By Sarah Meadow, Medill, Immigrant Connect May 2021
My 9-year-old eyes widen as I take in the sights of the floral backgrounds, colorful mosaics and sun-stained murals in Mexico City. My family, 17 of us, are visiting the birthplace of my uncle, Alberto Valner, or as my family affectionately calls him, Uncle ‘Al.’
Yes, 17 of us. We may have looked like a performing choir or an organized synagogue tour. No, just my family of cousins, aunts, uncles, and sisters. Seeing the cultural heritage of the uncle, father, and brother-in-law figure to us allows us to gain insight and understanding into Uncle Al’s life.
Despite our shared Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, Uncle Al grew up in Mexico City before immigrating to the United States to attend the University of Southern California. A cancer survivor, businessman, and above all, family man, Alberto Valner is one of a community of Jews who left Western Europe and went to Mexico rather than to the United States.
As I reflect on my relationship with my uncle, I think of the advice and stories he’s shared with me that I try to follow. Family remains above all else for us. It guides the values I try to live by that have been instilled in me.
My family is generationally challenged, with two sets of adults two years apart and two more 10 years later, meaning the table at our Jewish holidays and Thanksgiving celebrations have guests ranging from 4 to 80. For both generations, Uncle Al has played the same role. Always upbeat and funny, he cracks jokes and tells stories.
Getting to go to High Holiday (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) services with my extended family remains a special part of my upbringing. My fraternal side of the family is very close. To celebrate the holidays together is a cornerstone of my relationship to Judaism, strengthened by Uncle Al.
In 1998, before I was born, my family’s life was turned upside down. Uncle Al and his mother were both diagnosed with cancer in the same month. He was diagnosed with stage 4 testicular cancer and went through extensive chemotherapy and radiation. The family rallied around them. Uncle Al was able to beat the cancer. His mother was not so fortunate and passed away days after Uncle Al finished treatment.
Uncle Al knew he had to give back and help others who face the tribulations of cancer. The following year, Uncle Al and his wife Stacy founded the PHASE ONE Foundation to raise awareness and funds for clinical trials like the one that saved my uncle’s life. Years later, PHASE ONE commissioned a video that featured Uncle Al reinforcing the importance of clinical cancer research, innovative education and treatment programs.
[Click here to view the video]
Now, he serves as president of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where my two sisters and my four cousins (his four children) have all been bnei mitzvahed. He must be one of few Hispanic temple presidents in Los Angeles.
Our family numbers 22, which is even more of a challenge to travel with. In Dec. 2018, we visited Israel for my youngest sister’s bat mitzvah. I remembered strong parallels and a sense of deja vu from our trip to Mexico in 2009. Approaching the Western Wall, tucking small notes into the crevices of the historical landmark and touching its rough surface, I imagined myself nearly 10 years before, looking at the floral murals in Mexico City. Witnessing first the cultural heritage in Mexico that I didn’t share with Uncle Al, and years later sharing our heritage in Israel was a powerful bridging of experiences for my family.