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Being Mexican: Identity, Location, and Rosa Nissán (I)

Nathanial Eli Gardner

Résumés

Mexican writer Rosa Nissán launched her literary career with two autobiographical novels, Novia que te vea and Hisho que te nazca. Her texts foreground the search for identity and belonging of the protagonist Oshinica, the daughter of Jewish immigrants in Mexico City. This study is the first of four that, together, make up the book Being Mexican : Identity, Location, and Rosa Nissán. Over the course of these four instalments questions about notions of being, hybrid identity, marginalization, narrative (visual and written), and changing spaces are considered from the vantage point of Nissán’s novels. Just as this publishing method (in instalments) for this book-length narrative is an innovation rescued from the past which has been put to use to affront new challenges, Nissán’s narratives attempt to bridge past and present to negotiate a viable vision of the future.

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Texte intégral

Special thanks are due to Laura, Mara, Roneal, and Rosa.

1Have you ever imagined what it might be like to belong to a group of individuals whose history can be traced to some of the earliest written records of mankind, yet presently in Mexico their numbers do not even reach one half of one per cent of the entire population? The story of one such individual is that of Rosa Nissán: a Jewish Mexican. What makes Nissán even rarer still is the fact that she is a Sephardic Jew, a descendant of the Jews driven out of their home by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain: Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.

2Nissán was born in 1939 in Mexico City. Her father and grandfather emigrated from Jerusalem to the land of mariachis and mole poblano, which allowed Nissán to be raised both Mexican and Jewish. Elena Poniatowska’s literary workshop taught this self-made photographer to narrate her life story which is written in a unique blend of Spanish and Ladino (an archaic form of Spanish spoken by some Jewish exiles from Spain), a bridge between the new world and the old. Nissán’s narratives consider important questions of identity and space in our modern world. Nathanial Gardner’s work is the first book-length text that explores this contemporary writer’s narrative.

Nissán and Tepito

3Tepito. It is perhaps one of the most (in)famous neighborhoods in all of Mexico City. Everyone has heard of it, but not everyone has visited it. It has existed since pre-Hispanic times, possessing its own church and plaza since colonial times. The truth is that it has changed over the years. Today it boasts of its own cultural center and even a center for Tepiteño Studies. However, if you ask most defeños (inhabitants of the Mexican capital) what it is known for, two themes would emerge in the conversation : its market and danger. There is a link between the two. While people have been frequenting its market as far back as historical memory can recall, the reasons they have gone have changed over time. When Elena Poniatowska studied it in the 1950s as a part of her book Todo comenzó el domingo which was full of costumbrista portraits of the Mexican capital, she and her friend and illustrator Alberto Beltrán found that it was mostly a jumble sale where ropavejeros exhibited their heaped piles of used wears for people to sort through in the hopes of finding a treasure for a song. A common urban myth connected to the market tells the story of a woman who found a Rolex watch among the baratijas which (assuming it was a forgery) was sold to her for a pittance and turned out to be genuine.

  • 1 Approximately seventy-five US cents or fifty British pence Stirling.

4In its earlier days Tepito was known for its ability to breathe new life into old clothing : old trousers were recut and sewn to make newer, smaller ones ; used shoes were re-stitched, re-soled and sold on. Today one of its largest markets is El Mercado de las Granaditas which sells shoes in all shapes and sizes. It is in this part of Tepito that even the savviest of outsiders are identified as such. It does not matter how well you speak Spanish or blend in, these sellers will know in the blink of an eye where you are from by glancing at your footwear. Market sales are the life blood of this area. When the Jewish-American anthropologist Oscar Lewis carried out his ethnographical studies in Tepito that allowed him to write The Children of Sánchez, the market was beginning to acquire a name for itself as the Thieves’ Market. Lewis’ studies in Tepito led to the formulation of his famous theories on the ‘Culture of Poverty’ which converted poverty and its domestic drama into bestselling material and brought the discussion of such themes to diverse settings. He did Tepito no favors by recounting with detail how Jesus Sanchez’s oldest son, Manuel, and others hawked goods of dubious origin there. More than a half a century has gone by since Lewis interviewed Manuel in his comfortable Mexico City apartment in another, more affluent, area of the city. Since that time both the wares sold there and the reputation of the area have slid into murkier territory. Today, aside from the numerous boxers it has produced (earning it a pair of boxing gloves as the symbol for its metro station on the capital’s extensive subway system) and claiming to have been a home to the famous Mexican wrestler El Santo: El Enmascardo de Plata, it is widely known for being one of the hubs of modern piracy in Latin America. Throughout the Mexican capital you can buy an illegally copied and distributed DVD for the cost of around ten Mexican pesos at the time of writing1. In Tepito, if you buy ten of them, they will cost you between three to four pesos each. It is not difficult to deduce where most merchants in the capital acquire their supplies. Officially, there is no Mercado Central de Abastos for bootleg media; unofficially, everyone knows that Tepito seems to have significant stake in that market. However, it is not all illegally copied films and music. Tepito is also known for selling brand-name clothing, leather goods, and shoes. El Mercado de las Granaditas is possibly still one of the cheapest places to purchase a pair of leather shoes in the capital. However, what is not mentioned by most; except perhaps, in hushed tones; is the fact that there is also an abundance of top-end electronic goods (most of which will not be sold in their original boxes or with manufacture warranties) and many stalls nearby quietly but openly sell pornographic material or sex objects that would be sold behind closed doors labelled with stern warning signs in even the most liberal of European capitals.

  • 2 “Tepis” is a streetname for Tepito.
  • 3 This, I am told, is most likely an urban myth. More recent writers on Tepito say that those who ste (...)

5Those last elements were the ones that I least expected when I visited to Tepito in December of 2011. Not a stranger to Mexican capital, I had heard of Tepito: ‘You can anything in Tepito’, ‘That will cost you next to nothing in Tepis2’, ‘You’ve got to see it, there is no place like it’. At first stories of people buying on their way in and having their purchases stolen back on their way out, deterred me from visiting3. Then I became curious. It was all urban myth I was told. I decided I would go. However, even the most experienced shopper seemed to shy away from taking me: ‘Next week’, ‘You have to go on Tuesday’, ‘You have to get there early’. Finally, I simply decided to go alone. I walked east from the Zócalo – the central plaza, knowing that I could enter Tepito from behind and, reasoning to myself that if things didn’t seem right I could leave as easily as I came, I ventured in. The truth be told, I had a hard time telling where the improvised December market stalls for the Christmas season ended and where Tepito began. It was not until I came to the signs that can be seen from the corner of the streets Aztecas and Héroes Granaditas that say ‘Viva Tepito’ that I was sure I had arrived – though the gradual proliferation of the yellow tarps – as opposed to the blue or pink ones typical of many Mexican Tianguis – seemed to indicate that I was headed in the right direction.

