When we think of Hispanic immigration to the United States, we tend to think of more recent waves of Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Dominicans, Cubans, and other Spanish speakers who arrived throughout the 20th century.
But if we dig deeper into history to figure out where early Hispanic immigrants came from, many people would be surprised to discover that the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews have been residing in cities like New York since the mid-17th century.
Now, the recent graphic novel El Iluminado, co-created by the professor and writer Ilan Stavans and comic book writer and drawer Steve Sheinkin, tells the little-known story of how the descendants of crypto-Jews, or those who secretly practiced Judaism in Spain, may have immigrated to Mexico and the southwestern United States as early as the 16th century.
In El Iluminado, which is part mystery novel, part comic book, Stavans appears as the protagonist playing a version of himself turned amateur detective. Through him, we learn of Jews who fled to the Americas after the Spanish Inquisition. At the end of the 15th century, as few as 200,000 Jews may have been forced into exile all over Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and other places around the world. But while the edict of expulsion that was signed by King Fernando and Queen Isabel in 1492 inaugurated one of the darkest chapters in Jewish history, Christopher Columbus' arrival to the Bahamas that same year also opened the doors to the Americas, which would ultimately become one of the largest refuges for Jews all over the world. And some Jews who had converted to Catholicism in Spain, at least externally to avoid reprisals, immigrated to the Americas with the hope of preserving their Jewish traditions with greater ease beyond the menacing reach of the Inquisition.
Ever since then, some Jewish families in the Americas have looked at historic figures like Columbus as a symbol of their identity. "My grandmother loved to sit in her little Mexico City apartment, spotting Jewish blood in luminaries throughout history," says Stavans' character in El Iluminado. "Freud, Marx, Einstein, too easy. But Columbus? She thought he was Moses reincarnated, taking the Jews to the new Promised Land across the Atlantic."
But independently of whether Columbus himself was Jewish or Catholic, El Iluminado compels readers regardless of creed to examine how all types of exiles and immigrants recreate their identity away from home. "What interests me in all of this is the way people create stories to survive, to affirm who they are, to make a stand," explains Stavans' character in the book, while drawing parallels to his own life as an immigrant from Mexico in the United States. "I convinced myself that in order to survive, I would always stress that I was Mexican. I built up my identity by emphasizing my roots, by creating a narrative that connected me to a place to which I didn't feel particularly attached while I was there."