Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Rosa Nissan: Cultural Memory and the Mexican Sephardic Woman

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Rosa Nissan: Cultural Memory and the Mexican Sephardic Woman

Article excerpt

The Sephardic Jewish community's contribution within Mexican society (as well as the female's within the Sephardic patriarchy) was overlooked in contemporary cultural portrayals until recently, when Rosa Nissan challenged the official story--both in Sephardic tradition and in the greater Mexican hegemonic system--with her recent stories that collect and portray the cultural memory of a people who are both Mexican and Jewish.

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In Mexico, novelists Laura Esquivel and Angeles Mastretta soared to international fame during the late twentieth century, while other prolific women writers have remained largely unknown outside of Spanish-language readership, and this despite their creative work on collective identity and the female role in Mexican history. Recently, however, writers such as Elena Poniatowska, Carmen Boullosa, and Rosa Nissan are being discovered in English translation. Nissan is the newest; her texts not only restore a female perspective to the Mexican official story, but they also empower the female within a sub-ethnic/cultural group in Mexico: the Mexican-Sephardic. This author's creative strategy is to explore cultural representation by means of geographical site and a collective memory portrayed by telling a tale not previously represented. The viewpoint from which the representation emanates is as important as the site itself; thus, vision intersects with representation. Recent theory shows that such an endeavour is situated within an analysis of discourses about the other (Duncan 39). Nissan's oeuvre creates a dual representation of the other: the contemporary Sephardic-Mexican citizen whose parents immigrated to this hemisphere, and the female who has not been recognized as equal to her male counterpart. Thus, she explores "sites of memory" (Katriel 103) not previously documented for her gender, while also documenting her heritage within Mexican history. Nissan's physical presence and expertise as a Mexican of Sephardic heritage lay the groundwork for her discourse.

Nissan is a prolific writer: her first three books published since 1992 recuperate and document the story of the overlooked Jewish-Mexican of Sephardic tradition, whose language is an archaic Hebrew-Spanish. A book of short stories (No solo para dormir es la noche) and a recent novel (Los viajes de mi cuerpo) focus on women's lives in contemporary Mexico City. Other contemporary authors seek to reveal the Jewish Diaspora in Latin America; however, it is principally that of the Ashken-azim, those who speak Yiddish and whose departure mostly from European nations occurred primarily in the twentieth century. Essays and books by Jewish-Mexican intellectuals evoke little of the cultural values and heritage of the Sephardic, many of whom fled Spain in the late fifteenth century for Turkish and Syrian regions that offered safe haven. Even among Latin-American Jewish artists, the Sephardic are often considered the old-fashioned, less-educated members of their community. Their customs are not modern, their dress style tends to be more conservative, and their language is the archaic Ladino: a version of Spanish now discarded by the Spanish language academy. Ladino is still very much alive, however, used by many Latin Americans (including Hispanics in New Mexico) who live in rural areas and who have little access to the modern system. It is also used by the Sephardic, who have passed this language on to successive generations for hundreds of years. Upon their expulsion from Spain in 1492, a majority of Spanish Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire of the Eastern Medi-terranean (now Turkish, Greek, Slavic, and Rumanian territory), where they were invited, and enjoyed freedom and prosperity for more than 150 years. Because of their isolation from Spain and absence of prohibitions to use their language in this empire, they continued to use the Spanish of fifteenth-century Spain--the same first brought to the Americas by the conquistadors--and for centuries it was passed from generation to generation. …

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