Researching My Mexi-Jewish Homegrown History

A portrait of my great-grandma Sarah “Sally” Goldbaum, which is now part of the Jewish Homegrown History online archive. The companion exhibition is now on view at the Skirball.

A portrait of my great-grandma Sarah “Sally” Goldbaum, which is now part of the Jewish Homegrown History online archive. The companion exhibition is now on view at the Skirball.

My name is Sarah Goldbaum, and Goldbaum is my great grandmother’s maiden name. Does that make me Jewish? I guess it depends who you ask.

For a long time, all of us in our family were unfamiliar with our Jewish roots. As far as I knew, my mother and grandparents were Catholic. Growing up, I’d heard the story of my grandfather Al changing his last name from his father’s surname, Molina, to his mother’s, Goldbaum. It was part of family lore.

Two summers ago, I began sorting through a box of old family photos. I talked to my mom, aunt, and grandmother, eager to find out who the people in the pictures were, where they came from, and so on. I was hoping to piece together whatever we could from memories, scribbled photo captions, and Ancestry.com. Based on information from the U.S. Census and the University of Arizona Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives, we discovered that we were Mexican on my maternal grandmother’s side and Prussian Jewish on my maternal grandfather’s side.

Soon we were able to fill in some of the blanks. After just a couple of months, I was contacted by another Goldbaum on Facebook. He lives in Ecuador. “I think we’re related,” he wrote in a direct message. There are so many Goldbaums that I figured we probably weren’t, but sent him a link to some family photos anyway. I was amazed at his response: “We are definitely related!”

My family tree, from the Prussian Jewish brothers listed up top, down to me and my new Facebook friend, Roberto Goldbaum.

My family tree, from the Prussian Jewish brothers listed up top, down to me and my new Facebook friend, Roberto.

As I came to find out, my great-great-great-grandfather Michael Goldbaum was one of seven (seven!) Prussian Jewish brothers. Six of them emigrated to the U.S. from what would become Germany, all eventually settling in California and Arizona along with relations in Ensenada, Mexico. Michael’s son, my great-great-grandfather Joseph Goldbaum, met my great-great-grandmother, a widow named Jesusita “Jesse” Garcia-Mazón, in Sonora, Mexico. He brought her back to Arizona with him, along with her youngest son, Augustine. Joseph and Jesse would go on to have three children of their own, including my great-grandma Sally (pictured above). It seems that all six U.S.-based Goldbaum brothers would intermarry with Hispanic women. Scandalous (at least to some)!

To help place this research into context, I uploaded my family photos to the Jewish Homegrown History online archive and have taken great interest in the companion exhibition, Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage, now on view at the Skirball. As I came to find out, the fact that all of the Goldbaum men, in the 1800s, did not marry within the Jewish religion, nor within the Jewish community, was quite progressive for the time. From the records I’ve been able to access and the yellowed handwritten notes and postcards I’ve unearthed among my family’s belongings, no one in my family considered such intermarriage problematic.

Compare my family’s attitude to that of the father of a young California Jewish woman, Sheila Goldberg, who married a Mexican man, Eduardo Carrillo. Their story is told in “Come Wander: The Carrillos and the Goldbergs,” one of the Jewish Homegrown History movies on view in the gallery. Sheila’s father basically stopped speaking to his daughter until his grandchildren were born.

Stills from “Come Wander: The Carrillos and the Goldbergs,” on view in the exhibition. Images courtesy of The Labyrinth Project.

Stills from “Come Wander: The Carrillos and the Goldbergs,” on view in the exhibition. Images courtesy of The Labyrinth Project.

Through the exhibition and its online archive, I’m learning more about how much intermarriage took place between Jews and Mexicans (creating Mexijews, like myself), Jews and Cubans (resulting in Jewbans, as many in Miami call themselves), and Jews and Puerto Ricans (giving rise to generations of Jewricans). Despite its figurative assault on tradition, intermarriage was “inescapable” for immigrants, as USC Professor Moshe Lazar puts it. For my family, it’s just part of our story.

And the name Goldbaum seems to have survived all the way. My great-grandma Sally Goldbaum ended up raising her son, Al, as a single mom in South Central L.A. All the while, Al used his mother’s maiden name. It wasn’t until after he married my grandma and was drafted in the Korean War that he found out his legal surname had remained his father’s all that time: Molina! So what did he do? He pawned off his prized saxophone, paid court fees, and had his name legally changed to Goldbaum once and for all.

Like my grandfather Al, I too grew up the child of a single mother with her last name: Goldbaum. When you consider that my family, across the generations, was so unconcerned about the social implications of marriage across cultures and faiths, widowhood, and single motherhood, I like to think it demonstrates a truly “Wild West” perspective on immigration. I like to think that immigrants to the West were true pioneers, building not only new towns and railroads, but new lives, and rewriting social norms for what it means to be an American—Jewish, Hispanic, or both.

As for my newfound Facebook friend and distant Ecuadorian relative, it turns out he’s directly descended from Adolf Goldbaum, the one Prussian Jewish brother who remained in Germany, making him my second cousin, twice removed (thank you, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cousin#Relationships_chart). We’ve compared notes and stayed in touch, and (who knows?) maybe one day we’ll meet up to discuss our own “homegrown history.”

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