Five years ago, I began to write the sto­ry that would become my debut pic­ture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home; in Span­ish, El nue­vo hog­ar de Tía For­tu­na. I had a sim­ple goal: to intro­duce young read­ers to Sephardic cul­ture as a liv­ing cul­ture. Children’s books about Jew­ish iden­ti­ty tend to focus on Ashke­nazi cul­ture. If Sephardic Jews are por­trayed at all, they are usu­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed as mired in the his­tor­i­cal past of medieval Spain. They rarely get to be robust­ly alive in the present. I want­ed to offer a dif­fer­ent narrative.

I am Ashke­nazi on my mother’s side and Sephardic on my father’s side. My mater­nal grand­par­ents were from Rus­sia and Poland, my pater­nal grand­par­ents were from Turkey. On the eve of the Holo­caust, they all made their way to Cuba and found refuge on the island. My par­ents, both born in Cuba, had every expec­ta­tion they would raise my broth­er and I in Havana and that we’d stay for many gen­er­a­tions. But after the 1959 rev­o­lu­tion and the turn to com­mu­nism, our fam­i­ly left Cuba, along with the major­i­ty of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty — leav­ing behind syn­a­gogues, Torahs, and a world that had seemed per­ma­nent. The uproot­ing was dev­as­tat­ing. We’d lost our trop­i­cal promised land.

I grew up in New York with both Jew­ish cul­tures, hear­ing Yid­dish, Ladi­no, and Span­ish. I was clos­er to my mother’s side of the fam­i­ly and knew my father’s less well. Still, I was intrigued by the Sephardic cul­ture that I learned about in every­day encoun­ters. For exam­ple, my Sephardic Abuela called me Ruti­ka, using a Ladi­no form of endear­ment. I loved the Span­ish lan­guage and was enchant­ed by the way she and Abue­lo spoke; I didn’t know it was called Ladi­no, or Judeo-Span­ish, when I was young. Lat­er I real­ized that the musi­cal­i­ty of their Span­ish nos­tal­gi­cal­ly recalled Spain, for the Sephardim are a peo­ple who kept speak­ing the lan­guage of those who expelled them. That is why the Sephardim have been called Spaniards with­out a country.”

Sephardic her­itage can be very melan­choly. The emo­tion­al inher­i­tance of loss and long­ing — of the leg­endary expul­sion from Spain in 1492 — infus­es our songs, or kan­tikas, in Ladi­no. Both beau­ti­ful and tear­ful, these melodies are filled with grief about unful­filled love. I didn’t want to bur­den chil­dren with a sor­row­ful tale. I need­ed to find a joy­ful and poet­ic way to share what it means to be Sephardic and to con­nect it with the Cuban her­itage through which it had been passed on to me.

Inspired by my rela­tion­ship with my father’s younger sis­ter, Tía Fan­ny, I decid­ed to cre­ate a fic­tion­al sto­ry about a lit­tle girl named Estrel­la who has come to help her Sephardic aun­tie in Mia­mi Beach say good­bye to her pink casita on the beach as she pre­pares to move to a new home in an assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ty. My real-life Sephardic aunt doesn’t live on the beach, but she is a few blocks away from the ocean, and lives by her­self. She has no plans of mov­ing to an assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ty and was a touch upset that I had dared to imag­ine her in such a place.

After Tía For­tu­na clos­es the door to her pink casita and pock­ets the key, she says good­bye to the palm trees and they whis­per back adiós, adiós, adios.

In fact, I had vis­it­ed a home for the aged in Mia­mi and met an elder­ly Sephardic lady who chose to move there after becom­ing blind; she felt very well cared for and enjoyed the scent of the flow­ers in the sur­round­ing gar­den. I reas­sured Tía Fan­ny that my book is a work of fic­tion and only parts of her life are reflect­ed in the book. One is the love­ly tra­di­tion she has of serv­ing me pota­to and cheese borekas when­ev­er I vis­it her in Mia­mi Beach. These deli­cious turnovers are the portable food of a peo­ple who were forced to move from place to place and find home. The most impor­tant ingre­di­ent they con­tain is esper­an­za, as Tía For­tu­na tells Estrel­la in the book, because their ances­tors found hope wher­ev­er they went. When I eat borekas with my real-life aunt, she tells me fam­i­ly sto­ries and shares proverbs in Ladi­no; like lit­tle Estrel­la, I feel myself immersed in the mag­ic and the beau­ty of Sephardic culture.

As I thought about how to rep­re­sent Sephardic cul­ture, I also thought about how Mia­mi Beach was chang­ing. This is the sec­tion of the city where Cuban Jews found a new home and built Span­ish-speak­ing syn­a­gogues recall­ing the ones they left behind. Over the years, the hum­ble build­ings and cot­tages on the beach where many have lived have been demol­ished to build lux­u­ry res­i­dences and hotels. In the past, Sephardic Jews faced the chal­lenge of expul­sion, and now many would face the chal­lenge of gentrification.

I decid­ed this would be the case with Tía For­tu­na. After los­ing Cuba, tak­ing the mezuzah and the key to her apart­ment in Havana as a keep­sake, now she must leave her beloved cot­tage at the Sea­way — an actu­al build­ing that has since been torn down to cre­ate mul­ti mil­lion dol­lar apart­ments at a new com­plex. Lit­tle Estrel­la is sad and wants to vis­it Tía For­tu­na at the Sea­way for­ev­er, but her aun­tie hides her sad­ness and tells her niece they must enjoy each day as it comes; Tía For­tu­na wears sev­er­al lucky eye bracelets and keeps many ham­sas around, pray­ing for mazal bueno.

After Tía For­tu­na clos­es the door to her pink casita and pock­ets the key, she says good­bye to the palm trees and they whis­per back adiós, adiós, adios. Estrella’s moth­er arrives and they dri­ve off to Tía Fortuna’s new home. Again, Tía For­tu­na insists on find­ing hope and accept­ing a new begin­ning. Though now far from the sea, there are banyan trees that she hugs and that whis­per back hola, hola, hola. And the but­ter­flies flut­ter. As Estrel­la excit­ed­ly asks when she can vis­it again, her aun­tie whis­pers, Mashal­lah, God will­ing, as my Abuela and Abue­lo would say, nev­er assum­ing anoth­er day was a giv­en, treat­ing each day as a blessing.

Just before Estrel­la departs with her moth­er, Tía For­tu­na gives her a spe­cial gift — the key to the Sea­way. What bet­ter sym­bol of the Sephardic lega­cy? The leg­end goes that the Sephardim took the keys to their hous­es with them when they left Spain with bro­ken hearts. Even young Estrel­la has come to under­stand the loss of home, and how the key can spark mem­o­ries in our hearts, per­haps the only home that no one can take away from us.

Ruth Behar, the Pura Bel­pré Award-win­ning author of Lucky Bro­ken Girl and Let­ters from Cuba, was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York, and has also lived in Spain and Mex­i­co. Her work also includes poet­ry, mem­oir, and the acclaimed trav­el books An Island Called Home and Trav­el­ing Heavy. She was the first Lati­na to win a MacArthur Genius” Grant, and oth­er hon­ors include a John Simon Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and being named a Great Immi­grant” by the Carnegie Cor­po­ra­tion. An anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.