Arizona statehouse candidate Alma Hernandez said there was a time some people had trouble comprehending her background.
“Oh my God, you’re Mexican and Jewish?” she told the Forward some folks would ask whenever she traveled outside the state.
Hernandez, 25, is part of a group of Jews of color running, and winning, in areas where that might not have seemed feasible even an election or two ago. She beat an incumbent to represent part of Tucson and will become the first Jewish Latina to hold office in the state.
Increasingly, Jews of color are finding their variegated identities a political advantage, which could mean those who won this election cycle are a harbinger of things to come.
To be sure, Julia Salazar’s campaign got complicated when reporters and critics dug up perceived inconsistencies in her background story, including her Jewish roots. Yet she still won her New York State Senate primary — handily.
“I’m excited about it,” said Alexis Ortiz, a 35-year-old Latina Jew who’s a political activist and who knows Salazar. “People might expect that to happen in New York, but the fact is we’re all over the place.”
Ortiz said new support networks like JFREJ’s Grace Paley fellowship, a training program she participated in, have created additional avenues for Jews of color to make their voices heard within the established political and cultural order.
Political expert Ajay Singh Chaudhary write to the Forward in an email that Hernandez’ focus on her complex identity helped her separate herself from two fellow Latino candidates in an area with a sizable minority population. That was strategically smart, especially because her platform wasn’t especially striking; it was more in line with centrist Democrats, unlike Salazar’s. Salazar ran as a leftist insurgent.
“Salazar’s campaign prominently focuses on issues of policy and helping working class, poor, and marginalized people achieve political power,” wrote Chaudhary, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. “Hernandez’s [campaign] site mostly focuses on her story and her identity.”
He added that both candidates represent increased diversity in both the Jewish and broader political sphere.
“Their complex identities of gender, ethnicity, religion, and age I think are simply markers of the increasing complexity of overlapping and mixed identities here in the United States,” Singh wrote.
“Opening up and broadening the representation in our political system is an unquestionable good as it increases the possibility for truly popular government which has long been wanting in our country. There’s more than one way to be a ‘Jew-of-color.’”
Dina Siegel Vann, the director of AJC’s Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, which aims to connect the Jewish community with Spanish and Portuguese speakers at home and abroad, agreed a rise of Latina Jewish candidates in particular is part of a larger trend.
“They want to be part of process. They want to advance agendas they feel traditional parties are not representing,” the director told the Forward. “You need that young blood to revitalize our political life. When we see minorities [running for office] it is very gratifying and very encouraging.”
Jews of color can still face discrimination.
Hernandez said white supremacist leader David Duke disparagingly tweeted out a story about her work helping immigrants.
“After that happed with David Duke it made me even more proud to be a Mexican Jew running,” she told the Forward.
“I know that’s what bothered him. It killed them to know people like me are running. It makes me really happy to know we won.”