Back in 2021, Vancouver dancer Juan Villegas learned something surprising about himself. It turns out that the Colombian immigrant’s ancestors were Sephardic Jews in Llerena, Spain. Raised as a Catholic, Villegas never realized this hidden past until his family in the Medellin area worked with a genealogist, who went back about 13 generations.
“It feels great because for a long time, we never knew exactly where our roots were,” Villegas tells Pancouver over Zoom.
On Wednesday (November 15) and Thursday (November 16), Villegas will premiere a new 35-minute solo, Edictum, at the Chutzpah! Festival. Created in collaboration with celebrated Vancouver choreographer Vanessa Goodman, it will explore the overall theme of displacement and how his discovery of his Jewish roots intersects with his queer Colombian identity.
According to Villegas, vast numbers of people in his hometown are connected to the original Spaniard who came in the 1500s to what’s now Colombia’s Department of Antioquia.
“For instance, my parents share the same ancestor,” Villegas says. “My sister and her husband also share the same ancestor. Everyone is related, basically.”
Edictum is the Latin word for “edict”, which is an appropriate title for the work. On March 1, 1492, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, orders all practising Jews to leave their territories within four months. This Alhambra Decree, a.k.a. the Edict of Expulsion, resulted mass conversions to Catholicism.
The 40,000 to 100,000 who chose to remain Jewish were forced to leave, according to Madrid author Joseph Pérez’s History of a Tragedy: The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
Villegas sees Jewish culture in hometown
Villegas doesn’t know if his first ancestor in Colombia had embraced the Catholic faith prior to his voyage to South America.
“His parents had already converted to Catholicism in Spain—and they stayed in Spain,” Villegas notes. “But what is unsure is whether the person who came here was still a Jewish practitioner.”
He points out that people might have said that they converted in order to survive. Yet they may have still practised their Jewish customs and traditions privately inside their homes.
One thing is clear, however. There are many vestiges of Jewish culture in Antioquia. For instance, during the Christmas period, many Columbian Catholic families in this region celebrate a “Candle Day”.
“We light up candles outside the homes,” Villegas says. “That to me was normal. I came to Vancouver and I talked to the Catholic people. They were, like, ‘We don’t have a candle day. That doesn’t exist.’ ”
But candles are burned in a menorah on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Moreover, Villegas reveals that many costumes worn in Antioquia appear to be Jewish.
On the same Zoom call, Goodman says that she has discussed these things with Villegas while developing Edictum. Goodman grew up in a secular Jewish family that celebrated Jewish holidays, so she’s aware of the traditions. In choreographing the dance solo, she thought about the body as a living archive. Goodman also considered how rituals might be embodied in that body.
She spoke extensively with Villegas about his family’s traditions, including foods served inside the home.
“What’s written in our DNA—what’s written in our life experiences—that all kind of comes out in how we operate in the world and how we move through time and space,” Goodman says.
Edictum highlights displacement
From there, they started to develop a physical language that could be embodied in text. In this way, Goodman could weave together a story that made sense to Villegas in navigating his personal history. In particular, she wanted to explore what the revelation of his Jewish history means to his body.
During Edictum, Villegas will speak these words, mostly in Spanish, and dance to a score written by Vancouver experimental composer Loscil (a.k.a. Scott Morgan).
Goodman emphasizes that Villegas’s family history of displacement is not unique. As a result, she has choreographed Edictum to address the larger issue of people being forced to leave their homelands.
She points out in the interview the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula probably contributed to the displacement of the Indigenous population of Colombia. “Both resource extraction and borders are a part of the evil of colonization,” says Goodman.
In essence, she adds, Edictum about displacement that many people have suffered and endured—and how culture can survive in many forms.
“We tried to leave the language in some ways oblique enough that it could be a story for many people in many scenarios, regardless of ideology, religious heritage, ethnicity, and orientation,” Goodman emphasizes.
As a current example, she sees the displacement of Palestinian people as a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.
“So, I think whether it’s from the 15th century, whether it’s World War II, or whether it’s now today, these things and these people matter.”
Villegas eyes Portuguese citizenship
Villegas echoes this point, declaring that Edictum is not only about the expulsion of Jews throughout history. It’s also relevant to contemporary times.
Because of his Jewish heritage, Villegas has applied for a Portuguese passport. He was able to do this because Portugal and Spain both created programs to offer a pathway to citizenship for those whose ancestors were forced to leave because of their Jewish faith. By the time he submitted the forms, he had missed Spain’s deadline.
Colombia, Canada, and Portugal all allow dual citizenship. In the meantime, he would also like to perform Edictum in other cities.
“I’m hoping to not finish only at Chutzpah but continue taking this work to other places, other festivals,” Villegas says.
The Chutzpah! Festival will present Edictum in an evening dance double bill with Meghann Michalsky and Katherine Semchuk’s Maybe We Land, which is inspired by Esther Perel’s writings. The performances will take place at 8 p.m. on Wednesday (November 15) and Thursday (November 16) at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the Chutzpah! Festival website.