Jews of “Latin” America
“He’s Mexican,” I told my French mom about my boyfriend.
“Oh, does he have a mustache and a sombrero?” she replied, amused.
After months spent in Mexico, mostly among the Jewish community, I was taken aback by my mom’s comment. Where did this idea of Mexican identity come from? From cartoon characters on the wrapper of the Pepito cookies I grew up eating? The Old El Paso Tex-Mex food ads?
“Turns out, there is a substantial community of Jewish people in Mexico City,” I began to explain.
I had no idea about this until I met my boyfriend. I had never traveled outside of Europe, and my own idea of Mexico wasn’t too far from, well … tacos and narcos. In Europe, as in the United States, the cliché of the dark-skinned, mustachioed Mexican with a sombrero dominates people’s idea of Mexico, seen in such racist depictions as Speedy Gonzalez in the Looney Tunes. On another extreme, exported telenovelas feature light-skinned Mexican actors (derided as “whitexicans”). Neither depiction leaves much space for understanding the country’s cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity.
Other ethnic groups present in Mexico and the rest of the Americas are denied representation as a side effect of simplistic ideas constructed through consumer products and entertainment of what it means to be Mexican or from a Hispanic country. Clichés about Mexicans do not help indigenous and mestizo/a Mexicans either, who do not benefit from the pseudo-representations proposed by Speedy Gonzalez, Pepito, and the ravenous patriarch of Old El Paso. These caricatures all obscure the realities and voices of indigenous and mestizo/a cultures in Mexico.
Contemporary Mexican identity is tied to a long project of modernization during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). The revolutionary leaders fought to develop Mexico’s society and economy by reforming old political structures. They educated peasants and advocated for nationalism and for anti-clericalism, as they believed the Catholic church limited their understanding of their real Mexican identity. But the constant political turmoil among the different political factions during that period and their divide in restructuring society led to further problems of identity.
Our mindsets need to be reframed so we stop thinking about Non-Western areas as mere profitable annexes to Western areas. From the Western gaze, even white people in Central and South America are 'off-white,' Mignolo argues.
This created a crisis for the masses, who did not know how to identify in the midst of drastic change. The representations of “whitexicans,” the macho, and the charro with a sombrero in mass culture have become byproducts of the moral and cultural shifts of compromising identity for political progress. Later, United States power infiltrated Mexico; globalization during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema (1933–1964) and telenovelas carry the cultural baggage from these racial and political struggles, which are handed down from one generation to the next. Representations of Mexicans are often relegated to figures that do not leave space for exploring other representations, let alone the existence of different religions within Mexico. This is why my boyfriend is tied to this typification.
Originally from Eastern Europe, my boyfriend’s family has lived in Mexico for three generations. His great-grandparents fled World War II on boats bound for Ellis Island. When turned away, those boats sailed to the closest harbors in the Americas — including Veracruz, the major port city on the Gulf of Mexico. Their names were written down phonetically in Spanish. Immigration papers registered that they spoke “judío” as well as Hebrew. They joined the much older Jewish history of the region: Jewish communities had already existed in Mexico since at least the 16th century after crossing the Atlantic to participate in the new colonial projects of different European empires.
I struggle to understand why the Jewish presence in Mexico and the rest of the Americas does not figure in the history I have studied in classrooms in France, Scotland, Ireland, and Canada. As a Spanish major, I am all the more incredulous that none of my Latin American culture classes taught me about cultural and religious diversity in Latin American countries.
Perhaps our very lexicon helps to explain this silence: we call these countries Latin American. “Latin,” with its reference to the Holy Roman Empire, implies a unitary “Western” character and a Christian population. In fact, it was the French who invented the term “Latin America” under Napoleon III so as to claim the continent as a natural annex of France. This is why Argentine theorist Walter Mignolo calls it “the idea of Latin America” in his 2005 book of the same name. Mignolo explains that our persistent use of the term “Latin America” testifies to the coloniality still present in our geopolitical thinking. We need to de-colonize our language and, if not invent new names for these areas, referring to them in purely geographical terms by calling them Northern, Central, and Southern America is the least we can do. Mexico, for one, is geographically part of Northern America, although it is frequently affiliated with Central America.
Of course, our language is tainted by the persistence of colonialist thinking and of US supremacy as a form of modern colonialism. The United States, as Spanish-speakers are fond of repeating, is populated by estadounidenses, not “Americans.” Why there isn’t a demonym in English for the citizens of the United States is, sadly, easy to see.
I suspect that a lack of inclusive education in Western countries is the major influence on how many people see this and other regions. Our mindsets need to be reframed so we stop thinking about Non-Western areas as mere profitable annexes to Western areas. From the Western gaze, even white people in Central and South America are “off-white,” Mignolo argues. Before university students choose a major, they should have been taught history beyond the Western world. There is no reason why history textbooks should exclude South America, Eurasia, Asia, and Africa. Then, people who choose to specialize in the histories of those areas can examine the diversity within their histories, rather than perceive them as cultural monoliths.
These ideas can have real consequences for individuals. My boyfriend always gets the same double take from border officials at international airports, a look that says, “So you’re a white guy with a Jewish last name and a Mexican passport?” This look is sometimes voiced. How could he possibly respond to this question in a context that has not made space for understanding his family’s history and his identity? Inclusive education about Central and South American cultures, consumer resistance to offensive food marketing, and the rejection of exclusionary media depictions can help build the awareness that makes jokes such as my mom’s a lot less funny.
Manon Hakem-Lemaire is entering her second year in her Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature at CUNY, Graduate Center. Manon’s interest is mainly in literature in Spanish and English from the late 19th century to present, especially short fiction, the fantastic, and what she calls “alternative realism.” She also likes to reflect on the social function of literature and its relationship with other art forms, such as film. Manon hopes to start working in publishing.
For more information on the source of the immigration document cited above, see “History of the Jews in Mexico.”