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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 70
Year: 2001
Author: Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Editora
Title: El río de los sueños: Aproximaciones críticas a la obra de Ana María Shua

Beth Pollack*
Within Argentine literature there is a cluster of works that reverberate with the Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, with the stories of those who arrive speaking different languages and practice dissimilar customs or rituals from their old land. Many of these works tell of the immigrants’ assimilation into the Argentine melting pot. At the same time, their contributions to the cultural pluralism of the dominant culture either are highlighted or glossed over, preferring to make it an implicit element in their writings. All immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, ethnicity or religion, have undertaken the same journey in all of the Americas since colonization.

The experience of immigration, adaptation, and acculturation is not unique to Jewish immigrants or to Argentina. It has been replicated numerous times, and, doubtless will continue to be repeated with new waves of immigrants in Argentina, the Americas and elsewhere. Within the context of Ana María Shua’s writings, the immigration experience presents an interesting encounter and imbrication of cultures, and a literary thematic that emerges with great regularity. While she touches upon themes that are profoundly Jewish, as in El pueblo de los tontos: Humor tradicional judío (Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 1995), and Cuentos judíos con fantasmas y demonios (Buenos Aires: Shalom, 1994), her inclusion of Judaism varies between an overt Jewish thrust and, at other times, simply implicit references. However, while Shua frequently incorporates the Argentine-Jewish experience into her writings, and we can contextualize these elements as I attempt to do here, the inclusion of Jewish characters and elements should not be the overriding basis for a critical examination of her works. It is one element in a multifaceted and ongoing evolving literary productivity composed of distinct and varied elements.

There is no denying that since the Spanish first encountered the Americas, it has been a melting pot of cultures, and an area of mestizaje and miscegenation. Jews and/or conversos were a small but significant presence in the Americas from the beginning as sources document that some of Columbus’ crew members were Jewish, although Jewish immigration into the colonies officially was forbidden (Lindstrom, Jewish Issues 2). Marcos Aquinis in “Vigencia y transfiguración de ciertos conflictos” observes that Argentina:

desde el siglo pasado, [. . .] abrió sus puertas a la inmigración masiva, a convertirse en crisol. A la inversa de los Estados Unidos, donde es posible observar una estructuración en mosaico y resulta cómodo y a veces conveniente mantener la vigencia de lejanas raíces, en la Argentina y demás países latinoamericanos receptores de inmigrantes, predomina el criterio de la homogenización, la búsqueda de una síntesis que—se cree—llegará más rápido cuanto antes se olviden los orígenes disonantes. (37)

A prime mandate of the conquest of the Americas was the eradication of any and all cultural and religious differences, a tradition founded in inquisitorial times where pluralism was vigorously combated. Contrary to this historically mandated ideology, cultural pluralism does exist, has always existed and will always exist in the Americas, in spite of massive attempts to eradicate it and to create an outwardly homogeneous population and culture through the concept of a melting pot.

Although it may seem that Latin American Jewish writings gather and attempt to revise a collective experience, it is not one experience but rather a plethora of varied and multifaceted experiences. As with the experience itself, the Jewish immigrant population is not homogeneous. There are Ashkenazim and Sephardim from numerous homelands. Shua’s writings particularly highlight her own bifurcated heritage as she repeatedly refers in the texts of El marido argentino promedio to both her Polish (Ashkenazic) and Lebanese (Sephardic) ancestry, thus illustrating two of the various countries of origin of Jewish immigrants.

From a historical viewpoint, it would be difficult to cover the broad spectrum of authors and their representation of the Argentine-Jewish experience. The transcribing of this experience has been expressed by such authors of note as Gerchunoff, and continues with César Tiempo, Pecar, Tarnopolosky, Goloboff, Szickman, Verbitsky, Steimberg and Shua. All these authors, to varying degrees, offer accounts of historical issues, and also convey attitudes and strategies inherent in challenging the homogeneity of the dominant culture, albeit a predominantly transplanted European culture. For the most part, the Argentine-Jewish experience, as it is with all immigrant experiences in Spanish America, incorporates the formidable task of documenting resettlement, cultural assimilation, integration into a new homeland, culture shock, acquisition of Spanish, loss of the mother tongue, and the yearning for the land left behind, its religion and its traditions. In addition, there are the concerns of mixed marriages and the frequent reduction of Jewishness to a cultural entity oft times residing almost exclusively in cuisine and the maintenance of certain familial customs centered around the major Jewish holidays. It is not uncommon to see Jewish doctrine and religiosity reduced to a relic as part of the second-generation experience.

