Growing up Latino in the U.S. can be a pretty amusing experience: navigating between Spanish and English (thankfully, we’ve also got Spanglish), teaching mami to dance hip-hop and your gringo friends how to move to bachata (or trying to, at least), and constantly comparing fast food con la comida de abuela. But what about those of us with parents from different Latin countries? Things can get a bit more interesante:
1. You know how to speak at least two types of Spanish.
You start your day with the Colombian “¿Qué pasó papito, si durmió bien?” and end it with “¿Qué onda, mijo? ¿Cómo te fue en la escuela?” Or maybe you mix your “dale” and “wepa” with an “hijole” from time to time.
2. You can’t decide which abuela’s cooking you like better.
The days of stereotyping Latinos are over, dead to 2019. We are an ethnicity, not a race, which means we have every range of skin tone and practice every major religion. The arc of Latinidad is so entrenched in imperialism and immigration that it makes sense we would be so diverse. To be Latino has often meant being a native Latin American indigenous person or ancestry that, at some point, hailed from somewhere else in the world and landed in Latin America. The Spanish Inquisition is largely responsible for the present-day stereotype of Catholic Latinos, but the Inquisition is responsible for the mass immigration of Spanish Jews as well. During the 16th century, the Inquisition mandated that all Jews convert to Catholicism. Many of them did and were known as conversos, but many of them continued to practice their religion in secret, becoming known as crypto-Jews. The rest were expelled from the country and would eventually make their way to Latin America.
Today, an estimated half-million Jews live in Latin America, with Argentina having the second-largest Jewish community in the Americas, at an estimated 300,000 total.
Studies have revealed that almost 25 percent of Latinos have Jewish DNA.
Immigration has long been the defining mark of non-Indigenous Latinos. Historians have long wondered how many descendants were produced from those original Jews expelled from Spain to Latin America. What’s more interesting is understanding that conversos offered a whole other lineage of people with Jewish heritage hatefully stamped out by an empire–an erasure of identity that can now be found through genetics research. A Nature Communications study from December 2018 has concluded, based on the research of dozens of professors around the globe, that 25 percent of Latinos have Spanish or Portuguese Jewish DNA. Today, 20% of the 60 million people in the Iberian peninsula have significant Jewish ancestry. Researchers suspect that the total number of descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities range in the 200 million.
In a world without anti-Semitism, would Latinos be more widely known as Jewish because their ancestors weren’t forcibly converted?
Given the shocking estimates, it seems likely that there could have been as many as 1 in 4 Jews in the Latino community. In Miami Dade County, a third of all Jews identify as Latino Jews, and many Latino-American Jews have begun advocating for their Latino culture within the Jewish community. “[Although we] don’t generally inhabit the same spaces, we have to come together and become aware of the commonalities, the linguistic, cultural and historical ties the two communities have. Latino Jews could play an important role in being the link between Jews and Latinos, so what we’re trying to do is create more and more spaces for this interaction and cooperation to happen,” Dina Siegel Vann, Director of Latino Affairs at the American Jewish Committee told Aish.com.
Even though anti-Semitism and radical political ideology have erased the Jewish heritage that could have been passed down to the existing Latino population with Jewish DNA, many Jewish customs and traditions have prevailed in Latino culture without due credit. Por ejemplo.
Puerto Rican Sofrito came from the Sephardic Jews.
That’s right my fellow Boricuas, sofrito might be the ultimate symbol and base of our cuisine, but Spanish Jews had long been using the garlic, onion, pepper, tomatoes, cumin, and olive oil base salsa to slow-cook chicken, veal, beef or lamb by Spanish Sephardic Jews. In fact, we owe it to the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition for bringing their recipes with them. Their cultural influence made an impact on Spanish cuisine, which then had a ripple effect on Latin America as it became colonized by Spain. Originally, sofrito was most often celebrated in the Balkans, the Levant, Turkey, and the Maghreb before making its way to become a Puerto Rican staple. Whatever you decide to make for your Hanukkah meal, including sofrito is a no-brainer crowd pleaser.
Lachmazikas, a meat-stuffed pastry, is quite similar to empanadas.
