Talk: Author and Literary Critic Ilan Stavans on His Graphic Novel, "El Iluminado"

March 4, 2013
5:00 pm

Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies

Room: Main Gallery

758 North Pleasant Street, Amherst, MA

Free admission
NC Christopher Couch

Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture and Five-College Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College, will speak about his new graphic novel, El Iluminado.

EL ILUMINADO: A Graphic Novel (Basic Books; November 13, 2012), the extraordinary collaboration between esteemed literary critic Ilan Stavans and National Book Award-finalist graphic artist Steve Sheinkin, offers a lesser-known religious history of the American Southwest in the form of a whodunit thriller about crypto-Jews in New Mexico. In 1492, under an edict enforced by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during the Spanish Inquisition, all Jews were forced to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country.  Those who converted were deemed “New Christians” or “conversos.”  Some of those conversos decided to outwardly portray themselves as Christians while still practicing Judaism in the privacy of their homes, passing down the Jewish traditions to their children, and living a secret life as crypto-Jews.  Many of these crypto-Jews traveled to Mexico and then onto the American Southwest, where they still live today.  Luis de Carvajal the Younger, also known as El Iluminado, was a crypto-Jew who lived in Mexico in the sixteenth century and was ultimately killed for not relinquishing his Jewish roots. 

Combining history with imagination, Stavans and Sheinkin develop a story around the fictional Rolando Perez, who grew up as a Catholic in Santa Fe.  As he begins to investigate unusual family traditions, such as lighting candles on Friday nights, Perez also questions why his mother never served pork products, leading him to believe that his family descended from conversos and he is actually of Jewish blood.  As Rolando tries to uncover his own family’s history, he comes across the story of Luis de Carvajal and becomes fascinated with Carvajal’s hidden Jewish life and troubling death.  Does Rolando’s obsession with Carvajal lead to his own demise?  In El Iluminado, readers play the detective—picking up clues and unraveling the mystery behind Rolando’s horrific death and the mysterious documents that everyone seems to want to get their hands on.

Professor Stavans becomes a character in the novel as well.  Having traveled to Santa Fe to give a lecture on New Mexico’s buried Jewish history, he becomes wrapped up in this murder mystery when Irina Rodriguez, Rolando’s cousin, seeks his help in learning more about crypto-Jews.  Professor Stavans also has a run-in with his arch-rival Professor Contreras and many other characters surface as the mystery unravels.  As the case develops and the search for clues continues, so do the eerie parallels between Rolando’s and Carvajal’s lives.  

Mixing Yiddish and Spanglish, El Iluminado deftly blends humor, history and mystery to reveal America’s secret religious and cultural past.

Ilan Stavans is the author of Latino USA: A Cartoon History and editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and adapted into theater and film. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and of many international prizes and honors, he lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Stavans’s appearance will be followed by a book signing and reception.

This event, sponsored by the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Posen Foundation for the Study of Jewish Secularism, is free, open to the public, and wheelchair accessible.  


From the main UMass Amherst campus, head north on North Pleasant Street. The Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies is on the left, just past the traffic circle.