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Mexican Soap Brings Out Tribe Long Hidden

By Boris Fishman

This article is reprinted from the Forward with permission of the author. Visit  www.forward.com .

Nico loves Lupita, his classmate at an exclusive Mexican boarding school. Joel and Yoli, Nico's parents, disapprove. Nico has dumped Karen to be with Lupita, and Yoli worries that Joel's business partnership with Karen's father will suffer. The stress drives Joel to a heart attack. Soon after his recovery, Nico brings Lupita home. The encounter with his parents goes poorly and Nico storms from the house, Joel giving chase in vain.

For a Mexican soap opera, the melodrama is typical. Nico's family, however, is not. The Hubers, who have a significant part in the enormously popular Mexican telenovela "Rebelde" (Rebel), are Jewish.

In an overwhelmingly Catholic country where soap operas are "a thermometer of the country's political, racial and economic temperature," in the words of one observer, and whose tiny Jewish community historically has avoided attention, this is unprecedented. So is the family's popularity. After Joel's heart attack, so many viewers wrote to sympathize with his predicament--his son's beloved, Lupita, is Catholic--and to plead for his health that the show's producer, Pedro Damian, decided not only to revive him but also to center the remaining episodes of the limited-run show on the Hubers.

"I decided to keep the characters, because they represent a real group in Mexico," said Damian, who adapted the soap opera from an Argentinean prototype. "But it's not so traditional a Jewish family. The boy gets a scholarship to the boarding school, he gets together with friends--it's a normal family in any place in the world."

Damian's decision reflects a paradigm shift in Mexico's political and cultural climate since the 2000 presidential election ended seven decades of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Since then, a more assertive Mexican media has begun to inquire into previously unpublicized subjects, such as the Jewish community, which enjoyed government patronage and kept a low profile.

"This comes at a crucial time," said Ilan Stavans, the Mexican-born Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College who is also a contributor to the Forward . "Nothing is sacred." Stavans's father, Abraham Stavans, plays Joel Huber on "Rebelde," which has been broadcast in the United States since March on the Spanish-language Univision network.

Chased by the increasingly dire fortunes of the Ottoman Empire, Sephardic Jews began to immigrate to Mexico in the early 20th century and were soon joined by Ashkenazic Jews fleeing pogroms and the Civil War in Russia and in Poland. Stigmatized as interlopers who deprived Mexicans of scarce employment, they were further demonized during the early years of World War II by a Mexican intelligentsia influenced by Nazi propaganda. The establishment of Israel suggested a more charitable Jewish image--hardworking survivors undaunted by calamity--but the 1967 war recast Israel as an oppressor in the minds of many Mexicans, much as the United States was seen as exploitative of its weaker neighbor. The increasing wealth and insularity of the Mexican-Jewish community only made it more remote.

"There are 45,000 Jews in Mexico, but many people think that we're a million," Abraham Stavans said.

Esther Shabot, a prominent Mexican-Jewish journalist and educator, said that Mexican-Jewish visibility had increased because of the organic maturation of the community.

“It took two or three generations to begin to integrate more actively into the life of the country," she said. "I have many friends who are the first generation born in Mexico, and the community is only now beginning to assert itself beyond the requirements of survival, such as a job and financial security. Jews are living a more public life in general, so more people ask, 'What is a Jew?'”

"The lower classes have the idea of the Jews being very rich and very powerful," said Rodrigo Nehme, the non-Jewish actor who plays Nico Huber. "But Nico is middle class. He's not a brat. He's average."

The popularity of "Rebelde" has turned Abraham Stavans, a 56-year veteran of the Mexican screen who frequently has portrayed Jewish characters, into a kind of spokesman for the Jewish community. He supervises the script, and had Pedro Damian use his home to film an episode about the Hubers' Rosh Hashanah celebration. In dramatizing Joel's struggle with Nico, Stavans has sought to convey that Mexican Jews are as progressive as the times in which they live, but without sacrificing the family values that are paramount to the country's Catholic majority.

"When Nico runs out of the house, you have to be careful," Stavans said. "You have to let him go, but you also have to explain that Jews value family. You want people to understand that intermarriage is an exception. It's very easy to provoke antisemitism."

Recently, Stavans scrapped some lines that appeared in an argument between Joel and Nico about Lupita's religion, as he found them unflattering to gentiles. He also has resisted Damian's proposal to convert Lupita to Judaism, for fear of offending Catholic sensibilities. (Neither noted the irony of a Catholic producer unsuccessfully urging a Jewish television star to consent to the conversion to Judaism of a Catholic character.)

"I will take out anything that could contaminate the situation," Stavans said. "I want to avoid too much Jewish pride. I want to show that we are not sectarian, that we prize family values, that we are nothing special and just like everyone else."

Stavans says that he has received praise from non-Jewish viewers. "You know, here people get close to you and tell you what they think," he said. "So, if I go somewhere, it's 'You are the Jewish father! I congratulate you on your behavior.'"

The Hubers' struggle with the strictures of tradition is a resonant one, for a newly visible Jewish community as well as for a country emerging from the stranglehold of a political monopoly.

"The son is dating the Catholic girl as a kind of rebellion against himself, against narrowness," Stavans said. "He feels himself trapped in a culture that's not giving him enough liberty."

But the Hubers can do only so much to revise Mexican conventions, both outside and within the Jewish community, let alone suggest that Jewish difference is something worth celebrating rather than downplaying.

"Mexicans tend to see Jews in general as people who are into money, power and themselves," Ilan Stavans said. "The father character in 'Rebelde' is different, but not that different.

"People in Mexico are more interested in heterogeneity, but there's also hidden resentment and antisemitism," he added. "Certain members of the Jewish community, I suspect, are suspicious of what's happening and would rather keep a low profile."

"There's been no hard criticism from the Jewish community," Abraham Stavans said. "But some do say, 'Don't show that on TV.' But society has changed. We should criticize ourselves. But only in a positive way."

For the show's primary Jewish audience, however, there's only one problem with Nico Huber.

"He's intelligent," said Leon Stein, a 16-year-old fan of the show, "but not cool."

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa.
Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman is the editor of Wild East: Stories From the Last Frontier (Random House).

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