Given that the immigrants came from different countries, each with distinct cultures, national identity is often intertwined with an ethnic or religious identity. The hundreds of thousands of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe for economic reasons, or because of persecution, left behind shtetls and cities where they were marked by their cultural and religious heritage. In spite of, or maybe precisely because of their varied countries of origin, the Jewish newcomers held or maintained certain traditions based on religious practices, such as dietary restrictions, and more often than not—but not exclusively—Yiddish as a common base or lengua franca.

What distinguishes Shua’s writings is the broad spectrum of ways in which she represents Argentine-Jewish identity and experience, infusing these experiences with her particular brand of humor and perspicacious social commentary. Shua belongs to a growing group of authors who depict Jewish identity without the need to legitimize inclusion of it. It is a component of her identity, and thus, naturally incorporated into her writing.

Recuperation of the past and its effects on the present are woven throughout many of Shua’s texts forming a mosaic not unlike the Jewish experience itself. In the present work, I will limit myself to a discussion of resettlement or the immigration itself, assimilation into the dominant culture in the broadest sense, and linguistic assimilation through the loss of one language, Yiddish, which may be considered a heritage language, and acquisition of the dominant language, Spanish, as spoken in Argentina. Lindstrom notes that there is a tendency to associate Jewish identity with speaking Yiddish (“Escritoras” 291); however, Shua’s Jewish immigrant characters speak Yiddish, Arabic, or neither of these two languages.

El marido argentino promedio (1991) is a compilation and re-edition of previously published cultural notes and commentaries, or modern chronicles of life, as I prefer to refer to them. The concluding section of this collection, “Pertenencias,” contains the texts entitled “Los que vuelven y los que extrañan” and “El navío de los inmigrantes,” which directly refer to the process of immigration, its reasons and its hardships. In these chronicles narrated in first person, Shua reflects on her grandparents’ flight from Europe, comparing it with the journey of exile undertaken by her sister, cousins and friends during the dictatorship, a journey which may be seen as an immigration in reverse, an atemporal Diaspora.

The previous generations relocated to Argentina in order to escape economic hardship and persecution, whereas those who were exiled in the ‘70s left, for the most part, out of fear for their lives. In “Los que vuelven y los que extrañan,” Shua illustrates a major distinguishing feature of the two immigrations:

Registro, entonces, algunas diferencias. La de nuestros abuelos no fue una inmigración de clase media. Aunque trajeran un nivel cultural superior a las clases bajas de la Argentina, en su mayoría venían de Europa corridos por una pobreza atroz. Venían de sufrir persecuciones. Venían de partirse el lomo sobre suelos gastados y empobrecidos. Venían del hambre. (206)

These immigrants came from Europe bringing with them their extended family and even the waiter from the local café, and thus were able to replicate to a certain extent the life they left behind. Additionally, the Second World War destroyed their memories: “Muchas formas, muchas personas, muchos olores dejaron de existir para siempre” (206). Although their homelands were destroyed, they tried to reconstruct their lives in the the new land. However, those that left Argentina in the ‘70s were not able to reproduce the cultural and social milieu they left behind. Most importantly, Shua urges those Argentines who left the country to register their foreign born offspring as Argentine citizens. Maintenance and identification of one’s original citizenry was a possibility that did not exist for their immigrant parents or grandparents because of political boundaries; in addition, they frequently lacked documentation of status as citizens in their country of origin.

