Thank you, Juan Epstein...This Latina will miss you
It was a punchline--Juan Epstein. Just the words together are the definition of oxymoron. Unless you happen to be a Puerto Rican Jew, which I kind of am. For me, it was just a validation of my reality.
Robert Hegyes, the actor who played Juan Epstein on the iconic show Welcome Back, Kotter, passed away yesterday. The actor (who was neither Jewish nor Latino in real life) will forever be remembered as the wise-ass with the huge smile. He was the very definition of what it meant to be American--completely opposite cultures formed together into one confused, but funny mess.
There were no Latinos where I grew up and there definitely were no Jewish-Irish-Latinos. Juan and I had a lot in common.
When people ask me where my parents are from, I always want to say Brooklyn, New York rather than give them the answer they are really looking for. In many ways, their individual ethnicity was overcome by growing up in Brooklyn in the early 50s. My mother, a mix of Irish Catholic and Eastern European Jew, had Italian cousins and a Latino husband. In the end they were from Brooklyn, all immigrants, taking the best of all the cultures surrounding them, forming a generation of Juan Epsteins.
My parents moved out of Brooklyn long before I was born, to a suburb on Long Island, where things were a lot less mixed. Except for how they raised us--rice and beans, Italian sauce on Sunday, matzo crackers at Easter time. It was all just part of my life but it was really weird in the predominately Italian neighborhood I grew up in. I was a complete wonder to the kids in school. I looked just like them (because somehow Puerto Rican and Irish make Italian-looking) but I wasn't like them at all. I distinctly remember watching reruns of Welcome Back, Kotter and seeing this character, Juan Epstein, as the first ever person besides my siblings who was like me. An oxymoron.
Truly, I have no idea if I should have been offended by his character or not. The jokes were probably bad, but at the end of the day, it was one of the only examples I can think of to this day the embodied my crazy, melted ethnicity pot.
Thanks, Robert Hegyes. You will be missed.
What did you think of Juan Epstein?
Image via AP