6Looking for the market’s center I turned left on Heroes Granaditas (I would later have to retrace my steps as I should have gone right or straight ahead) and wound up in La Lagunilla. Though I had been to that neighboring market in years past I was surprised just how similar it looked to Tepito on that day. As a matter of fact, I did not realise that I had arrived at a mistaken destination until I saw its metro sign appear with its tell-tale duck which would have once swam amongst the cattails in the ‘little lagoon’ whose name, La Lagunilla, means in Spanish. I wandered about La Lagunilla for a little while and then headed back in the other direction and into Tepito so I could see if all of the myths were true. I mostly found a very busy marketplace which was much quieter than other Mexican tianguis I have visited, and noticeably edgier. Perhaps the audaciousness of the some of the vendors with regard to the open illegality of their merchandise led to the subdued grittiness of the environment. Surely, there was much more under the surface that I could not see, but at the same time it was definitely not as several others had led me to believe. I finally decided to make my exit via the metro station so as to avoid the labyrinth of stalls that had brought me there. I left satisfied to have finally seen for myself one of the much commented neighborhoods of the Mexican capital.

  • 4 Nissán, Rosa. ‘Letter to Nathanial Gardner’, 2012.

7Curiously, while reflecting on my observations both during and after my afternoon jaunt to Tepito and La Lagunilla I found my mind wandering to Rosa Nissán. This Jewish-Mexican writer grew up in Mexico City and spent some of her free time in La Lagunilla, not because she had some kind of penchant for bargains or used wares or anything else that is or was sold there, but rather because her father and her grandfather both had stalls in La Lagunilla. Fulfilling a well-known stereotype, this Jewish immigrant from Jerusalem travelled to Mexico around the time of the Mexican Revolution was ending and embarked on a life as a vendor4. In the capital city he established himself as a merchant selling both to his religious community (the second largest in Latin America after Argentina) and the general public.

  • 5 Like a Bride/Like a Mother became its English title when it was published by the University of New (...)
  • 6 Mejía, Eduardo. ‘Rosa Nissán: Novia que te vea’ Suplemento del sábado de Unomásuno 23 enero 1993: 1 (...)
  • 7 Elena Poniatowska has stated: ‘Creo de veras que la voz de los pobres es más fuerte y más auténtica (...)

8What led me to think about Nissán’s connections to this market area (which some believe is widely different than the one that existed in Nissán’s time) was my conclusion that if one were to try and attempt to use Nissán’s coming of age novels in order to obtain an accurate image of either La Lagunilla or Tepito of that time (or any time), they would find the task quite impossible. What I have seen in pictures and observed with my own eyes are simply not present in Nissán’s narratives. Oshinica, the girl who re-enacted episodes from Nissán’s youth and childhood, does not record much more than the insides of her father’s and grandfather’s market stalls in the discussion of the market. The protagonist of the narrative seems to walk in a restricted route between her home and her father’s place of work without ever really commenting on much in between. In reality, her novels tell the story of a young Jewish Mexican who really lives in small circles of love and limits within the ever-growing Mexican capital. The families are protective of their children, especially the female ones. Not only do they protect their chastity, but make great efforts to maintain their religious identity. They move from the home, to school, to the synagogue, to the Jewish community center. Nissán’s narrative offers a vision of what it is like to grow up within these areas and then what it is like to observe mainstream Mexico as a result of rebelling against her family’s established patterns. Oshinica gains much through her experiences, but she also loses much as a consequence of her unwillingness to fulfil the status quo as she attempts to negotiate her own understanding of identity. However, perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of her first two novels (which later become one in their English translation5) is this pure and simple vision of otherness in Mexico as offered from an ‘other’ within Mexico. There is a longing to be accepted by the mainstream society at large. At the same time the narrative asks what it means to be a Jew in Mexico. Both themes question and inform in Nissán’s narratives. The nature of Mexican identity is at the center of this narrative’s debate. Elena Poniatowska helped her to bring these questions to the surface and explore them within her writing as she participated in her writers’ workshop. Unlike Lewis’ children of poverty who he interviewed and recreated, Nissán’s story is told by herself. Some criticized it for having stylistic and other errors6, but the reality is that she has written two of the most unique novels to be published in the last thirty years in Mexico. Not only because they contain real-life and contemporary usages of the Sephardic language, but also because it is a direct representation of the marginal. Nissán proves what her teacher Elena Poniatowska has stated on several occasions: the voice of the marginal is one of the strongest that exists7.

  • 8 Nissán, Rosa. Novia que te vea. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 1992.
  • 9 Novia que te vea. 35-mm film. Dir. Guita Schyfter. Mexico: Conaculta-Imcine, 1993.
  • 10 Nissán, Rosa. Hisho que te nazca. Mexico City: Plaza & Janés Editores, 1996.
  • 11 Nissán, Rosa. Las tierras prometidas. Mexico City: Plaza & Janés Editores, 1997.
  • 12 Nissán, Rosa. No sólo para dormir es la noche. Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, 1999.
  • 13 Nissán, Rosa. Horizontes sagrados. Diarios de viaje a Israel y la India. Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, (...)

