My Cultural Double Whammy: 15 Things I Have Learned as a Jewish Latina

I arrived in the U.S. a lifetime ago in 1992 with a student visa and plans to return to Colombia once I had finished college. Things changed both in Colombia and in my microcosm, and so I ended up staying in the U.S. for another twenty seven years, where I still live.

Raised in Bogotá in a Jewish family for my first eighteen years, we were steeped in our great-grandparents’ traditions, samovar and all. Part of the logic was that since so many of them we not with us, having been murdered or left behind in the old country, we would follow these practices, to which the new country did not object.

Colombia was a wonderful place to grow up as a Jew. With small, largely practicing communities in the five major cities, we grew up with access to traditional Jewish services conducted at synagogues and Hebrew day schools, though many of us attended secular and international schools. I have shared my experiences with other South American Jews, hailing from as far south as Argentina and Chile and all the way up to México, and we all have a similar take — growing up, we knew we were different, but we certainly felt welcome.  

Growing up in Colombia, standing on the line between two ways of being, I quickly came to terms with my difference. I was an advantage because it carried with it an education. Being not fully Colombian because of my distance from the prototype was to me an excess and not a lack. I grew up with an ever-growing sensitivity to how being on that place of overlap between cultures is a wider, more comfortable place than I ever thought, more the middle oval in a Venn diagram than the unfairly line that is a margin or a wall. Being Jewish and Latina, having lived both in Latin America and in the United States, has given me the rare opportunity to make myself at home even when I’m different. From this highly educational and enjoyable path of cultural collage-making, here is some of what I’ve learned:

1 Different, but Welcome

Culture Jewish BELatina

When I was a kid in South America, I felt different but welcome, and this was crucial in forming my perspective. My friends and I took advantage of our differences to experience each other’s customs. In a largely Catholic country, I had the opportunity to attend friends’ first communions and novena celebrations during the advent of Christmas. My friends came over for Shabbat dinner, to temple for Shabbat services, and certainly when Bar and Bat Mitzvah season rolled around everyone learned to dance the hora, swiftly followed by hours of merengue and salsa. Being invited into one another’s homes during these cultural exchanges was an idyllic way to start out young friendships and galvanized many into adult ones.