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Marjorie Agosin

b. 1955

by Ruth Behar
Last updated June 23, 2021

Marjorie Agosín with childhood friends Evelyn Wolf and Chuto Wolf in El Quiosco, Chile, 1961. Photograph by Elena Wolf. Courtesy of Marjorie Agosín.

In Brief

Marjorie Agosín is an award-winning Chilean Jewish poet, memoirist, novelist, literary critic, editor, educator, and human rights activist, and a renowned professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Wellesley College. One of the most important and prolific Latin American woman writers of her generation, she writes in Spanish and she chooses to live in translation in the English-speaking world. Horrified by the plight of the “disappeared” in Chile following the Pinochet takeover, she became an outspoken defender of human rights, especially on behalf of women and children. Agosín moves fluidly between Chile, Europe, and the United States in her life and her writing, making transnational flows of memory come alive in her vibrant poems and stories.

Family and Education

A gathering of the Agosín and Halpern families, 1967. Courtesy of Marjorie Agosín.

Marjorie Agosín and her sister Cynthia in Carroza, in the city of Viña del Mar, Chile, 1962. Photograph by Moisés Agosín. Courtesy of Marjorie Agosín.

Born in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1955, Marjorie Agosín grew up in Chile, where she returned three months later with her Jewish Chilean parents, Moisés Agosín and Frida Halpern, to live amid their extended Jewish family in Santiago and in Quisco, a village near Isla Negra, where Pablo Neruda once resided. Agosín, together with her sister, Cynthia (b. 1952) and younger brother, Mario (b. 1963), spent her childhood and early adolescence in Chile in the 1960s, studying at the Hebrew Institute of Santiago de Chile. As she puts it in her memoir, The Alphabet in My Hands, the school was established in the 1920s “so that the Jewish children of Chile would be spared shouts of ‘Jewish shit’ and questions about their horns.” In that school, her history teacher, Doña Marta Alvarado, taught her, “Real history was made by women,” a statement Agosín would take to heart in her future work.

Much as Agosín has always loved Chile, and she returns often to this day, she acknowledges the anti-Semitism that took root in her home country, spurred by German colonists encouraged to settle in southern Chile, as well as Nazi war criminals who arrived after World War II. She addresses this subject in detail in her haunting memoir, A Cross and a Star: Memoirs of a Jewish Girl in Chile, where she shares the stories of her Russian, Polish, and Viennese Jewish ancestors, who fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia and Nazi extermination camps and found their way to Chile on the eve and at the start of World War II, carrying with them what Agosín calls “the Shoah to come.” In Chile, sadly, they discovered that the anti-Semitism they attempted to flee followed them to their new home.

In 1972, Agosín moved with her family to Athens, Georgia. Her father, a doctor and a biochemist, took a job as a professor of chemistry at the university, not realizing how long they would be staying. The following year, Augusto Pinochet staged a military coup, overthrowing the democratic government of Salvador Allende, and the family knew they could not return.

Living in exile was painful for Agosín. She felt out of place in Georgia, where she had to continually explain her identity during her high school years to people who could not understand how she could be blonde, speak Spanish without looking Latina, and also be Jewish. She has also never felt completely comfortable in the American Jewish community. As Agosín notes, “Jews in North America are not very much like me. They are Jewish North Americans. Their America belongs to them. We Jews in Latin America remain always grateful for the ports of entry opened to us, yet underneath the bed we always keep a suitcase” (The Alphabet in my Hands, 33).

Agosín received her B.A. from the University of Georgia in 1976. She then obtained her PhD in Latin American Literature from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1982. Her first academic position was at Wellesley College, where she has taught since 1982, offering courses on Jewish women writers and on Latin America, as well as creative writing classes. Agosín lives in Wellesley, where she has received the Andrew Mellon Professorship in the Humanities, with her husband, nuclear scientist John Wiggins (m. 1977), and they have a son, Joseph (b. 1988), and a daughter, Sonia (b. 1991).

Professional Contributions

In her many impressive roles as a poet, storyteller, editor, scholar, educator, and activist in the field of human rights and women's rights, Agosín has shown herself to be an accomplished creative writer as well as a profound thinker and a woman of integrity, passion, and intellectual brilliance. With her ability to combine creative and critical work and to speak to a wide range of audiences in the world of humanistic scholarship and the creative arts, Agosín has made major professional contributions, always connecting her love for the Spanish language with her Jewish identity.

Agosín is an unusual Latina and Jewish writer in that she writes in Spanish, a sacred language of home for her. Her work is always translated into English for North American readers and she chooses thereby to live in translation. Agosín inhabits several places, fluidly moving between Chile, Europe, and the United States in her life and her writing, making transnational flows of memory come alive in her vibrant poems and stories.

Agosín has received many awards for her creative work, including the Gabriela Mistral Medal of Honor for Life Achievement by the Chilean government. Horrified by the plight of the “disappeared” in Chile following the Pinochet takeover, Agosín became an outspoken defender of human rights, especially on behalf of women and children. She was recognized for her lifelong activism with a rare and prestigious Leadership Award in Human Rights from the United Nations, and she also received the Fritz Reidlich Award for Human Rights from the Harvard Program on Refugees and Trauma.