9Rosa Nissán’s literary career began quite by chance when her music appreciation teacher failed to show up to class one day. She had been studying in a small school for women ran by the priest Father Felipe Pardiñas in the south of Mexico City where a literary workshop was also taught among other courses. With this unexpected free time, Nissán decided to sit in on a literary workshop given by the now renowned Mexican author Elena Poniatowska and thus, in these unexpected circumstances, began her literary career. Though she had studied journalism in the Universidad Feminina as a teenager, Nissán had never heard of a literary workshop before, but she enjoyed the experience. Soon after, Rosa Nissán became an integral part of it. With time, and much prodding from Poniatowska, Nissán finally converted many of the texts she had been bringing to the writers’ workshop into a book-length novel and published Novia que te vea in 19928. Not long after it was converted into a motion picture by the same title by Hugo Hiriat and Guita Schyfter9. Both the book and the movie have enjoyed success. The movie won five Ariel awards in 1993, the highest honor Mexico gives its films. Novia que te vea has enjoyed over ten editions and in more recent years was reedited and published by the widely circulated Booket press – a Spanish language paperback seller that focuses on reproducing popular and high-selling novels. Hisho que te nazca, the second half of her first novel, was published in 199610. After these two initial novels Nissán experienced a significant spurt of literary production publishing : the novel Las tierras prometidas : crónica de un viaje a Israel (1997)11 and a collection of short stories No solo para domir es la noche (1999)12. In 2003 Nissán published a travel writing novel entitled Horizontes Sagrados13. More recently, Nissán has finished a book entitled De Rosa a Rosal that narrates the different personalities she has created which, at the time this book is being published, has yet to come into print. In addition to her book-length publications, Nissán’s literary activities inspired her to use her technical degree in journalism as a youth and write newspaper articles for well-known Mexican publications such as La Jornada and El Universal.

  • 14 Vega, Patricia. “Recupero lenguaje ladino y vida sefardí.” La Jornada 22 Oct. 1997: 1- 2.

10Are you really Mexican ? It might seem absurd to ask a woman who was born in the Mexican capital (1939) ; but it is one that, much to her annoyance, she has been obliged to respond to more than once. This author is the oldest daughter of Jewish immigrants to Mexico. Her mother was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey who immigrated to Mexico as a young adult. While many individuals of Jewish origin came to Latin America as political refugees, this was not the case of her father. In today’s vernacular we might call them economic migrants. His family immigrated to Mexico from Jerusalem long before it formed a part of the modern state of Israel. Notwithstanding the mixed marriage of different Mediterranean cultures, it is the mother’s Ladino-Sephardic culture that predominates in the home. It also is evident in the language of Rosa’s early narratives as they pepper her first two novels with its unique flavor14. The protagonist of these books, mirrors many aspects of Nissán’s personal life and, like many of the characters in her works, identifies with Judaism and lives in a Jewish environment – though that narrative voice has changed slightly with later texts such as Los viajes de mi cuerpo (2003).

  • 15 Scott, Renee. “Novia que te vea y Sagrada Memoria', dos infancias judías en Latinoamérica.” Revista (...)

11Since their appearance, there has been relatively little literary criticism of Novia que te vea and Hisho que te nazca. Most of what has been published centers on Nissán’s first novel which tends to point to the greater interest the first novel has generated. Most critics have focused on linguistic or cultural aspects of the novelist’s works. Renee Scott initiated academic literary criticism on Nissán with “Novia que te vea y Sagrada Memoria : Dos infancias Judías en Latinoamérica” in 199515. He demonstrates how testimonial stories attempt to claim a place in history for those that it previously excluded. His article focuses on two novels that narrate the assimilation and or cultural shifting that the European Jews experience when they immigrate to Latin America. Nissán’s novel is an ideal choice for such a subject matter.

  • 16 Lockhart, Darrell B. “Growing Up Jewish in Mexico: Sabina Berman’s La Bobe and Rosa Nissán’s Novia (...)

12Much like the previous article, Darrell B. Lockhart’s writings on Novia que te vea argue a case for including Jewish literature in the Hispanic literary canon16. Lockhart points towards the marginality of Jewish writers in Mexico as he demonstrates that though they may be widely read in academic circles, they often suffer from marginality with regard to their place in Mexican literature in general. His is a fair assessment of many contemporary Jewish writers in Latin America generally and not just Mexico.

  • 17 Halevi-Wise, Yael. “Puente entre naciones: idioma e identidad sefardí en Novia que te vea e Hisho q (...)
  • 18 Ilan Stavans commented that this might be only one at all. Stavans, Ilan. "On Separate Ground." Pas (...)
  • 19 Coonrod Martinez, Elizableth. “Rosa Nissán: Cultural Memory and the Mexican Sephardic Woman.” Mosai (...)

13Yael Halevi-Wise’s article “Puente entre naciones : idioma e identidad sefardí en Novia que te vea e Hisho que te nazca17 is more concerned with the linguistic nature of Nissán’s writings. It focuses on the uniqueness both books possess because they contain smatterings of Ladino : the ancient Spanish spoken by the Jews who were driven out of Spain in the 1400s. The author’s intent is to show that the language in these two novels creates a bridge between the past origins of the language (the Spain that conquered Latin America) and the present where it is currently being used (modern-day Mexico). Halevi-Wise’s article is well-placed and includes limited analysis on one of the use of Ladino in Nissán’s narrative. Aside from newspapers written and published in Israel and Turkey, as well as other minor publications, one of the intrinsic values of Nissán’s work is that it contains real and contextual examples of the contemporary use of this historical language. In fact, Novia que te vea, might be the only contemporary novel (and the film based upon it – though the article does not touch on this point) written in Ladino in the last three decades, or at all18. This article is especially useful because it helps the reader to understand practical issues surrounding Nissán’s writing style and its significance. Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez noted the importance of this and Jewish cultural generally in her 2004 article on both works19 .Nathanial Gardner’s chapter on Rosa Nissán in his book Through Their Eyes explores the use of Ladino in Nissán’s work much further still and not only argues its authenticity, but also its cultural significance to Mexican literature and Hispanic studies.

  • 20 Mennell, Jan. “Inscripción y circunscripción del cuerpo femenino judío en Novia que te vea de Rosa (...)

14The same year that Halevi-Wise published the article just mentioned, Jan Mennell’s “Inscripción y circunscripción del cuerpo femenino judío en Novia que te vea de Rosa Nissán” (1998) appeared20. This piece discusses how the protagonist is self-reflexive and how she interprets the way others see her. It also focuses on the ways a woman is able to become a part of the Jewish community. Mennell identifies Novia as a spiritual text. She argues that it can be classified as such because it is ‘being written from the inside’ in that Oshinica shares mostly her own view and limits others’ vantage point. This article is particularly useful to the reader who is not overly familiar with Jewish culture or traditions.

