Jewish writers of Latin America published anew in book series

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (JTA) — Not all Jewish immigrants to the Western Hemisphere ended up in New York's Lower East Side — a fact highlighted in a new series of books.

"Jewish Latin America seems to be eclipsed or left unknown in the eyes of American readers," said Ilan Stavans, the creator and editor of a Jewish Latin America book series that is being published by the University of New Mexico Press.

Hundreds of Jewish writers exist across Latin America, mostly in Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

"We're trying to combine titles that are out of print and then intertwine them with new titles," Stavans said.

The series' inaugural volume was written about a decade after Jewish immigration to Argentina began in earnest. A collection of short stories, "The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas," written by Alberto Gerchunoff and first published in Spanish in 1910, attempts to capture the daily lives of Jewish immigrants in the Argentinean countryside during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Another recently released title was "Claper," by Venezuelan author Alicia Freilich. Originally published in Spanish in 1987, this work tells a story of Venezuelan Jewish life as narrated by a first-generation immigrant from Eastern Europe and his South American-born daughter.

"We're working on one or two titles a season," said Dana Asbury, editor of the University of New Mexico Press.

Scheduled for release this fall are "The Prophet and Other Stories," a collection of short stories by Brazilian author Samuel Rawet, and "The Book of Memories," a novel by Argentinean writer Ana Maria Shua.

"Jewish writing is very much alive because Jews try to keep a record of their tradition in fiction," Stavans said.

Significant numbers of European Jewish immigrants landed in Latin American countries such as Mexico, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Guatemala, among them Stavans' family.

Growing up in a Yiddish and Spanish-speaking community in Mexico City, Stavans, now a professor of Jewish and Hispanic studies and creative writing at Amherst College in Massachusetts, first started writing in Yiddish and only later switched to Spanish and English.

Latin America's Sephardi population has its origin dating from the Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. In the late 1800s, Ashkenazi Jews began fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe and arrived in large numbers in both North and South America.

According to Stavans, half a million Jews live in Latin America — the 230,000 living in Argentina and 170,000 in Brazil are the largest concentrations.

While these communities are thriving economically and socially, until recently "people were not open about their Jewishness," Asbury said.

Prior to the publication of author Marjorie Agosin's work, "A Cross and a Star: Memoirs of a Jewish Girl in Chile," many prolific Latin American writers had never confronted Jewish identity in their work.

Agosin is also a college professor in Massachusetts and it was the release of her book by the University of New Mexico Press that attracted Stavans to the Albuquerque-based publisher and led to the birth of the Jewish Latin America series.