Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots

Overview

After a stirring e-mail exchange with his father, awardwinning essayist and cultural commentator Ilan Stavans decided to do something bizarre: revisit his hometown, Mexico City, accompanied by a tourist guide. But rather than seeking his roots in the neighborhood where he grew up, he headed to the Centro Histórico, the downtown area at the heart of the world’s largest metropolis. It was there that conversos, the hidden Jews escaping the might of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, were burned at the stake. And, ...

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Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots

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Overview

After a stirring e-mail exchange with his father, awardwinning essayist and cultural commentator Ilan Stavans decided to do something bizarre: revisit his hometown, Mexico City, accompanied by a tourist guide. But rather than seeking his roots in the neighborhood where he grew up, he headed to the Centro Histórico, the downtown area at the heart of the world’s largest metropolis. It was there that conversos, the hidden Jews escaping the might of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, were burned at the stake. And, centuries later, it was the same section where Jewish immigrants, both Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim and Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire, made their homes as peddlers. In a sense, Centro Histórico is to Mexico what the Lower East Side is to the United States: a platform for reinventing one’s self in the New World.

With the same linguistic verve and insight that has made him one of the most distinguished voices in American literature today, Ilan Stavans invites readers along for a personal journey that is not only his own, but that of an entire culture. In Return to Centro Histórico he makes it possible to understand the intimate role that Jews have played in the development of Hispanic civilization.

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Editorial Reviews

University of Michigan

"A moving meditation on photographs where memory and history collide. Ilan Stavans illuminates a Jewish penchant for picturing time, life, and family in Mexico City in the 20th century."

— Deborah Dash Moore

poet, author of Dawn of the Senses and Afterglow - Alberto Blanco

"Ilan Stavans is dedicated to understanding the World, Latin America, Latino culture, Mexico… In this new book–intelligent, penetrating and informed as ever–he continues to do so, tenaciously seeking to understand himself."
author of Feeding on Dreams - Ariel Dorfman

"A hypnotic, moving exploration of history and identity, wry and entertaining and wise. In this dialogue with a lifetime of photos, Ilan Stavans creates and recreates a world rarely seen."
author of 90 Miles: Selected and New Poems - Virgil Suarez

"Essential, seminal reading, Return to Centro Histórico is more than a fascinating weaving of personal and familial history. It is a thought-provoking story of how a boy who wanted to be a magician turned instead into one of our very best writers. Ilan Stavans conjures up his life with candor and an ample heart for family and community."
author of Latinos: A Biography of the People - Earl Shorris

"A sweet reading of a little-known face of Mexico."
author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba - Ruth Behar

“In this endearing Proustian journey, old photographs become the madeleines that spark vivid memories and imaginings of the diverse Jewish dreamers who have made Mexico their home. No one but Ilan Stavans could have told this beautiful and haunting story with such affection, wit, and grace.”
University of Michigan - Deborah Dash Moore

"A moving meditation on photographs where memory and history collide. Ilan Stavans illuminates a Jewish penchant for picturing time, life, and family in Mexico City in the 20th century."
Library Journal
This slim work by Stavans (Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American & Latino Culture, Amherst Coll.; On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language) is difficult to categorize. Although not quite a travelog, a biography, or an essay, it certainly covers all three of these genres. Stavans, who at 50 has spent more than half of his life living and teaching in the United States, was born in Mexico City and returns there to search out the origin of Jewish immigration to the capital. It begins with his father sending him scanned old photos via email, which provokes his own memories and a desire to reconnect with the history of Jews in Mexico. With the help of his parents and a guide who specializes in Mexican Jewish history, he explores the historical center of the city. VERDICT This book holds such promise—the intersection of memory, identity, and history—but it simply falls flat. One could do much better by reading Lillian Hellman's Maybe, a short novel about memory and history. Recommended for readers with a particular interest in Chicano or Jewish issues.—Lee Arnold, Historical Soc. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813551913
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press
  • Publication date: 2/29/2012
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 7.10 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Ilan Stavans

ILAN STAVANS is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. Former host of the PBS series Conversations with Ilan Stavans, he has written or edited more than fifty books, including José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race and With All Thine Heart: Love and the Bible, both published by Rutgers University Press.

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Table of Contents

I Am a Rooster 1

Tomato Jew 19

The Tourist 43

Centro Histórico 61

Paisanos 83

La Judería 99

My Face 115

I Am Dead 135

Sources 153

Photo Credits 155

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