the intersection of Latinidad & Jewishness: my experience

LATINIDAD 

I am Latina because, as a result of the Jewish diaspora, my family ended up in Latin America.  I grew up in Latin America. I speak Spanish and much of my culture is very much Latine culture (the music I listen to, the food that I eat, etc). 

Latinidad is a concept that essentially homogenizes the culture and identity of the 652 million people living in Latin America, spanning 33 countries. Latinidad categorizes all Latine people as one, as though Mexican culture is at all similar to, say, Uruguayan culture. 

Latinidad is problematic for a myriad of reasons. It waters down the identities of Indigenous and Afro-Latines, for example. It allows white Latines to deflect from their whiteness and white privilege by claiming Latinidad (I’m not white! I’m Latine! Even though the person probably very much functions as a white person, if not always in the United States, certainly in Latin America). 

Something I think worth noting is that white Latines are not victims of white supremacy, while white-functioning Jews are still one of the main two targets of white supremacy. 

I’ve been asked a lot to talk about Latinidad and Jewishness, and truthfully, I’ve struggled to put it into words. With this post, I’m giving it a try. I hope what I have to say makes sense. 


 

JEWISH IDENTITY

Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel. Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. While I don’t consider myself “religious,” Judaism is important to me and my Jewish identity is the identity that matters most to me. My connection to my tribe, spiritually and culturally, is hard to put into words. The love for my ancestral homeland is deeper than I can explain. The Land of Israel is always with me [note: this does not at all mean that I condone every move the State of Israel makes. Of course not. This is about connection with the land, with the earth and the sea and the mountains where my ancestors dwelled. It has nothing to do with any government]. Jewish values guide everything that I do. 

The concept of homogenous Latinidad erases a lot of things and a lot of people — notably, Indigenous Latine and Afro-Latine folks — but it also puts Latine Jews in a rather strange position. I still don’t know exactly where I fit in. In many ways, Jews in Latin America remain segregated, due to intergenerational trauma, but also antisemitism. We have our own schools, our own clubs, and our synagogues have to be inside heavily protected compounds, especially after the 1994 AMIA bombing in Argentina. In my country, for example, Jews were banned from some country clubs well into the 2010s. I know for sure that other Latines see us as “other.” 

Again, I can only speak for myself and my experience in my country. But for instance, when asked how many Jews live in my country, most will overestimate the number by hundreds of thousands, when in reality there’s only a few thousand of us. Even though our population is small, people subconsciously (or even consciously) think we take up much more space than we actually do (I think this is something that happens across the globe, actually). 


CATHOLIC-NORMATIVITY

I think the major disconnect between Latine Jews and other Latines is that Latin America is completely Catholic-normative. Catholicism is not just a religion; it’s the default. Many national holidays celebrate Catholic saints or various iterations of the Virgin Mary. So much of the folklore is inherently Catholic.

My country specifically calls itself a “Catholic nation,” though there is freedom of religion (it’s not lost on me that absolutely no one has a problem with this, but yet Israel calling itself a Jewish state — with freedom of religion — is considered by some to be the biggest affront to humanity). Catholic values deeply influence and inform the country’s laws (e.g. abortion). 

As a Jewish person, I simply can’t relate to any of this. My values are Jewish. I do not celebrate national holidays that celebrate Catholic figures. Much of my country’s national folklore is, quite frankly, not made for people like me (this is actually one of the reasons I wrote my book!). 


ANTISEMITISM 

Antisemitism is a problem everywhere, and Latin America is no exception. Even though my country is one of the “good ones,” as far as antisemitism is concerned, according to the ADL Global Index of Antisemitism, 32% of people in my country harbor predominantly antisemitic attitudes. By contrast, 9% of Americans and 14% of Canadians harbor predominantly antisemitic attitudes. 

I can classify the antisemitism that I’ve encountered back home into two groups: (1) Catholic antisemitism (basically, anti-Judaism), and (2) antisemitism as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Luckily I’ve never personally faced antisemitism of the white supremacist ilk in Latin America, though it absolutely exists (believe it or not, there’s quite a few neo-Nazi groups in Latin America). 

