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Connecting To A Secret Family History Through Music

When Linda Machado was growing up in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, she thought she knew her family history. Her dad was Irish, her mother’s family was Portuguese, from the Azore islands.

“I grew up religiously Episcopalian,” Machado said. “I was one of the only kids in the neighborhood that looked Hispanic.”

But as an adult, Machado’s mother, Elvira, revealed a family secret that would complicate Machado’s already multicultural identity.

“One day, I guess I was in my 40s and my mom said to me, you know Linda, my dad used to say, ‘Elvira, Shh, don't tell anyone, but we are really Jewish,’” Machado said. “And I looked at her, and I said, what?”

It turned out her mother’s family members were Jews from Southern Portugal, and were part of the Sephardic Jewish tradition. The family likely fled to the Azores after Jews were expelled from Portugal at the end of the 15th century.

At a time when it was forbidden to practice Judaism, they had passed down some customs in secret.

“And then she started telling me stories about other family members that would be getting together and they would always be doing these things in secret and nobody understood what,” Machado said. “From what she told me, it sounds like there were rituals around the holiday times. So I was stunned.”

That conversation with her mother was about 15 years ago, and at age 62, Machado is still processing this revelation of her Sephardic Jewish roots.

“I want to explore first the cultural connection with myself and, and the heritage, and then I just see a natural segue into learning about the religious aspect.”

And the way that she is exploring the cultural connection is through music.

Machado had already begun to dance flamenco in her 40s, but as she explored the art further, she learned it uniquely spoke to her roots in the Iberian Peninsula.

While flamenco is most commonly associated with the Gypsy, or Roma culture, in Spain, many music historians believe it contains the influences of several cultures.

“A large part of flamenco is a blending of the Arabic culture, the Gypsy culture, the Spanish, the Jewish,” Machado said.

And those Jewish influences in the music are the strands that most resonate with Machado today.

Tucked behind her home in Tempe is a studio, where she and her husband Ricardo de Cristóbal have a flamenco school. She teaches dance, he teaches guitar, and they also perform together.

On a recent morning in the studio, de Cristóbal played a genre of flamenco music known as Peteneras, while Machado danced. She spun and stomped, wearing all black, and her dark hair pulled back.

Machado describes Peteneras as one of her all-time favorite examples of flamenco music. Peteneras is based on an ancient tune that some believe originated as a Sephardic Jewish song when Jews were still allowed to live openly in Spain.

“Some of the lyrics are about her and a boyfriend going to the synagogue and things of that nature,” Machado said.

She also discovered musicians, like the Israeli performer, Yasmin Levy, who are popularizing lyrics in Ladino, a dialect of Spanish spoken by the Jews who were exiled from Spain.

It’s music that Machado finds haunting.

“I just can’t listen to the music enough,” Machado said. “When you turn it off, it is like you unplug my cord.”

The knowledge of her own Jewish heritage has given her a sense of belonging in this musical tradition.

“I think it is clearly a DNA connection,” Machado said. “I think people are drawn to things naturally because of some historic connection that they have.”

“It’s in me, and I can’t ignore it,” she said.