Jewish executives’ ‘ruthless management’ of their studios.
“The only way to resist the insidious influence of fascism in the city and in America at large was to unite in common struggle against all ‘phobias,’ including anti-Semitism and racism and defend the civil rights of all Americans.”
To this end the UANC was organized and began addressing the underlying causes of fascism – manifest in racism, segregation, persecution of immigrants, and antisemitism – which was also present in our own society. And to counter the demagoguery which was seen not just in Nazi Germany, but also mirrored in our own country.
Though I believe one of the most important characteristics of the UANC was that they understood the need for addressing the very real issues which were being seized upon by anti-Semites and racists in our very own city of Los Angeles. Instead of dismissing and deflecting, they engaged both the rhetoric and also the uncomfortable truths head-on. They took much more than a nuanced approach, they fiercely took-up addressing the fears and phobias; even when this came with harsh criticism of the Jewish establishment in Hollywood.
Yet while Jews had a presence in the Hollywood film industry, we need to understand that they were still outsiders in much of the larger society. And even Hollywood itself was no haven from antisemitism. This is actually most horrifically displayed in the bigoted reactions which were already elicited to the protest against Nazism and fascism in America.
As described by Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University, in this article here:
“On October 1, 1938, ‘Box Office,’ a glossy trade weekly, reprinted a crude antisemitic leaflet circulating around theaters in the Midwest and, closer to home, along the streets of downtown Los Angeles. ‘Hollywood is the Sodom and Gomorrah where International Jewry controls Vice-Dope-Gambling,’ the leaflets read. ‘Where Young Gentile Girls are raped by Jewish producers, directors and casting directors who go unpunished.’ A caricature depicted a hook-nosed Jew despoiling a vessel of lily-white Aryan womanhood.”
On October 1, 1938, ‘Box Office,’ a glossy trade weekly, reprinted a crude antisemitic leaflet circulating around theaters in the Midwest and, closer to home, along the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
This was how antisemites responded to the public rallying calls against fascism by the studio funded Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. (HANL) Similar antisemitic leaflets would also be inserted into 50,000 copies of the Los Angeles Timesby antisemitic employees.
What we do need to remember is that in those days Jews in America were still considered a form of ethnic minority in many ways; othered in society, and even at times racialized. And therefore were still subjected to many of the harsh realities of discrimination and segregation.
In fact the prejudices against Jews seemed to be peaking at this time, as some Jewish families were actually starting to successfully assimilate into middle-America; which came with alarm and repulse for many white Americans. As they saw some Jews begin to make inroads to where they were traditionally not welcomed.
When we look at this era we see that the Jewish people were actually facing much discrimination on both ends of our society. Jews as a people were being vilified as Hollywood moguls, while also being despised as needy immigrants. They were being hated for being ruthless capitalists, while also being demonized as communists. They were scorned for wanting to be like white Americans, and detested for being too foreign.
And during this point in history antisemitism had a particular appeal to many people, amid the Great Depression. In some of the same ways as how Jews were being scapegoated for the depression in Germany, antisemitism also surfaced here. Though what is also important to understand about this moment in history is that the Jewish people were not just fighting ambient racism.
As in fact over in downtown Los Angeles on Broadway was located the western headquarters for the German American Bund, founded in 1933 as the “Friends of New Germany” – the American manifestation of the Nazi party and a pro-Nazi Germany advocacy group.
Los Angeles and Hollywood itself was particular susceptible to this type of fascists ideology, in an atmosphere in which nationalism was still fashionable and Nazism was even romanticized. And in an age when it was common for people of society to attend controversial political meetings, national socialism was also to be found in the mix.
As early as 1933 Los Angeles Jewish leaders responded to this threat by founding the Community Relations Committee (CRC) – initially created to monitor groups and report activities which were seen as a threat to Jews and to democracy in general. Monitoring groups such as the Bund, the Friends of New Germany, the Silver Shirts, as well as other antisemitic and racist groups like the Klu Klux Klan (KKK).
Adolf Hitler Geburtstagfeier (birthday celebration), being celebrated in Los Angeles, April 20, 1935. Deutsches Haus Auditorium.
The CRC was quite successful in infiltrating these organizations and exposing their realm of influence within the city. Which resulted in a dramatic decrease in the membership of the Friends of New Germany.
Lesser know is the fact that they were also successful in uncovering and preventing a terrorist plot planned by the Bund from their downtown Deutsche Haus, to publicly execute Jewish Hollywood studio heads and to with machine-guns murder Jews at random in the densely Jewish populated neighborhood of Boyle Heights; all in the aims of sparking an American pogrom. (Professor Steven Ross, of University of Southern California; this topic be featured in his upcoming book “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.“)
Their successes in their fight against organized racism and in preventing violence positioned them as the leading organization within the Jewish community for years to come.
“The CRC became a main organization occupied with the defense, protection and civil rights of the Los Angeles Jewish community in the 1930s.
“During the 1930s, through the first decades of its existence the CRC spoke for the many constituent organizations in the greater Jewish community of Los Angeles, which all represented a relatively small but growing community.”
