At our October 14th Friday Night Shabbat service, we were joined by guest speaker Jonathan Mendoza to celebrate Sukkot and Hispanic Heritage Month. Mendoza is an award-winning Jewish and Mexican-American community organizer, spoken word poet, social justice educator, and musician. The following is a transcript of his remarks, including several poems. You can watch this sermon on Mishkan’s YouTube channel.
My name is Jonathan Mendoza. I’m a community organizer, an educator, and—as you’ll hear shortly—a poet. A lot, or I’d say the bulk of my work, revolves around challenging ourselves and each other with regard to our experiences, perspectives, biases, and powers and privileges we may or may not hold. Tonight, I am delighted to be able to share a bit of my narrative, including my poetry, on my experience with my identity, particularly as a biracial, Latinx Jew, and stimulate an ongoing conversation about inclusive and equitable Jewish community. To be transparent, my experiences relate to many moments of challenge within Jewish community, regarding race, ethnicity, language, and politics. And—as my therapist would be so very proud of me for uplifting—when guttural, instinctive reactions come to us when we hear about moments of challenge, maybe as moments, words, or perspectives that challenge us, my hope is that we can accept these feelings in ourselves as entirely valid and not to be fought, but acknowledged, heard, and worked with. Perhaps by using grounding techniques by taking care of our physical reactions to challenging conversations, whether through controlled breathing, intentionally relaxing our tensest muscles, or activating all of our physical senses, we can guide ourselves to become more mentally and spiritually present for a generative and rewarding conversation as we build community together here tonight.
So, before we jump in, I want to first give a huge thank you to Rebecca Stevens for all her wonderful work in organizing this event, to Rabbi Lizzi for a lovely service and extending her welcome to me, to all of the Mishkan staff, leaders, and volunteers. I also want to thank you all for being here, as you could have chosen to be anywhere tonight, and you chose here with each other! Which is wonderful, and I’m sure each of us are grateful for. I also want to thank the workers and custodial staff of Second Unitarian for their commonly overlooked labor of maintaining lovely spaces for us to enjoy.
A final acknowledgement must be paid to the land we currently gather on and the native peoples whose autonomy and sovereignty we continue to undermine following the colonization of this region. We are here today on what today is colonially referred to as Chicago, Illinois, formerly known as Chicagua, in an area of the unceded land of the Peoria, Miami, and Potawatomi peoples, the traditional stewards of this land. I encourage you to go to native-land.ca and learn what land you occupy if you do not know already.
By show of hands, who has ever been part of or heard of land acknowledgement?
I want to note that a land acknowledgement is just that: an acknowledgement. It can be a dangerously self-aggrandizing act to only acknowledge our complicity with harm and think that this acknowledgement alone has—in light of our recent Yom Kippur reflections—cast away our sins. Doing so, in the situation of U.S. land colonization, would be the equivalent of me stealing your house and kicking you out, and then acknowledging that I have done so, but never correct the harm of me having stolen your house and kicked you out. ChiNations youth council, a local nonprofit organization right here in Chicago of indigenous youth leaders and activists, states: “May this acknowledgement lead us into stronger commitments to dismantle the ongoing harms of settler colonialism.” And, in my own words, may this acknowledgement be little more than an initial reckoning of the horrific harm we sit upon and a crucial but small first step in correcting this harm by decolonizing stolen lands and supporting the millions of native organizations and individuals who’ve been toiling for centuries to do so. As a next step, I encourage us to visit chinations.org and landback.org to learn how we can stop and repair the past and ongoing harms of colonization and achieve a far more liberated, healed, and joyous world for all of us.
I recognize that already many of us may feel challenged in this moment. I myself often feel emotionally provoked when I am reminded or remind myself of the incredibly painful history of the land I live and pray on. But it’s through challenging topics like this that I encourage us to accept and hold the tension and do what we must to ground ourselves physically so that we can be present for our conversations spiritually and mentally.
