Latino-Jewish Forum in Sacramento promotes immigrant rights

Oscar Vazquez and Maia Jaffe at the Latino-Jewish Forum.
Oscar Vazquez and Maia Jaffe at the Latino-Jewish Forum.

As presidential candidates call for a ban on Muslim newcomers and the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants, the Latino-Jewish Forum, Sacramento’s latest multicultural partnership, hosted Stories of Immigration on Sunday to promote more empathy and understanding of the immigrant experience.

Many in the audience of 100 – including Jews, Latinos, Iraqis, and African and Asian Americans – were on the brink of tears after watching two films depicting the saga of unwanted immigrants: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany denied entry into the U.S. in 1939 and “dreamers,” undocumented teens from Mexico trying to make it in 21st-century America.

The forum was attended by Oscar Vazquez and Lorenzo Santillan – half of a team of “dreamers” who grew up in a gang-ridden Phoenix neighborhood. As members of the Carl Hayden Community High School robotics club, they upset competitors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other top universities in a national robotics competition in 2004. Their story – which included a robot named Stinky made of PVC pipe, duct tape and glue and stuffed with tampons to absorb water from a slow leak – was detailed in the film “Underwater Dreams.”

“These guys are so inspiring,” said forum member Maia Jaffe of the industry group the Northern California World Trade Center. She shared the story of her grandfather, who escaped Poland as a teenager just before his parents, sister, friends and 40,000 other Jews from Bialystok, Poland, were killed.

Jaffe told the audience that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and far from dead in California – a large swastika display was left at Folsom High School last fall, and two swastikas were spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity at UC Davis in February 2015.

Rabbi Mona Alfi of B’Nai Israel introduced the short film “SS St. Louis” about a ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees who were refused entry to the U.S. They were sent back to Europe, where 254 died in the Holocaust. Santillan said the film was “pretty eye-opening.”

Alfi, whose father fled Iran after the 1979 revolution, said her family felt some of the “fear, shame, sadness and embarrassment” undocumented Mexicans now experience. “Our congregation adopted a refugee family,” she said, inspired by the story of Passover, commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, “where all are welcome at the table.”

The Latino-Jewish Forum was born last summer when Sacramento Jewish activists reached out to local Latino leaders to explore “the similarities of what can happen to immigrants,” said Jessica S. Braverman Birch, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region.

Jaffe said the forum has broken down barriers and educated Jewish leaders about the discrimination suffered by undocumented immigrants, who “play a big part in our community.”

“The group discussed whether undocumented Latinos should be allowed in the U.S., and Latinos felt there wasn’t nearly enough support for immigration reform,” she said.

Latina activist Deborah Ortiz said the forum comes at a critical time. “We really need to speak out against the national debate that has become very anti-immigrant, misleading and dehumanizing,” she said. “Each of our communities feels the need to contribute to society.”

The forum, one of the first of its kind in the nation, has its roots in the city’s response to the events of summer 1999, when white supremacists firebombed three Sacramento synagogues and a women’s clinic and killed a gay couple in Redding, Ortiz said. Led by the late Mayor Joe Serna – a son of Mexican migrants – more than 5,000 people came out to support the victims. “That’s what Sacramento is: a community that comes together in crisis,” Ortiz said.

Meeting at least twice a month over potlucks, each group has come to better understand “the other’s sense of persecution,” Ortiz said. “It was incredibly helpful to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes – as we share responsibility for speaking out against injustice, we can be a model that others can aspire to.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini