El Iluminado: A Graphic Novel

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When young Rolando Pérez falls to his death from a cliff outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, the mysteries immediately begin to accumulate. Was he pushed or did he jump? What are the documents that Rolando was willing sacrifice himself to protect from his family, the police, and the Catholic Church? And what does a colorful concha pastry have to do with any of this?

In the midst of the investigation, Professor Ilan Stavans arrives in Santa Fe to give a lecture about the area’s ...

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When young Rolando Pérez falls to his death from a cliff outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, the mysteries immediately begin to accumulate. Was he pushed or did he jump? What are the documents that Rolando was willing sacrifice himself to protect from his family, the police, and the Catholic Church? And what does a colorful concha pastry have to do with any of this?

In the midst of the investigation, Professor Ilan Stavans arrives in Santa Fe to give a lecture about the area’s long-buried Jewish history. He’s looking forward to relaxing afterwards with an evening of opera, but his presentation on “crypto-Jews” attracts unexpected attention, and soon Ilan is drawn into a desperate race to find the long-lost documents that might hold the key to Rolando’s death. Ilan’s detective work leads him to taco joints, desert ranches, soaring cathedrals, and, finally, deep into the region’s past, where he encounters another young man: Luis de Carvajal, aka “El Iluminado,” a sixteenth-century religious dissenter. In a tale of martyrdom that eerily echoes Rolando’s, Carvajal fled Spain for colonial Mexico at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, searching for his religious heritage—a hunt for which he, like Rolando, would pay the ultimate price.

In El Iluminado, esteemed literary critic Ilan Stavans and author and illustrator Steve Sheinkin present a secret history of religion in the Americas, showing how thousands of European refugees have left a trail of ghostly footprints—and troves of mysteries—across the American Southwest.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin’s graphic novel takes a highly entertaining and informative journey through a largely unknown slice of New Mexican and Jewish history…. El Iluminado reads a bit like a crypto-Jewish DaVinci Code…. An undeniably weighty and meaningful chapter of American history, an epic tale with a tragic sweep.... A reminder of the human longing that often drives those who search for their ‘true’ religious and cultural identities.”
Los Angeles Times, Jacket Copy

“Regardless of your background, Stavans and Sheinkin’s graphic novel will illuminate you….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.”
ABC News/Univision

"El Iluminado is a delightful surprise of a book…. A graphic novel turns out to be a great way to explore this religious history."
San Antonio Express-News

“Combines history, spirituality and a murder mystery sprinkled with a touch of Spanglish.”
Albuquerque Journal

“Secrets abound in El Iluminado….[Stavans and Sheinkin] embroider the mystery with plenty of history and not a little wry humor, too.”
—Jewish Journal

“A death in the desert… missing documents… a stubborn priest… a persistent young woman grieving the loss of her cousin and trying to solve his death… Jewish symbols showing up in mysterious places… is this the plot of the latest Indiana Jones movie? Not quite, but maybe something even better. The new graphic novel by well-known literary critic Ilan Stavans and graphic novelist Steve Sheinkin packs a punch that is at once a gripping whodunit and a fascinating lesson on crypto-Jews in New Mexico… The story is fast-paced and fascinating, with a delightful blend of history and humor. Sheinkin’s illustrations are immediately recognizable to fans of his Rabbi Harvey series, and his choice of colors and attention to details result in a beautifully entertaining book that will surely become a classic.”
Jewish Book World

"[S]uspenseful and spine-tingling…. [I]t is a story stuffed with intrigue – it will make you want to pay a little more attention to the past…. El Iluminado proves anything can be discovered."
Los Alamos Daily Post

El Iluminado is a page-turning whodunit that delivers a substantial history lesson in a clear, entertaining way.”
The Phoenix New Times, Jackalope Culture Blog

"Part murder mystery, part religious history, part identity quest, the graphic novel El Iluminado leaps across time and borders…. Stavans is one of the most prolific, best-known, and sometimes controversial scholars of Hispanic culture in the United States."
Pasatiempo (Santa Fe)

“A suspenseful historical mystery in the form of a graphic novel. [El Iluminado is] enlivened by Stavans’s learning but also leavened by his wit, and drawn in a clear, fast-paced style by Steve Sheinkin.”
Rain Taxi Review of Books

“Exquisite... there is a wonderful story to be learned.”
San Francisco/Sacramento Book Review

“Another bold... experiment from an academic with impeccable credentials and a keen sense of the secrets we hold most dear.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[A] humorous yet informative look at the history of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico…. El Iluminado is a quirky tale with enough conspiracy, church history and secret documents to fill a Dan Brown novel.”
Canadian Jewish News

“Crypto-Jews of the Southwest, your voices are about to be heard! Sheinkin and Stavans do justice to both academic scholarship and the graphic novel in this amazing new work.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

El Iluminado is a mystery that takes one by the collar and lunges into tri-cultural religious history. It is a must-read for all who are interested in the Southwest as well as the very meaning and shaping of our spiritual legacy. It’s accessible and genuine, a refreshing take with a unique voice and approach. You will enjoy, as I have, this jaunt into the marvelous enchantments of the imagination, mixed with history and culture, that all culminate in a reawakening of our heritage. Bravo—a great read, a page-turner of a book, unrivaled in its distinct voice and clarity!”
—Jimmy Santiago Baca, author of A Glass of Water

