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  • On Borrowed Words:A Memoir of Language
  • Ilan Stavans (bio)

My memoir covers the span in my life from birth until I received my American passport.1 But in terms of time, chronological time, it covers far more perhaps, two centuries—from the moment my father's mother's family settled in Europe, to her, my grandmother's, departure to the Americas, her arrival in the Caribbean, her goal to make it to the United States but the immigrational quarters' being closed, and her finally settling in Mexico, the birth and rise of the Jewish community.

The subtitle of my memoir is A Memoir of Language—and I need to explain this just to give a sense of context, before I present two brief passages from it below; the goal was to use the language as a tool. That is because I grew up in a multilingual environment, in which Yiddish and Spanish were the dominant languages, and neither of them concoursed, but each of them had their own particular space in time, public space and private space, collective and intimate time.

Eventually, as a Mexican Jew, not being able to reconcile, after graduating from a Yiddish school, the two sides of my hyphenated identity—the Mexican and the Jewish—I left the country and moved to the Middle East, to Israel, where I lived for a time. For me, the experience of moving to the Middle East was less about Aaliyah, which in Hebrew means ascendance, or the journey that a Diaspora Jew makes to Israel, than about succession from Spanish and English and immersion into Hebrew. Eventually, being a Diaspora Jew, I realized that I am not meant to be in Israel.

So I left and returned to Mexico and moved north and created in the memoir a parallel between my grandmother's arriving in Mexico from Eastern Europe with seven languages, and giving up one of them, Polish, because it signified misery—her best revenge was never to utter a word of Polish again—and my moving to the United States, into English, and becoming an immigrant, like her, from one diaspora to another diaspora that does not reach closer to Jerusalem, but rotates south to north.

My book is divided into six almost self-sufficient chapters. The first one is called "Mexico Lindo," which in Spanish means "Beautiful Mexico," but the resonance of the title is that there is a very famous song, a very popular song, "Mexico Lindo," sung by one of the most popular Mexican actors, which goes "Mexico, you love it, in my heart, if I should ever die far away from you, let people know that I am asleep and somebody please bring me back." This chapter is about the puzzle of, should I die in the United States, does that mean that my body should be returned to Mexico or not? It is about the diaspora, not in life, but beyond life. The chapter begins as I am leaving New York City, moving to Amherst. It has an epigraph from Vladimir Nabokov that reads, "In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much." [End Page 83]

I'm packing my library. I reach for the books, browse calmly through their pages, dust off the jackets, and proceed to store them in empty cartons. I will number these boxes from one to sixty. When the books come out again, I will arrange them in an altogether different order. Their overall setting will be different too. There is a certain sweetness to the whole enterprise in which I am involved, for I realize how much my library and I have changed together this past decade. We began modestly and now we hardly recognize each other. Are all these volumes really mine? What do they say about me? And what can I, their collector, say about them?

. The one my father had at home is perfectly visible in my mind as I sit alone, late at night, in my apartment on New York's Upper West Side, ready to leave the city.


The next, and last, passage that I want to quote comes from the penultimate essay in the book...


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pp. 83-86
Launched on MUSE
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