Not all of the immigrants were from Europe, as noted in “El navío de los inmigrantes.” This note originates with a description that could be “una cálida y precisa evocación de mi propio zeide. Pero no es. Como suele suceder con la ficción, es una combinación de recuerdos y de zeides ajenos” (209). The grandfather depicted at the beginning of the note presents one face of the Jewish immigration. In this note, Shua informs the reader that she contacted her Uncle Mauricio, a nephew of her Grandfather Musa, in order to obtain more information about her family: “Puse en mi cartera una libretita para anotar y llamé a mi tío Mauricio, que tiene 85 años, es sobrino de mi abuelo Musa y vino de Beirut. Yo tuve un abuelo Musa y un zeide Meishe y me llevó muchos años darme cuenta de que los dos se llamaban Moisés” (210). Their reasons for immigrating are different, one out of fear of conscription in the army, and the other for the lure of adventure. Her Uncle Mauricio insists that he did not arrive in Argentina as a immigrant: “El no vino como mis abuelos polacos, que venían así, de a miles, todos juntos y amontonados en la bodega. El vino en segunda, en un vapor inglés que tomó en Cherburgo” (210). Another comparison between the two Diaspora is given with the remark that all the Jewish immigrants who arrived at the beginning of the century were, for the most part, tailors, while the émigrés of the ‘70s were mainly “psicoanalistas” (214).

Escape from a repressive society and his imminent induction into the army are the reasons that the Grandfather Gedalia Rimetka, the patriarch of Shua’s fourth novel El libro de los recuerdos, left Poland. His immigration, adjustment to life in Argentina and family’s trials and tribulations are chronicled in the novel. El libro de los recuerdos traces the integration of three generations of the Rimetka family into the fabric of Argentine society. Family history is retold and, thus rewritten, from the present retrospectively through the notes and memories transcribed in the book, and through oral family legends reconstructed by the anonymous narrators, unidentified members of the third generation of the Rimetka family. Likewise, the novel traces and parallels Argentine history replicating historical periods corresponding to the three generations since their immigration and their integration into the fabric of Argentine society.

Grandfather Gedalia, not unlike thousands of other immigrants, shares two significant experiences upon arriving in Argentina. The first is the change in the family name due to a misspelling or lack of attention on the part of a careless immigration officer. Thus, the surname Rimetka is “un apellido intensamente nacional, un producto aborigen, mucho más auténticamente argentino que un apellido español correctamente deletreado, un apellido, Rimetka, que jamás existió en el idioma o en el lugar de origen del abuelo, que jamás existió en otro país ni en otro tiempo” (15-16). The second experience Gedalia shares with other new arrivals is the time spent in a rural setting, such as the Jewish colonies Moisés Ville or Domínguez. Grandfather Gedalia was supposed to become a farmer in the colonies, but his experience as a tailor was of no use to him when it came time to milk cows or harvest the crops; nevertheless, he did learn “enseguida a comer asado” (13), thus initiating the process of argentinization.

In the chapter entitled “La Época del Miedo,” Shua blurs the line between fiction and reality in an imbedded text, which refers to the period of terror during the years of the dictatorship of 1976-1983, and the years leading up to it. The anonymous author of the text, supposedly a member of the Rimetka family, describes the document in the following way:

ese original es finalmente literatura de ficción y no una investigación periodística o un testimonio sobre la época. La relación con los hechos es indirecta, así se diría que el autor los usa a su antojo, mezclándolos con invenciones y con ciertos trucos literarios bastante convencionales. Nada parecido a un texto de historia. (Aunque es cierto que a veces un cuento o una novela ayudan a entender o a imaginarse mejor una época que un libro con muchos nombres y fechas que terminan por hacer olvidar o confundir lo que de verdad les pasó a las personas). (110)

In El libro de los recuerdos Shua intertwines the history of the Rimetka family with that of the nation. The Rimetkas, not unlike hundreds of thousands of immigrant families (Jewish, Italian, Spanish and Lebanese, just to mention a few), left their native lands for economic and political reasons. Early in the novel, the narrators insist on making the distinction that unlike other poor immigrant women, Grandmother Gedalia never had to work as a prostitute: “Aquí, a las mujeres, las ponían a trabajar de putas. Pero la abuela no trabajó de puta sino de vainillera” (9).