I ask, what does this history mean for native peoples in Chicago? What does it mean for people of native and Jewish ancestry, who may pray alongside us, or who may want to but may not feel comfortable? What might this history mean for maybe many of us in this very room? Who may hold a variety of ethnic, racial, national, religious, class, gender, sexuality, and disability identities and experiences that have made it hard for us to feel truly welcome in Jewish spaces? What does this holiday, of harvest and abundance, mean for farm workers in the US and around the world who work under incredibly arduous conditions for the food we will soon enjoy? Broadly speaking, I ask, what is the significance of this space and this moment everywhere beyond your own individual perspective?
My story, and—as I imagine—most of the stories you all bring into this space tonight, will inevitably challenge each and every one of us in perhaps significant and certainly transformative ways. And here’s what I’ll say: We gather tonight on the evening of Sukkot, a holiday which, as Rabbi Lizzi reminded me, celebrates a spirit of abundance. There is enough harvest for all of us. There is enough space in the Sukkot for all of us. Often in moments of scarcity, whether we feel we have scarce energy to engage with others who hold different viewpoints or experiences, when we feel scarce joy and don’t want to enter discussions that we fear might anger us, when we feel we may not have enough food or wellness to be able to think about others, we are more closed off from challenging conversations. But tonight is not that night! My hope is for us to revel in the abundance of this evening and use this as an opportune time to challenge ourselves to connect with each other even across our differences. I hope we can be grateful for the abundance of food, love and support that may exist around us, and that even in moments or conversations that challenge us, that we can persevere and grow within them, knowing that we have this abundance of love and community to support ourselves and one another through tonight’s service and well beyond.
How does that sound? Are we ready for some poems?
Brown Boy / White Boy
after Angel Nafis and Jon Sands
in social justice seminar
is asked to join
a racial affinity group:
people of color or white.
White boy does not want to infiltrate
safe space for people of color.
Brown boy does not want to keep white people
from having honest, constructive dialogue.
Biracial boy does not know what he is,
recalls posting a survey on Facebook in middle school
asking how people categorize him,
that it would determine his clothes,
how he spoke.
Biracial boy wishes this skin
came with an instruction manual.
Brown boy tells white boy
he should not identify as a
person of color, that he can pass,
that he should not appropriate
a struggle that is not his.
White boy tells brown boy
he will not identify as white,
erase the brown from his blood,
will not be the one who finishes
the colonization of his own body.
White boy visits family in Mexico,
realizes he is the whitest intruder
Brown boy goes to white synagogue,
is in the only family not
invited to the dinner party.
Biracial boy is welcome everywhere.
Biracial boy is not welcome anywhere.
Biracial boy is tug-of-war, but biracial boy
is both sets of hands
pulling at each end
and biracial boy is sorry for this poem,
for taking up space,
does not know if it’s his white self that’s doing so,
if it’s even letting the brown self speak.
White boy apologizes for his privilege.
Brown boy resents white boy
for taking up so much space with apologies.
White boy says, “I’m sorry.”
Brown boy says, “you’re doing it again.”
Brown boy hates his white,
this legacy like shingles all over his face.
but biracial boy to brown family
is still white,
still looks like coyote.
Biracial boy is both the discolored sheep of each family
and the dog that hunts it,
wishes he were purebred
and not a mutt.
Brown boy asks white boy
what it’s like not to get profiled,
to go to your cousin’s wedding
in Arizona and feel safe.
White boy goes to white barbecue,
meets white cop. White cop
does not know boy is
starts talking immigration policy.
hides inside white skin.
White skin silent.
White skin shield.
White boy protector.
White boy savior. Br
does not need white savior,
strikes back at white self,
but biracial boy during Latinx uprising
does not know if he should sit down or speak up,
to which army society has drafted him.
Biracial boy is tug-of-war, but
biracial boy is the rope,
cannot hold his selves together.
