It might seem a bit odd, but the person who single-handedly introduced modern Latin American art as a legitimate field of study was not, herself, Hispanic. She was Jewish, and her name was Shifra Meyerowitz Goldman. Born in New York in 1926 to Russian immigrants Abraham and Sylvia (née Perla Kadish), she spoke only Yiddish until the age of 6. Her father was a waiter and her mother a seamstress, but they loved the arts and spent any free time they had immersing Shifra and her younger sister Vivian in the NY art scene. The family moved to Los Angeles after Shifra graduated from high school, and she initially studied to be a studio artist. But living in California opened up a whole new world; Shifra began to take a deep interest in Mexican and Hispanic culture, learning Spanish and becoming active in civil rights work. She shifted her focus to art history, but when she proposed doing her doctoral dissertation on postwar Mexican art, her professors at UCLA refused, saying the topic wasn’t worthy of scholarly attention. She ended up having to wait several years for a new faculty member to finally approve her thesis. From that point on, as the LA Times wrote in her obituary, she became “a seminal figure in the rise of Latin American and Chicano art history as legitimate fields of study.” After receiving her doctorate, Shifra took a position at Santa Ana College, where she taught for more than 20 years until retiring in 1992. When she died in 2011 at the age of 85, Cal State Northridge professor Yreina D. Cervantez commented that “There was no one like Shifra. Her commitment was unmovable and constant.”
Dalia Taft, archivist of the Orange County Jewish Historical Society, highlights images from the archives every month. For more information, please visit www.jewishoc.org/history. You can also contact Dalia at email@example.com or at (949) 435-3400, ext. 360. The Orange County Jewish Historical Society is a program of the Merage Jewish Community Center and is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County.