Tracy Frydberg talks Project Puente

Fri, December 20, 2013

Tracy Frydberg is a junior in Middle Eastern Studies and Liberal Arts Honors. She and Elizabeth Anderson, a senior in Global & International Studies and Liberal Arts Honors, have been traveling throughout the U.S. and Latin America to film a documentary on bringing together the Latino and Jewish communities.

Can you tell me about Project Puente? How it was conceived, what spurred its creation?

Project Puente is a student documentary initiative cofounded by Elizabeth Anderson and me. This came out of the success of an organization that I was a part of starting my freshman year called the Latino Jewish Student Coalition. … At the end of last year, Elizabeth and I started talking about how can we bring this coalition to other campuses? The coalition showed us the importance of bridge building between Latinos and Jews … and we looked around the country and saw that we were an anomaly. Coalitions like ours were not a thing on college campuses. So we decided that the most effective way to bring this coalition to other campuses was through a documentary that would explore the historical significance and modern need for bridge building between Latinos and Jews, framing the documentary around the coalition that we created here as an example for other campuses to follow.

Can you tell me why you decided to start the LJSC in the first place?

I had the opportunity to go to Israel with four Latinas and Jews—all females—from UT. … We went to Israel—it was great—and we started this organization. But it wasn’t until possibly a year into the coalition that I started to understand exactly the importance of it. I started to be very involved with the pro-Israel community here, with Texans for Israel, and part of Texans for Israel is reaching out to other organizations, asking them to cosponsor events and get involved, and I realized this wasn’t a very effective strategy.

The real way to form relationships with other students, with other communities, is through long-term bridge building: getting to know each other individually as humans, learning each other’s cultures and traditions … and building off of that [reciprocal relationship] and getting more involved with their initiatives. So, for the Latino community, one of the two major goals on campus and beyond is immigration reform and educational initiatives. These are two issues that the Jewish community can strongly relate to, and the Jewish community should be actively involved from campus to a national level in promoting these issues. … I realized that these two communities needed each other, that there was an opportunity for us to form a relationship, and that needed to start on a college.

What about the Latino community makes it a good fit to pair with the Jewish community?

To start off with, studies have found that Jews and Latinos don’t know each other. We don’t have the opportunity to interact; we don’t go to the same schools. This is really unfortunate, because the Latino population is the fastest growing population in the United States, and the Jewish community is very involved, but we don’t know each other and I wanted to fix that. …

The second thing is we both have mutual interests; we both need each other. … Bringing our two communities together, we can be an unstoppable force for positive change. I will say that the model we created we can apply to other communities. The broader themes of the film are about interdependence and cross-cultural bridge building that should be related to everyone. … All of us should be coming together, but specifically, these two communities are strategic, and we

Can you talk about the importance of building those ties in college?

College is very exciting because we have a lot of time on our hands. We’re looking to get involved, to invest on campus, and it’s a wonderful meeting point and a way for students to reach out and get to know individuals or communities beyond their own isolated community. Second, you have to form these relationships early on for them to be deep and meaningful. Reaching out to Latinos when they’re congresspeople isn’t as effective as getting to know them in college, when we’re all here having a good time. Also, the coalition has been about friendships. Some of my closest friends in school are ones that I made through Hillel or through the coalition, and these relationships will last far longer than my time on campus. So college is just a great meeting ground for these things to happen. I will also say that we’ve had an incredible about of support from departments like the Schusterman Center, Hillel, the Mexican American Studies department. We have departments and resources here that we could not possibly get outside of college, and the time and energy to implement everything we want to do.

What are some ways we can foster ties between those two communities on campus?

It’s small things, like joining Latino interest organizations like LULAC or ULI or the Latino Leadership cCuncil. It’s inviting your non-Jewish friend to a Shabbat dinner at Hillel, or to the Hanukkah party. And the other way around too: the Latino community reaching out to the Jewish community, inviting them, finding creative ways to bring us together. For example, for Purim we had a hammentaschen-empanada baking day.

That sounds delicious.