Biracial boy hates being two different selves,
recalls it’s the world that made him this way,
that split him in half,
insect and the boot,
and biracial boy
is both of them.
My abuelo was born in a train station in Durango, Mexico. When I would ask him of his past, he’d always remember to recount the same details. How his first crib was a wooden bench with a pile of straw. How his father, Juan Mendoza, was Wixarika and a merchant. He would travel across the region, helping manage a few small shops and businesses. It was in Zacatecas where Juan met my bisabuela, Victoria. She passed when my abuelo was young. But there were key details that remained with him. That she played music. She had pale skin, light eyes, and dark curly hair. And her last name was Guzmán, commonly believed by historians to be a Spanish variation on the Germanic and Eastern Ashkenazic “Gusman.”
My abuelo doesn’t remember the country her family came from, but he remembers her closing the blinds on Friday nights, lighting two candles on the center table, and muttering a small prayer in any language he was too young to know. It’s the tale of many—the Crypto Jews—those who held tradition and lineage in secret from the days of the Spanish inquisition. Legacies that institutionalized anti-semitism in the formally Indigenous lands that would be colonized and termed “Latin America”.
My abuelo carried these memories to Chihuahua, where he would meet my abuelita, and to my father, who would be born there. It was this knowledge of Jewish heritage in my father’s line that enabled him to marry my mother. My mother was born in Mount Vernon, New York. Her parents were descendants of Polish and Russian Jews who settled in New York and Connecticut. This story is perhaps the more familiar one: Ashkenazi Jews who fled Eastern Europe to escape economic hardship, seek greater financial opportunity in the colonized United States, and to flee the always intensifying onslaught of Pogroms, raids carried across Eastern Europe in tandem with the politically strategic vilification and scapegoating of Jewish people.
Then came me. I was born outside of Boston, raised in central Massachusetts. I grew up in a white suburb of a multiracial town with white and Latinx and immigrant friends and plenty of multiracial confusion and reckoning with assimilation, but also joyous multicultural celebration. I was raised in a Kosher, religiously conservative Jewish household. We made sure the tamales were of chicken only and no pork. We put cilantro and chipotle in our matzah ball soup and dipped corn tortillas that we brought home from Santa Fe. My abuelo sang a Mexican rendition of Hava Nagila for my bubbie and zadie’s wedding anniversary. And without sensationalizing or exotifying multicultural experience, I can say that the unique nature of my upbringing was at times isolating and at times celebratory—a feeling perhaps many here can resonate with.
I Descend from Brown Mestizes and White Jews
Sometimes, I open Twitter
and see people who look like my family
being put in cages
by people who look like my family.
The act is the subject of a Facebook debate
being had by people who look like my family.
There is video of a Mexican-American woman
—someone who looks like my family—
speaking with an accent of someone who sounds like my family,
holding a cell phone camera to the faces
of a family migrating. This family has a story
that sounds like my family’s.
The Mexican-American woman shouts at them,
telling them to go back. She asks them why, if they are ‘proud
Americans,’ they are covering their faces.
The migranting family does not reply, but I imagine
they have voices that sound like my family’s.
They do not remove the garb from their faces,
but the skin of their hands resembles those of my family’s.
30% of people who may or may not look like my family
voted for a president who may or may not look like my family.
At times, I see people defend the human
vigilante border. These people look like both
of my families. They say this is needed to prevent crime;
I imagine the image appearing in their heads
is of someone who looks like my family,
but glossed in ink stitches, crossing with guns
and killing people who look like their family.
Sometimes this is the image that appears
in my head, too. I don’t believe
they’ve ever developed the image of someone who looks like my family
being killed by someone who looks like my family
in a place below this border, far away from their family.
My father once said he wished
for all the gangbangers to enter a great,
open field, and to unleash their vendettas onto each other’s bodies,
so that we—who our not gangbangers—
could live peacefully.
I cannot say for certain
if he remembers that they have families,
who may or may not look like our family.
