Forging Ties, Forging Passports
Migration and the Modern Sephardi Diaspora
Devi Mays



IN THE SPRING OF 1949, a man by the name of Mauricio Fresco living in Mexico City wrote a letter in French to the renowned Turkish Jewish historian Abraham Galanté in Istanbul, Turkey. “I doubt you will remember me,” penned Mauricio, since they had last met at least twenty-nine years earlier, when Mauricio was but a youth. Mauricio reminded Galanté that the latter had regularly visited the office where David Fresco, Mauricio’s father, struggled to publish his newspaper, the Ladino-language El Tiempo that circulated widely among Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman capital and beyond.1 And it was information about his father that Mauricio sought, since he had been “unfortunately too young and naïve to be able to inquire or know much about my father’s past” before his father died in France in 1933. “Although much time has passed, I still have fond memories of those who collaborated with and loved my father, because I must confess I am proud to be his son.”2

Mauricio sketched a brief portrait for Galanté of his life since leaving the Ottoman Empire as a young man. He had worked “in America” as a journalist, publishing many books and articles in various languages, and had spent time in Russia and China. And perhaps David Fresco had told his old friend that his youngest son, Mauricio, had involved himself “in the world of diplomacy?” Protected by his diplomatic post, he had witnessed both the occupation and liberation of Paris. Though Mauricio did not tell Galanté that it was in the Mexican diplomatic corps that he had worked for eighteen years, he shared that his experiences had compelled him to prepare a new book, titled Forge Your Own Passport. This book, Mauricio noted, would “prove the stupidity of passports, visas, nationalities, races, etc.”

Fresco’s letter—and particularly his disdain for passports, visas, nationalities, and races as means that enabled, in his words, the exploitation of humanity—hints at the central tension this volume aims to explore: states constitute their status as states, in part, through distinguishing between citizens or subjects and possible interlopers and controlling the ingress and egress of both populations. This is enabled by documentation such as passports and visas and often refracted through the categorization of certain races or nationalities as more desirable than others. Over the course of his own life, Fresco and thousands of his Sephardi coreligionists migrated from areas in the Ottoman Empire to Western Europe, the Americas, and beyond. For these individuals, migration was often the most effective form of removing themselves from violence or oppression, employing their education, and exploring opportunities for economic advancement and social mobility. If states attempt to categorize, make stable, and fix populations, the individuals and groups this book examines often thrived in motion, in blurring categories that were not as rigid as consular and border officials liked to believe, or at least to portray in their interactions with higher-ups. Sometimes the officials themselves, like Fresco, had a vested interest in allowing for ambiguity, since that very ambiguity enabled their own mobility and even, in Fresco’s own case, forged documentation.

Over the course of the early twentieth century, advances in technology and transportation made the world ever smaller. Journeys from the eastern Mediterranean to Atlantic port cities in the Americas that had previously taken months were shortened to weeks, and expanded railroad networks hastened inland travel. Telegrams, though prohibitively expensive, enabled almost instantaneous communication across vast distances. Photography, increasingly ubiquitous, provided a means of sharing new landscapes, identifying possible future spouses, and keeping friends and relatives abreast of changes in personal and professional fortunes. They also enabled authorities to fix images to documentation assigned to people in motion. By 1920, newspapers published in Ladino in New York boasted of agents as far afield as Seattle, Havana, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Skopje and readers throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia; Ladino periodicals in Izmir, Istanbul, and elsewhere regularly published pieces drawn from the American Ladino press and from Jewish and non-Jewish publications in Europe and the Americas.3 Ladino novels exposed readers to the possibilities of migration within Europe and across the Atlantic—emphasizing for dramatic effect the changes in clothing, names, behaviors, and wealth that ensued—and of married women abandoned by husbands and pregnant women unable to wed for lack of documentation.4 Music and food, too, increasingly linked the world. The quintessential song of the Mexican Revolution, “La Cucaracha,” made its way to interwar Salonica. There, it was adapted into Ladino and the reference to marijuana removed.5 Bananas, meanwhile, were expensive in the Ottoman Empire, yet one new arrival to Mexico noted that because he was familiar with them from before he migrated, he knew to purchase them as his only food for the train journey from the port of Veracruz to Mexico City. They were quite cheap in Mexico.6 Accelerated flows of people, goods, and knowledge helped to bind together individuals separated by mountains, seas, and borders and to increase familiarity between distant lands and peoples.

Language, too, allowed for a certain type of understanding. Ladino-speaking migrants from the Mediterranean expressed the strange familiarity they experienced upon hearing Spanish in their ports of entry into the Americas—whether in Havana, Veracruz, or Buenos Aires. This marked their migratory experience as dramatically different from that of Jewish and Ottoman migrants whose mother tongue was Arabic, Armenian, Yiddish, or Greek. “Some time ago, a Sephardi established in Havana sent for his elderly mother to come, an old woman who had never left Salonica. Upon stepping upon Cuban soil, the good woman exclaimed with surprise: “Listen, my son, are they all Jews here . . . that they speak like us?” wrote a Sephardi migrant in a book published in Havana in 1958.7 Rarer were the stories of the incommensurability of Ladino and Spanish, of women who went to the market to purchase food only to find that they could not communicate their desires to the Mexican sellers; muestro espanyol, “our Spanish,” was actually quite distinct from Mexican Spanish. But the shared heritage of Ladino and Spanish was sometimes understood, by Sephardi migrants and Mexican officials alike, as a manifestation of cultural and even biological commonalities between their speakers, regardless of whether their birthplace was in the eastern Mediterranean or the Americas.

Even as new technologies brought the world together, the collapse of long-standing empires created new states and borders that grew more difficult to cross as states increasingly regulated migration. The proliferation of passports and other forms of state-issued documentation in the years after World War I aided monitoring. The regulation and control of documentation and movement was essential to the institutionalization of postwar nationalizing states, which were often idealized as being culturally and ethnically homogenous.8 Though passports and visas existed in some countries prior to World War I, that war is often seen as the harbinger of the Passport Age, in which passports, visas, and other forms of documentation of identity and travel became ubiquitous and often the sole basis upon which legal movement was decided. New countries engaged in intensive processes of nation-building that often resulted in the marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities, if not the tacit or active encouragement of their emigration. Nationality was a key factor in the transition from empire to nation-state, holding a particular character in each postwar state.9 Regulating the movements of people and goods across their borders became a means by which states established their legitimacy and power. This required the establishment of normative classifications of religion, language, nationality, and race and the ability of officials to easily fit migrants within these categories.

Individuals could and did confound states’ attempts to classify them and thereby regulate and restrict their movement. It was precisely characteristics that defied confinement within externally discernible categories that at times enabled individuals to cross boundaries and borders effectively. Migratory laws and restrictions were not all-powerful. The individuals explored in this volume drew on all tools at their disposal in response to or subversion of such legal regimes, thereby prompting state responses in an ongoing dialectic on the desirability of certain types of immigrants or emigrations.

For states invested in creating a coherent national vision, individuals who possessed characteristics that defied confinement posed a problem, if not a direct threat. Successful enforcement of the state policies that shaped nationalizing projects depended on state actors being able to properly identify individuals. As this book will show, officials were often not equipped to do so, particularly with individuals deeply embedded within transnational networks.

Histories of migration are often told from the perspective of one particular country, as narratives of immigrant assimilation or the lack thereof, or they analyze migration as linear, whether unidirectionally or, in the case of return migration, bidirectionally so.10 As the philosopher Thomas Nail asserts, “place-bound membership in a society is assumed as primary.”11 The terminology of “emigrant” and “immigrant” emphasizes the state-centered perspective and the implied normalcy of stasis over movement. However, migration is often far more complex than that. Centering the practices of mobile individuals highlights the complexities of migration and the limits of the ability of state-centered terminologies and perspectives to effectively encapsulate their experiences. I therefore use the term “migrant” and its derivatives—except when reflecting the usage of specific sources or highlighting the state perspective—in order to center individuals’ experiences of migration and to challenge the presumed primacy of state understandings of people on the move.

The individuals explored in this book lived in a state of hypermobility—sustained, long-term, nonlinear migrations lacking a clear teleology. These individuals, like Mauricio Fresco, moved frequently, whether those moves took the form of relocations intended to be permanent or of prolonged business trips between destinations throughout the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Atlantic.12 Nation-states and national laws mattered even for such transnational individuals, but we should not blindly accept nationalizing states as the norm and transnational individuals as exceptions.13 Even those ostensibly “settled” in one country moved frequently within its borders. Such hypermobility necessitated acquiring and maintaining the tools—linguistic, monetary, legal, and extralegal—that enabled continued mobility. This mobility was often aided by others of the same religious and linguistic background, who shared strategies, capital and goods, homes, and even documentation.

Hypermobility, which entailed the sustained movements of peoples, knowledge, and goods, connected Sephardi individuals from similar origins in the northeastern Mediterranean who were now spread across oceans and continents. In doing so, it enabled the creation and perpetuation of a diaspora. The historian Matthias Lehmann has argued for understanding diaspora as “something that happens rather than something that is.”14 The “continuous circulation of people, money, goods, and information” creates networks of individuals and communities in communication. These networks, sustained through constant interaction, transform separate places into one community.15 Hypermobility, and the networks of communication and exchange that it maintained across continents, transformed dispersed Sephardi individuals into a modern Sephardi diaspora.

This book is not one of simple stories and trajectories. Even in stasis and stability, lives traverse obstacles and triumphs. This is all the more true when an individual is on the move and must acquire and employ new skills to survive, and even more so to thrive, in new contexts, or when changing political and economic circumstances change the familiar into the unfamiliar. When we explore the stories of thousands of individuals who contended with profound transformations in politics and laws on local, national, and international scales, who crossed or were crossed by borders, all the while maintaining strong bonds to others across oceans and seas, we must delve into the complexities behind their decisions, actions, and trajectories.

Understanding their histories requires teasing out threads of class, race, gender, legal codes, and nation-building, exploring how these threads themselves changed over time and how together they wove the fabric through which individuals embroidered their lives. This book cobbles together the history of individual actors: how people bound together by religion, language, and a shared regional origin in an empire that ceased to exist in their lifetime navigated these profound changes and made a space for themselves. Their story cannot be told, nor understood, without simultaneously exploring how states became states in the tumultuous years of the early twentieth century and how this was inextricably connected to the process of creating nations, often through the deliberate inclusion or exclusion of certain populations.16 Tracing the complex histories of several thousand Sephardi migrants and how they intersected with those in other locations, including those who never left their places of origin, enables us to explore questions of nation-and state-building from the vantage point of those whose religion, language, perceived race, and origins often—but not always—cast them to the margins of the new nations forged in the twentieth century.

While migration histories like this one reveal how individuals on the move encountered and countered attempts by various states to fix them in space and their identities in paperwork, this does not mean that migrants operated beyond the reach of coercive networks. Migrants created their own transnational networks, linking places of origin and diasporic nodes that monitored and controlled the behaviors of those on the move, at times reinforcing preexisting hierarchies of authority and at times creating new ones. Migration might afford women the freedom to choose their own husbands, for example, but they were nevertheless constrained by social and familial pressure to marry someone within their own community or class, or by the threat of exclusion should they decide not to marry a man with whom they had only exchanged letters and photographs and whom they had crossed the Atlantic to marry, only to find that he had lied about his appearance.17 Migrant women in particular turned to the Ottoman chief rabbi for information on the character of potential husbands they met abroad, to which the informal networks of communication on lineage and reputation did not extend.18 Migrants threatened to report others to their family members in their places of origin should they behave inappropriately, while Ladino periodicals reported on, shamed, and sought to track down migrant men who had abandoned wives, dodged the draft, or committed murder. These internal coercive networks perpetuated gendered modes of behavior even in diaspora and offer a corrective to understandings of migration as a means of escaping social, cultural, or political controls.

“The migrant is the political figure of our time,” writes the philosopher Thomas Nail, positing the migrant as a social position that “people move into and out of under certain social conditions of mobility.”19 This presumes that having once been a migrant—or, in the case of Jews in Turkey, simply having descended from those who had crossed seas centuries earlier—one can never hope to be understood as anything other than a migrant. Many of the individuals whose histories this book brings to light were of a generation whose adolescence or young adulthood was framed by a world war, the dissolution of the empire into which they were born, and the creation of new states in its wake. They contended with migration in an age where passports and visas came to be of utmost importance but were not yet regularized and where ideas of citizenship, nationality, and the nation were omnipresent but what these concepts defined or conveyed, when and how they mattered, and to whom was not clearly understood or agreed upon by all parties involved. For this generation of men and women, “migrant” was not a temporary status but rather a semipermanent or permanent condition that was shaped by, and shaped, the historical benchmarks their lives traversed. For those of a generation that one migrant described as “arrived from the other side,” their experiences of dislocation differentiated them from those born in the Americas; their being migrants meant that “the form of thinking was totally different” from that of Sephardi coreligionists without such experiences.20 The migrant may be the political figure of our time, but if we look at the experiences of migrants from a century before, we see that the migrant has been a central political figure for more than our moment and that the social position of the migrant is a condition that not all want to move out of or are even capable of doing so.


1. Galanté contributed to the Ladino-language periodicals El Telegrafo and El Tiempo, both run by David Fresco. See Abraham Elmaleh, Le Professeur Abraham Galante: Sa vie et ses oeuvres (Istanbul, 1947), 20.

2. I quote from the letter published as “‘Forge Your Own Passport’: The Unlikely Rise of an International Author and Diplomat,” translated by Julia Phillips Cohen, in Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700–1950, ed. Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Stanford, 2014), 379–380.

3. “Lista de Nuestros Adjentes,” La Amerika, 4/16/1920, 3; “A Todos los Abonados,” La Amerika, 2/4/1921, 4.

4. Ben Yitzhak Saserdote, Refael i Miriam: Novela de la Vida de los Djudios del Oriente (Constantinople, 1910); Elia Karmona, El Mayoral Djudio (Constantinople, 1910); Elia Karmona, La Novia Aguna: Romanso Nasional Djudia (Constantinople, 5682).

5. Carlos Monsiváis, “Notas sobre cultura popular en México,” Latin American Perspectives 5, no. 1 (1978), 108; Rivka Havassy, “Con el Tiempo y Progreso (With Time and Progress): The Sephardi Cantigas at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,” European Judaism 44, no. 1 (Spring 2011), 129.

6. Elías Arditti, Izmir, París, Buenos Aires: Odisea de un inmigrante (Buenos Aires, 1993), 15.

7. José M. Estrugo, Los Sefardíes (Havana, 1958), 64. Daniela Gleizer cites an interview with Isaías Nizri, who related that “everyone spoke Spanish, my mother thought they were Jews.” See Daniela Gleizer, “Judíos Sefardíes: De España a México a través del Imperio Otomano,” in La Ciudad Cosmopolita de los Inmigrantes, ed. Carlos Martínez Assad (Mexico, 2010).

8. John Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State (Cambridge, 2000), 1–2.

9. Will Hanley, Identifying with Nationality: Europeans, Ottomans, and Egyptians in Alexandria (New York, 2017), 8, 285.

10. Exceptions include Rebecca Kobrin, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and Tobias Brinkmann.

11. Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford, 2015), 3.

12. Extensive transnational diasporic connections and travels were also a salient aspect of the histories of Syrio-Lebanese migrants in the same time period. See Andrew Arsan, Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa (London, 2014), 8–10.

13. Donna Gabaccia, “Is Everywhere Nowhere? Nomads, Nations, and the Immigrant Paradigm of United States History,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (Dec. 1999), 1117.

14. Matthias B. Lehmann, “Rethinking Sephardi Identity: Jews and Other Jews in Ottoman Palestine,” Jewish Social Studies 15, no. 1 (Fall, 2008), 83.

15. Ibid., quoting James Clifford, Routes: Travels and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1997), 246.

16. Rogers Brubaker, “Migration, Membership, and the Modern Nation-State: Internal and External Dimensions of the Politics of Belonging,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History XLI, no. I (Summer, 2010), 63.

17. Sandra McGee Deutsch, Crossing Borders, Claiming a Nation: A History of Argentine Jewish Women, 1880–1955 (Durham, 2010), 6; Liz Hamui de Halabe, Identidad Colectiva: Rasgos Culturales de los Inmigrantes Judeo-Alepinos en México (Mexico City, 1997), 104.

18. Devi Mays, “‘I Killed Her Because I Loved Her Too Much’: Gender and Violence in the 20th Century Sephardi Diaspora,” Mashriq and Mahjar 2, no. 1 (2014), 9.

19. Nail, The Figure of the Migrant, 235.

20. Interview with Vitali Meshoulam by Monika Unikel, 1/16/1989, AAUHJ.