  • 21 Medina, Manuel. Imagining a Space In-Between: Writing the Gap Between Jewish and Mexican Identities (...)

15The article, “Imagining a Space In-Between : Writing the Gap Between Jewish and Mexican Identities in Rosa Nissán’s Narrative” is a piece that is interested in classifying Nissán’s first three novels and describes them as an “[...] attempt to create a space in-between the two cultures that make up her identity, the Mexican and the Jewish”21. Its author, Medina, presents several of the identity issues faced by people living between two cultures and argues that Nissán is not exclusively Jewish or Mexican, but a unique combination that is the result of fusing both cultures. Though the narratives contain characters that seem to suggest this at certain points, Medina’s conclusions do contradict what Nissán herself has said regarding her Mexican identity. Additionally, a topic as porous and abstract as national and religious identity is one on which it is extremely difficult to make conclusive statements.

16Being Mexican considers the way in which Novia que te vea and Hisho que te nazca approach the themes of location and search for identity. It analyzes their composition as well as their governing forces along with the protagonist’s relationship to them. The home, the workplace, school and sacred spaces are analyzed as we observe the protagonist attempt to negotiate her understanding of mexicanidad.

  • 22 In this publication, when it is not used in a military context, the word ‘subaltern’ is used to mea (...)
  • 23 For further discussion on this topic consult Nathanial Gardner’s article ‘The Extraordinary Subalte (...)

17This study considers both the private, public, and overlapping areas in which the characters of this novel live their lives. An important aspect to consider is the cultural and religious forces which determine the dominant figures and the movements allowed. Like many subalterns who narrate their life story22, either on their own or mediated through others, the author’s created self (Oshinica) is an individual who is a step apart from many within her community23. An extraordinary subaltern, her questions and search for understanding of identity and place often cause her to find herself at odds with her family and others of her community. Initially Nissán’s character attempts to find resolution via compromise with herself and those within her circles of influence through the modification of her will, aligning it with her peers. The narrative shows the reader how rebellion later dominates and she soon finds herself marginalized by members of her community and family. Once finding herself on the margins, Oshinica soon realizes that life on the periphery exposes her to new spaces and distinct notions of being come to her knowledge. These she uses them to construct a new identity and understanding of what it means to be Mexican. Nissán’s narrative is not necessarily one of seamless integration and bliss. If one considers the text carefully, it is possible to see how this character is actually further marginalized in many instances.

  • 24 The English translation of Nissán’s novels, Like a Bride: and Like a Mother (University of New Mexi (...)
  • 25 Nathanial Gardner also notes that members of Elena Poniatowska’s literary workshop have helped her (...)
  • 26 A presently unpublished thesis covers the history and methodology of Elena Poniatowska’s workshop. (...)

18In the late 1970s Rosa Nissán began actively participating in Elena Poniatowska’s writers’ workshop. As is discussed in Through Their Eyes, this group was key to the writing and the publication of her books. Unlike many literary circles, such as ones found in Japan, where one does not necessarily want to have a literary genealogy, in Mexico forming part of a literary workshop could be viewed as one of the surest way of getting one’s foot on the bottom rungs of the literary latter. It would appear that most, if not all, of Mexico’s major writers have formed a part of a literary workshop at some point in their career : Alfonso Reyes, Octavio Paz, Fernando del Paso, Margo Glantz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, Juan José Arreola, Elena Poniatowska, Jorge Volpi ; they have all been students in literary workshops and many of them have been teachers of the same. In these workshops (some of them being private, but even a larger number of them being public) that students learn the craft of writing from established authors. These experts later take their best student’s work and attempt to have it published. Often this is in the form of a literary magazine published by the workshop and distributed among its members as well as being sold to the general public and often it results in the students’ novels or other pieces of literature being printed via contacts that the authors have in the world of publishing. This was the case of Rosa Nissán. Once Nissán’s life narrative was developed enough to be published as a novel, Elena Poniatowska told her to divide the narrative at the point of the protagonist’s wedding and publish the first half of it as Novia que te vea24. Nissán did and the product was met with great success. The literary workshop is a process that benefits both the students and the teachers. The teachers are able to direct the work of new students while earning a salary that aids their own writing efforts while students’ work can be rewarded by possible publication opportunities. Likewise, the teacher influences the first texts that are being created by the new writers. As is made clear in the study Through Their Eyes, in Nissán’s case this influence is quite evident. In her first work in particular we see the writer underlining many unique aspects of the author’s Jewish community and certain characters her teacher, Elena Poniatowska, and other classmates found intriguing. Likewise, it was the influence of her mentor who noted Nissán’s unique use of Ladino and assured it was underlined in her narrative. The enthusiasm on behalf of her teacher, and other participants in the taller, encouraged Nissán to foreground these elements in her first two novels and to develop characters as well as issues that might not have surfaced otherwise25. Hence, Elena Poniatowska’s innate interest in the unique and the culturally or historically valuable in Mexican society as seen in several of her own publications can be viewed in the formation of Nissán’s early narrative. The influence of the literary workshop in her work has been both essential and definitive in the formation of Nissán as a writer and in the emergence of her first novels. Additionally, in more recent times this activity has supported her financially as she has become a teacher of a literary workshop herself26.

19Novia que te vea, (May I See You a Bride) takes its title from a saying for young women from the Sephardic community. It is the story of a young Jewish girl named Oshinica growing up in an immigrant family in Mexico City in the 1940s and 50s – just as Rosa Nissán did. The first novel is written in the form of a diary kept by the protagonist. As the character matures, so does her narrative voice. The reader first encounters Oshinica at age seven. She writes about quotidian events that are made more fascinating by the fact that they are seen through the eyes of a Jewish youth experiencing life in a predominantly Catholic country and the rare vantage point her particular cultural situation affords her.

20As the narrative progresses, Oshinica realizes that her close-knit family and community have enveloped her into system in which the Jews and their customs matter most. It is this collection of values and beliefs and that the protagonist challenges and this creates tension within the narrative. Feeling unable to protest publicly, she does so in her diary, hence the formation of the narrative. Unlike most bildungsroman novels written in the west in the 1990s, what worries Oshinica most is marrying a proper suitor. As she matures, her future of being a bride becomes the central theme. From the time Oshinica finishes secondary school the pressure to get married increases.

