More often than not, I get blank stares when I mention the word “Ladino.” My conversation partner quickly tries to correct me, “You mean Latino, right?”
Nope, I meant Ladino. With a D. And then, I am all too glad to explain not only the term but where the confusion comes from.
In recent weeks, the political and cultural discourse has been using the terms Hispanic, Latino, Ladino and Sephardic as though they were everyday words, sometimes without explanation, sometimes without proper explanation. So I thought it might be helpful to explain how someone who uses these words day to day in her work as a Sephardic Jew, understands them. Because the more you understand what they mean and why the easier it is to take an informed part in the conversation.
The word “Latino” is shorthand for the Spanish word latinoamericano (or latino-americano in Portuguese) and refers to those with origins from Latin America who reside in the United States. Generally, the term does not include people from Belize and Guyana (where English is spoken) or Suriname (where Dutch is the norm). However, people from Brazil (where Portuguese is spoken) are considered Latino as well. And because Spanish is a language with gendered endings, latino is gendered male and latina is gendered female. Those looking beyond the binary use the inclusive term latinx.
The term “Hispanic” has a narrower definition that denotes people only from Spanish-speaking Latin America or from Spain itself. Therefore, a Brazilian would be Latino but non-Hispanic, and a Spaniard would be Hispanic and non-Latino. An Argentinian could be both. (Note also that in Latin America there are many indigenous peoples in Spanish-speaking countries who do not identify with Spanish culture or speak the dominant Spanish dialect– they would not be described as Hispanic.) “Hispanic” can encompass all Spanish-speaking peoples in both hemispheres and emphasizes the common denominator of the Spanish language, even in communities where little else is shared in common.
Both terms above are generally used to denote people living in the United States. Outside of the United States, people are referred to by their country of origin, for example as Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, etc.
The word “Sephardic” comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad. Narrowly defined, the ethnic term is used to connote those Jewish descendants of Jews who originally lived in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the issuance of the Alhambra Decree in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (in Spain) and the decree of 1496 by King Manuel I (in Portugal). A more modern and broad definition is a religious one, in which a Sephardi refers to any Jew, of any ethnic background, who follows the customs and traditions of nusach (liturgy) used by Sephardi Jews in their prayer book. Some of the people who pray with the Sephardi liturgy are not ethnically Sephardic.
Also commonly known as Judeo-Spanish or Judezmo, “Ladino” is a language developed by those Sephardic Jews who settled along the Mediterranean and in the Ottoman Empire after their exile from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th Century. Built upon Castilian Spanish of the time, Ladino incorporated elements of other languages from countries where Jews settled as they dispersed eastwards. Today one can hear elements of Italian, French, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Greek and more. For nearly five centuries, until WWII, Ladino was the primary language of Eastern Mediterranean Sephardic Jews. Those Sephardim who, alternatively, did not disperse towards the Mediterranean, but rather, ended up settling in non-Iberian mostly Dutch realms, such as Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies, Recife in Dutch areas of colonial Brazil, and New Amsterdam, did not speak Ladino. Many were descendants of conversos (those forcibly converted to Catholicism while living in the Iberian Peninsula), and so they did not flee during the subsequent edicts of expulsion. These groups eventually formed communities and formally returned to Judaism, and are referred to as Spanish and Portuguese Sephardim, or Western Sephardim. Therefore, one can be Sephardic and not have Ladino as his/her tradition. However, the reverse is not true. Those Jews who speak Ladino as their mother tongue are of Sephardic origin.
These are terms that refer to those Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in the late 15th Century in the Iberian Peninsula. While they appeared to practice Christianity on the outside, they continued to observe Jewish rites secretly. Today, there are thought to be hundreds of thousands (if not more) world-wide descendants of Sephardic Jews who may have been forced to convert. The word “Anusim” comes from the Hebrew for “forced” and is preferable to the word “Marrano” which has negative connotations (related to “swine”) or “Crypto-Jews” which is value- neutral.
The main takeaways:
- The terms above relate to regions of origin or ancestry, not to race.
- You can be more than one at a time, but they are not interchangeable.
- Just because you are a Spanish-speaking Jew, it does not mean you are Sephardic.
- Not every Sephardi Jew is Latino or Hispanic.
- Not every Latino or Hispanic person is Jewish (or descendent from Jews), though some certainly are. This might be obvious but worth remembering nonetheless!