Poetry and Short Stories

Agosín's many books of poetry, among them Zones of Pain and Other Poems, Dear Anne Frank, and Noche Estrellada, explore the themes of memory, history, trauma, violence, and exile through a sensibility that is attuned to the musical rhythms of poetic language and the philosophical depth of poetic reflection.

The important collection of her poems, At the Threshold of Memory: Selected and New Poems, showcases the multiple registers in which Agosín can write, remembering Anne Frank in her poem “Amsterdam,” with the words, “I am Anne Frank/I am thirteen years old/but I am also thousands of years old./I smell of smoke and old age/covering the faces of fear” (p. 95). And in a poem called “Alien,” she describes a foreign woman, perhaps much like herself, “making a map,/geographies,/tattoos of her/sorrows” (p. 129).

In her bilingual poetry book, The White Islands/Las islas blancas, inspired by her journey to Salonika, the Greek Islands, Rhodes, Crete, as well as the Balkans, Agosín moves in a new direction, offering a lament about the expulsion of the Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardic  Jews from Spain as seen through the eyes and stories of Sephardi women past and present. Agosín also tells the often-forgotten story of the Greek Jews who perished in the Holocaust. As she writes, “They took all the Jews of Rhodes/On a sunny day like all of the gentle days of the Aegean Sea” (p. 57).

Agosín’s short stories, such as the collection Happiness, have a richness of voice that make them sing on the page, even as she describes feelings of loss and estrangement and examines the plight of marginalized women. Agosín also brings her poetic wisdom to bear on difficult political issues; her book, Ashes of Revolt: Essays on Human Rights, stands out as a singular example of a poet addressing troubling problems of our time.

Memoirs

Agosín’s vast body of work in the realm of memoir, essays, and fiction weaves together Jewish and Latin American culture and history and explores the secrets, silences, and broken memories that elusively gather the generations in her family in a transnational flow that connects Europe, Chile, and the United States. She explores the complex links between the European intolerance and anti-Semitism that led to her family's immigration to Chile and the rise of the political repression in Chile that led to her family's subsequent immigration to the United States.

Her memoirs, A Cross and a Star: Memoirs of a Jewish Girl in Chile and Always from Somewhere Else: My Jewish Father, are unique accounts of the life stories of her mother and father that express the crucial importance of bearing witness to those stories while weaving them within the larger history of Jewish diaspora displacements and search for home in the modern era. Together, these memoirs offer a moving window onto the history of Jews in Chile. The memoirs are told in fragments that grow through a layering process that mirrors the ebb and flow of memory. Agosín's poetic method is that of an archaeologist seeking catharsis, trying to get at the many layers of losses and longings of Jews, like her parents, who made their América on the other side of the border and became “Latin Americans,” only to have to remake themselves again as "Latinos" in the America of the United States.

Anthologies

In addition to her extensive and accomplished writing in many literary genres, Agosín has played a key role as a critic and editor, single-handedly bringing a wide range of Latin American Jewish and Latina Jewish women's writing to the attention of North American and global readers through the many anthologies she has edited. Agosín has been an essential voice in the effort to redefine Latina/Latin American identity in ways that challenge stereotypes and simplistic constructions of history. She has brought out an impressive number of anthologies of Latin American Jewish women poets and writers, in English, Spanish, and in bilingual editions.

Among these anthologies, The House of Memory: Jewish Stories from Jewish Women of Latin America, was the first anthology of Latin American Jewish women's writing to be published in the United States, and Agosín’s two major collections, These Are Not Sweet Girls: 20th Century Latin American Women Poets and Landscapes of a New Land: Short Stories by Latin American Women Writers, offer a thorough general introduction in English to the spectacular poetry and fiction writing of contemporary Latin American women writers.

In the recent anthology, Home: An Imagined Landscape, Agosín expands her geographic map to include writers from a range of nations, including Jamaica, Egypt, Greece, and Hungary, seeking a broad understanding of the nomadism and global immigration of our time. As Agosín so beautifully puts it in her introduction to this volume, “Home is an ever-traveling ship that arrives yet also takes sail in the harbors of our imagination” (p. xv).

Young Adult Fiction

After a long and successful career writing in a wide variety of genres for adult readers, Agosín plunged into young people’s literature, producing the young adult novel, I Lived on Butterfly Hill, which won the Pura Belpré Medal for a work by a Latina/Latino author that celebrates Latina/Latino identity, an award given by the American Library Association. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Celeste Marconi, Agosín tells the story of an eleven-year-old Chilean girl sent to Maine by her parents to protect her as the Pinochet government proceeds to “disappear” those considered subversive. Her sequel to this novel, The Maps of Memory: Return to Butterfly Hill, follows Celeste Marconi on her return to Chile after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, where she learns of the suffering inflicted upon family and friends. Through these two books for young people, Agosín takes on the difficult subject of political trauma as it affects youth trying to make sense of the past and the present. Written with her customary lyricism, clarity, and ethical commitment, the works bring Agosín’s vast knowledge and understanding of questions of memory and loss, and the scars that history and politics leave on the soul, to a new generation. This new dimension of her work passes on these stories to young people, so they can create a more just world where human rights can truly exist for all.