The CRC would eventually change their name, later becoming known as the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
As a small minority, the Los Angeles Jewish community at this time came to recognize that they had to partner with other minority groups in order for their voice to be heard. And their draw needed to be broad, as Los Angeles was such an ethnically diverse city that there was not any one nationality with which they could secure a powerful alliance.
Organizations such as the CRC were among the first to realized that their goals were best achieved through broader partnerships with their non-Jewish fellows. For in practice they found that their fight for civil rights as Jews was very much similar to the civil right struggle of various ethnic minorities and immigrants, including African-Americans and Mexican-Americans.
When Kristallnacht erupted in November of 1938, the Los Angeles Jewish community and their allies organizing the Anti-Nazi parade did not even attempt to hold the event in Hollywood or even downtown, but rather in Boyle Heights. And this was for a couple of reasons.
First, because the Jewish public knew that they did not have the backing and clout to really hold a successfully anti-Nazi protest in Hollywood itself – let alone one which would attract broad and diverse support they were seeking.
Which leads to the most importantly reason yet, to remind the public of the fact that what Jews were experiencing both in Europe and America was a struggle against racism. Holding the protest here in Boyle Heights reinforced the reality of this, tying this event to the struggle they were facing alongside their various immigrant neighbors and with people of color in this very community as well.
For this reason, it should not surprise us that in these pictures capturing the Anti-Nazi protest of November 1938, we also see the faces of black, brown and Asian people protesting alongside their Jewish eastside neighbors.
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!“ His parents had come to the county as illegal immigrants through Canada, and then later settled in Boyle Heights. Troubled by the situation of the Jews trapped in Europe, they marched to demand the admittance of the refugees and were joined by their comrades of all the various nationalities of the community; some 15,000 marched for the admittance of Jewish refugees, three years before the United States entered World War II.
This partnership between Jews and with other minority groups beginning with their fight against fascism and their public education campaigns against racist ideologies in those pre-war years constituted one of the first major joint effort in civil rights activism between the communities. And the lessons learned at that time would provide a working model for inter-racial cooperation which would be followed for years to come.
After the US entered World War II – when it was no longer necessary to convince the American public of the Nazi threat – the focus of Jewish organized civil rights clearinghouses such as the CRC would be redirected to the then most poignant issues at hand. While still maintaining their founding principles to addressing the causes of antisemitism and race related violence, as the nature of ethnic tensions would shift.
And in the post-war years the CRC would continue to back and support civil rights work, with specific focus on the Los Angeles eastside. When after the war it seemed that Jews and the local ethnic minorities appeared to have less in common with each other, revealing many fears and racial tensions which then needed to be addressed. At a time when antisemitism and race-based scapegoating came with different challenges for the community.
In our continued exploration of this history, we will later see how in the post-war years the CRC addressed inter-community tensions and racial inequality, though supporting the empowerment of our local ethnic minorities. Ultimately providing essential backing and funding for groups such as the Community Service Organization (CSO); which would become our first major Mexican-American civil rights training ground in the area, out of which leaders such as Cesar Chavez would eventually emerge.
A brief history of how Jewish immigrants lent their acquired experience in organizing to more recent Latino immigrants.
Two girls wearing banners with slogan “ABOLISH CH[ILD] SLAVERY!!” in English and Yiddish (“(ני)דער מיט (קינד)ער שקלאפער(ײ)”, “Nider mit Kinder Schklawerii”), one carrying American flag; spectators stand nearby. Probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City.
During the 1920’s, many workers such as fieldhands, miners and fishers went on strike because of huge pay cuts. They also weren’t happy because their pay was being lowered but they were still forced to pay the same amout of tax. This led to huge strikes and many of the worker’s families were starving because they were not being paid at all.
After an initial period in East Coast and the mid-west cities, significant numbers of Jewish immigrants and their families drawn by the economic boom, move to Los Angeles, eventually making Boyle Heights home to largest Jewish community west of Chicago.
“Under the direction of Israel Feinberg, the Los Angeles ILGWU membership rose from 30 to 2,000 between 1930 and 1935, making it one of the larger unions in Southern California. Part of the growth resulted from the 1933 strike by Latina dressmakers. By 1938 the ILGWU’s Spanish-speaking branch had a float in the city’s annual Labor Day parade, and Latinas were active within the union.” – Kenneth Burt
In 1933, the Los Angeles garment industry employed nearly 7,500 workers, half of which were scattered in an estimated 200 small sweatshops in the downtown garment district. Latinas comprised nearly 75 percent of those workers, with the rest consisting of Italians, Russians and Americans.
“Under the direction of Israel Feinberg, the Los Angeles ILGWU membership rose from 30 to 2,000 between 1930 and 1935, making it one of the larger unions in Southern California. Part of the growth resulted from the 1933 strike by Latina dressmakers. By 1938 the ILGWU’s Spanish-speaking branch had a float in the city’s annual Labor Day parade, and Latinas were active within the union.” – Kenneth Burt
(Revised November 2015)
Jewish-Latino relations in the US are built upon a legacy of recognizing a shared immigrant and working-class experience. We have a long history of being natural allies in promoting social advances. And it all began with organized labor.
