Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Return to Centro Histórico

Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots

Ilan Stavans
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 180
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Return to Centro Histórico
    Book Description:

    After a stirring e-mail exchange with his father, awardwinning essayist and cultural commentator Ilan Stavans decided to do something bizarre: revisit his hometown, Mexico City, accompanied by a tourist guide. But rather than seeking his roots in the neighborhood where he grew up, he headed to the Centro Histórico, the downtown area at the heart of the world's largest metropolis. It was there that conversos, the hidden Jews escaping the might of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, were burned at the stake. And, centuries later, it was the same section where Jewish immigrants, both Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim and Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire, made their homes as peddlers. In a sense, Centro Histórico is to Mexico what the Lower East Side is to the United States: a platform for reinventing one's self in the New World.

    With the same linguistic verve and insight that has made him one of the most distinguished voices in American literature today, Ilan Stavans invites readers along for a personal journey that is not only his own, but that of an entire culture. InReturn to Centro Históricohe makes it possible to understand the intimate role that Jews have played in the development of Hispanic civilization.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5226-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    The first photograph arrives unexpectedly. Ilanchik, what do you think? My father has attached it to an e-mail message and wants to know my opinion. Had you ever seen the Ángel this closely? Did you know it was a girl? A bronze girl, half-naked.

    The stunning black-and-white picture, by photographer Chino Lemus, depicts the Ángel de la Independencia, located atop a 118-foot column in the famous roundabout of Paseo de la Reforma, in downtown D.F., the acronym (for Distrito Federal) by which Mexico City is known. It was commissioned by dictator Porfirio Díaz to commemorate the first centennial of the...

    (pp. 19-42)

    A lawyer friend of mine likes to tease me about all this. You really aren’t a true Mexican until you put on a sombrero, he says. Please, will you allow me to buy you one as a present—un regalito?He knows my answer: grrrrrr.

    There’s no doubt about it, Ilan. As he continues to pester me, he says: You’re a Tomato Jew.

    His rationale is based on a joke. A couple of American Jews are chatting in a restaurant in Mexico City’s fashionable Zona Rosa. One of the guys asks the waiter: “Excuse me, señor. Any Mexican Jews in...

    (pp. 43-60)

    Here comes my father again with a new offensive strategy. He sends a photograph of me at the age of sixteen as asoldado raso, an army recruit. In 1977, most Mexican teenagers had to report for military service. There wasn’t a full-fledged draft. Instead, you went through a lottery. The winning number would set you free. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones. But the photo is deceitful. Yes, I’m on the patio of our Copilco home, saluting whoever is behind the camera. In other words, I’m a soldier, but my body language makes it clear how unserious I...

    (pp. 61-82)

    Before traveling to D.F., I had sent an e-mail to Manuel Taifeld, the archivist of Mexican Jewry. When we got to my parents’ home,

    I called him. Sorry, he’s in Aventura.

    Aventura? I ask.

    Yes, I’m told: Aventura, Florida. But he has a package ready for me, which I arrange to have delivered to my parents’ home.

    Then I do a second strange, impulsive thing: I call a tourist guide. I want to visit the Centro Histórico with a Virgil who will know what is what. Who else but a specialist? That specialist turns out to be Mónica Unikel. She...

    (pp. 83-98)

    Mónica’s tour includes a stop at Gante #5, a Methodist Episcopal church used at some point by the Mizrahim from Greece, Syria, Morocco, and Turkey for services until that community built its own temple in 1942 on Calle Monterrey. The occasion lends itself to pondering on the ethnic diversity. It’s a mistake to think of Mexican Jews as solely Ashkenazi.

    Although until recently the Ashkenazim were still the most prominent group, both economically and culturally, this immigrant community that spoke Germanic and Slavic languages as well as Yiddish is only part of the Mexican Jewish story. They were sandwiched between...

    (pp. 99-114)

    It’s only when, a few blocks later, Mónica leads my mother and me to Justo Sierra #71, where the first Ashkenazi temple in Mexico, called Nidje Israel, was built in 1941 , that I realize this is the raison d’être of my tour to the Centro Histórico.

    From the outside, a visitor would not guess that this is a Jewish prayer house. The architecture is rather peculiar. The first impression one gets is how dark the rectangular place is. The look reminds me of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York’s Lower East Side, whose style was in vogue at...

  9. MY FACE
    (pp. 115-134)

    A few weeks after my visit to Centro Histórico, I was interviewed by a magazine. The title of the interview was “Autobiography of My Face.” It addresses the phantasmal connection between my face and Mexico City.

    Q: Can you describe in words for me what your face looks like?

    A: I have an oval-shaped face, with the lower jaw not quite aligned with the upper jaw, which makes my face look a bit longer. Brown eyes.

    Subtle nose, at least in contrast with my father’s. Medium-size ears.

    I used to let my frontal hair fall on my forehead. But in...

  10. I AM DEAD
    (pp. 135-152)

    The issue of death has repeatedly emerged along this journey. The overall effect of looking at old photographs and visiting the historic sites where these photographs were taken years ago is numbing. The majority of people in them are gone:fantasmasfrom the past, brought back through a technological device.

    Yes, the pictures in a family album or Señor Taifeld’s photographic archive are a pantheon where bodies are forever kept intact. The immigrant athletes, the babies having circumcisions, the bridges and grooms in the weddings in Justo Sierra, themarchantesand peddlers in Calle Jesús María are all there with...

    (pp. 153-154)
    (pp. 155-155)
    (pp. 156-156)