Selected Works

Novels

  • Las arpilleras Una historia con hilo y aguja. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Mis Raices, 2021.
  • The Flowering Tree. Illustrated by Francisca Yanez, translated by Alison Ridley. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Mis Raices, 2018.
  • El arbol florido. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Mis Raices, 2018.
  • Ana Reimaginando: El Diario De Ana Frank. Santiago, Chile: Das Kapital Ediciones, 2015.

Young Adult Novels

  • The Maps of Memories: Returning to Butterfly Hill. New York: Simson & Schuster, 2020.
  • I Lived in Butterfly Hill. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Memoirs

  • Amigas. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000. With Emma Sepúlveda.
  • The Alphabet in My Hands: A Writing Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Always from Somewhere Else. My Jewish Father. New York: Feminist Press, 1998.
  • A Cross and a Star: Memoirs of a Jewish Girl in Chile. New York: The Feminist Press, 1997; United Kingdom: Garnder Press, 1997; Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.  

Books of Poetry

  • Mollica, Richard, and Marjorie Agosín. A Manifesto: Healing a Violent World. Tunbridge Wells, UK: Solis Press, 2019.
  • The White Islands / Las Islas Blancas. Translated by Jacqueline C. Nanfito. Chicago: Swan Isle Press, 2016.
  • Harbors of Light / Puertos De Luz. Translated by E. O. O'Connor. Buffalo, NY: White Pine, 2016.
  • The light of desire. Chicago: Swan Isle Press, 2009.
  • At the Threshold of Memory: New and Selected Poems. Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 2003.
  • Noche estrellada. Santiago, Chile: Lom Ediciones, 1996; Miami, FL: University of Miami North South Center, 1996.
  • Dear Anne Frank. Washington, DC:  Azul Edition, 1994.
  • Circles of Madness. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1992.
    • Winner of the Alta Prize for Poetry
  • Zones of Pain. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1989.
  • Brujas y Hogueras: Mexico: Antología Poética, La Máquina Eléctrica, 1988.
    • Los Angeles Book Award Finalist

Anthologies Edited

  • A sea of voices: Women Poets of Israel an International Anthology. Santa Fe, NM: Sherman Asher, 2009.
  • From Chile to the World: 70 Years of Gabriela Mistral's Nobel Prize: De Chile Al Mundo: 70 Años Del Premio Nobel De Gabriela Mistral. Edited by Marjorie Agosín, Gloria Garafulich Grabois. New York: Gabriela Mistral Foundation, 2015.
  • Home: An Imagined Landscape. Tunbridge Wells, UK: Solis Press, Kent, 2016.
  • Writing towards Hope: Human Rights in Latin America. New Haven: Yale University Press 2006.
  • Memory and Oblivion: The Modern Jewish Culture in Latin America Today. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004.
  • Miriam’s Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets. Santa Fe, NM: Sherman Asher Publishing, 2000.
  • Uncertain Travelers: Jewish Women Emigrants to the Americas. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.
  • The House of Memory: Jewish Stories from Jewish Women of Latin America. New York: The Feminist Press, 1999.
  • A Map of Hope: Women Writers and Human Rights. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
  • A Map of Hope: Women Writers and Human Rights. London: Penguin Books, 1999.
  • These are not the Sweet Girls: 20th Century Latin American Women Poets. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1993.
  • A Gabriela Mistral Reader. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1993.
  • Surviving Beyond Fear: Women, Children and Human Rights in Latin America. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1993.
  • Landscapes of a New Land: Short Stories by Latin American Women Writers. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1989. Second edition, February 1993.

Selected Awards

2021: Andrew Mellon Professorship in the Humanities, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.
2019: Lifetime Achievement Award, American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.
2018: Honorary Doctorate, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA.
2015: Pura Belpre Award for I Lived on Butterfly Hill.
2015: First Prize International Latino Literature Award for I Lived in Butterfly Hill.
2015: Sidney Taylor Notable Book Award for I Lived in Butterfly Hill.
2015: Jewish Book Award Finalist for I Lived in Butterfly Hill.
2015: Honorary Doctorate, Union College, Schenectady, NY.
2015: Special Guest of the City of Vienna and Jewish Welcome Center, Vienna, Austria.
2014: Honorary Doctorate, Case Western Reserve, Cleveland, OH.
2013: Fritz Reidlich Award for Human Rights, Harvard Program on Refugees and Trauma, Cambridge, MA.
2010:  International Latino Award First Prize for Of Earth and Sea (biography).
2009: Honorary Doctorate, Case Western Reserve, OH.
2007: Honorary Doctorate, Wesleyan University, IL.
2002: Gabriela Mistral Lifetime Achievement Award, Santiago, Chile.
2001: Miembro de la Academia Chilena de la Lengua, Santiago, Chile.

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How to cite this page

Behar, Ruth. "Marjorie Agosin." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/agosin-marjorie>.