While we gather to celebrate Sukkot, I recognize that we also meet shortly after the Jewish New Year, a time that for me has signified a significant period of reflection for my personal life and for how I strive to live. I believe that through reflection, through remembrance, we can connect our ancestries and lineages of suffering and complicity, to the space, time, and bodies we occupy. I remember being 8, reflecting on the rabbi’s sermon during Rosh Hashanah that referenced civil rights leaders in the U.S. and apartheid South Africa. I remember turning to my mother and stating bluntly “that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to devote my life to justice.”
But despite Jewish spaces being foundational to this passion, it was these very spaces that over time came to seem so limited in their capacity to create context for reflection, to paint the broad picture of the complexities of Jewish American assimilation, white supremacy, privilege, Zionism, imperialism, classism, and complicity.
I often felt alone in those spaces, ones replete with wealthy white families who I felt were so distantly removed from the experiences and struggles of friends and family, those who were first generation, people of color, working class.
Through remembrance of my family history and even recent and current struggles in my bloodline, I empathized so much more closely with a people being forced to migrate, being expelled from one home and then another, having their economically oppressed neighborhoods then ravaged by war. I empathized with those who were punished so wholly and severely as retribution for the actions of a few. I recognized that few people in the Jewish spaces I grew up in had personally experienced what so many people around the world experience daily. And as I grew older and developed awareness of global inequity and suffering—that my very communities were complicit in, particularly as I came to become close to Palestinian people and learn of the Palestinian struggle, I became largely disconnected not only from this space but from Judaism entirely.
And I want to emphasize here, that the focus of my activism and community organizing regarding migration and of the migrant justice movement—in my opinion—is to confront those in power who control the movement and existence of others through violence. Through this framework, migrant justice, prison abolition, gender justice, Palestinian liberation, indigenous soverignty and decolonization, and so much more become intrinsically linked. Consider how Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio’s police department, the Chicago Police Department, the Israeli Defense Force, U.S. police, military, immigration enforcement, and more, all collude continuously to bolster these apparatuses of violence. I encourage everyone who’s become stirred and passionate about social justice in recent years to dig into these connections, to organize and operate intersectionally and internationally in every imaginable, and to know that we are often fighting the same beast simply from many different angles.
Upon remembering this, my families experiences, hardships, and privileges through migration, and the economic conditions much of my family currently endures in Mexico—where US neoliberalism, militarization, and criminalization has hindered social justice throughout the country’s history—I try to root myself in causes for liberation globally. Once I discovered radical Jewish spaces, such as Jewish Voices for Peace, If Not Now, Tzedek, and many more, spaces that fully recalled the interconnectedness between the freedom struggles of the Jewish diaspora with the struggles for Black, Palestinian, Indigenous, and migrant liberation, I began feeling that Judaism, my spirituality, culture and religion, could be capable of remembering our collective past in its entirety, and using this remembrance as the scripture to guide our collectives future. This is what brought me back to Judaism.
Confessions On Gratitude
My father tells me of Chihuahua, his birthplace, of women selling roses on street corners to remain alive, of children washing cars or selling mangoes with no shoes. He tells me how he came to the U.S. when he was 10, of how lucky he was to obtain a green card from his father’s new wife, how his father obtained one from his boss. He tells me of the rotting car he drove from Arizona to Boston, how lucky he was for it to not break down, how it was here where he would meet my mother, find a job, have children, how everything I am, I am because of good luck. And I am to be grateful for my existence, sure, but sometimes, I wonder if Chihuahua is the greatest exporter of good luck. Bad luck never gets anywhere. Bad Luck always drowns in the Rio Grande or is shot halfway up the fence by an immigration officer, but good luck—Good Luck gets the affirmative action scholarship. Good Luck applied for citizenship at the right time.