It was, it really was! Or a Latino-Jewish seder. Just providing opportunities for us to come together in a formal or informal manner. It’s fun and exciting, it’s new, it’s fresh, an enjoyable process and experience.

Where have you gone, how long did you spend there?

We were in Monterey and Mexico City. [Elizabeth and I] came up with the idea in May, and the first week of July we were gone. We were in Monterey, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires. Over winter break we’ll be traveling in the United States.

Where are you guys traveling within the U.S.?

We’ll be in New York and D.C. There are a couple of other locations up in the air that we’re working on, but there’s really interesting coalition building happening in L.A., in Miami. It’s also interesting that Latino-Jewish relations, or Jewish Latin America, is a developing academic field, as the Schusterman Center knows [from its association] with the Latin American Jewish Studies Association.

Were you visiting campuses in Monterey, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires, or more involved with the community at large?

We went to Latin America to look specifically at the history of Jewish-Latino relations. The idea was that Latinos and Jews met for the first time in Latin America. We chose Mexico because 60 percent of Latinos in the United States are Mexican, so Mexico’s an important part of the story, and we went to Buenos Aires because Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America. … What we were doing was contrasting two different community models. In Mexico … we were looking at a community that is very isolated, very inward looking, and they’ve been this way since they developed a community in the early twentieth century. …

We were trying to interview people on the street and ask them, “What do you think of Jews?” The responses were pretty varied, but the mainstream [opinion] was—if they even knew what a Jew was—they’re very isolated, and they’re very powerful. We’d ask them, “How many Jews do you think are in Mexico?” and they’d say a million, two million, which is not true at all. So they were seen as a very influential but quiet community whom no one really knew. But in Mexico, the Jewish community provides everything a Jew needs: a gym, a theater, a poker club, a school—everything. … In Argentina, there was the opposite situation, where there was this huge Jewish population, but they’re highly assimilated and integrated into the community, but the only really organized voice is the orthodox community. Another interesting storyline in Argentina was that the Jewish community is still getting over the two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires [in 1992 and 1994]. We were looking at the response from the Jewish community. Did they isolate themselves, make this a Jewish issue, or did they make it a national issue? These were the things we were looking at. We interviewed all kinds of people, from children to the oldest Jewish member of the community in Monterey, so we were all over the place. We were not focusing really on college campuses, because the way college campuses work in Latin America is not at all similar to the

I noticed a lot of shots in the trailer are quite visually striking. Did you see anything that was particularly affecting or powerful?

For me it was far more about the people I interviewed than the locations. The one place I was personally moved by was the historic synagogue in Mexico City. … What’s interesting is that in Mexico City the Jewish institutions only allow Jewish members to go inside. For example, I couldn’t even get into the JCC. There’s an intense amount of security. So there was no real public Jewish space for anyone to walk into and get a glimpse into what the Jewish community was like. This historic synagogue is the only place in Mexico City where you can. …

But it’s really interesting because from the exterior … you would have no idea it’s a synagogue. It looks like a neocolonial house and then you go in and there’s an inner façade, and then you go in deeper, and back back back there’s the synagogue itself. It’s hidden, which is a symbol for how the Jewish community in Mexico functions: these beautiful institutions that are hidden, that you really have to go into and see.

Can you talk about your most memorable interview or experience so far?

There were a lot. One of my favorites was in Monterey; we had the opportunity to interview the oldest member of the Jewish community. … It wound up being one of the best interviews; we talked with her for two hours. She’s been there from the beginning. She talked about how in the early days there was no Jewish community center. She and the other members put their pennies together and created this beautiful Jewish community center that they were so proud of for their children and their grandchildren, and now this community center is empty. That was very powerful. She talked about her own family—she has four daughters and all these great-great-grandchildren. She has this beautiful family; she was showing us pictures. She wrote this book—that she actually gave us and signed—about her family, about how they came to Monterey and were able to create a new life for themselves.

Do you think the insularity of the communities fosters a deeper sort of pride, the kind that would inspire one to write a book about one’s family?

Yes. There’s a phrase in Monterey: the worst Jew in Monterey is better than the best Jew anywhere else.

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