Comic Book Reveals Untold Story of First Hispanic Immigrants

Born in 1961 to a family of Mexican Jews who spoke both Spanish and Yiddish — his grandparents eventually settled in Mexico after immigrating from Poland and Ukraine in the early 20th century — Stavans explained in an interview with ABC/Univision that his family, like many other Jews in the Americas, had the perspective of being "temporary citizens," or part of a "constant diaspora" as exiles. "Growing up in Mexico, I was 'el blanquito' or 'el guerito,' the guy who looks different, and has a different last name," he said.

But when he immigrated to the United States at the age of 24, Stavans embarked on an unexpected journey to discover his Mexicanness. After years of noticing the things that set him apart from other Mexicans in Mexico, the gamut of immigrants he encountered from all over the world in the United States made him appreciate the things that he had in common with his compatriots.

Stavans, however, also points out that he is not the typical immigrant who left home out of necessity. He established his Latino identity first as a PhD student at Columbia University, then as a Latino Studies professor at Amherst College, and also as the author of books like Imagining Columbus: The Literary Voyage, and Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, among other titles. And through these experiences, he discovered that the condition of not feeling at home, looking at culture both from within and at the same time not fully belonging to it, made him, like many Jews and their descendants in the Americas, feel like an eternal immigrant who is perpetually digging like an archaeologist to recover his origin.

But this hyphenated existence, which could polarize Jews between their collective memory of Jerusalem and their current homes, can also be a source of creativity. "When you are young," Stavans explained, "you want to belong, be like everyone else, you want to be accepted, and [as a result] you are in constant struggle with the environment and yourself. But as time goes by, there is a certain benefit to being a little different because it gives you a certain degree of perspective."

This sense of being different, but at the same time belonging to something bigger, drives the characters of El Iluminado, which reconstructs the story of Rolando Pérez, a native of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who died while trying to discover his family's crypto-Jewish heritage. As Stavans' character sets out to unravel the mystery of Pérez's family, readers will appreciate how the historical stories of Luis de Carvajal — a 16th century governor of Sephardic Jewish heritage who colonized the territory of Nuevo León in northeastern Mexico—and his martyr nephew Luis de Carvajal the Younger—who was burnt at the stake by the Inquisition—intersect with Pérez's fictional biography to reveal the hidden lives of early crypto-Jewish American settlers.

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