Academic journal article American Jewish History

"The Whole Air of Exile Is Yours": Modern Inquisitorial Fiction and the Facts of the Early (Latin) American Jewish Experience

Academic journal article American Jewish History

"The Whole Air of Exile Is Yours": Modern Inquisitorial Fiction and the Facts of the Early (Latin) American Jewish Experience

Article excerpt

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. …

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