I’d say personally, for me, anti-Judaism was much more prevalent and impactful. In other countries, “anti-Zionist” antisemitism is a much more serious issue (for example, in Chile and Venezuela). I also know that historically there has been serious antisemitic bias in the criminal justice system in my country. 

I also can’t over-stress how shocking and impactful the 1994 AMIA bombing was for the Jewish communities in Latin America, even for those of us outside Argentina. 


 

 

 

COLONIALISM, IMPERIALISM, & DECOLONIZATION

As a Latina and Southwest Asian (Middle Eastern) person, I actually see huge parallels between Latinidad and pan-Arabism. Like Latinidad, pan-Arabism homogenizes an enormous region of the world, which results in the automatic racial and cultural erasure of a plethora of Indigenous peoples (e.g. Kurds, Imazighen, Yazidis, Assyrians, Copts, Jews, etc.). 

Racism and colorism are huge issues in Latin America. As I am light skinned, it is not my place to educate on these issues. However, it’s important to point out that the idea of Latinidad homogenizes the experience of millions of different people of different skin colors, cultures, and even countries, spanning two whole continents. AOC once said something (horrendously problematic) that summarizes Latinidad to a T: “…to be Puerto Rican is to be the descendant of: African Moors + slaves, Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, Jewish refugees, and likely others. We are all of these things and something else all at once — we are Boricua.״

Her ignorant comment universalizes the experience of a bunch of marginalized groups, each of us with our own specific struggles that we experience to this very day — struggles that she will never experience, and as such, are not hers to claim. 

Most Latines likely have a percentage of Native DNA. However, most are not members of any tribe, nor is their culture that of any particular Native tribe. Instead, they’ve assimilated into Latine (read: Spanish, Portuguese, French) culture and identity. Similarly, while people who identify as Arab in the Levant might have (for example) Jewish ancestry, they’ve long assimilated into Arab culture and identity. 

 

 

All of this brings me to the concept of decolonization. To be truthful, I was quite ignorant about what decolonization actually meant until relatively recently, when I spoke with a friend who is both Sephardi and Tewa. Like most people, I thought decolonization essentially meant “kicking out the colonizer.” 

With her infinite wisdom (seriously, she blows me away), my friend changed my understanding. She pointed out that (1) decolonization does not apply to all inter-ethnic conflicts, and (2) colonization is specifically “when an outside invading group imposes their cultural/religious/linguistic/social norms from the land they come from onto a group in a place.” Finally, she described decolonization as “the act of stripping off the layers of influence of outside forces within one’s culture, as that culture has been subjected to colonization.”

This really got me thinking. If you kick out the colonizer but keep their culture as the default, normative culture (e.g. Spanish culture in Latin America or Arab culture outside of the Arabian peninsula), are you really “decolonizing”? I don’t think so. 


IGNORANCE & ERASURE 

As a Latina Jew, I face questions about my intersecting identities constantly. More than anything, the questions illustrate how ignorant people — including American Jews — are about both the Jewish diaspora and Latinidad itself. 

People tend to assume any number of these things: (1) that one of my parents isn’t Jewish; (2) that one of my parents converted; or (3) that I converted. And though there’s certainly many Latine Jews who fit these descriptions, and there’s nothing wrong about these things, both my parents were born Jewish, which is something that seems to stump a lot of people. I find that confusion confusing myself. 

I mean, Jews have lived in Latin America since 1492. 

American Jews also tend to homogenize the Jewish experience or look at Jewishness through the lens of Americentrism. The American Jewish experience, particularly for people who are white presenting or not visibly Jewish, is very different than the Jewish experience for Jews in other countries where the Jewish community might face more systemic antisemitism or be more segregated from the general population (I’m obviously aware that antisemitism in the United States is skyrocketing at an alarming pace, and I am not downplaying this whatsoever). 

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