Forg­ing Ties, Forg­ing Pass­ports: Migra­tion and the Mod­ern Sephar­di Diaspora

Devi Mays

January 14, 2020

Forg­ing Ties, Forg­ing Pass­ports is a his­to­ry of migra­tion and nation-build­ing from the van­tage point of those who lived between states. Devi Mays traces the his­to­ries of Ottoman Sephar­di Jews who emi­grat­ed to the Americas―and espe­cial­ly to Mexico―in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, and the com­plex rela­tion­ships they main­tained to legal doc­u­men­ta­tion as they migrat­ed and set­tled into new homes. Mays con­sid­ers the shift­ing notions of belong­ing, nation­al­i­ty, and cit­i­zen­ship through the sto­ries of indi­vid­ual women, men, and fam­i­lies who nav­i­gat­ed these tran­si­tions in their every­day lives, as well as through the paper­work they carried.

In the after­math of World War I and the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, migrants tra­versed new lay­ers of bureau­cra­cy and author­i­ty amid shift­ing polit­i­cal regimes as they crossed and were crossed by bor­ders. Ottoman Sephar­di migrants in Mex­i­co resist­ed unequiv­o­cal clas­si­fi­ca­tion as either Ottoman expa­tri­ates or Mex­i­cans through their links to the Sephar­di dias­po­ra in for­mer­ly Ottoman lands, France, Cuba, and the Unit­ed States. By mak­ing use of com­mer­cial and famil­ial net­works, these Sephar­di migrants main­tained a geo­graph­ic and social mobil­i­ty that chal­lenged the phys­i­cal bor­ders of the state and the con­cep­tu­al bound­aries of the nation.

Discussion Questions

Forg­ing Ties, Forg­ing Pass­ports is a transna­tion­al his­tor­i­cal study of Sephar­di migrants, their dias­poric prac­tices, and the social net­works that they nego­ti­at­ed through­out the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In this care­ful­ly and metic­u­lous­ly researched work, Devi Mays pro­files his­to­ries of Sephar­di migrants, main­ly from the Ottoman Empire to the Amer­i­c­as, to illus­trate how they nav­i­gat­ed com­plex and com­pet­ing notions of belong­ing and for­eign­ness. Mays’ analy­sis is the­o­ret­i­cal­ly rich and chal­lenges the ways in which state-cen­tered cat­e­gories such as cit­i­zen­ship and nation­al­i­ty fail to cap­ture the expe­ri­ences of indi­vid­ual migrants. This work is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the field of Sephar­di stud­ies as it dis­rupts labels like Jew­ish,” Sephar­di,” and Ottoman” that schol­ars often use with no inter­ro­ga­tion as to their devel­op­ment and applic­a­bil­i­ty. Most crit­i­cal­ly, Mays’ intro­duc­tion of Sephar­di migrants and their hyper­mo­bil­i­ty through time and space offers a much-need­ed his­tor­i­cal por­trait for those seek­ing to under­stand the genealo­gies and for­ma­tions of the con­tem­po­rary Sephar­di dias­po­ras in the Americas.