Grandmother Gedalia (la Babuela) recalls life in the old country as being filled with hardship, cold and hunger: “Hubo una vez cuando era chica que ya me estaban lavando para ponerme en el cajón y con el agua me desperté: desmayada del hambre nada más estaba, allá en Lituania. En Polonia. En Europa. Allá” (166). Thus, the immigration experience and remembrance of the old country may be categorized within the same boundaries of an unofficial established record; history becomes a mutable force, a fiction. Whether the Exodus is from Egypt, Europe or Lebanon, it has come to represent a cyclical occurrence within the Jewish community and, furthermore within Argentine history.

Shua’s narrations are contextualized within a realistic and viable cultural framework of time and place. They are constructions of one facet of reality but at the same time represent symbolic acts. Danny J. Anderson, drawing on Steven Mailloux’s Rhetorical Power, uses the metaphor of a conversation “to emphasize that culture consists of a variety of positions or voices, often in great conflict, just as the different speakers of a debate; moreover, the metaphor places in the foreground the text’s characteristics as an active response to other positions” (15). Furthermore, in reference to the Mexican narrative, Anderson contends that “[t]hrough its specific thematics and practices of representation, it strives to establish its place in a tradition. This place in the cultural conversation, moreover, stands in relation to the other possible positions held by other texts, both past and present” (15). Shua’s works, in general, and those examined here specifically, proffer a representation of a social context as partial and incomplete as “all constructions of reality are necessarily partial and imply acts of selecting and privileging certain aspects in order to gain rhetorical power in the cultural conversation” (Anderson 16).

The cultural conversation constitutes the focal point in the majority of Shua’s writings, from her chronicles in El marido argentino promedio, to the representation of the Rimetkas in El libro de los recuerdos. Particularly, in the latter, the representative group is an Argentine-Jewish family of several generations encompassing the immigrant grandparents and their acculturated, integrated grandchildren. The locus of action, for the most part, takes place in the family residence, referred to as La Casa Vieja, the Old House.

The fragmented retrospective narrations present threads of remembrances as an integral characteristic of human nature and personality. The documented testimony of the Rimetka family is El Libro de los Recuerdos: “es nuestra única fuente absolutamente confiable. Por eso es tan fácil enojarse con él. Porque lo que dice es cierto, pero nunca dice todo, nunca dice ni siguiera lo suficiente” (109). Interspersed with the memories, appearing to come from the present, is an exchange of comments by succeeding generations of offspring who interpret, and thus, transcribe the family history.

The three generations remember and record for posterity their lives through notes found in El Libro de los Recuerdos and photographs, none of which provide faithful recollections of events through documentation. The younger generation script the family history through the reading of these memories as they interject the disparate versions of events as told to them and recorded in the book. This produces a mélange of different and often contradictory stories. It reaffirms the orality of the family’s history and destroys the notion of one official history, whether familial or national. Shua’s novel narrates through the fragmented prism of time and memory, recreating historically real and feasible events, although glossing over certain details so as to present the events in the best light. An example of this is the story of Uncle Pinche’s coronary, which took place in the Old House after it had been sold off and converted into a massage parlor known as the Tajmajal de Flores, one of many lives it was to have over the years.