21This coincides however, with the markedly distinct Mexico outside of her family and community which she desires to experience before marriage. Education becomes her priority, and the main source of conflict and narrative tension of the first novel is between the main character and her mother. The solution appears to emerge in the form of a young man. He offers to allow her to continue studying after they marry. This compromise appeals to the protagonist. The first novel ends with the marriage of the boyfriend, Lalo, and Oshnica. Only ten years have passed since the beginning of the story : the protagonist is seventeen years old.

22Hisho que te nazca, (May a Son Be Born to You) begins with another Sephardic saying that underlines the importance of bringing a male heir into the world. The narrative simply continues where the first novel concluded. The couple starts their own life in the Mexican capital. Oshinica is soon heavily involved in motherhood as her family quickly expands to include four children. Lalo’s business ventures prosper greatly. The character Oshinica evolves in several ways. Gone are her teenage desires to study and youthful plans to change the world. The protagonist’s life revolves around domestic activities during the next decade.

23After her youngest child enters education, Oshinica returns more fully to school and to the public space. In her desire to participate in the public sphere she enters into conflict with her husband. He is not interested in his wife’s activities and growing intellectual interests. Ultimately, Oshinica chooses to abandon her home, family, and wealth to pursue personal interests.

24The remainder of the novel narrates Oshinica’s readjustment to her new life, explorations of new spaces, and a reevaluation of identity. Hisho que te nazca ends with Oshinica resolving to follow her own ideas and personal values. It is a narrative of self-discovery and exploration as well as the understanding of identity and the (re)negotiation of it.

Novia que te vea: a Sephardic childhood in the navel of the Moon

25One of Oshinica’s character traits is her candid speech. Not only does she speak her mind, but she often touches on themes that cause her trouble, especially with her mother who is one of the main enforcers of family and community values in the narrative. Oshinica’s intentions appear innocent, like her childish comments, yet she must still suffer the consequences. This anecdote illustrates one of those moments :

  • 27 (Novia 18)

26¿ [...] simpática mi mamá? Y menos cuando se enoja y me entierra sus unas y me saca sangre. Hoy que estaban ya casi secas las costras en forma de uñita, que me dejó marcadas la semana pasada, me las volvió a enterrar a la hora que le dije algo a mi papá algo que no debía. ¿ Y yo cómo voy a saber que no quería que se lo dijera 27?

  • 28 In 1983 Seligson calculated the Jewish population to be less than one tenth of one percent of Mexic (...)

27Oshinica’s trait of being one who reveals secrets is a continued theme of Novia que te vea and Hisho que te Nazca. She unveils to the reader what she considers to be hidden aspects of the spaces she inhabits. She offers her reader introspection on the Judeo-Mexican society of which she is a part. However, Oshinica does not appear to offer her community or family many concessions. She reveals what she considers to be the positive and the negative aspects of her youth and community. She is particularly keen to make the reader aware of the double discrimination it is possible to experience as a woman and a Jew in Mexico. One of the means she uses to do so is by uncovering the distinct spaces of community in which she lives. These places are unique in comparison to much of Mexico’s wider reality which is formed by a separate religious tradition28.

Home in Nissán’s narrative

28In relating her life narrative to the reader, the home is the space that the protagonist most often opens up to scrutiny. It is clearly the one she knows best as a child, a young woman, and a mother. Traditionally, the home is a woman’s space, as Hanna Scolnicov indicates in her book Woman’s Theatrical Space :

  • 29 (p. 6) (Scolnicov, Hanna. Women’s Theatrical Space. Cambridge UP, 1994.)

29The structural division of space into the interior and the exterior of the house carries with it social and cultural implications. Gender roles are spatially defined in relation to the inside and the outside of the house. Traditionally, it is the woman, who makes the house into a home, her home, while the world of commerce, war, travel, the world outside, is a man’s world.’ As Simone de Beauvoir noted : ‘man is but mildly interested in his immediate surroundings because he can find self-expression in projects’ ; whereas for woman, the house is the center of the world, ‘reality is concentrated inside the house, while outer space seems to collapse’29.

30Novia que te vea makes no exception to those ideas. The division of space has both cultural and social implications. Nissán’s narratives create homes full of women of different generations who seldom venture into the public realm, a notion that Oshinica questions increasingly as she grows older. This is not to say the women are not occupied. Quite the contrary is true : they never seem to rest. One of the many projects in which they are involved is knitting. In her novel, the women are often seen to be knitting almost compulsively. Nissán explains in an interview why she portrays her women this way. She reveals how this activity in the home actually is meant to suggest repression :

31Oshinica es un personaje al que le enseñaron a tejer y coser desde chiquita, por lo que, cuando se casa todos esos años de embarazo y de cría de niños se le fueron en tejer... Tejiendo se sofocaban los deseos, ese movimiento de las agujas que es como si sofocaras tus ganas ; así, todo el día, ¡hasta con coraje y rabia !

  • 30 (López 2) (López, Maria Luisa. “Teje su historia.” Reforma Cultural 10 May 1995: 1-2.)

32Los efectos del tejido, aparte de que estrenas suéteres bonitos, pueden ser otros : yo he visto a mujeres tejer compulsivamente ; a lo mejor es como el alcohol, pero con otra conclusión30

33Hence, one of the ways in which this activity (and possibly others) can be viewed is as one in which the frustrated female desires are suffocated. Even though we are led to believe that the home is the women’s space, Nissán’s narrative views it also as one in which their unfulfilled desires and feelings often go unexpressed, suppressed by knitting and other influences. It would seem that the activity is one way of fomenting complacency in Nissán’s narrative.

  • 31 (Schlesinger, 46) (Schlesinger, Benjamin. Jewish Family Issues: A Resource Guide. New York: Garland (...)

34In the home space, even more prevalent are culinary activities. In many ways food serves as one of the axis of the home because so many activities and interactions in this arena revolve around its preparation and consumption. In one of the few excursions into the public space, the narrative portrays women going to the market to obtain ingredients and then returning home to prepare, or serve meals. Nissán’s text recreates a stereotype of the Jewish mother in her older female characters : one who is “pushing food, preparing special foods, and using foods as a reward”31. This stereotype is later reproduced in the adult Oshinica who not only finds one of the strongest links to her religious culture through culturally identified foods, but also struggles to resist the temptation to eat. Throughout both novels the dinner table is also the location of family meetings and the reinforcement of cultural codes of dominance. It is also a time for bonding and discussion. The text clearly delineates the division of labor. The women cook and serve, the men preside ; eventually though, everyone eats. It is a pattern that spans all of the generations viewed in Nissán’s first two narratives and allows the reader to contemplate the inner spaces of the novel.

