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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Life + Arts

Jewish lecturers share insight

A call-and-response lecture featuring poet M. Miriam Herrera and visual artist Gail Gutierrez took place at the Rockwell Pavilion in the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library on Tuesday night. The lecture explored the religious and cultural challenges of heritage.

The World Cultures & Literatures Program of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages invited the duo Tuesday evening to speak at UH.

“We are really thrilled that Gail Gutierrez and M. Miriam Herrera are here today,” said Marie-Theresa Hernandez, director of the World Culture & Literature Program. “We think this is the beginning of a great discussion regarding Jewish studies and the Sephardic diaspora in particular.”

Hernandez said that the duo highlighted the ambiguous nature of their experiences and identities while growing up — the sense of on the one hand, knowing that their Jewish history was there, and yet on the other hand performing an identity that was entirely Mexican-American and very metropolitan.

Part of that involves finding the delicate middle ground between religion and culture.

While the two grew up in the US (Gutierrez in Los Angeles and Herrera in Chicago), their families were Crypto-Jewish — a term that relates to any number of secret practitioners of Judaism, who in public claim another faith.

Herrera’s familial heritage stems from a subset of that category, called conversos — who fled to the New World and converted to Catholicism to avoid persecution during the bloody Spanish Inquisition.

Similarly, Gutierrez found her Jewish roots in her grandfather’s autobiography. She realized from her grandfather’s writings — which detailed his keeping in line with Jewish traditions, dress, rituals and diet — that his Jewish faith was important to him.

This genealogical digging led both Herrera and Gutierrez to become increasingly drawn toward reclaiming their Jewish faith. That led to the effort of rediscovery and conversion — an undertaking that is still a point of contention in Mexican culture.

As artists, their next logical step was to share this story with an audience. Herrera, a poet, and Gutierrez, an artist, communicate their rich lives through their artistry.

The poetry and artwork helps them and others to explore cultural, familial and religious identities that have been significant to them.

One religiously and culturally significant image that pervades both artists is the desert, which is heavily associated with the Jewish people.

Herrera noted that Israel is of course a desert unto itself, but the desert also represented the struggles of the Jewish people, who wandered it for so many years.

Gail Gutierrez has written about her own artwork.

“My ancestors knew they were the ‘Other’ and spoke of that to their family,” Guitierrez writes.

“Now, after re-entering the Mikvah, how do I reconstruct myself?” she said. “I search for my own language of images to tell my story.”

M. Miriam Herrera engaged students by reading poems from her book “Kaddish for Columbus.”

The title poem dealt specifically with the convergence and acceptance of her Spanish, Jewish, Mexican and Native American heritage, even though at times they are at odds with one another. Herrera pointed to an early Spanish and Native American conflict to illustrate this point.

“In the poem ‘Kaddish for Columbus,’ I forgive Christopher Columbus for colonialism and all of the tragedies he brought upon the Native Americans,” Herrera said. “Because I recognize that without him, I wouldn’t exist.”

Other poems grappled with her journey back to Judaism and the conflicting process. A few of them were even set in Israel, where she lived.

“They convey the sense of belonging there,” Herrera said. “When I am in Israel, I am at home.”

In the end, the lecture showed the remarkable diversity of Mexican culture and how Crypto-Judaism drives themes and topics in art.

“This research is very important, because many people just assume Hispanics are all Catholics, and that’s not true,” Herrera said. “There are Mexican-American Jewish people as well, and they live all over the Southwest and into Mexico. My hope is that this talk will spur the research to expand into South Texas.”

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