Although you may think that all Latinos are Catholic, this is incorrect. I was born in Mexico City, and, like my parents, I was raised Jewish.
My life in Mexico was pretty simple; I lived in a Jewish bubble. I went to a Jewish day school, had only Jewish friends, and lived in a primarily Jewish neighborhood. While I was aware that I was a minority, it never really affected me. I loved participating in traditionally Mexican events. One of my favorite memories of Mexico is when my mom took me to the cemetery to join the Día de los Muertos festivities. I was amazed at all the unique and beautiful colors, food, and photos that decorated the graves.
I never felt ashamed of being Jewish and only later realized that some Mexicans didn’t consider me a “real Mexican.” One day, a local vendor walking around Mexico City’s Centro Histórico called me a güera (blonde). He was basically calling me a gringa due to my pale skin. It caught me by surprise and probably hurt me more than I could even understand at that time.
My life changed when I moved to Miami when I was 8 years old. I no longer went to a Jewish school, most of my friends weren’t Jewish, and the people I met were from all over Latin America. My Latino-Jewish friends understood my background and upbringing perfectly, and most of them were raised with similar experiences. Just like me, they had grown up in Jewish neighborhoods in places like Colombia or Venezuela and moved to Miami seeking a better and safer life. I also had a lot in common with my non-Jewish Latin friends. We bonded over food and culture, as well as our nagging Latino parents.
My first real culture shock occurred when an American-Jewish girl asked me if it was my dad who was Mexican and my mom Jewish, or the other way around. She couldn’t fathom both my parents being Jewish and Mexican. Since then, I’ve probably gotten asked a variation of this question a million times. Even other Jewish people have a hard time understanding my background. People ask me, “If you’re a Mexican Jew, then that has to mean you’re Sephardic, right?” or “You can’t be Ashkenazi, you’re from Mexico” or even, “How are you white AND Mexican?”
Judaism includes several ethnic divisions, but Sephardic and Ashkenazi are two of the most common. A Sephardic Jew is someone whose family originates from places like Spain, Turkey, Portugal, and Greece; an Ashkenazi Jew’s family originates from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. A lot of people assume that because I’m from a Spanish-speaking country, my ancestors must have come from Spain, but I have no connection to Spain whatsoever. Three out of my four grandparents migrated from Russia, Lithuania, and Poland to Mexico after the Holocaust, making me three-fourths Ashkenazi. I’m also a fourth Sephardic because my paternal grandfather migrated from Turkey to Mexico in the 1900s.
On the Jewish sabbath, my family dines on Mexican-Jewish dishes like like gefilte fish a la Veracruzana or schnitzel with salsa verde.
Another part of my upbringing that people are intrigued by is what food is served in my house. Sometimes, we eat traditional Mexican food like sopes and taquitos, and other times we eat Jewish food like matzah ball soup and kugel. Every Friday night on the Jewish sabbath, my family dines on Mexican-Jewish dishes like like gefilte fish a la Veracruzana (fish patties cooked in a spicy tomato sauce) or schnitzel with salsa verde. The only time my family can’t enjoy traditional Mexican dishes is when they don’t meet Jewish dietary laws and include food like pork and shellfish, which aren’t kosher.
My Mexican-Jewish traditions didn’t seem that unique to me until I moved to Boston for college. It was then that I realized I couldn’t relate to many American-Jewish traditions. Many of my new American-Jewish friends had gone to Jewish schools, attended a Jewish sleepaway camp every Summer, and joined Jewish youth groups during the school year. I had never stepped foot in a sleepaway camp, and the last Jewish school I had attended was in Mexico.
However, it was the different song and prayer tunes they used in synagogue that really opened my eyes. Songs that I had learned in Mexico and Miami were completely different in Boston. I ultimately realized that these are differences that every foreigner deals with. College introduced me to people from different parts of the world, of different cultures and religions. Although some Latinos viewed me as a faux-Latina due to my religion, others saw beyond that and saw me as one of them.
If there is one thing that being a Mexican Jew has taught me, it is the importance of both my family and my heritage. I may not know what’s ahead for me, but I do know this: my kids will be raised in a Spanish-speaking home with chilaquiles for breakfast, baklava for dessert, and Shabbat dinners every Friday night.
Image Source: Courtesy of Sam Cohen