Comic Book Reveals Untold Story of First Hispanic Immigrants

PHOTO: Excerpt from Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkins graphic novel "El Iluminado."Courtesy of Ilan Stavans
Excerpt from Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin's graphic novel "El Iluminado."

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."

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.

Stavans, who is also working on a travel book that profiles different places where Jews have settled in the Americas, explained that at least 400,000 Jews have immigrated to Latin America throughout different periods. At one point, he emphasized, Argentina competed with the United States as a magnet of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews to such a degree, that the World Zionist Congress, which was debating where to create the Jewish state before 1948, proposed the Pampas near the Brazilian border in Argentina as a possible location.

For some Sephardic Jews, the connection with Spain, Portugal and Latin America is unlike any other. "While Spain never really replaces Jerusalem," Stavans said, "it competed with it. And people in prayers and songs talk about Spain like a place where they were all happy, where they all started… even though this is over 500 years ago. Many of the children's stories… to this day talk about a little house in Toledo, Granada, or Sevilla…" And some families, Stavans said, still pass down the key that opened the door to the house that was their last residence in Spain, becoming a metaphor and symbol for their identity.

Regardless of your background, Stavans and Sheinkin's graphic novel will illuminate you. If anything, it will compel you to see the world through Jewish and immigrant eyes, and remind you that home isn't a place, but a state of mind. And from the perspective of the descendants of possible crypto-Jews in southwestern United States, as Stavans points out poetically in the epilogue of the book, home could also be a hidden faith, a conviction, an endless search.