Ilan Stavans: Pesaj en Mexico, a Look Back

Passover in Distrito Federal was an opportunity for us to insert our Jewish identity in the larger national and global sphere. The gathering place for El seder—the Seder, in our Yiddish-Spanish jargon—was always the house of one of our abuelas. Invariably, the Bobe would perform a miracle, finding a surprising symmetry between our Ashkenazi and Mexican sides, putting flavors on the menu that were a feast to the senses: huevos duros con mole, in remembrances of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (among children, the joke de rigueur was “Where did the water reach the slaves as they made their way to the other side?” Los cojones, which explains why we eat eggs); matzah balls in caldo de pollo; huachinango en salsa ranchera; and, for desert, half-fruit jelly candy. The game of finding the afikoman made listening to the Haggadah a bit more bearable, especially since the person finding it could be rewarded with a visit to the Estadio Azteca to see a soccer match.

Over the years, I’ve thought of rewriting the Haggadah to allow others experience the same emotions. For it was in the improvisational nature of the story, at least in the way it was read by the adults, where the pasión of the festival was palpable. In telling the story, slavery in Egypt would be compared to the oppression of indígenas, the aboriginal population in Mexico under Spanish rule during the colonial period. Moisés was portrayed as a forerunner of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the leader of the country’s war of independence in 1810, who was instrumental in liberating the mestizos from el yugo trasatlántico. And when the part came of discussing what is the night of El pesaj different to all other nights, someone would say that Moisés also gave El grito de Dolores, a reference to the moment when Hidalgo rang the bells of Dolores, a town in the state now named after him, and screamed ¡Viva México!, ¡Viva la Independencia!. Yes, we, Mexican Jews, visualized the Israelites, after the plagues, hearing a similar chant, after which God told them: arriba y adelante, onto the Promised Land.

Another image lives in my mind: I have a vivid memory of a play—una forshelung—in elementary school in which we dressed like esclavos veracruzanos, slaves from Veracruz. In fact, there’s a photo of me and a few classmates on stage and the expression in my face says it all: absolute fright. “What am I doing here?,” I’m probably asking myself. “Why am I in these ridiculous customs? And what on earth is an esclavo veracruzano?” The answer to these questions is that El pesaj was a performance, an invitation to partake in an ancestral show.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the author of the forthcoming Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots (2011). The award-winning movie My Mexican Shivah (2007) is based on one of his stories. He is also general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2011).

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