In 1996, I received an invitation from Dana Asbury at the University of New Mexico Press to develop a series devoted to Jewish Latin America. I was entranced by the idea. Having come of age in the Mexico of the late 1960s and ’70s, I had made up my mind, in my early 20s, to make literature my raison d’être. My experience as a member of a small religious minority defined my worldview. I wanted to shape essays and stories in which the dilemmas I faced would be explored. My mind was inundated with idiosyncratic characters based on people who surrounded me.
There was one problem (okay, maybe two): The Mexican intelligentsia wasn’t interested in lo judío. Books addressing local Jewish themes were almost nonexistent, and those available were of questionable quality. Equally challenging was the fact, widely acknowledged, that the Jewish community was quite provincial in its mentality. Anything approaching an open critique — a conference, an academic study, an op-ed — was sabotaged through invisible tentacles.
I remembered the time, in 1982, at the Centro Deportivo Israelita in Mexico City, when I co-directed, along with my father, Abraham Stavans, a mega-adaptation of the musical “Yentl,” based on the tale by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The cast was made up of amateur Jewish actors. The experience proved invaluable, less as an artistic challenge and more as a window into the ins and outs of the community. The community elders perceived me as an enfant terrible, but one worth endorsing. Thus fortified, I decided to submit a proposal for an experimental theater piece, to be staged in an abandoned squash court, about how the Mexican production of “Yentl” came to be. The answer wasn’t simply no; the elders actually sought ways to make sure the project went nowhere. I remember being furious by their anti-democratic response. In their eyes, it was fine to re-create a remote village in the Pale of Settlement, but to paint the Mexican Jewish community as another somber shtetl was anathema. I tried staging the play elsewhere. At first, a handful of actors had enthusiastically agreed to participate, but soon I began receiving polite phone calls reversing these initial decisions.
I wasn’t sour, though. I moved to other endeavors, and eventually to the United States. I wrote essays, stories, translations, a novella. Happily, I found editors willing to take a risk on me.
Then the invitation from Asbury came. A Jewish convert married to a photographer, and the mother of two daughters in Albuquerque, N.M., she was a veritable entrepreneurial force, as well. She thought that, as a community, American Jews were less monolithic than was generally accepted at the time. Readers were eager for vistas to other Diasporas.
I, on the other hand, interpreted her request as an opportunity to show that between consenters and dissenters, Latin American Jews had produced, since the early days of the 20th century, an impressive literary canon, totally unknown in the United States. Since leaving Mexico, I had browsed countless libraries in search of pathfinders. Through translations, I could show to an English-speaking audience that Jews in the other Americas — altogether the fifth-largest Jewish population in the world after the United States, Israel, France and the former Soviet bloc — are as defiant to easy characterization as they are.
My model was Philip Roth’s “Writers From the Other Europe,” a series he edited for Penguin. It featured such authors as Bruno Schulz and Danilo Kis. For the debut title I chose “The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas,” by Alberto Gerchunoff, a collection of vignettes released in 1910 to celebrate Argentina’s first 100 years of independence. Gerchunoff is credited as the grandfather of Jewish Latin American letters, the one who consciously switched from Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish to Miguel de Cervantes’s Spanish.
Despite our different visions, since its inception in 1997 the series has published 20 titles, from Moacyr Scliar’s humorous “Collected Stories” to Mauricio Rosencof’s prison memoir, “The Letters That Never Came.” There have been anthologies of Yiddish stories, folktales and autobiographical essays. One volume offered a rich compendium of Crypto-Jewish life; another scrutinized the legacy of martyr Luis de Carvajal the Younger, who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1596. There are contributions from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
There has been a plethora of reviews, interviews and prizes in the United States and outside. Previously unrecognizable authors have done the rounds on the American lecture circuit. There have been comparisons with Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. A critic credited the series for “inventing the field of Jewish Latin America.” Tourist guides to the region now include references to famous fictional characters and to literary stops in neighborhoods and cemeteries, as well as famous quotes. At the educational level, the reception has been similarly unexpected: Instead of adopting a single book for a course, teachers have created fresh courses around a handful of them. And a set of genuine heroes emerged from our translators. I’ve lost count of the soliciting letters I’ve received over the years, drawing my attention to a topic I knew nothing about, asking a pittance for their service and introducing a young talent. The fact that a university press (and in the Southwest, for that matter) and not a New York house has orchestrated the feat seems astonishing to me.
Time is the great calibrator: A decade after its inception, it is time to draw a curtain on the series. There are, for sure, other marvelous Jewish books from Latin America still awaiting a northbound journey. It makes me proud that several classics included in the series have been retranslated, a fact that emphasizes their durability. And other commercial and academic publishers have jumped on the wagon. I’m convinced, of course, that my commitment to the field is likely to increase. But my original expectations have been more than satisfied. Readers now have access to turbulence that defines Jewish existence south of the Rio Grande.
The last title, Perla Suez’s “The Entre Ríos Trilogy,” translated by Rhonda L. Buchanan, has just been published. Its style and themes summarize what has come before. The prose is sparse, reflective. Memory, personal and collective, is the engine behind it. The author returns mercilessly to traumatic moments in Argentine Jewish history: the immigration at the end of the 19th century, the pogrom in 1919 known as Semana Trágica, the quest of the grandchildren of immigrants to find a home and the nature of antisemitism. Figuratively, Suez is a descendant of Gerchunoff: a dreamer, a language wizard.
The function of literature is to allow society to calibrate its true worth, to invite people to ask “Who am I?” I’ve been asking that question since my Mexican days. My pride in the series has deep roots. Its authors can be elegiac, even naive; they also can be acerbic. Together they build a mosaic of “the other Americas,” one with continuity and pluralism as leitmotifs. Un shtetl en el Nuevo Mundo.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest book is “Rubén Darío: Selected Writings” (Penguin). On December 1, he will speak at the Jewish Museum of New York on “Love, Religion, and Cultural Diversity in American Television,” followed by an interview with Robin Cembalest.