At the start of the 20th century an influx of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants provided this country with a desperate and eager labor force. Many of these new immigrants going into the garment and dress-making industry. However, the working conditions in this era of the industrial revolution were terrible and even deadly. Women laborers such as these were among those who organized as early as 1900 in New York City, founding the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Often holding meetings in Yiddish.
With immigrants venturing west and industry taking off in the booming years of Los Angeles, ILGWU became established here in 1910.
However, by the 1930s the largest growing group of new union members were Spanish-speaking Latinos. Saby Nehama –a Sephardic Jew, a Jewish person of Spanish descent –first organized efforts among Spanish speakers on the east coast. And then whole Spanish-speaking branches were soon established in several major cities. [see “Memories and Migrations: Mapping Boricua and Chicana Histories,” p. 130]
“On September 15, 1933, a young, New York labor organizer by the name of Rose Pesotta landed in Los Angeles. Pesotta once worked in Southern California where she had been discharged from a garment factory and blacklisted for union activity. Now Pesotta was returning at the request of garment workers to organize their industry. Within one month a new International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) local was formed and the garment industry found itself in the middle of a bitter strike with Rose Pesotta leading the charge.
“In 1933, the Los Angeles garment industry employed nearly 7,500 workers, half of which were scattered in an estimated 200 small sweatshops in the downtown garment district. Latinas comprised nearly 75 percent of those workers, with the rest consisting of Italians, Russians and Americans. Nearly half of the female dressmakers made less than $5 a week, which stood as a clear violation of the $16 a week California minimum wage for female workers and National Industrial Recovery Act’s (NRA) Dress Code, which set standards in the industry. Workers who attempted to organize were routinely fired and blacklisted by the employers. The local leadership of the ILGWU, consisting of mostly white men, had no interest in organizing female dressmakers, feeling that most either leave the industry to raise their families or shouldn’t be working in the first place.
“But Rose Pesotta refused to buy into that dismissive attitude. With the ILGWU International’s approval, she began laying the foundation for a new local (Local 96). She reached out to the Latina community through a bilingual radio program and a weekly paper called, The Organizer.”
This work of organizing would not just be expanded into other cities, it would also result in cross-cultivation in other forms of civil rights organizing. As historian Kenneth Burt wrote:
“In sections of the Bronx, in the West Side section of St. Paul, Minnesota, and in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, Spanish-speaking Latinos replaced Yiddish-speaking Jews as the newest immigrant group.
“Organized labor often served as a bridge between these working-class, ethnic communities. Unions also provided a political voice for the emerging Latino community.
“The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) served this function on the Eastside of Los Angeles. The ILGWU engaged directly in civic life. It also helped establish and worked through a variety of Latino and Jewish and organizations, as well as broad-based civil rights coalitions.
“The groups in the ILGWU’s sphere of influence included the Jewish Labor Committee and the Mexican American-oriented Community Service Organization (CSO). Early CSO leaders included Maria Duran and Hope Mendoza from the ILGWU.
“Directly and indirectly the ILGWU played a key role in the election of Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, and to the adoption of fair employment and fair housing laws in California in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”
The Community Service Organization (CSO) was uniquely created to be a “Mexican NAACP.” Ross and Alinsky took notice that Mexicans were by far the largest and yet most ill treated minority. Mexicans still being the only minority group to not be widely organized. And also standing alone in having no political power or decision-making, with less than 10% of Latino citizens being registered to vote. [see “The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights.”]
“In 1947, in direct response to rampant police abuse, a lack of educational opportunities, widespread discrimination in government services, a strong culture of bigotry that allowed even people of good conscience to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, and ultimately, to the Zoot Suit Riots and Bloody Christmas, the Community Service Organization was founded by Antonio Rios, Edward Roybal, and Fred Ross, Sr. Quickly, the CSO became a training ground for the first generation of Latino leaders, including Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gilbert Padilla. Recognizing the need for a unified Latino voice and for some semblance of political representation, the CSO initially concentrated on organizing voter registration drives in Latino communities all across California. In 1949, the CSO‘s efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”
Royball would ride a wave of crucial Yiddish speaking political support in Boyle Heights, backing his ascent to City Hall and further still. The future Congressman Edward Roybal would later take his social causes to the halls of the US Congress with him as well.
Fred Ross would continue to expand CSO at the behest of Alinsky, helping establish their presence first in Oxnard and later in San Jose. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, trained by CSO in Alinsky style protest, would then take the cause directly into the local fields; thus founding the United Farm Workers, which is widely considered the most influential and visible Latino organization to date. The UFW is the primary historical and still active model for Latino activism to this day.
While today American Jews might not be the face of the working-class anymore, many Jewish community leaders have made it an activist goal to fight for workers rights and better immigration reform for Latinos. Maintaining a legacy of support for these and other progressive causes, due to the similar collective memory Jews have of their grandparents and great-grandparents being exploited as poor immigrants.