While most Latino-Americans are unified in speaking Spanglish, Latino Jews speak Ladino. Israeli Jews delight in sufganiyot, while American Jews often see it as an afterthought, just a jelly-filled donut. Spanish Jews made lachmazikas, which were filled with everything from lamb and mushrooms to ricotta, herbs, and whitefish. A meat stuffed bread might sound familiar to you *cough* empanadillas *cough*.
Looking for more Latino-Jewish foods for your Hanukkah celebration? Look no further.
Latinos have played an pivotal role in American cuisine since the very beginning. But the wealth and complexity of Latin food traditions goes far beyond Taco Tuesdays and happy hour margaritas. Each Latin American country boasts its own unique flavors, and while several of the same dishes exist in different forms throughout North, South, and Central America, each culture’s recipes are distinctly its own. The real beauty about Latin cuisine in the US is that these distinct cultural identities all have their place in our country’s vast gastronomic canon, maintaining their original shape while also merging into a stunning mezcla of vibrant new culinary customs.
While family tradition is super important in the Latino kitchen—with recipes being passed down from generation to generation—many old school dishes are being adapted in lieu of modern culinary trends.
And this makes sense. From food to music to fashion, cultural exchange is how new innovations and creative ideas come to life. But it is especially common in the realm of cuisine—we need food to survive, after all, and we are always seeking new ways to make this basic necessity a bit more interesting and enjoyable. In places like the US, where countless cultures coexist and overlap, it’s inevitable that different culinary traditions would borrow from each other and coalesce to make something totally fresh and distinct.
So what are some of the most classic Latino food traditions? How have they morphed and changed over time? And how have they stayed the same?
Tamales are a quintessential dish in many Latin American countries, though they differ from place to place. Yet the tradition of preparing tamales communally and collaboratively stands the test of both time and geography, as it is so often a group effort guided by la abuela’s magical, age-old tamale skills. With ancient Mesoamerican origins, the tamale will always be the root of blossoming Latinx cuisine—there’s nothing like the smell of steam rising from the tamalera and filling la cocina with goodness. They are the ultimate comfort food, and they’ve maintained their integrity, as they are too classic to change in any major sense. And the best way to eat tamales? With a steamy cup of champurrado in hand.
Guacamole is a beloved concoction all over the world, though it originated in South Central Mexico several thousand years ago. Over time, it evolved from a prized Aztec dish to a ubiquitous and highly coveted snack that—in the US, anyway—spikes in popularity during certain events, like the Superbowl. Because of its simplicity, guacamole serves as a canvas for culinary creativity, with several different incarnations since its original blend of avocados, herbs, and spices. With guacamole, there opportunities to experiment are truly endless.
The michelada has also evolved into a canvas of sorts, inviting people to create elaborate versions of this classic Mexican drink. Similar to the popular Bloody Mary, micheladas can sometimes serve as a whole meal, with entire salads floating atop the base of spicy, salty beer. Often, different types of mariscos are added, from shrimp to crab legs to octopus to oysters. Sometimes the michelada is adorned with varias frutas, like watermelon, pineapple, or blackberries. And occasionally, micheladas llevan all of the above! Like guacamole, the possibilities son infinitos.
Some version of ceviche is made all over Latin America, but it is widely believed to originate in Peru—it is certainly synonymous with Peruvian cuisine, and is considered a national Peruvian dish. Its defining feature is some type of raw fish that is cured by citrus juices, then spiced with various seasonings. In Costa Rica, the featured fish is typically tilapia or corvina, although mahi-mahi, shark and marlin are also commonly used. In Mexico and some parts of Central America, it is often served with tostadas. El Salvador and Nicaragua produce a version called ceviche de concha negra, which is dark in color and quite picante. And in the United States, its renditions are just as diverse, highlighting everything from shrimp to scallops to octopus.
Maiz (En Todas Sus Formas)
We’ve already mentioned tamales and champurrado, but corn is such a widespread culinary staple throughout Latin America, that it had to be repeated. Not only does corn form tortillas and masa, which are the base for a wide variety of different snacks and dishes (tacos, tostadas, tamales, etc.), but corn also appears in ancient drinks like Peruvian chicha and atole from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. It’s the highlight of that fantastic Mexican street snack, elote (btw, if you’ve never had elote helado, está buení simo and you need to find some ASAP). Latin American food would be a totally different beast without corn, so we’ve got to sing its praises!
Share this story with all of your friends by tapping our little share buttons below!