  • 32 (Novia 37)
  • 33 (Novia 82)

35While the obvious religious feasts begin in the kitchen and take place in the dining room, it is the living room that becomes used for more religious purposes. Even at a young age, the protagonist notices this divide : “En la mesa es cuando se puede platicar, porque en la sala sólo hablamos de religión [...]”32. Yet this space does not represent an open forum for dialogue at all. When the women wish to speak with each other privately they go to the kitchen or the bedroom to do so33.

  • 34 (Schlesinger 19)

36Many of the social and important religious events take place in the home. One explanation for this occurrence is because : “[...] the Jewish home fostered the wholeness of life. A home was the stage on which the drama of life unfolded”34. In Nissán’s view of her family this unfolding usually involves some kind of meal or food that the family also shares.

37The women of the home are portrayed throughout the narratives as being in continuous movement. Every time Oshinica is with one of them, they are occupied in some type of labor that requires physical activity. Aside from occasional television watching as a part of a family activity, the adult women who fill Oshinica’s childhood home are not observed to read, meditate, or participate in other leisure activities. This adds to the notion of constant activity that is meant to impulse the repression that knitting is also meant to symbolize.

  • 35 (Hisho 250)

38While the day-to-day running of the home is portrayed more strongly in the first novel, much of the careful reflection of the perpetual movement of women in the protagonist’s childhood home space occurs in the second novel. It mentions how Oshinica was never allowed to daydream, read a book, or participate in any activities that would fortify her imagination. The narrator reflects on the effects such a work ethic on her character : “Creo que andaba tan apurada para que mi mamá no me viera inactiva que nunca vi nada. Estar quieto era insoportable en mi casa. Hasta la fecha me cuesta trabajo leer durante el día. Vivíamos apurándonos, desde tempranito andábamos a la carrera. [...] Con prisa nada existe"35.

39Oshinica’s home breaks with the stereotype of the Mexican who exists in some relaxed state of ‘mañana’ and offers another in which languid observations and idle activities are squelched by the mother figure in the childhood home who demands activity.

  • 36 (Novia 50)

40Another element that distinguishes this home from others is the number of secrets that are kept by its occupants. Oshinica and the other women in the novels have many. Some of them are fairly straightforward, such as her mother leaving the children at the movies while she sneaks out to play cards with the friends of whom her husband does not approve, or other minor activities in which the women engage against spousal advice. Other secrets are more surprising in nature. Over the course of the narrative Uba, the maid in Oshinica’s granmother’s house, raises her daughter in the home without the grandfather discovering she is doing so. In some ways this act represents female solidarity : ‘‘Es que tu abuelo no sabe que yo ya tuve otra hija... —Pero, Uba sí Tere ya tiene seis años, ¿no ? -Sí, pero no lo sabe. [...] si se lo decimos me corre ; así es que tu agüela y yo lo tenemos en secreto”36. The secrets found in the narrative appear to have their roots in gaining more personal freedom as well as evidencing at times the lack of union and mutual comprehension between the male and female components of the family. The women often collaborate with the other female characters in order to afford them opportunities to act on their own individual interests.

41This is demonstrated in the narrative as we watch them become involved in the deceptions. However, Oshinica’s inability to keep secrets often places her in difference with the women of her home. It is this dissimilarity that proves to isolate her from others of her peer group. In some ways this reaction, even at an early age, can be read as a sort of foreshadowing of Oshinica’s rejection by certain parts of her community as she is not always in harmony with its established social codes.

42As the narrative progresses we discover that there are some secrets kept from Oshinica with which she does not agree and attempts to unravel. Once she does this, she reveals her discovery to the reader. One of these is the contents of secret or prohibited places or objects in her home. In Oshinica’s home many items are secreted or restricted by being kept under lock and key. In fact, many items have locks in her home- even objects that do not normally have them in most homes : the television, the telephone, the closets, doors of the rooms, and other spaces. Their presence draws the reader’s attention to the restrictions in the protagonist’s childhood home. Additionally, it is also noteworthy to observe the holder of the keys is Oshinica’s younger brother Moshón. The eldest male son has obviously been preferred over the oldest child : Oshinica. The text underlines that the responsibility is his due to his gender. Hence, Oshinica feels as if being a woman has placed her at a disadvantage in her own home, underlining the marginalization of women in her family.

43Among the locked locations in the childhood home, there appears to be one that catches her attention the most. It is her ashugar (hope chest). The novel uses this object to show the passing of time and the approach of womanhood in her community as it gradually fills up as she grows closer to the age at which she will be eligible for marriage : the event which will transplant her from her parent’s home into that of her future husband’s home. Curious though, is the fact that she is never given permission to look in her trunk or wear any of the clothes it contains before her marriage. It seems to suggest that her future is beyond her control. Defying her mother’s rules, Oshinica does secretly look at and tries on her forbidden dresses. These moments when Oshinica steals a look at her ashugar strengthens her image as a revealer of family and community secrets within the narrative.

  • 37 (Rosenthal 17) (Rosenthal, Gilbert. “Melting Pot of Cultural Pluralism?” New Directions in the Jewi (...)

44The narrator is key to the analysis of the home. One of the ruling principles in that location is obedience. On one level, this should not be surprising given the religious overtones of the childhood home. Children from this tradition have the strict responsibility to “honor and revere parents”37. Even so, in her analysis of her home, the narrator notices that hers appears to be even stricter than others. Oshinica reveals this to us as she compares her mother to that of another Jewish friend Dorí :

  • 38 (Novia 18)

45Ni porque vino Dorí a comer, mi mamá dejó a un lado sus costumbres, nos sienta a los seis alrededor de la mesa, nos enseña el cinturón y ni hablamos, comemos bien rápido, ni siquiera nos peleamos y nos manda a jugar a la calle a la fuerza ; no quiere que hagamos tiradero38.

