During the past thirty years, multiple works of literary fiction by Latin American authors have helped recover the marginalized history of Iberian "New Christians," or conversos, whom Inquisition tribunals prosecuted as secret Jews in colonial Latin America. In prose, poetry, and drama, these works imagine how a silenced people--Spanish and Portuguese Catholic converts of Jewish origin who tried to practice Judaism despite their baptism--thought, spoke, and acted. Why have contemporary Latin American writers chosen to resuscitate this relatively unknown history, and how does their treatment of it through fiction broaden our understanding of an era of American Judaism that often feels outside the bounds of the Jewish experience on these shores? (2) Addressing such questions, this essay aims to show that texts of Homero Aridjis, Moacyr Scliar, Sabina Berman, and Nora Glickman rewrite the "official" story of Latin American history; represent the depth of faith of forgotten Jews living in settings of eclipse; and describe the complexities of this faith, particularly its isolating and divisive aspects. Through this approach, the article also argues for the ability of fiction to transport readers credibly into the minds of secret Jews of the early modern period and the descendants of such individuals today. In so doing, these works testify to two historical realities about the reach and limits of Jewish identity: the unwavering faith of Iberian crypto-Jews and, concomitantly, the fact that converso status did not always imply a secret adherence to Judaism.
New Christians were Spanish or Portuguese Catholics who themselves had converted from Judaism or who were the descendants of such converts.
Several conversos accompanied Christopher Columbus on his first voyage of encounter with the "Indies" in 1492, and larger numbers traveled to Latin America during the next century and a half, despite the ban that the Spanish crown had imposed on their doing so. (3) From the late 1500s through the mid-1600s, tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico City, Lima, and Cartagena de Indias prosecuted a series of trials partially in response to the crypto-Jewish practices of a number of these conversos, effectively uprooting many, albeit not all, roots of their secret Judaism. (4) The presence today of descendants of secret Jews, from northeast Brazil to the American Southwest, testifies to the endurance of an identity that has blurred the distinction between religion and ethnicity. Members of these groups have responded variously to greater opportunities to live in an openly Jewish way: while some have become normative Jews, others, feeling irrevocably distinct from the rest of society, have maintained a hybrid identity built on Catholic and Jewish practices. The fact that various authors today have written fiction rooted in this historical reality reflects in part their effort to broaden contemporary awareness of the Iberian origin and legacy of Jewish identity in the Americas, well before the establishment of Ashkenazim on these shores. (5)
The works discussed in this essay confront the conflation of religion and ethnicity by depicting reactions to the otherness of conversos that originated in late medieval Iberia and accompanied them to colonial Latin America, from martyrdom-inducing embrace of Judaism to disdainful rejection of it. Thus, in the novel 1492: Vida y tiempos de Juan Cabezon de Castilla (1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile, 1983) and the poem "Sefarad, 1492" (1990), the Mexican writer Homero Aridjis establishes the transatlantic roots of the early Latin American Jewish experience by representing the degradation of Jews and New Christians in Iberia in the century before the final expulsion and forced conversions of the former during the 1490s. (6) Likewise, several chapters of the novel A estranha nacao de Rafael Mendes (The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes, 1986) by Moacyr Scliar examine from a Brazilian perspective the experience of Portuguese conversos in colonial Brazil in a way that both complements and differs from the experiences of New Christians in Spanish territories. (7) The play Herejta (Heresy, 1983), by the Mexican playwright Sabina Berman, conveys the clandestinity and fear that Jewish identity provokes in a converso family of the Inquisition era. Finally, another play, Liturgias (Liturgies, 2000), by the Argentine-American playwright Nora Glickman, shows the effects on a marriage caused by the discovery of Jewish identity in the descendants of converso families in the late twentieth century. (8)
Significantly, none of the authors of these texts share a Sephardic, that is, Iberian Jewish, cultural background with the subject of their work: Berman, Glickman, and Scliar are or were Ashkenazic Jews (Scliar died in 2011), and Aridjis is of Greek and indigenous Mexican origin. Yet consciously or not, all participate in the process of "literary sephardism," which Yael Halevi-Wise defines in the introduction to her edited volume of essays, likewise titled Sephardism, as "a form of literary expression that functions politically during heightened moments of historical consciousness in diverse national contexts." (9) Thus, the four writers collectively use the expulsions and forced conversions of Iberian Jewry during the 1490s, as well as the subsequent consequences of this cataclysm, not only to drive plot development, but also as a means for commenting about identity and belonging in an Ibero-American context today. For example, in Heresy, Berman recovers and reimagines the voices of an otherwise silenced minority in official Mexican history, Iberian crypto-Jews whom Inquisition tribunals prosecuted as heretics during the colonial era. Likewise, in Liturgies, Glickman writes the consciousness of a Sephardic past as either an encumbering secret or a liberating discovery. In these and other cases, all four authors create an Iberian Jewish perspective that reverses, at least through literature, some of the historical erasure of crypto-Jewish voices, while also leading the reader to consider the apparently ineradicable persistence into the present time of the othering of these voices.
