Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Latinos and Jews on Hanukah

Laura is traveling for work, and tonight Aaron, Isaac, and I lit the candles for the sixth night of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of light. We took turns lighting different candles, sang the prayers. I knew the first part, but hummed the rest. The kids were my guide. In a few more days, we will be in El Paso. If we go to a Christmas posada in Ysleta or midnight mass at Mount Carmel, Laura and the kids will also join me.

How did we become this interfaith, multicultural family? It all began at Harvard, in Economics 10, when I saw this composed, attractive sophomore sitting a few rows in front of me. We chatted a few times that year. She thought I was Greek; I thought she was English. We were both way off. I was a Chicano from El Paso, Texas, and she was a Jew from Chicago and Concord, Massachusetts.

I really became friends with Laura at a Mexico seminar the next year. Laura was majoring in Government, fluent in Spanish, and focusing on Latin America. We jogged together for months along the Charles River, before we began dating. If you want to get a sense of our first kiss, read my short story, “Remembering Possibilities,” in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories. Laura is always embarrassed when I mention this, but it is a moment I wanted to immortalize in my work. That’s one of the hazards of living with a writer: parts of your life may end up in the lives of literary characters.

I can’t tell you it was easy to become one. My parents adored Laura, primarily because she spoke Spanish, but also because she was easygoing, “suavecita” and “muy gente,” as my parents would say, while I was sometimes stubborn and mean, “el terco que no se aguanta.” Laura fit better in semi-rural, small-town Ysleta than I did. Laura’s parents, however, did not like me because I was not a Jew. Sure, this got better over time, after years of their understanding that I loved their daughter and wasn’t going away. I also grew to appreciate their focus on family and the intellectual debates at the kitchen table. Today, our harmony, mutual respect, and yes, even love are achievements, but they were hard-won.

A few years ago, an engineer with the same last name wrote to me, and sent me a research paper on our surname, which is unusual in Mexico. He had traveled to obscure archives in Mexico, traced the Troncoso name to the same town of my father’s family, and even traveled to Spain to study the archives of the Catholic Church. His findings? Our surname originates from ‘Trancoso,’ and has Sephardic origins in Toledo, where ‘los judios de Trancoso’ were either cypto-Jews hiding their heritage because of the Spanish Inquisition, or Jews kicked out of Spain to the New World in 1492. I have a book, by Pere Bonnín, Sangre Judía: Españoles de Ascendencia Hebrea y Antisemitismo Cristiano, a bestseller in Spain already in its fourth edition. This book is a compilation of research on Spanish Jewish ancestry. My last name is in this book.

As Laura quipped, once I told her, “Now I now understand the attraction.”

So I may have Sephardic ancestors, but given my mother’s fervent, unyielding Catholicism, I probably have Tomás de Torquemada’s ancestors too. Perhaps we became one big, messy familia long ago. But I believe Laura is my family, and her family is my family, not because of what happened five hundred years ago, but because I love Laura. I know the quality of the person. That’s why I light the Hanukah candles even though Laura is not at home. It is what our family would do. It is what I do.