  • 39 (Novia 30)

46The embarrassment this causes her is obvious as the narrative continues. Her friend’s home would never be like that she argues, reinforcing the idea that not all practices in her home are owed to the religious belief her family holds. As Oshinica explores the homes of others and compares them to hers, she realizes that hers is more stifling because her parents exercise a greater level of control over their children, fueling perhaps the protagonist’s desire to explore other forms of living in Mexican society. Even her aunt’s home becomes a point of comparison for the young protagonist. She enjoys the benefits she finds there : receiving a bigger allowance and being allowed to stay up as late as she wants are among differences she finds attractive. The protagonist also finds her own home space more repressive. In her aunt’s house the adults laugh and children are allowed to show creativity. This aunt and the way in which she is allowed to form her home environment is one which is foreign to Oshinica ; however, she finds this difference appealing as it allows her to be as she pleases. She even begins to think that her aunt might be able to transmit this influence on her mother if she were to live in Mexico City : “ [...] a lo mejor mi ma se volviera mas simpática”39. This contrasting experience marks the fact that Oshinica is unsatisfied in her parental home and craves outside models that are distinct from those she found in her own. Curiously, it is the mother who Oshinica views as the character that enforces the oppression of imagination and personal freedom the protagonist perceives in her home life. Rather than offering solidarity with regard to her daughter’s feelings, the mother appears to want to contradict them or erase them altogether.

  • 40 (Rosenthal 18)
  • 41 (Novia 36)
  • 42 (Novia 36)

47Perhaps, the narrative suggests, this relationship of strict obedience that her mother demands is born of the relationship between the parents. This is because obedience is also required between husbands and wives and between parents and their adult children. Though it does not overtly declare such, the text suggests this culture of strict obedience may have at least part of its root in religion. Women must be “subservient to her Lord and master emotionally, sexually, and economically”40. The notion of subservience on behalf of Jewish women as described in this quote is one that can be observed in the novel. In reality, this notion is common to many religious creeds, but something that always bothers Oshinica is the manner in which her grandfather orders her father around as if he were still a small child. He obliges him to fulfill tasks for him : take care of his store, sell his merchandise, and many other activities. Nonetheless, her father does not seem to be bothered by it : “Hace mucho le dice a todo que sí”41. Oshinica even notices the difference between how her grandfather treats her dad and others, especially her uncle, the grandfather’s son-in-law. When this man arrives late for dinner her grandpa is extremely angry, but does nothing. Oshinica underlines the difference in treatment between blood relatives and political family : “Si mi papá se atreviera a hacer eso, mi abuelo lo mata en nuestra presencia”42. This type of extreme obedience and differential treatment in the private space between outsiders and blood family is something that troubles Oshinica and she tries to instill her own innate disobedience in her father by encouraging him rebel against his own father. These actions in the young Oshinica also underscore the rebellion that would come in the adult Oshinica as well as displaying her sentiment towards the way she is treated and the system in which she lives.

Ladino

  • 43 (Gardner 2004 )
  • 44 Nissán’s second novel seems to acknowledge some of the strong enthusiasm for Ladino and mentions th (...)

48One element in Novia que te vea that makes the domestic space unique, even from many other Jewish homes, is the language Ladino that is used in the home. This is the Sephardic language her mother and others from her community speak. Nissán’s narrative explains to the reader that even though there are men in both novels who speak this language, it is more strongly related to the women of the narrative. Even so, a study of the text itself shows that this is not entirely true since the narrative evidences instances in both novels when non-Sephardic characters (such as the father and the grandfather) use the language even when would not have been their language. When Rosa Nissán was asked about the reason why non Ladino speaking characters were using that language she replied : ‘¡Qué horror ! No me fijé, lo cambiaría si pudiera. Lo que pasa es que me entusiasmé tanto con el ladino y puse a medio mundo a hablarlo’43. Hence, the reason for her over-abundance of the language was her own enthusiasm for it ; spurred on, at least in part, by her teacher Elena Poniatowska and her own classmates from the literary workshop. Nonetheless, on the whole, only the mother and other women from her community are heard (or meant to be heard) speaking this language. They make the home unique in that aspect44. Because the Sephardic language is so intimately linked to the female characters and because they are connected to space related to the home, this language becomes a type of leitmotiv of Oshinica’s cultural and linguistic heritage she inherits from the domestic space. Unlike other themes related to Oshinica’s home life that are foregrounded in the narrative, the protagonist’s linguistic heritage is one of the positive aspects the narrator believes she has inherited from this space.

49Finally, even though women may be those that are ever-present in the home and carry out the maintenance of it, it is made quite clear that the man dominates in this space. Observe the grandfather’s house as an example of such domination:

  • 45 (Novia 36)

50Cuando [el abuelo] clava el coche en el garaje, [Oshinica] me levanto y : ‘¡Carajo, como tardan en abrir !', vocifera, mientras suena furioso la bocina del claxon y pone una cara de furia, hasta que Uba y sus trenzas salen corriendo con esa sonrisa con la que ella cree disimular el susto [...] Sé de los terrores que la llegada de mi abuelo causa, ¿dónde compró unas bocinas tan parecidas a su voz ? Dentro de la casa todos corren. ¡El señor ! ¡Raquel, mete a Teresita ! ¡Niños apaguen esa luz 45!

  • 46 (Schlesinger 17)

51As he arrives, he strolls through the house he surveys everything and confirms to the others that all is his. The book Jewish Family Issues explains one view on how there can be a certain expectation on the traditional Jewish father to be : “domineering [...] who infused the home with discipline and whose word was law”46. Knowing this, the reader could assume that the grandfather may only be acting according to tradition. This character apparently justifies his actions because he could be viewed as fulfilling his patriarchal role.

52The power of the men to control and dominate should not be viewed as limited to the home space. Nissán’s novels exhibit men who exercise dominion both inside and outside their home. Unlike many of the women in the narrative, they are free to study and work in the public space. When Oshinica asks why she does not enjoy the same privileges, no one is able to offer her a satisfactory explanation, they simply cite the importance of continuing tradition : a notion this character will begin to resent and rebel against with time. Perhaps this limited access to the public space and the fact that she finds great enjoyment from it fuels the feelings of rebellion and resentment as the narrative progresses.

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Notes

1 Approximately seventy-five US cents or fifty British pence Stirling.

2 “Tepis” is a streetname for Tepito.

