Trying to Save Ladino – Tablet Magazine

Posted By on June 18, 2017

I expected, over the course of a three-day conference in Mexico City about global Sephardic culture, to hear more Ladino. ButI was surprised, if not a little disappointed, to hear mostly Spanish being spoken at Erensya, an annual meeting run by the Madrid-basedSepharad-Israel Center.

Founded in 2006, the SICs flagship program, the Erensya (Heritage, in Ladino) summit, is an annual meeting of Sephardic dignitaries that has previously been hosted in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Spain. This years conference, a joint effort with the Latin American Sephardic Federation, brought the summit to Mexico City, my hometown, where anestimated65 percent of the citys 40,000 Jews are of Sephardic descent. (Their Ladino-speaking ancestors were exiled during the Spanish Inquisition.) The SICsmissionwhich involves the preservation of Ladino, the language spoken by Jews in medieval Spainhas latelytaken on an added importance since Spain, in 2015,passed a lawthat enables descendants of Jews exiled during the Inquisition to become naturalized citizens.

Last weeks gathering took place mainly in Mexico Citys Sephardic Community Center, a massive suburban complex that doubles as a Jewish school, museum, wedding hall, and synagogue; it also serves as the headquarters of Universidad Hebraica, the only college in the city that offers a masters in Jewish Studies.

Erensyas co-organizer, Gaton Maya, told me that, when his grandmother arrived in Mexico from Turkey, she was very excited: She had never been to a Spanish-speaking country and believed that everyone in Mexico spoke Ladino. The languages similarity with Spanish, he said, explained the lack of Ladino speakers at the gathering: In a sense, they had merged with their surroundings.

Despite the lack of Ladino, the conferences events provided a window into Sephardic scholars and dignitaries from around the worldPanama, Brazil, Uruguay, Turkey, Great Britain, Spain, Macedonia, Chile, Colombia, and Serbia. There wasAlicia Gojman, a historian from Mexicos National Autonomous University, who gave a talk about the history of the Jews in colonial Spain; performances by Paco Diez, anon-Jewish Spanish musician who specializes in Sephardic music and who has been nominated for the Premio Principe the Asturias (the Spanish-speaking worlds Nobel Prize); and poetry readings by Jenny Serur, the vice president of the Mexico-Israel Institute, located in the historical city center.

Also in attendance wasBarcelona marketing mogul Luis Bassat, who presented a book on his familys history, as well as the current mayors of former Sephardic towns in Spain like Estrella andCastrillo Mata Judoswhich translates to Camp Kill Jews and changed its name to something less controversial in 2015: Castrillo Mota de Judios (Jews Hill Camp).

Attendeeswere received magnanimously by Mexico Citys mayor Miguel Angel Mancera. At the inauguration, Miguel de Lucas, the current director of the SICwho previously worked in the Spanish embassies of Nigeria, Paraguay, and Cameroonstated that, when he first took on the job nine years ago he expected the Sephardic diaspora to be reticent of Spains efforts to mend its dark past. Instead, wherever he went, he said, he had been greeted with open arms.

Also on the agenda was a tour through the historiccenterand a visit to Monte Sinai, established in 1918 by Jewscoming mostly from the Middle East, many of whom were Ladino speakers, anda reception in the Spanish Embassy. The tour, managed by Monica Unikel-Fasja, provided an eye-opening account of La Merced, Mexicos immigrant quarter at the beginning of the 20th century.

Upon arrivingat the Sephardic Center, I was led with other attendees through the centers Holocaust museum, an immersive, harrowing, superbly produced experience designed specifically for children. In the exhibition, one follows the life of Jack, a fictitious Jewish boy, from his house to the ghetto, through a concentration camp and toward liberation. As I walked silently with other attendees, I heard a small woman with curly black hair crying in the back, talking, as if to herself, in Ladino.

Her name is Drita Tutonovi, and she had traveled to Mexico City from Serbia. Her parents survived Bergen-Belsen and were transferred to a labor camp, where she was born. They escaped in 1943, she said, and, after 17 days and nights of wandering, arrived in Milan.Today, Tutonovi is a philologist, musician, and the author of a Serbian-Ladino dictionary and many other Ladino-language books. She said she had attended multiple Sephardic congresses around the world, but none on the other side of the Atlantic.I asked her if she thought there was anything unique about this meeting in Mexico City.No, she said. All over the world, the Sephardic diaspora is fighting with the same issue: how to save Ladino.

Related: Telling Holocaust Storiesin Ladino Seattles Sephardi Jews Brought Us Starbucks: Now Theyre Trying to Bring Back Ladino

Alan Grabinsky writes about cities, media and globalization from Mexico City. He is the Director of the qualitative consulting firm INTERseccin.

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