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

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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

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.

2 Noticing the Nomenclature

Part of the reason South American Jews are keenly aware of our difference is that we grew up in places where our classmates may be called Jesús or María Teresa, while we’re sporting our Old Testament monikers, like Jacobo or Myriam. Even when families adopted the local practice of using Spanish first names, family names often stayed the same. Some countries, like Argentina, have lists of acceptable names for registry, so they tend to be distinguishable from other Jewish Latinos for the combination of Spanish first names and conventionally Jewish last names.

3 My Own Sense of Otherness

Colombia has no name registry, and my biblical first name wasn’t totally rare, but I have never felt more Jewish than when I lived in Colombia. Due to my curly hair and skin that appears fair in less sunny climates, like Bogotá, I looked foreign-ish. Despite being a brunette, I was occasionally called “monita,” which fortunately in Colombia means “blondie” not “little monkey.” Still, I’ve never been close to blonde, despite best efforts and carrot-colored consequences after an ill-advised 1986 experiment with Sun In and a hair dryer, which my mom’s stylist had to correct via a double process and some highlights. Against a backdrop of Colombians with more typical appearances, my Jewishness was my otherness.

4 Fluidity of Features

Now living in the U.S., I am no longer monita, not by a long shot, and I’ve never felt more Colombian. After years of having to repeat my last name a couple of times, simply because it was unusual, here I have to spell it to avoid and extra “e” after the “Li.” “I spell it phonetically, as if it were in Spanish,” I have said, often eliciting confused responses, even from Spanish speakers. Comically, when I reveal that I am Colombian, I often hear “you totally look Colombian,” which of course is not what Colombians think.

5 Forever Steeped in the Culture

The customs, habits, flavors, sounds, smells, landscapes, people, and so much of my birth country have seeped into my family, that even though I am first generation Colombian on one side and second generation on the other, it has become part of my identity. I know so many other immigrants and children of immigrants who find themselves in similar situations, carrying their cultures, forever, under their skin.

6 You Can be Both

When I first moved here and went from being Latin American to being Latina, the assumption was that I was Mexican or, this other super vague label, “Spanish,” an impressionistic reference to all the places where the language is spoken, devoid of continental distinction. When I would clarify that I hailed from Colombia I would receive mostly cocaine-joke responses, followed distantly by “where’s that?” There were a couple of gasp-inducing times freshman year in college when I was asked questions about my home jungle. Nearly three decades later, we all know much more about one another and most people know what it means to be Colombian, to be Latina, and to be Jewish. What is still surprising is that middle oval where the two overlap and the question I most often get is, “how can you be both?”

7 The Idiosyncratic Folds Resulting from Historic Shifts and Migrations

The short answer is that while the first is a religion and culture, the second is a nationality and residency. The customs of our family and the place where we practice them are not mutually exclusive, but rather the idiosyncratic folds that historic shifts and migrations give to individual people’s lives. Jewish people originated in Asia, but over the centuries, they have kept their religious practices and migrated all over the world. There are Jewish people living in nations all over the world, and just like I’m Jewish Colombian, there are Australian Jews, South African Jews, and Norwegian Jews. It all depends on what turns the individual’s story took. My second cousin, for instance, is a French-American Jew because her grandfather, the brother of my grandfather, emigrated from Poland to France.

8 The Immigration Parallels

Just as some people’s ancestors got on boats to escape famine and misery in Europe, arriving at Ellis Island, one set of grandparents escaped the Russian pogroms in 1930s and the other sought a place to eek out new lives after the Holocaust erased the first half of theirs. Their boats arrived in Cartagena, Colombia instead of New York. Once you realize your own immigration story, however far back it goes, it becomes much easier to relate to other people’s,  an especially important skill in the last few years, when we have experienced a rise in the number of people trying to immigrate to the U.S.

9 The Ethnicity Question

There are also longer, more complex answers, ones that account for even more variables, like ethnicity. I’ll give you an example from other cultures: my friend whose parents emigrated from Pakistan and was raised Muslim met a woman recently whose parents are Indian and was raised Hindu and told me how she could tell immediately that they were both Punjabi. “What are the similarities?” I asked, my mind blown. “Common language, similar recipes. Whether it’s because of the vegetarian thing or the halal thing, neither of us would order the pork.” Punjabi is the middle oval in their combined Venn diagram, the point of overlap.

10 Our Scattered DNA

While not as precise as different ethnicities, Jewish people have scattered around the world and practice different traditions depending both on whether their family settled in Spain and Portugal, making them “Sephardic” or in Central and Eastern Europe, making them “Ashkenazic.” The word “Sephardic” comes from the Hebrew word for “Spanish” and many of them were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition. It has been discovered that some of them secretly emigrated to the New World and hid their Jewish origin, for fear that the Inquisition would reach them in South America, too. Some continued to practice some rituals in secret, and over time they became more superstition than anything else. A Catholic friend of mine during our childhood in Bogotá told me about her mother and grandmother lighting candles in the basement every Friday, letting them burn down to a puddle and a wick, like my mom’s and my Babi’s. “Why?” I asked. “Because their mother did it, too,” she shrugged.

11 Ever-Evolving Labels

Jewish Latinos are sephardic or ashkenazic, but we don’t come from those original batches in the 1500s. We refer to our family traditions in Spanish:  Sephardic Jews are “turcos,” suggesting instead northern Africa, the Middle East and Turkey, where Spanish Jews migrated before coming to Latin American in 18 and 1900s;  Ashkenazic Jews are “polacos,” meaning Polish or Central European Jews.

12 Rooted in Ancient Traditions

In the last two centuries, Jewish Latinos have lived and worked in the New World, keeping their traditions and making new ones as the ovals in their Venn diagrams overlap into a palimpsest of culture. Keeping many or all traditional Jewish celebrations and observances, Jewish Méxican might also celebrate el Día de los Muertos or throw some chiles into the Sabbath table chicken. Customs, local practices, rituals, and traditions all come together creating a brand new flavor: Jewish Latino.

13 I’m Far From Being the Only One

Photo Alicia Borinsky

Jewish Latinas Clarice Lispector, Alicia Borinsky, and Alejandra Pizarnik draw from their cultures, both the inherent and the adopted one, to create literature layered with meaning, informed by the wealth of two sets of folk tales.

14 There’s So Much Room for Zesty Cultural Fusion

For Latinas, being Jewish is sometimes just a case of doubling down. There are some inherent similarities in the cultures, celebrations with families and friends being chief amongst them. Whether Bat Mitzvah or quinceañera, there is always a reason to throw a teenage party, complete with fancy dress and full hair and make-up. Taking me straight back to my childhood, when the band had to have both klezmer and Juan Luis Guerra in their repertoire, a Jewish Latina party is like a party on a party.

15 Food Food Food

Of course, one of the best places to blend cultures is on the plate. What happens when Syrian Jews go to Perú? Quinoa tabbouleh. Russian Jews in Colombia? Borscht made with short rib, sancocho-style. With Jewish Latina communities coming together, especially in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, and New York, more fusion of cultures will bring about similar fusion in cuisine. So feel free to throw some guava on your challah next time you can, pastelito-style. It’s a great combination.