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October 29, 2009 By:
Julie Sobel, JE Feature
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They call themselves Jewbans, Mexi-Jews, Jewminicans or Kosher-Ricans.

They can be found eating guacamole on matzah on Passover or drinking kosher tequila on Cinco de Mayo. Their ranks include Geraldo Rivera, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Brett Rattner.

Latin American Jews number in the hundreds of thousands, but they have traditionally flown under the radar, in part because of discrimination and even persecution woes in an overwhelmingly Catholic region.

But U.S.-based Latin Americans with Jewish roots are more pronouncedly celebrating their heritage of late, and are building a cohesive social, religious and even fashion community.

Ariana Lopez started the first clothing line aimed at Latino Jews with her label "Jewtina," splashing that name in sparkling silver letters across her shirts sold by her Los Angeles company. She says that the perception that all Latinos are Catholics can make Latin Jews feel ostracized. She wants her T-shirts to help build pride and community.

"You'd want to buy something to embrace your Jewish faith, but it was always Yiddish," said Lopez, who, of course, comes from Jewish stock herself. She decided to raise awareness that strong ethnic identities can co-exist.

Lopez's 16-year-old daughter, Breanna, models the T-shirts, and is the company's creative director.

"Kids were like, 'That's so cool, you're Jewish and Latina,' " said Lopez.

Lopez's company then created Jewtino for men, featuring shirts with flags from various Latin countries.

Lopez calls Simon Guindi Cohen "the epitome of Jewtino." He's the 25-year-old director of Judios Latinos, a social group for young Latin Jews in New York City.

'Renew the Community'

Guindi Cohen is a third-generation Mexican Jew who moved to the United States a decade ago, and is now a New Yorker. At a recent Israeli Independence Day celebration hosted by Jewish groups and held on the USS Intrepid in the city, Guindi Cohen and his entourage wore green T-shirts with "Peace and Love" in Hebrew and English, featuring a yellow Star of David with a peace sign inside.

Except for a few Spanish accents, his group didn't stand out from the throngs of Gen Y Jews packed onto the boat.

Guindi Cohen revived a rather inactive Judios Latinos with a Uruguayan-Jewish friend, "so we could renew the whole Latino Jewish community," he said. "We are basically rejuvenating it."

Their main vehicle is Facebook (1,315 members strong), through which they organize monthly events and raise money. Their Web site, still under construction, states simply: "We are working on a new Web site. Pero como buenos Latinos, 'tamos tardes" ("But like good Latinos, we're late").

Guindi Cohen's day job is running "Spenglish," his new high-end Latin American-accented clothing company.

"The cool thing is that every Latin country has a different culture," said Guindi Cohen, who is from Syrian Jewish stock. "So my experience in Mexico on Passover and Rosh Hashanah combined traditional Syrian cuisines with some Mexican spices.

"It spices it up," said Guindi Cohen, who stresses the need to keep rebranding Judaism, since many Latin Jews don't embrace their Jewish heritage.

"It's a very passive community," at least in the United States, he added. "We're trying to change that, and it's working pretty good."

Spanish Jews first migrated to Latin America during the Inquisition, when the Spanish government began persecuting its large Sephardic Jewish population.

Many who weren't killed became conversos, converting to Christianity to survive.

Some of these would secretly hold onto their Jewish heritage, and convert back, even generations later.

And, in fact, several Spanish Jews sailed on Christopher Columbus' maiden voyage to America. Later, Eastern European refugees fleeing pogroms, and Middle Eastern Jews leaving after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, arrived.

Today, the largest Latin Jewish communities are in Brazil and Argentina.

Over the centuries, some Latino Jews immigrated to the United States, bolstered by the large number of Cuban Jews who emigrated to the United States after Castro came to power in 1959.

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