Mexico and the Modern Sephardi Diaspora

Episode 417

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After their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula during the 15th century, Jewish communities settled throughout the Mediterranean, with many finding new homes in the cities of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. Centuries later, Ottoman Jews descended from this early modern diaspora still spoke a language related to Spanish, often referred to as Ladino. During the late 19th century, a new wave of migration out of the Eastern Mediterranean began, giving rise to a modern Sephardi diaspora of migrants from modern-day Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and other parts of the former Ottoman world. As our guest Devi Mays explains in this interview, the Iberian heritage and language of these migrants played a distinct role in their global migration experience, as many ended up settling in countries like Mexico, Cuba, and Argentina. In this episode, we explore the history of the modern Sephardi diaspora and its relationship to the history of Mexico. In some cases, Ladino-speaking Jews from the former Ottoman Empire appeared as welcome immigrants in Mexico even when Jews from other parts of the world faced discrimination and increased immigration restriction during the 20th century. In other cases, Iberian heritage meant that Jews looking to settle in the United States could pass as Mexican or Cuban nationals when seeking to cross the border. Through the individual experiences and lives that comprise the modern Sephardi diaspora, we highlight the unique experiences of migrants mediated by gender and class, and we appreciate the strategies such people developed to navigate an increasingly anti-immigrant world.

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Contributor Bios

Devi Mays is Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Fellow at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies. After receiving her Ph.D. in Jewish History from Indiana University in 2013, she was awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Modern Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has published in Mashriq and Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies, and has translated for Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, ed. (Stanford UP, 2014). Her work has appeared in several edited collections, including World War I and the Jews (Berghahn Books, 2017), and Jews and the Mediterranean (Indiana University Press, forthcoming). She is currently revising a book manuscript, tentatively entitled Forging Ties, Forging Passports: Migration and the Modern Sephardi Diaspora.
Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.


Episode No. 417
Release Date: 4 July 2019
Recording Location: San Antonio, Texas
Audio editing by Chris Gratien
Music: Zé Trigueiros; karagüneş
Bibliography and images courtesy of Devi Mays


Mauricio Assael and wife Rachel Corri upon arrival in Veracruz. Sefarad de Ayer, 1

Anti-Jewish signs in Mexico City, Díaz, Delgado y García, 11/5 (Israelitas), Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City, Mexico

Mauricio Assael. In Rosalynda Pérez de Cohen, Simonette Levy de Behar, Sophie Bejarano de Goldberg, Sefarad de Ayer, Oy i Manyana: Presencia Sefardí en México (Mexico City, 2010).

Advertisement in Ladino for a travel agency providing tickets to the Americas, published in B uletino del Ospital Nasional Israelita "Or-Ahayim." Istanbul: Fratelli Haim, 1923. 

Ottoman Clock Tower in today's Mexico City, photo from wikicommons

Select Bibliography

Alfaro-Velcamp. Theresa. So Far from Allah, So Close to Mexico: Middle Eastern Immigrants in Modern Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Bejarano, Margalit and Edna Aizenberg, eds. Contemporary Sephardic Identity in the Americas: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012.

Ben-Ur, Aviva. Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Brodsky, Adriana M. Sephardi, Jewish, Argentine: Community and National Identity, 1880-1960. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Cohen, Julia Phillips. “The East as a Career: Far Away Moses and Company in the Marketplace of Empires.” Jewish Social Studies 21, no. 2 (Winter 2015): 35-77.

_____. “Oriental by Design: Ottoman Jews, Imperial Style, and the Performance of Heritage.” The American Historical Review 119, no. 2 (April 2014): 364-398.

Fahrenthold, Stacy. Between the Ottomans and the Entente: The First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Garland, Libby. After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Gualtieri, Sarah. Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Gutman, David. “Armenian Migration to North America, State Power, and Local Politics in the Late Ottoman Empire.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 34, no. 1 (2014): 176-190.

Hanley, Will. Identifying with Nationality: Europeans, Ottomans, and Egyptians in Alexandria. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Khater, Akram Fouad. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Naar, Devin E. Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.

_____. “Turkinos beyond the Empire: Ottoman Jews in America, 1893 to 1924,” Jewish Quarterly Review 105, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 174-205.

Pastor, Camila. The Mexican Mahjar: Transnational Maronites, Jews, and Arabs under the French Mandate. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

Stein, Sarah Abrevaya. Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Young, Elliott. Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.


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