In "Sephardim and Neo-Sephardim in Latin American Literature," an essay in Halevi-Wise's volume, Edna Aizenberg refers to a term that Leon Perez coined, resefardizacion, in order to describe "the renewed integration of Sephardim into a wider Hispanic [and Luso-Brazilian] context." (10) Aridjis, Berman, Glickman, and Scliar all work towards such integration through their respective literature without being Sephardic themselves. In fact, as Aizenberg writes, "both Ashkenazim and Sephardim can take pride in the Sephardic reality in Latin American letters, in its productive and provocative Sephardic mythology, and in the possibility of the emergence of a truly neo-Sephardic culture." (11) Rooting their stories in such "Sephardic mythology," these four authors broaden the reach of Jewish identity in an Iberian American context and contribute to increased awareness of historical and cultural diversity in Latin America. By all appearances, the personal experiences of Aridjis, Berman, Glickman, and Scliar do not intrinsically link their works. Nevertheless, the article focuses on such texts because each one examines through complimentary and relatively recent lenses the marginalizing effect of expulsion and Inquisition on Ibero-American Sephardim, conversos, and even their descendants. Additionally, students at the University of Portland have responded most meaningfully to these examples of modern literary works addressing the Inquisition era in my classes treating Hispano-Jewish topics. These reasons, as well as limitations of space and scope, precluded analysis in this article of other works of Latin American literature that rework the conflict between secret Jews and the Iberian Inquisition, foremost among them the novel La gesta del marrano (The Epic of the Marrano) by the Argentine Marcos Aguinis. (12)
In its analysis of Jewish identity in the texts that it studies, whether amongst conversos suspected of insincere Christianity, or variously asserted or denied by characters themselves, this article also shows the complexity of the question who is a Jew. By investigating this question as well as the effect of exile on individuals themselves and on their interactions with other characters, the article confirms the poignancy of a citation from one of the works that serves as its subtitle: "No exile is worse than the one within us ... The whole air of exile is yours." (13) This language describing the enormity of exile exemplifies the capacity of fiction to represent the historical past in ways that help readers today imagine, understand, and relate to Iberian Jews and their baptized descendants in ways that complement documentary evidence.
The son of a Greek Christian father from Turkey who immigrated to Mexico in 1922 and married a woman from Michoacan state, Homero Aridjis is the only one of the four writers considered in this essay who is not Jewish. Learning of his father's experience seeing the murder of Greeks and Armenians in Turkey and then settling in a Mexican village whose residents regarded him (the father) as an outsider profoundly influenced Aridjis' identification with displaced Jews and New Christians of fifteenth-century Spain. As he commented when lecturing about his novel, "When I was writing 1492, I always had my father's past in mind, how he lived as part of a minority in an alien country, belonging to a different religion, and what it felt like to live among hostile people who might kill you at any time." (14) Not surprisingly, Aridjis invests the life story of the title character of 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile with a degree of verisimilitude that in many instances makes the novel read as if it were nearly an eyewitness account. Bound by the two great...