Another element of cultural assimilation is the use of the supposed lengua franca of the disparate groups of European Jewish immigrants as represented by Yiddish, although I hasten to reiterate Lindstrom’s comment regarding a tendency to associate Jewish identity with Yiddish as not always being indicative of Jewishness. Shua’s paternal family come from Beirut and according to her Uncle Mauricio: “Arabe y francés hablaba su gente, y no idish y polaco como otros que andan por ahí” (MAP 211). The use of Yiddish is a candid acknowledgment of difference or separation from the norm. In general, Yiddish was spoken in societies where the Jewish population did not have equal rights. When they migrated to countries where they did have equal rights, it was common for only the first generation to speak Yiddish. As narrated in El libro de los recuerdos, one day upon returning home from school, the eldest Rimetka son Silvestre exhorts that “en esa casa no se iba a hablar nunca más el Otro Idioma, el que sus padres habían traído con ellos del otro lado del mar” (25). Thus, Yiddish in fact becomes the forbidden language: “El Otro Idioma, el íntimo, el propio, el verdadero, el único, el Idioma que no era de ningún país, el Idioma del que tantos se burlaban, al que muchos llamaban jerga, el Idioma que nadie, salvo ellos y los que eran como ellos, respetaban y querían. El idoma que estaba condenado a morir con su generación” (25). Of interest is the fact that Silvestre’s teacher had mandated that only castellano be spoken at home. His mother complies because she believed that the teacher was “casi un funcionario de control fronterizo, alguien destacado por las autoridades de inmigración para vigilar desde adentro a las familias inmigrantes y asegurarse de que se fundieran, se disgregaran, se derritieran correctamente hasta desaparecer en el crisol de razas” (26).

The use of Yiddish is a candid acknowledgment of difference. As stated above, Yiddish was spoken in societies where the Jewish population did not have equal rights. The disappearance of Yiddish, the language that creates a stereotyped unity among the European Jewish immigrant community, is lamented and at the same time praised in Risas y emociones de la cocina judía (1993), a non-fictional work. The explanation proffered here is that Yiddish is disappearing because “[l]os descendientes de esos judíos [los inmigrantes], nacidos en países donde se los aceptó como ciudadanos plenos, donde pudieron integrarse a la comunidad sin renunciara su diferencia, ya no necesitan hablar idish” (14). They have been integrated both culturally and linguistically and there is little need to carry external signs of their differences.

Nevertheless, the grandmother in El libro de los recuerdos laments the loss of her mother tongue because Spanish lacks a linguistic charge, a connotative base upon which she is able to express herself: “¿Pero acaso se pueden decir cosas de verdad en este idioma? Acaso se pueden decir cosas de verdad, de las que salen de adentro, de las que viven en las tripas: ¿acaso hay palabras para eso en castellano?” (165). Language, in this instance, becomes symbolic of identification with otherness, and by invoking prohibitions against the language, it is further marginalized.

Conservation of Yiddish as an identity marker symbolizes difference and is (or, rather was) an integral element to group identity. The suppression of this linguistic marker and the imperfect mastery of Spanish by the grandmother oppose one of the established official versions of Argentine Jewish immigration and integration. This version was promulgated and promoted, for example, by Gerchunoff’s Los gauchos judíos where the characters “are able to communicate in a Spanish that is not only standard but also often elevated and archaic” (Lindstrom, Jewish Issues 147). By highlighting this fundamental linguistic distinction, Shua elucidates the reality encountered by the immigrants and the discomfort and bewilderment they faced in a new land with a new language.

In a complete reversal of the loss of Yiddish as an identity marker, the narrator- protagonist of “La vida y los malvones,” one of the stories from Viajando se conoce gente, has the opposite experience. In Poland, her family was more culturally assimilated into the dominant culture; consequently, her arrival in the New World entails an even greater adjustment as she discovers her double marginalization as immigrant and Jew:

Porque nosotros estábamos muy bien en Varsovia, nadie me cree cuando cuento que yo nací en un piso. Nada de ghetto, bien lejos del ghetto estábamos, más allá del Vístula, imagínate que yo ni sabía hablar en idisch, polaco hablábamos, el idisch lo aprendí acá, en Villa Créplaj. Mis abuelos sí, ellos hablaban el idsich y nos querían enseñar a nosotros, para que no se pierda, decían, pero los nietos no le dábamos ni cinco de bolilla. (88)

Thus, testimony is given to both sides of the Argentine-Jewish experience. One sees the phenomenon of Jewish immigrants who are stereotyped when they conform to specific norms, such as speaking the Yiddish language which is reflective of their European-Jewish ancestry. On the other hand, the narrator of “La vida y los malvones” stands out precisely because of her variance from the norm. Although she was a member of the dominant culture in the Old Country, she became identified with a minority and marginalized culture in her new country, and thus, needed to learn both languages in order to belong. This is an atypical situation which serves to highlight the fact that the immigrant experience is multifaceted; there can be no one history written of it.

