Act

Photo by Adolfo Guzman-LopezThe spirit of a Salvadoran mensch lives on at a small charter school near the Vermont Avenue off ramp of the Santa Monica Freeway. Jose Castellanos Elementary School opened its doors this school year under the name of the Salvadoran diplomat who issued fake citizenship certificates to thousands of Jews during World War Two.

Just last year Israel's Holocaust remembrance organization bestowed on Castellanos the "Righteous Among the Nations" title for his role in saving thousands of Jews from German concentration camps. The title puts Castellanos on the same pedestal as Oskar Schindler, whose deeds were documented in the film "Schindler's List."

At the opening of the school last year Castellanos's granddaughter Ana Velasquez beamed with pride that L.A. Unified bestowed this posthumous recognition. Castellanos, a colonel in the Salvadoran army, didn't talk about what he did to save Jews during World War Two.

"When we asked him, he would say, 'Anyone in my place would do the same thing.' But remember that many people could do the same thing that he did, but they didn't. And some of them did and got money for it. And my grandfather he never asked for money," she said.

The naming is one of the first such civic recognitions of the contributions of Central Americans to Southern California life. As it has built more than a hundred new schools across the huge school district, L.A. Unified's board has named quite a few after prominent Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The uni-brow painter Frida Kahlo has an L.A. Unified school named after her. So does retired L.A. congressman Esteban Torres.

It may be a cold day on Beaudry Avenue before Nicaraguan guerrillero Augusto Sandino or Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton have a public school named after either of them. The Castellanos naming is a nod to Central Americans, to Salvadorans, and to a group of Central American Jews who've re-discovered their roots and have revived a nearly 90 year-old synagogue in East Hollywood.

Photo by Adolfo Guzman-LopezThat's the story of business owner Oscar Dominguez. He arrived in Los Angeles 21 years ago escaping the bloodshed in his native El Salvador. A few years ago he thought of creating a Jose Castellanos museum near the area on Vermont Avenue dotted with Central American restaurants and businesses. Then he heard that a new school was close to finished nearby. It would need a name, he thought, so he lobbied the school district to name it after Castellanos. One of the letters of support came from Temple Knesset Israel a couple of miles north on Vermont Avenue. The conservative Jewish synagogue was founded in 1926 and has seen a revival in recent years through the influx of Mexican and Central American converts.

Dominguez discovered that the president of the synagogue had a connection to Jose Castellanos. Longtime synagogue member Harvey Shield still has the Salvadoran citizenship certificate issued to his father in-law as the family was arrested in Holland by the occupying German army. That certificate, he says, kept the Jewish family from being sent to Auschwitz and certain death. Shield's wife was born in the U.S. about a decade later after the family arrived in the United States.

That story and the Central American kindred spirits at the temple led Dominguez to pursue his mother's stories of her German father having to hide his Jewish roots in El Salvador. And ever since, Oscar Dominguez has become a regular at Temple Knesset Israel.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every Tuesday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

About the Author

Adolfo’s been a reporter at NPR affiliate KPCC since 2000. He’s reported on three L.A. mayors, four L.A. Unified superintendents, and covered the LAPD batons and rubber bullets flying at the May, 2007 MacArthur Park immigrant marc...
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