House of Memory

For Chilean-Jewish author and activist Marjorie Agosin, to be a Latin American Jew is to live forever in exile, to be “always from somewhere else.”

Her 1990 memoir, “A Cross and a Star,” tells the story of her mother’s family, which escaped the Holocaust only to settle in a remote Chilean town with 50 Nazis and three Jewish families.

“Always From Somewhere Else,” her father’s memoir, follows Agosin’s forbears as they fled from Odessa to Istanbul to Quillota, Chile. Agosin herself grew up in a Santiago household “with the tempos and the melodies of a multiplicity of tongues — German, Yiddish, Russian, Turkish.” Yet she too became an exile at the age of 16, when she “left a dangerous place that was my home, only to arrive in a dangerous place that was not: a high school in the small town of Athens, Georgia, where my poor English and my accent were the cause of ridicule.” Writing in Spanish, she believes, “was the only way I could recover my usurped country and my Chilean childhood…memories of a place that was only alive in my imagination.”

Now Agosin has edited a remarkable, unprecedented anthology, “The House of Memory: Stories by Jewish Women Writers of Latin America,” (Feminist Press, $15.95) in which authors from Costa Rica to Argentina suggest their family experience of exile. In Margo Glantz’s “The Family Tree,” a woman accompanies her ancestors on their journey from Russia to Mexico; in Alicia Freilich de Segal’s “Claper,” the narrative fluctuates between a father’s Polish shtetl and his daughter’s 1960s-era Venezuela; in Teresa Porzecanski’s “Rojl Eisips,” an elderly woman recalls the Holocaust while shut away in a Uruguayan old-age home.

The authors, who equate Latin American dictatorships with the Holocaust, have much in common with Agosin, now chair of the Spanish department at Wellesley. “Through their work, these…exiles and outsiders have built for themselves a home in the house of memory,” Agosin writes in her introduction.

If a story in the anthology particularly resonates for Agosin, it is “The Sign of the Star,” the tale of a lonely Jewish boy who is taunted by his schoolmates with the Chilean nursery rhyme about “Jewish dogs.” Agosin’s father was tormented by the song, as was Agosin in the first grade, whereupon her parents immediately placed her in a Jewish private school. Secure in her Jewish ghetto, Agosin grew up loving her adopted Chile and the vast family home surrounded by cherry trees and gardenias.

But when the Agosins fled to the U.S., several years before General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, Agosin was spurned as a Latino and a Jew. The poet-professor believes the Jewish trauma of exile, of “not being wanted anywhere,” turned her into an activist, when, one day in 1977, she discovered the crude, powerful tapestries sewn by the wives and mothers of men kidnapped and murdered by the Pinochet regime.

Over the years, she became a tireless activist for the women, the subject of her book, “Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love.” Today, Agosin remains active with Amnesty International: “I believe I am an activist because I am a Jew,” she says. “I feel connected to all the exiles, the persecuted, the misfits of society.”