A Jewish author exploring her outsider identity in Catholic Mexico, Sabina Berman was the first writer to win the Mexican Theater Prize four times. Born in Mexico in 1954, Berman studied Mexican literature and psychology at the Universidad Iberoamericana and turned her hand to writing plays. Her first work, Rompecabezas (1982), won first prize from the Institute of Theatre of Fine Arts, marking the beginning of her long and highly acclaimed career. Among her many awards is a National Journalism Award, a Multidimensional Poetry Award, and an Oscar nomination in 2010 for Backyard, which she wrote and co-produced. She co-directed Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman in 1995 and authored the screenplays for Alfonso Cuarón’s The History of Love and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s Light.
In presenting her plurality as an Ashkenazi Jew, a Mexican, a woman and a playwright, Sabina Berman 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.
Family and Early Life
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 bubbe 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 has been 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.
Jewish Motifs in Berman’s Literary Works
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.
Playwrighting and Theatrical Involvement
The theater also provides an opportunity for Berman 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.
Awards and Critical Acclaim
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 and the National Journalism Award two 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 (The Wonderful Story of Chiquito Pinguica).
In 2006, Sabina Berman published a book outlining the electoral process of the 2006 election in Mexico, Un soplo en el corazón de la patria, and co-published a political essay, Democracia cultural, with Lucina Jiménez. Since 2007, Berman has run Shalalá, a weekly interview program, on Televisión Azteca. Her 2010 novel, La mujer que buceó dentro del corazón del mundo, has been translated into at least eleven languages and won the prestigious Liberatur Award in 2012.
Recognized as part of the new generation of Mexican dramaturgy, Berman is undoubtedly celebrated for her contribution to Latin American culture as a multifaceted and pioneering playwright, narrator, journalist, and poet. Her feminist ideals, struggles for social justice, acceptance of queer identity, 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.
SELECTED WORKS BY SABINA BERMAN
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.
El dios de Darwin (Darwin’s God). Mexico: Ediciones Destino, 2014.
El narco negocia con Dios; Testosterona. México, D.F.: 2013.
La mujer que buceó dentro del corazón del mundo (Me). Mexico: Planeta, 2010.
Feliz nuevo siglo doktor Freud (Freud skating). Mexico: Conaculta, 2001.
Muerte súbita (Sudden Death). Madrid: 2000.
Mujeres y poder (Women and Power). Co-written with Denise Maerker. Mexico: Hoja Casa Editorial, 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.
Bixler, Jacqueline Eyring. "Sabina Berman Redux: Adaptation and the Anxiety of (Self) Influence." Romance Notes 55, no. 2 (2015): 227-39.
Bixler, Jacqueline Eyring. Sediciosas seducciones: sexoo, poder y palabras en el teatro de Sabina Berman. México, D.F.: 2004.
Varona, Alfonso. "Entrevista a Sabina Berman." Latin American Theatre Review 47, no. 1 (2013): 133-144.