3 This, I am told, is most likely an urban myth. More recent writers on Tepito say that those who steal within the market itself are always from outside the local community and, if caught, they are severely punished by locals for giving their area a bad name and deterring future customers.

4 Nissán, Rosa. ‘Letter to Nathanial Gardner’, 2012.

5 Like a Bride/Like a Mother became its English title when it was published by the University of New Mexico Press.

6 Mejía, Eduardo. ‘Rosa Nissán: Novia que te vea’ Suplemento del sábado de Unomásuno 23 enero 1993: 13.

7 Elena Poniatowska has stated: ‘Creo de veras que la voz de los pobres es más fuerte y más auténtica que ninguna otra y que ésa es la que hay que escuchar. La sabiduría popular es la que te saca de muchos atolladeros y tiene la autenticidad de la naturaleza. Es fuerte como el maíz, como la tierra misma’ (Poniatowska, Elena. ‘Letter to Nathanial Gardner’, 2012).

8 Nissán, Rosa. Novia que te vea. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 1992.

9 Novia que te vea. 35-mm film. Dir. Guita Schyfter. Mexico: Conaculta-Imcine, 1993.

10 Nissán, Rosa. Hisho que te nazca. Mexico City: Plaza & Janés Editores, 1996.

11 Nissán, Rosa. Las tierras prometidas. Mexico City: Plaza & Janés Editores, 1997.

12 Nissán, Rosa. No sólo para dormir es la noche. Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, 1999.

13 Nissán, Rosa. Horizontes sagrados. Diarios de viaje a Israel y la India. Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, 2003.

14 Vega, Patricia. “Recupero lenguaje ladino y vida sefardí.” La Jornada 22 Oct. 1997: 1- 2.

15 Scott, Renee. “Novia que te vea y Sagrada Memoria', dos infancias judías en Latinoamérica.” Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía XLV (1995): 605-12.

16 Lockhart, Darrell B. “Growing Up Jewish in Mexico: Sabina Berman’s La Bobe and Rosa Nissán’s Novia que te vea.” The Other Mirror: Women’s Narrative in Mexico, 1980-1995. Ed. Kristine Ibsen. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 159-173.

17 Halevi-Wise, Yael. “Puente entre naciones: idioma e identidad sefardí en Novia que te vea e Hisho que te nazca de Rosa Nissán.” Hispania 81 (1998): 269-277.

18 Ilan Stavans commented that this might be only one at all. Stavans, Ilan. "On Separate Ground." Passion, Memory and Identity: Twentieth-Century Latin American-Jewish Women Writers. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1999. 1-16.

19 Coonrod Martinez, Elizableth. “Rosa Nissán: Cultural Memory and the Mexican Sephardic Woman.” Mosaic Vol. 37 (2004): 76-93.

20 Mennell, Jan. “Inscripción y circunscripción del cuerpo femenino judío en Novia que te vea de Rosa Nissán.” Mujeres latinoamericanas del siglo XX: Historia y cultura. Ed. Clara Hernández. 2 Vols. Havana: Casa de Las Américas, 1998. 263-269.

21 Medina, Manuel. Imagining a Space In-Between: Writing the Gap Between Jewish and Mexican Identities in Rosa Nissán’s Narrative. Studies in the Literary Imagination; 33 (2000): 93-102. 

22 In this publication, when it is not used in a military context, the word ‘subaltern’ is used to mean ‘non-hegemonic’ and or ‘marginalized’.

23 For further discussion on this topic consult Nathanial Gardner’s article ‘The Extraordinary Subaltern.’ Hipertexto 4 2006: 36-49.

24 The English translation of Nissán’s novels, Like a Bride: and Like a Mother (University of New Mexico Press), joins both narratives creating one large novel, though the translation loses the unique Ladino element of the narrative.

25 Nathanial Gardner also notes that members of Elena Poniatowska’s literary workshop have helped her to write texts such as the book the covers the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Nada, nadie: las voces del temblor. Nissán is also mentioned in the acknowledgements of Poniatowska’s novel Tinísima along with several other members of the literary workshop.

26 A presently unpublished thesis covers the history and methodology of Elena Poniatowska’s workshop. (Ávila, Rodrigo. Tesina de licenciatura de Rodrigo Ávila para el grado de licenciado en periodismo. Unpublished manuscript.) Ávila is one of the writer’s workshop’s former members.

27 (Novia 18)

28 In 1983 Seligson calculated the Jewish population to be less than one tenth of one percent of Mexico’s total population (0.093%) (Seligson 120). (Seligson, Silvia. Los judíos en México: un estudio preliminar, Mexico City: Cultura SEP, 1983.)

29 (p. 6) (Scolnicov, Hanna. Women’s Theatrical Space. Cambridge UP, 1994.)

30 (López 2) (López, Maria Luisa. “Teje su historia.” Reforma Cultural 10 May 1995: 1-2.)

31 (Schlesinger, 46) (Schlesinger, Benjamin. Jewish Family Issues: A Resource Guide. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.)

32 (Novia 37)

33 (Novia 82)

34 (Schlesinger 19)

35 (Hisho 250)

36 (Novia 50)

37 (Rosenthal 17) (Rosenthal, Gilbert. “Melting Pot of Cultural Pluralism?” New Directions in the Jewish Family and Community. Ed. Gilbert Rosenthal. New York: Commission on Synagogue Relations, 1974. 15-30.)

38 (Novia 18)

39 (Novia 30)

40 (Rosenthal 18)

41 (Novia 36)

42 (Novia 36)

43 (Gardner 2004 )

44 Nissán’s second novel seems to acknowledge some of the strong enthusiasm for Ladino and mentions that if by chance the reader observes her father speaking it, it is “por contagio de su musher, de su familya, de la comunidad y porque es una lengua dulce como la miel” (Hisho 275).

45 (Novia 36)

46 (Schlesinger 17)

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Référence électronique

Nathanial Eli Gardner, « Being Mexican: Identity, Location, and Rosa Nissán (I) », Amerika [En ligne], 9 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2013, consulté le 22 mai 2017. URL : http://amerika.revues.org/4469 ; DOI : 10.4000/amerika.4469

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Auteur

Nathanial Eli Gardner

University of Glasgow
g.nathanial@gmail.com

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