Acclaimed Mexican Writer’s Novels Explore His Sephardic History and Crypto-Judaism


MEXICO CITY (JTA) РWhen Angelina Mu̱iz-Huberman was six, her mother closed the main door to their apartment in Mexico City and, whispering as if being persecuted, told her she was descended from Jews.

“She told me that if I ever needed to be recognized by other Jews,” said Muñiz-Huberman, “I should make the sign of the kohanim” – a hand gesture representing an ancient priestly blessing , made famous in a different context by a certain character from “Star Trek”.

This moment sparked a keen interest in her family’s Jewish heritage, which led her to become one of Mexico’s best-known novelists on Jewish themes and leading scholars on Sephardic and crypto. -judaism – people who were forced to renounce or hide their Jewishness in the face of the Spanish Inquisition.

Last month Muñiz-Huberman, 84, was inducted into Mexico’s most prestigious literary body, the Mexican Academy of Languages, which was established decades after Mexican independence to protect and promote intonations and Mexican uses of Spanish.

Membership in the academic body of 36 Chairs is a very selective process in which new members must be elected by current members.

Of the nine female council members, four are of Jewish descent; some, like the writer Margo Glanz, daughter of the Yiddish poet Jacobo Glanz, have actively dealt with their Jewish ancestry in their most important texts.

But Muñiz-Huberman’s work stands out for his research into Ladino, an ancient form of Judeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to being a pioneer of Sephardic studies in Mexico and researching crypto-Jews such as those in her family, Muñiz-Huberman also focused on mystical Jewish traditions, including the Kabbalah.

His academic work often influences his fiction. One of his latest novels, titled “Los Esperandos”, tells the story of the Sephardic pirates in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean in the 17th century.

Winner of several awards, including the Xavier Villaurutia Literary Prize, Huberman is best known for her poetry and novels. One of his best-known books, “Dulcinea Encantada”, published in 1992, tells the story of one of Don Quixote’s crushes in today’s Mexico. Stuck in a car in a traffic jam, the protagonist begins to dream and meets fantastic Spanish, Russian and Mexican characters from all over history.

Illustration: The Portuguese town of Belmonte, where many crypto-Jews were concentrated. (Photo credit: CC BY Ken and Nyetta, Flickr)

Muñiz-Huberman was born in the south of France in 1936. Her father, Alfredo Muñiz, was a Spanish journalist who wrote for the Heraldo newspaper in Madrid. When Franco won the Spanish Civil War, his family was forced to leave Spain and travel to France, which they had to flee again in 1939, when the Nazis advanced into the country.

They landed in Cuba and lived for a while in the countryside before settling in Mexico. Muñiz-Huberman recalled her childhood on the island in her 1995 book “Castles on Earth”, which she called a “pseudo-memory” that blends fact and fiction.

In 1942, they uprooted again in Mexico City, where his father set up an outpost of a medical laboratory testing company owned by a relative who lived in New York City. The family lived among other emigrants in the Condesa neighborhood, a hub for Yiddish-speaking middle-class Jews at the time. It was there that she learned of her Jewish origin.

Carmen’s last name, Sacristán, is not typically Jewish, but according to Huberman, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many decided to change their last name to sound more Christian. , in order to escape persecution.

“These generations of Jews living in Spain retained a Catholic facade but celebrated Jewish traditions inside the house,” Muñiz-Huberman told the Jewish Telegraph Agency.

His early works of fiction use inner monologues to reflect on what it means to hide his identity. In her first novel, “Morada Interior” (or “Inner Dwelling-Place”), published in 1972, she wrote an internal monologue from the point of view of Teresa de Ávila (sometimes called Teresa de Jesus), a Spanish Christian mystic who came to from a family of converted Jews. Muñiz-Huberman used excerpts from the nun’s real diary to fictionalize an account of how she conflicts with her hidden Jewish identity.

By way of illustration: a kitchen in the caves of Granada similar to that which may have been used by the crypto-Jews of the sixteenth century. (Courtesy of Marjorie Sandor)

Muñiz-Huberman’s husband, Alberto Huberman, was born in Cuba and emigrated to Mexico after the Cuban Revolution to complete his medical studies. A member of the leftist Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, he had previously lived in Israel, where he co-founded Kibbutz Gaash.

“He built the houses, the water tower, all the infrastructure,” Muñiz-Huberman said. They married in 1959.

For more than three decades, Muñiz-Huberman taught courses in Hispano-Hebrew literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a giant of nearly 250,000 students with a major campus in Mexico City. She said after taking her course, many of her students realized that they also had crypto-Jewish backgrounds and had undergone formal conversions to Judaism.

Beyond her Jewish side, Muñiz-Huberman also sees herself as a representative of the Spanish exile, a name that refers to the so-called “Republicans” who fled the Spanish Civil War under the auspices of Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas in the late 1940s. These intellectuals and writers played important roles in academic organizations like MAL and founded liberal educational institutions like Colegio de México.

“In many ways,” Muñiz-Huberman said, “I experienced a double exile. “

This sense of dislocation and yearning for a once lost land is present in many of his works, critics noted. She explicitly mentioned it in her academy inauguration speech, which aired on November 19, 2021.

Muñiz-Huberman spoke about the historian Miguel Leon Portilla, of whom she took the chair at the academy, who dedicated her life to studying and representing the “losing side” of history, especially the conquered indigenous cultures. by the Spaniards.

Jews and Spanish Republicans were on the “losing side” of history, Muñiz-Huberman said. They were both forced to migrate, but both found comfort and strength in their mother tongues to continue.

“Why are we here at this prestigious institution,” she said, “if not for the love of… words? Words accompany us in exile, erase our solitude, establish brotherhood and console us.