Happy Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us! The traditional Airing of Grievances seems superfluous this year: we’ve been airing and grieving for most of 2020. So let us gather quietly—and virtually—around the traditionally unadorned Festivus pole and wish for feats of strength to get us through the season.
On Monday President-elect Joe Biden announced several of his Cabinet choices, including Alejandro “Ali” Mayorkas, his pick to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Havana-born Mayorkas, who turns 61 today, would be the first immigrant to head the department since its creation in 2002, during the George W. Bush administration.
Unlike some of Biden’s other Cabinet and staff picks—John Kerry, Janet Yellen, Ron Klain—Mayorkas was a new name to me. But only because I hadn’t been paying attention: He’s a former US Attorney in the Central District of California (the youngest person ever to hold that position, which oversees a huge swatch of Southern California), and he served under President Obama as the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, where he led the implementation of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). And, not for nothing, he’s a graduate of my own alma mater, UC Berkeley.
Mayorkas is a Jew, and his name reveals a rich and intriguing story. From its distinctive spelling, I recognized it as a Sephardic name: a link to the Jews’ long history in Spain, Portugal, and the post-Inquisition Spanish diaspora—a diaspora that included Colonial America. (The first Jews in America were Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, and America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, was founded by Sephardic immigrants from Barbados.) Mayorkas is a toponym—a place-name surname—that indicates a connection to the island of Majorca (Mallorca in Spanish), where a Jewish community has lived, and occasionally thrived, for more than a thousand years, since before the Balearic Islands belonged to Spain.
On this map (Wikipedia), Mallorca is the largest island east of the Spanish mainland.
Unlike Ashkenazi Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe, who took permanent surnames only when they were legally mandated by one emperor or another in the late 18th century, Sephardic Jews had legal surnames as early as the 10th or 11th century CE. Place names, especially the names of home villages, were common sources of surnames: Asturias, La Porta, del Monte.
The language of the Balearic Islands is Catalan, but the language of Jews throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world is Judeo-Spanish, often called Ladino. It’s the equivalent of Yiddish among Ashkenazi Jews: a blend of European and Hebrew elements that can serve as a lingua franca. Unlike Yiddish, which uses the Hebrew script, Ladino is written in Roman letters. According to a Wikipedia entry, “In many respects, [Ladino] reproduces the Spanish of the time of the Expulsion [from Spain in 1492], rather than the modern variety, as it retains some archaic features” of spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. There is no usted or ustedes in Judeo-Spanish; the formal second person is singular vos and plural vosotros. Some nouns take Hebrew pluralizing suffixes (ermano, brother, can become either ermanos or ermanim). One visually striking feature, if you’re familiar with modern Spanish, is the substitution of k for qu and c: in modern Spanish, k appears only in loanwords such as kiosco (kiosk). Thus Mallorca can be written Mayorka.
(Disclaimer: I am not a Ladino expert, but I’ve had some exposure to it. And I studied medieval Spanish and Hebrew, which gave me some insights into Ladino vocabulary and grammar.)
Alejandro Mayorkas’s father was a member of Cuba’s tiny Sephardic Jewish community; his mother had escaped to Cuba from Romania during the Holocaust. In a November 11, 2020, story, the Jewish Insider quoted a speech Mayorkas gave to the (Jewish) Orthodox Union in 2016:
“I come from a tradition of a lack of security,” he said in his remarks. “It instilled in me as a very young person [that there] was a sense of concern by virtue of my identity as a Jew. My mother, she tried to teach us not to speak of our Judaism outside of our Jewish community — that was born of her tragic experience. My father was actually of a different school. He was a member of a very small Sephardic community in Cuba, and he used to talk about it all the time because no one in Cuba believed he was actually Jewish because there were only about eight of them.”
He tweeted on Monday:
When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge. Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
I don’t know whether Alejandro Mayorkas’s father was able to trace his roots to the Balearic Islands, but his name strongly implies that heritage. Alejandro Mayorkas is thus a first in many respects: a Cuban American, an immigrant, and a Sephardic Jew. I’d love to know whether he speaks or reads Ladino!
What’s your grief, and how are you coping with it? Perhaps you suffer from climate grief, a term that may have been coined in 2007, by the authors of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, to describe the despair and depression people experience when they contemplate the climate crisis. Maybe you console yourself by eating, which may result in what Germans call kummerspeck (literally “grief fat”).
Or maybe you, like New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg, are experiencing democracy grief: not merely “anxiety and anger” but also “a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression” that—as one psychologist put it to Goldberg—“the institutions that we rely on to protect us from a dangerous individual might fail.”
How Democracies Die (2018). by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who warn of the “gradual chipping away of democratic institutions” that makes it “harder and harder to dislodge the incumbent [elected official] by democratic means.”
Democrats “have gone loco, they have gone loco,” President Trump told a crowd in Tennessee on October 1. He added, for the benefit of monolingual listeners: “They have gone crazy.” Earlier that day, at a White House press conference, he had used the same word to disparage another group on his enemies list:
“They’re loco,” he said of the media. “I use that word because of that fact that we made a trade deal with Mexico.”
Two days earlier, Trump had tested “loco” at a West Virginia rally, saying the Democratic Party was “so far left, Pocohantas” – his often-invoked slur for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren – “is considered conservative.” The Democrats “have gone crazy. They’ve gone loco.”
And on October 10 Trump wielded his new favorite adjective against the Federal Reserve Bank.
His full comment, in an interview with Fox News: “The Fed is going wild. I mean, I don’t know what their problem is that they are raising interest rates and it’s ridiculous. The Fed is going loco, and there’s no reason for them to do it. I’m not happy about it.”
Faster than a speeding locomotive, reporters were turning “loco” against its source. “Donald Trump’s Loco Attack on the Federal Reserve” was the headline on an article by staff writer John Cassidy in the New Yorker online. (Cassidy’s conclusion: “Rather than acting strategically and respecting an institutional setup that, generally speaking, has served the country well, [Trump] went loco.”) Washington Post opinion writer Catherine Rampell observed that “Trump’s arm-twisting of the Fed is what’s truly ‘loco’.”
That’s a lot of “loco” for a single fortnight, and the reasons for its sudden surge are unclear. Trump often has trouble stringing together a coherent sentence in his native English, and he has no history of demonstrating admiration for the Spanish language or its speakers. (In the only other example I can recall of his using Spanish, he called for deporting “bad hombres” during an October 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. He mispronounced “hombres” as “hambres,” which means “hungers.”) Is Trump a fan of Marcelo “El Loco” Bialsa, the Argentine-born soccer coach now managing Leeds United? Doubtful. Was the recent Spanish incursion was influenced by “Loco,” a new track by Machine Gun Kelly released in August of this year?
Last week wine distributor Lot18 and MGM – producer of the Hulu streaming series The Handmaid’s Tale – announced one of the more harebrained merchandising collabs of recent years: three wines named after the show’s most prominent characters, Offred, Ofglen, and Serena Joy. It went about as badly as you might expect, and within 24 hours the wines had disappeared from the Lot18 website.
Eater magazine published a five-part series on bad restaurant names, from bad puns to “distressingly sexual” to “crimes against language” to “just really bad.” Start with Part 1 and follow the links at the end to read about the others.