In presenting her plurality as an Ashkenazi Jew, a Mexican, a woman and a playwright, Sabina Berman (b.1954 Mexico) accomplishes far more than simply allowing her readers to identify with her hybridity and search for self. She creates a space where fragmented memories are fleshed out by the imagination and the desire to recreate the past in order to make sense of the present.
Sabina Berman was born in Mexico in 1954 to Eastern European immigrant parents and immediately became heir to a tradition of cultural, religious and national displacement. Her childhood in Mexico City was marked by a constant confrontation between Old World customs and tongues maintained primarily by her Yiddish-speaking bubbeh and the Spanish-speaking Catholic world that surrounded her. Her status as a Jew in Mexico was and continued to be inescapable and its impact on her writing is profound. Whether she is recounting the events of her childhood in Mexico and her family’s memories of life in Poland and Austria in her autobiography, or inventing a new theatrical production, her cultural, linguistic, national and religious affinities consistently define her work.
Berman appeals to a broad spectrum of readers, Jews and non-Jews alike. Although she often focuses on the Jewish experience in Mexico, she demonstrates the universal difficulty in maintaining cultural, religious and linguistic practices that often conflict with the mainstream culture and language. In order to facilitate access to her semi-autobiographical work La bobe (Bubbeh, 1991), she provides translations and explanations of potentially unknown words in Yiddish. Berman’s translations serve as an essential component for both Jews and non-Jews, for both may be equally unfamiliar with Yiddish language and culture. Yiddish may have been just as foreign to her as to her readers. La bobe also invites her female readership to revel in the celebration of a matriarch, Berman’s grandmother—a rare opportunity in a male-dominated society and canon. However subtle, this characteristic helps to carve out a new literary space where traditional practices cease to dominate the writer.
Also in La bobe, Berman addresses critical issues directly affecting her identity and that of her immediate family. She explores the notion that Jews have been historical wanderers and have maintained no real homeland since their physical and psychological dislocation from Israel. Berman examines her own place in Mexican society and the implications of inhabiting a geographic space in which she neither feels nor is perceived as a permanent resident or citizen. Through her own experiences as well as those of her parents, she explores both the positive and the negative aspects of being assigned or assuming a transient identity.
The theater also provides an opportunity to explore her complex identity and the rich history of the Jews in Mexico. Although she maintains no direct ties to the Jews who were persecuted by the Mexican Inquisition, her treatment of this tumultuous period further confirms the long history of the Jewish presence in Mexico. In Herejía (Heresy, 1985), Berman provides her readers/audience with an historic overview of the Mexican Inquisition while giving a voice to the silenced and demonstrating that the history of Jews in Mexico has both factual and personal components. She successfully rewrites a decisive chapter in Jewish history by enabling the victims to speak and provide an alternative interpretation of their persecution. Giving voice to what Guayatri Spivak has termed “the subaltern” (i.e. the disenfranchised members of society, such as women) simultaneously lends greater clout to the Jewish community of Mexico and attests to their active role and irrefutable contributions to Mexican history and society.
Berman has not only succeeded in bolstering the Jewish presence in Mexico with her creative and avant garde theatrical pieces and sentimental semi-autobiographical narrative; she has also triumphed as a national prize-winning writer. Lauded for her poetry, short stories, newspaper articles and plays, she lays claim to the unprecedented honor of winning the Mexican Theater Prize four times. Among the many honors she has received are the 2000 National Journalism Award for Mujeres y poder; Premio de Poesía Pluridimensional Jugeute (Multidimensional Poetry Prize) for Mariposa (Butterfly); Premio de Cuento Latinoamericano (1975) for Año Internacional de la Mujer (International Year of the Woman ); Primer Premio de Teatro Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (1983) (First Prize from the Institute of Theatre of Fine Arts) for Yankee, Herejía (Heresy), Rompecabezas (Puzzle), and La maravillosa de niño pingüica.
Berman is undoubtedly recognized and celebrated for her contributions as a multifaceted and pioneering playwright, narrator, journalist, and poet. Her feminist ideals, struggles for social justice, acceptance of alternative sexual orientations, and treatment of the difficulties of belonging to an ethnic and religious minority are emblematic of her literary expression. She unabashedly celebrates all aspects of her distinctive identity—Jewish, Mexican and feminist—allowing them to culminate in a unique and unconventional form of literary expression.
La bobe (Bubbeh). México: 1991.
Berman’s semi-autobiographical work written from the perspective of a young Jewish child growing up in Mexico City. The young Sabina grapples with the pressures to maintain Old World loyalties as prescribed by her beloved bubbe and the necessary adaptation to and incorporation of Mexican and Catholic practices. Berman demonstrates the difficulty in identifying and associating with multiple cultural and religious groups.
Teatro de Sabina Berman (Theater by Sabina Berman). México: 1985.
A collection of plays that speak to numerous cultural, religious, and social conditions in Mexico. She brings to life the voices of Jews persecuted during the Mexican Inquisition in Mexico in Herejia (Heresy); the juxtaposition and incompatibilities between North American and Mexican cultures in Bill or Yankee; and recreates the Conquest of Mexico by avaricious, shameless Spaniards in order to juxtapose them with the corrupt and unforgivable practices of the PRI (National Republican Party) in the 1980s in Aguila o sol (Eagle or Sun).
Lunas (Moons). México, D.F.: Editorial Katún, 1988.
A collection of poetry that serves more as one lengthy poem and explores various aspects of lesbian and gay love. The poet essentially creates a one-sided dialogue with her lover and ultimately paints a verbal self-portrait through her portrait of the woman who represents her obsession.
Muerte súbita (Sudden Death). Madrid: 2000; Molière. México, D.F.: 2000; Amante de lo ajeno (In Love With Something Out of Reach). México, D.F.: 1997; Volar: aprendiendo a actuar desde la forma más simple de la conciencia (Flying: Learning to Act On Instinct). México, D.F.: 1992; Un grano de arroz (A Grain of Rice). México, D.F.: 1994; Poemas de Agua (Water Poems). México, D.F.: 1986; Rompecabezas (Puzzle). México, D.F.: 1983.