“A captivating tale about the Sephardic heart that still throbs, years after the conquest and the Inquisition, in the Latino heartland of New Mexico. Stavans and Sheinkin educate and thrill in this warmly felt story about memory and the search for identity in an age of global wandering.”
—Ruth Behar, author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

El Iluminado is a mystery about the very concept of mystery and our sometimes deadly fascination with it—a tale that reveals the uncomfortable parallels between the Spanish Inquisition and modern academia. Funny and thought-provoking, a graphic novel of anti-heroic proportions.”
—John Sayles, author of A Moment in the Sun

El Iluminado is a wondrous journey that boomerangs between the Old World and the New, between Mexico and El Norte, with Ilan Stavans on a search to find his identity in a landscape that constantly shifts, as if Krazy Kat had come to Santa Fe.”
—Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

“The ever prodigious Stavans has done it again. He weaves into this murder mystery much religious intrigue about the secret history of crypto-Jews in New Mexico. Stavans’ writing breathes life into the characters, and co-conspirator Sheinkin brings a rhythmic pace to the panels that moves the mystery to its suspenseful end; his precise yet suggestive visual creations plant us firmly in a breathtaking New Mexico. Not since Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose have I come across such a scintillating ecclesiastical murder mystery.”
—Frederick Luis Aldama, author of Your Brain on Latino Comics

El Iluminado shines a brilliant light into the hidden history of New Mexico's crypto-Jews, a fascinating new chapter in the long and colorful history of the Jewish graphic novel. Part whodunit, part academic farce (David Lodge meets Raymond Carver, via a Spanglish-speaking Art Spiegelman), it is above all a crackling good read. It is also a touching meditation on self-fashioning, on Jewish identity (hidden and in plain sight), by turns shocking, funny, droll, and self-deprecating. Master storytellers, Stavans and Sheinkin prove yet again that by co-mixing words and images, the graphic novel can simultaneously show and tell history in ways unavailable to words or images alone.”
—James E. Young, author of The Texture of Memory and At Memory's Edge

El Iluminado proves that the graphic novel is the perfect medium for a multilayered literary mystery. Like Ellery Queen, Ilan Stavans is both author and investigator, creating a complex plot that’s a satisfyingly twisty whodunit, while stirring in a rich mix of Mexican, Southwestern, and hidden Jewish history. Steve Sheinkin’s calligraphic drawings are the perfect complement to Stavans’ Talmudic textual layering of Inquisition archives, Nick and Nora banter, and American literary realism. Fast-moving and philosophical, El Iluminado will entertainingly persuade you that ‘The past is always fictional.’”
—N. C. Christopher Couch, author of Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics

Kirkus Reviews
What do you get when you cross a Mexican-born Jewish intellectual with the creator of the Rabbi Harvey comics? Surprise--it's a most unusual conspiracy thriller. Stavans (Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College; Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots, 2012, etc.) manages to shoehorn in a host of influences in his latest graphic novel, with spare, nearly amateurish illustrations by textbook author and illustrator Sheinkin (Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, 2012, etc.). This murder-mystery digs into the history of the crypto-Jews of New Mexico, who went into hiding after their expulsion by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492. The story opens with the death of disgraced seminary student Rolando Pérez outside Santa Fe, N.M. Professor Stavans plays himself in this shadowy plot, having just arrived in the city to give a brief lecture, followed by a joyful evening at the famous Santa Fe Opera House. He's lured into the story by Irina Rodriguez, the cousin of deceased Rolando, and she's sure her cousin's death was no accident. There's a great deal of intellectual theory here--early on, Stavans muses, "The real history of crypto-Jews isn't in what we know, but in what we don't. They were members of a club whose existence they would swear didn't exist," and so on. But somehow it carries on, from Sheinkin's almost rudimentary depictions of Santa Fe's desert austerity, to Stavans' winking ridicule of his advocacy for Spanglish and self-mocking references to what is a fairly rich and impenetrable religious mystery. "I suppose you'll turn the whole murky mystery into some preposterous page-turner. The Da Vinci Code, with matzo and salsa picante," says one rival. Not nearly that blunt, nor as vivid as some readers may wish. Another bold, if gratuitous, experiment from an academic with impeccable credentials and a keen sense of the secrets we hold most dear.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465032570
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/13/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 729,457
  • Product dimensions: 6.80 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture and Five-College Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. He is the author of Latino USA: A Cartoon History and editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and adapted into theater and film. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and of many international prizes and honors, he lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Steve Sheinkin writes and draws the popular Rabbi Harvey graphic novels and writes award-winning nonfiction books for young adults. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted June 2, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    ¿For generations we have lived as Christians, but in our souls w

    “For generations we have lived as Christians, but in our souls we have always been Jews.”
    I had no expectations when I opened this book. Even after reading the back cover, I was baffled as to what it was truly about. The drawings in this book are very rudimentary, and I’m unsure if it is intentional or not. Either way, it suits the story quite nicely. Those of you intrigued by religious history (like I am) will find this form of retelling quite exquisite, and those of you who never quite understood the enjoyment of history might find that there is a wonderful story to be learned via the colorful drawings and bubble conversations. Professor Ilan Stavans brings you interesting characters while taking you on an unexpected journey through Santa Fe. There is also a dissonantly similar historic twist that happens during the 1600s. While I’m not sure I would purchase this for the reading value, I would gladly add it to my graphic novel collection.
    *You can view the original review at City Book Review

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