Jewish Latin American Spanish
Description by Evelyn Dean-Olmsted
Latin America and the Caribbean are home to around 382,000 Jews (DellaPergola 2015:19). Of these, around 282,000 live in majority Spanish-speaking countries, with the largest populations in Argentina (180,000) and Mexico (40,000) (DellaPergola 2015:74). In addition to 20th century immigrants and their descendants, there are growing numbers of converts to Judaism in Latin America, some motivated by possibly Crypto-Jewish ancestry dating to the earliest Spanish and Portuguese arrivals in the 15th-16th centuries. The above numbers do not include the estimated 12,000 Jews in Spain (DellaPergola 2015:75), or the Spanish-speaking Jewish migrants to Europe, the United States, and Israel. Taken together, Jewish speakers of contemporary Spanish around the world constitute a fascinating population for linguistic study.
However, few scholars have paid attention to their language practices until recently. The incipient research has revealed the existence of uniquely Jewish linguistic repertoires (Benor 2009) among Spanish-speaking Jews. While some practices are country or city-specific, others are shared regionally and globally with the circulation of people and texts. Most research has been conducted among Mexicans and Argentines, as summarized by Dean-Olmsted and Skura in two handbook chapters dedicated to the subject (Dean-Olmsted and Skura 2016; 2018). Much of the information presented here is from these chapters.
Mexico City and Buenos Aires have organized Jewish communities that date to the early 20th and late 19th century, respectively, with the arrival of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Language shift occurred rapidly in both cities, as the children of immigrants attended state schools and were encouraged to assimilate to the Spanish language of their peers. Nonetheless, we can observe the influences of Yiddish, Judezmo (Ladino), Arabic, and liturgical Hebrew and Aramaic in contemporary Jewish Latin American speech. Modern Israeli Hebrew is another influence, as most Jewish institutions in Latin America have a strong Zionist orientation, and the language is taught in most Jewish schools.
Names of language:
Unnamed among most Spanish-speaking Latin Americans; Contemporary Latin American Jewish Spanish among researchers
Territories where it was/is spoken:
Latin America and the Caribbean; among émigres in Europe, United States, Canada, and Israel
Estimated # speakers:
- 2019: 300,000
Modern Spanish writing system, occasionally Hebrew words inserted in Hebrew letters
Periodicals, liturgical translation, drama, poetry, prose, film
Today, the 160,000-strong Jewish population of Buenos Aires is between 80-90% Ashkenazi. The remainder are either Sephardim who trace descent to Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans; or Jews from Syria and Lebanon. In contrast, Sephardi and Syrian-Lebanese Jews make up around half of Mexico City’s nearly 38,000 Jewish inhabitants, while the other half are Ashkenazi. (Again, these numbers neglect converts who have either joined mainstream communities or formed new ones). Jews in Mexico City have historically been more geographically concentrated, more religiously observant, and less intermarried than their Argentine counterparts. Dean-Olmsted and Skura (2018) hypothesize that these factors may manifest in greater linguistic distinction between Jews and non-Jews in Mexico City as compared with Buenos Aires.
Lexical adoptions or “heritage words” (Dean-Olmsted 2012) are often the most salient elements of contemporary Jewish semiotic repertoires. They serve as important indexes of Jewishness - or specific kinds of Jewishness - in speech and writing. In Mexico City, the Jewish population is organized into four main sub-ethnic institutions: one each for Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Aleppan (Halebi), and Damsacene (Shami) groups. In this context, whether one uses the Yiddish shul or the Arabic knis to refer to a synagogue sends a clear signal of the speaker’s ethnoreligious affiliation. Shami and Halebi speakers in Mexico City can be heard wishing each other “alamák” (derived from the Arabic for ‘may God be with you’) when taking their leave, calling in-laws amí and mertamí (from the Arabic terms for ‘uncle’ and ‘wife of my uncle,’ respectively), or uttering the Arabic jarám or the Aramaic barminán upon learning of something unfortunate; both words can express something akin to “God forbid!” in such situations. A popular Mexico City Jewish expression, especially among Syrians and Sephardim, is ¡Shemá Israel! (or simply ¡Shemá!). It is used not only in prayer, but also as an interjection in everyday speech: For example, ¡Shemá! ¡Qué horrible este tráfico! ‘This traffic is horrible!’ (as it most generally is in Mexico City!).
Ashkenazi speakers in both Mexico City and Buenos Aires may use Yiddish kinship terms such as bobe/boba for grandmother and zayde/zeyde for grandfather. The hybrid form bisbobe may be used for ‘great-grandmother’, which employs the Yiddish root bobe with the Spanish prefix bis- (as in the word bisabuela ‘great-grandmother’ (Gurvich Okón 2006: 351). A variety of colorful Yiddish curses and insults include pots (literally ‘penis’) for someone who is thought to be stupid and beheime (‘beast’) for someone who lacks common manners.
There are also Spanish words and phrases with unique usages or meanings when used among Jews. Some of these are direct translations from Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish, such as saying hasta (los) ciento veinte ‘until 120,’ a calque of the Hebrew and Yiddish phrase, to wish someone a happy birthday. The word paisano, which most Spanish speakers use to refer to someone from their own country or region, is used among Jews to refer to fellow Jews, regardless of their nationality.
Use of such words depends on a variety of factors, in addition to speakers’ ethnoreligious affiliations. Older speakers tend to use more Yiddish, Arabic, or Judezmo words than their descendants, who may be more likely to use the Modern Israeli Hebrew equivalents due to their Zionist education in Argentina or Mexico, or their travel experience in Israel. Those strongly aligned with ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Judaism, which has become a major influence in Jewish life since the 1980s, may use more phrases from textual Hebrew, such as responding Baruj hashém’ ‘Blessed be the name’ when asked “¿Cómo estás? ‘How are you?’. (In this example, we use the common orthography used for representing Hebrew sounds in written Spanish, including the letter j to represent the Hebrew ch sound (chaf and chet). Finally, the social context of interaction cannot be ignored. Like all people, Jewish Latin Americans use language in ways that are appropriate and effective in different contexts, which may mean using or avoiding language that is marked for “Jewishness.”
All this linguistic diversity is captured in a variety of media, including, literature, theater, music, film, and increasingly, on digital platforms. We encourage readers to explore these resources, and language of Spanish-speaking Jews around them, and contribute to the growing study of contemporary Jewish Spanish.
Sample text of the Chumash transliterated for Spanish speakers published by the Mexican publisher ShemTob.
Website of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), the main representative organization of Jews in Argentina.
Website of the El Centro de Documentación e Investigación Judío de México (CDIJUM), home to extensive text and audiovisual archives of Mexico’s Jewish communities.
A selection of Latin American films with Jewish subjects.
To cite: Dean-Olmsted, Evelyn. n.d. Jewish Latin American Spanish. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/jewish-latin-american-spanish. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.