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Being a Jatina in New York City


Graciela Berger Wegsman, Be'chol Lashon, August 31, 2012


"Soy Latina, te estoy hablando en español", I said to the tattooed Mexican man working in a bodega close to my apartment, where I was a regular client.

"I don't think so," he replied.
"Why?" I asked, perplexed.
"I don't know..." he said with a hint of confusion.

We got into an argument.

Was he referring at my white skin? My green eyes? My religion?

He knew I was Jewish. In the past, I had asked him to help me find some kosher candy. I don't have to justify myself to other Hispanics who see brown as the only possible color of skin; to people who think that being Jewish and Latina is a contradiction.

I use the word "justify" on purpose, because sometimes I can hear a certain tone that edges on aggression. Latinos come in different colors. We are not a race.

Ten years ago, in April 2000, I moved with my husband and my one year-old daughter from Israel to the United States. It was not my first trip to New York City, but this time I was an immigrant.

Even if this was my second immigration (I had previously moved from Argentina to Israel) or perhaps because of that fact, I was scared about how I would adapt to the new city and its inhabitants. I was 32 years old and, yet again, a "newcomer."

In Israel I had met many Hispanic Jews. They were mainly from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela and Spain. I didn't have to explain myself because, like me, they had to deal themselves with our dual heritage.

A fact that perhaps will surprise you is that Israelis embraced Latin American telenovelas passionately and some people even manage to learn Spanish. In Israel, I worked as a freelance journalist in a Spanish magazine "Línea Directa con Israel" and I kept listening to my favorite Spanish music that in some cases was translated into Hebrew. By the way, Mercedes Sosa was famous in Israel too, and I went to one of her concerts in Jerusalem.

Would New York embrace me as I had embraced English, my adopted language? I had begun learning English at age thirteen in Buenos Aires, without even dreaming of moving to the United States. But life has its surprises.

I am an Argentinian, therefore Hispanic. This is a fact as clear to me as the fact that I am Jewish. I am a Latina Jew, or a Jatina, as I like to call myself.

Growing up in the Buenos Aires suburbs, I was aware that I was Jewish but my family was quite assimilated and my parents didn't attend religious services. My grandmother, though, always talked about the Holocaust, and I was intrigued by our culture. She had come from Kishinev in Eastern Europe and had to leave her parents and siblings behind. Most of them died in the Second World War, but one of her sisters survived and moved to Israel with a cousin. They kept writing each other for years in Yiddish, the language that they used to speak back home. I found something mysterious in those strange letters -something that spoke to me, in a way I couldn't figure out.

I encountered anti-Semitism in my life in Argentina in different instances and I grew defensive about certain things, for example when kids made fun of my last name.

I was in fact one of the very few Jewish kids in a public school. I knew that being Jewish made me different (everybody around me was having a communion and confirmation) but I didn't have the knowledge to explain to my friends what Jews do or who we are.

When my parents divorced and my mother, brother and I moved to Capital Federal, I had a chance at fourteen to begin to attend services at a local youth group in a synagogue in Villa Crespo. From then on, I began searching for a connection to Judaism, which eventually took me to Israel.

When I later moved to New York I knew it was the home of many Latinos, and I was happy to make my home in a place where I could use my much-loved Spanish. I never thought too much about my "Latinidad." I never expected people would comment on it or challenge me to prove that I'm Hispanic, all while having a conversation in Spanish.

I make a point of speaking Spanish whenever I have the opportunity. I always feel that if I don't use it, it I will lose it. I have two children now: my daughter is eleven; and my son, who was born in New York, is eight. They don't speak Spanish, although they understand some words and phrases. They know about Argentina (they love alfajores!); we go once in a while to visit their grandparents. But is hard for me to know how much they identify as Hispanics. My daughter is learning Spanish in Middle school and the teacher put her in a group with the native speakers, so perhaps all those hours singing "Arrorró" and "El elefante trompita" did indeed work. We attend a synagogue regularly and my children attend public school and Hebrew school. My son loves his Argentinian soccer shirt.

I was born in Argentina because my grandparents and great-grandparents had to escape pogroms, hunger and war in Eastern Europe. I can understand why people sometimes speak to me in Russian, but I'm sorry to disappoint them; I can only mutter few words. Looks don't make us who we are.

We are raised in a certain culture that we usually love. How can I explain my feelings listening to a tango by Astor Piazzola, the great Argentinian musician? He captured the soul of Buenos Aires better than anyone else I know.

That music and that city are inside me forever. It doesn't matter where I live. I "feel" for that culture. It's part of my identity.

As a Jatina my two cultures are engaged in my life in many ways. I like to attend services in my synagogue in the Bronx and socialize with friends. I organized a group of Spanish speaking Jews called "Gracias a la Vida", in honor of Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa. We meet once a month after services to discuss different topics. Interestingly, I thought that mostly Latin American Jews would attend, but instead many Americans who are "adopted Hispanics" are taking part in the group. I am very impressed by their command of the language and their passion for our culture. Hispanics are curious about my heritage too.

"Are you Spaniard?" asked me the lady in the kosher bakery while wrapping some challah rolls.

"No, I'm Argentinian."
"Are you Jewish? Did you convert?"
"I'm born Jewish. I didn't convert." I replied.
"How could you be both", she asked me in awe.

I don't blame her. In many Latin American countries there are few Jews among an overwhelmingly Catholic population. Some people are not aware that Latinos practice different religions. There are Latino Jews, Muslims, Protestants and followers of other religions as well.

Latinos and Jews work together in New York, so I think that it would be great to know more about each other's customs.

Tolerance and knowledge are the keys to fighting ignorance. When we know about other cultures, we are less likely to feel threatened by the unknown. Latinos are often victims of racism or stereotyping by non-Latinos. So it's ironic that it happens within the culture as well.

We have to accept that there is no definitive Latino type. We are different human beings who look different and practice different religions. Thank God for that! Could you imagine how boring it would be otherwise?
(Tags: Latino Jews, Personal Story)