On being Jewish and Latina

I’m white. I have a round white face and green eyes. My grandparents came from Bessarabia, Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union to Argentina. I inherited their looks so if I don’t talk I look white. But then I open my big mouth and something changes.

I can see it on people’s eyes. It takes one second. The change is subtle, but suddenly I become something else, someone else: someone with a very strong accent that definitely doesn’t sound American. I’m the “other”, “the stranger”, “the immigrant”, and people want to know where I’m from.

It happens very often. Even after eighteen years in the United States my accent seems to define who I am to other people.

“Where are you from?” someone will ask me, and after so many years of answering the same question sometimes I answer back, “Where do you think I’m from?”

Over the years I have heard that I’m from: Spain, Israel, Argentina, Russia, Bulgaria, some place in Latin America, and Italy.

These are very different places. But I guess it makes sense. People hear different things according to their experiences and whom they encountered before me. New York City doesn’t have a big Argentinian community, so many people have never heard an Argentinian accent.

And don’t get me wrong. Many people do say that they love my accent and find it cute, warm, interesting, unique, different, etc. But I think there are other people, few — even in New York City, where 40 percent of people are foreign born — who don’t like foreign accents.

Sometimes it requires effort to understand a person whose accent is strong and some persons don’t want to bother. I get it. But I think that it is worth the effort. Most people won’t have a chance to travel around the world, and this provides a way of meeting people from different countries. It is an open door into another cultures, and I believe it can enrich human lives.

My accent it is formed by a mixture of languages. I always loved languages and I began to study them as a child. I grew up in Buenos Aires so I speak Spanish. For the record: in Argentina we don’t speak Portuguese, which is the language of our Brazilian neighbors.

I went to College at Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires. It is a Jesuit University so I’m very familiar with Catholicism (more to follow in a future post.)

Later on I lived in Israel and I studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I got into the Graduate Studies Program that offers its classes in English instead of Hebrew. When I made Aliyah (or “Aliá” in the Spanish transliteration) I had to improve my Hebrew.

Once I married I moved to United States with my husband and daughter. My husband was born in Tel Aviv from an American mother and a Turkish-Spanish father; my daughter was born in Jerusalem, my son was born in New York City and I was born in Buenos Aires. Four people in a family, and the four of us were born in different places. Is that common or uncommon in other Jewish families?

It is hard to answer. Everybody has a different experience. Although I imagine that among Jews who make Aliyah, it is not unusual to marry someone from Israel or another country.

The fact that I’m from Argentina and I live in United States makes me a Latina; or a Hispanic woman. For me both terms represent the same thing: someone of Hispanic descent. This is an American terminology for Latino Americans or Spanish people living here, because when I lived in Argentina I’m Argentinian, not Latina.  Someone who lives in Mexico is Mexican, not Latino. Only in the United States are we Hispanic or Latino.

I’m a Jewish and Latina woman. That is a fact. I don’t want to have to decide between one aspect of my life or the other.

But I know it creates confusion. Jews ask me questions usually related to my ancestry: Are you Ashkenazy or Sephardi?  Or… are you really Latina? What is Ladino?

Latinos ask: Are you really Jewish? Did you convert? Is it because you married a Jew? How can you be both? How do you speak Spanish so well? And yes, they also ask me where am I from.

I’m at the intersection of two very rich cultures and in this blog I want to celebrate diversity and answer many questions that I’m often asked.

Until next time. Keep reading.

About the Author
Graciela Berger Wegsman is an award-winning playwright, journalist and translator. As a journalist, Graciela has written articles for many newspapers and magazines in Argentina, Israel and the USA. She has been a frequent contributor to the New York Daily News for the last several years, specializing in Latino culture. She writes her "On Being Jewish and Latina Blog." She is also a Realtor working in New York at Douglas Elliman Real Estate.
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