As an author first and foremost, Shua’s literary concern is to weave a good story, an entertaining tale which holds the reader’s attention. She accomplishes this by basing her texts on an authentic cultural conversation. When dealing with Jewish themes and characters, she proffers a candid portrayal of Argentine-Jewish life. The protagonist of her second novel, Los amores de Laurita, is Jewish, however, her Jewishness is not the focus of the action. Laurita reflects the assimilation inherent in the grandchildren of immigrants, whose generation melds into the dominant culture. Laurita is introduced to “un joven médico recibido, de muy buena posición” (121), who unknown to his family, is in love with a non-Jewish woman. Because of the respect and position his grandfather holds in the Jewish community, and the young doctor’s high regard for his grandfather, he feels familial pressure to marry within his religion. It is obvious that for Laurita, being an Argentine-Jew is an accepted fact yet, not an all-encompassing issue of identity to her, as the following passage suggests:

Pero Laurita, lamentablemente, no tenía idea de quién había sido León Kamiansky, y mucho menos en la colectividad, un ente que se le aparecía a ella un poco vago y siempre amenazador, exigente, con el que nunca había mantenido relaciones, una colectividad a la que se sentía pertenecer tan inevitablemente que no creía necesario participar en ella, en sus instituciones o grupos. (128)

For many members of the third generation of immigrant families, belonging to a Jewish community does not necessarily require active participation in its customs and rituals.

A characteristic of Shua’s writing is the persistent emphasis on immigration as a replicated process. The immigration is not in one direction; the political and economic situation necessitates a repeated Diaspora to and from more than one country. Immigration is a pivotal event that causes change, a change of country, which brings about the need to acquire the language of the land. Preservation of language is one way the minority culture can confront the homogeneity of the dominant culture; unfortunately, as in the case of the Rimetka family, and many other immigrant families, the heritage language is lost with the first generation due to the intolerance of the educational system. Unfortunately, the demise of Yiddish is even more acute because it is not an official language of any country.

The evaluative question now is how does Ana María Shua [con]textualize the Argentine- Jewish experience? One possible response is that she possesses a legitimate voice to address the immigrant experience. Shua’s voice is unique to herself and to her personal experiences, and does not attempt to represent all the Jewish immigrant experiences in their many facets, real or fictitious. As a member of the second generation of a Jewish immigrant family, her point of view is different from that of the first or third generation, but nonetheless valid.

The works examined here take up two important aspects of Argentine-Jewish culture, immigration and loss of Yiddish as a cultural marker and language. “El navío de los inmigrantes” (from El marido argentino promedio) ends with the following passage included as an epilogue to the translation of El libro de los recuerdos:

Y quiero a mi país y educo a mis hijas en el amor a nuestro suelo y también en la conciencia, extraña y dual, de que por grande que sea ese amor, ninguno de nosotros puede estar seguro de que no tendrá que embarcarse otra vez, alguna vez en el navío de los inmigrantes.

Por el barco que trajo a la Argentina a mis abuelos polacos, por el que trabjo a mi abuelo libanés, por el avión que se llevó a mi hermana a los Estados Unidos, por los navíos en los que quizás se embarcarán, otra vez errantes, mis hijas o los hijos de mis hijas, por mi argentinidad y mis contradicciones, por mantener la identidad en la diáspora, por el navío de los inmigrantes brindo. Como dice una antigua canción sefaradí:

Perdimos a Toledo,
Perdimos a Sión:
No hay consolación. (215)

* Beth Pollack is a Professor of Spanish and Department Head of Languages and Linguistics at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.  The focus of her research is contemporary Argentine narrative and Latin American Jewish writers. She has published interviews with Argentine writers such as Ana María Shua and Manuela Fingueret, and the Mexican writer Gloria Gervitz. At present, she is translating Ricardo Aguilar Melantzón’s latest book of personal essays, A barlovento.