Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition showcases multiculturalism — at home and in D.C.

Members of Tucson’s Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition meet with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) at his office in Washington, D.C. (L-R) Zakkai Markowitz, Josh McKenna, Ryan Green, Alan Parra, Jared Friedman, Flake, Aida Flores, Itzel Herrera, Audrey Powers, Dominick Montes (Lisa Kondrat)

When a group of nine Jewish and Latino teens traveled to Washington, D.C. last month it wasn’t just to see the sights — unless that included visiting congressional offices. Members of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition made the trip cross-country to lobby for immigration reform, relating their personal experiences of living 50 miles from the Mexican border.

The coalition brings Jewish, Latino and other minority high school sophomores and juniors together to foster multicultural understanding. The yearlong program includes briefings by community leaders, hands-on service learning projects, training to conduct research on a social justice issue the group has chosen, and a weeklong lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. Students are nominated by their schools.

Coalition member Itzel Herrera, a junior at Flowing Wells High School, finally had the opportunity to tell her family’s story to those who could affect policy. Her father was deported when she was 5. Every Friday after school she and her mother and brother drove to Nogales, Sonora, and spent the weekend with him. In 2011, she says, he finally became a U.S. resident after going through the immigration process in Mexico for eight years.

“I felt like I had a voice speaking to senators and [members of] Congress. It was so empowering,” Herrera told the AJP.

This year, from April 12 to 16, the coalition took its sixth trip to the nation’s capitol. The group included one teen who is Jewish-Latino, five Latino and three Jewish teens, says Lew Hamburger, a volunteer chaperone and retired clinical social worker. JLTC Program Director Shari Gootter, volunteer Lisa Kondrat and Sayanna Molina, a staff member in Rep. Raul Grijalva’s Tucson office, also traveled with the teens.

“I felt like a part of the political process, like I was making a difference, in a way that most people my age don’t often have the opportunity to do. I was surprised but pleased that so many congress people and senators were willing to talk seriously with teenagers who can’t even vote yet,” said Audrey Powers, a Jewish coalition member.

Alan Parra, who is Latino and originally from Nogales, Sonora, recalls “getting into a heated debate with Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) His insight went against all that we had experienced concerning immigrants, and he was disrespectful to a certain point. I ended up raising my voice in a respectful manner,” says Parra. “We all calmed down but the exchange left us shaken. That intense moment will always stay with me, reminding me to speak up and that I can be a moderator, even among powerful people.”

For Hamburger, who has run psychiatric hospitals and worked with kids for 50 years, the program “is about love, limits, laughter and helping adolescents to learn. They’re trying to figure out who they are,” he says.

Kondrat and Molina, who are both Latina, are coalition alumnae, says Gootter, adding that at this year’s JLTC wrap-up on Sunday, several of the girls pointed to them as their role models.

“We all work together on social action, learning about each other’s cultures and leadership training” prior to going to Washington, notes Gootter, who Hamburger calls “the heart and soul of the coalition.” The Tucson program was nationally recognized with a Program of Excellence Award from the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in 2009.

“Our first event starting in December is a family potluck when everyone brings an important object to show. One kid may bring a mezuzah and another may bring rosary beads,” she says. “What’s incredibly moving to me is just a few months before we start meeting the kids didn’t know each other. Then they become lifelong friends.”

This year, one of the coalition’s speakers was from the Sanctuary Movement, in which faith leaders shelter undocumented immigrants from prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fortunately, Herrera’s family story has a happy ending. Her father became a U.S. citizen and has his own auto mechanic shop, Herrara says, with obvious pride in her voice.“He’s writing his second book. His first book was poetry in Spanish, about the immigration process,” and will soon be translated into English.

Herrera’s father’s story was one of the highlights of the trip for Hamburger. When she tells it, “she cries and everyone else who hears it cries,” he says. “This year the kids focused on the human element of immigration, what happens to tear up families, their own and others. The immigration system is backed up for 20 years so people are forced to sneak in.”

The JLTC program “is the only one we know of in the country,” says Hamburger, adding that “it actually began over 10 years ago with a conversation among Josh Protas, then director of the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council; staff of the office of U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, and Rodney Glassman,” then a Tucson City Council member.

When she first joined the coalition in December, says Herrera, “I didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew nothing about Judaism. I didn’t have a clue. All the kids are so nice and sweet.” Sometimes when she talks about her new Jewish friends, “people say, ‘I didn’t know you were Jewish.’ I’ve made friends, hopefully, forever. At school, sometimes you’re told, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican, stay with your group.’ But it’s so fascinating to learn about other people who I didn’t know anything about. I got out of my comfort zone and I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”

In addition to lobbying members of Congress in Washington, the group participated in everything from workshops to walking tours, says Gootter. Tucson teens met with members of Operation Understanding DC, a group that includes both Jewish and black teens. “They participated in a powerful, in-depth program on racial stereotyping,” she says, which took place at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

“Stereotypes have been broken for me. I’m done with them,” says Herrera. “I may have heard that Jews were all about money. But now I don’t define a person by what I’ve heard. Now I go up to someone and talk to them myself if I want to know what they’re like.”