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The Identity Grid

Identity connotes not only the sum of an individual’s choices but also the boundaries of a group. But what happens to a group when individual identities cross boundaries? And what happens to an individual when group identities are suppressed? Two new books explore these questions as they affect women, Jews and Others in the history of the New World.

Suzanne Bost, an English professor at James Madison University, looks at race and subjectivity through the lens of mestizaje— a Latin American word for the mixture of indigenous, African and European ethnicities—in Mulattas and MestizasRepresenting Mixed Identities in the Americas1850-2000 University of Georgia Press, $39.95). Her ecumenical cultural criticism embraces slave narratives, medieval diaries, popular 19th-century novels, contemporary Chieana literature, and even pop culture and media, from sitcoms to Time magazine.

In Bost’s analysis, deep racial anxieties find expression in the recurring literary figure of the “tragic mulatta,” an exotically beautiful heroine. Often light-skinned enough to “pass” as white, she is doomed to suffer and even die for her essential “impurity.” Like the exotic Jewess of 18th and 19th-eentury literature, her taboo ambiguity is the object of a sexualized fascination as well. Bost looks at how writers such as Audre Lorde, Judith Ortiz Vofer, and Ruth Behar add bisexuality to the multiplicity of identities. Her argument is strongest when she shows how the contemporary celebration of diversity can mask the fear of mixture and erasure shared by both minorities and majority groups.

In Delirio: The Fantastic, the Demonic and the Reel (University of Texas Press, $24.95) Marie Theresa Hernandez also deals with the threat of erasure, in this autobiographical look at the history and identity myths of the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, given as an independent concession by the King of Spain to Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva in 1579. Legend has it that the Carvajals were a Jewish family whose members were tortured in the Inquisition, and that Nuevo Leon was settled by several families of conversos. Hernandez finds traces of Judaism in many aspects of norteno (Northerner) culture, from a recipe for cabrito (roasted young goat) which involves “koshering” the meat, to a Catholic mystic named Dona Pepita, whose informal status within the community she compares to the early Hasidim. However, even as she investigates these “secret Jewish stories,” other Nuevo-leneses vehemently deny the historical existence of any Jews.

Anya Kamenetz is a freelance writer and editor living in New York.