I do not believe anyone died because they were not strong. I believe I survived because I was lucky. I am lucky because the indigenous woman forced to bare me staring down the eye of a Spaniard’s gun did not end herself
before starting me. I am lucky because my Jewish family fled Russia before the raids began,
because my Jewish family fled Poland before the raids began,
because my Jewish family fled Spain before the raids began,
because my Mexican family’s green cards arrived
after the raids began, and I do not get to disassociate myself
from those who are undocumented just because I have the fortune of being documented. I am not joyful for Good Luck. Good Luck implies the death of everyone who does not have it. I cannot celebrate Good Luck in a graveyard. I blow out the birthday candles, and each year I survive is a year someone did not. I walk to school un-bombed. I go to bed un-deported. I hit the bar un-droned. I am everything the ground / did not bury. I want a victory out of this, but I don’t know what candles to offer the ghosts beside me. I want a cake, a party, balloons, a gift basket. I want it all / entering the earth / when they did. I am to be grateful for my existence, sure, but gratitude is a Cold War’s reparation away from justice. Gratitude does not lift up the dead, does not spill the life back into a mother. I want to be alive and well and joyous, but if I knew the world like a cousin, I’d know death like a twin.
There is a boy / somewhere / with my name / and he does not get to write this poem. /
I write this poem / because I am not him, / but here, / alive, / so lucky.
Through reflection of our narratives, we seek to not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, to embody change, to become an advancement of those who came before us. Poetry for me has not just been time spent reflecting on my own life. Though it has been significant, it has also been a time of reflecting upon my position in the world, the segment I occupy on the timeline of my family history—those who came before and those who will come after.
I encourage our remembrance to be cross-generational, to collect the stories of our elders and ancestors, not only as a people who suffered persecution, but as a people who—in many ways—switched sides from largely oppressed to largely privileged. And whether we crossed over the line from oppressed to privileged, or the line crossed over to include us—in my mind, while still worth discussing, is less relevant than confronting the fact that oppression’s aim is to delineate the privileged from the oppressed. It is racial and ethnic oppression’s aim to absorb white Jews and light-skinned Latinx citizens like myself as this becomes more and more politically strategic. Oppression will grow this line of separation thicker until personal and familial connections to past injustices become so distantly removed that they are misremembered, manipulated, or forgotten entirely.
Our ability and capacity to fight for liberation in the future depends largely on our ability to remember our past. The year and years we have laid ahead of us, I believe—and I imagine many others may believe, as well—will unfortunately not become easier. I invite us all reflections of our past, the journeys, traumas, and errors of our ancestors, particularly when it comes to white supremacist and settler colonialist ideologies to envelop Jewish communities, cultures, and traditions for its own purposes. I invite us to let these reflections guide us and our lives towards better peace for better action for a better world. This may look like reading into a history you have long neglected. Perhaps opening your metaphorical sukkot to listen to the voices, stories, experiences and narratives of Jews of color, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, of Jews with differing viewpoints than your own, as well as of non-Jews, of Palestinians, of Black and Indigenous people, of people of color, particularly whom are low wealth and immigrant, of any and everyone whom has expressed feeling harmed by white supremacist, settler colonialist, and capitalist acts that many of us and people close to us may find ourselves or our ancestors complicit in. It may entail us attending events that uplift such stories and perspectives, even if it feels tense; of meeting and connecting with individuals and organizations across difference, even if it stresses or challenges us. I invite us to remember who we are to remember why and how we are, but our remembrance is constant. We carry these stories, of others and our own, and just as we did earlier with those sitting nearby us, and identify where and how they may connect. We let these connections guide us into solidarity with each other as many of us continue to tiredly work towards justice and equity and against violence and oppression. We carry these stories as we risk our comfort, agitate ourselves and those around us—even those we love, as we rest and recover our bodies and hearts, and continue fighting for nothing less than the total liberation of all people. We carry these stories as we proceed through and beyond these many long months and as we plot a life of sustainable, joyful, loving, compassionate, wise, and beautiful resistance to injustice. There is sukkah enough for all of us to connect, love, and build a better world together.