Tucson artist discovering Jewish heritage

Edna Feldman San Miguel

Edna Feldman San Miguel is a sixth generation Tucsonan who has spent more than two decades discovering her Jewish ancestry. In February, the artist and illustrator led a tour for visiting Israeli artists of the San Xavier Mission, where she’d worked as a conservationist, which was followed later that day by a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Lion of Judah Chai Tea at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. San Miguel was sitting next to Wendy Feldman, a part-time Tucson resident from New York. When someone, seeing a resemblance, asked if they were related, San Miguel — who recently added Feldman to her name to honor her great-grandmother — wasn’t at all surprised.

Juanita Feldman Chavez Arvizu was her great-grandmother on her father’s side. San Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, Robert Feldman, came to Tucson as a blacksmith with the military at Fort Grant in the early 1860s. He married Estafana Chavez and they had three daughters. “Their middle daughter, Juanita Feldman, was my great-grandmother,” says San Miguel. “One day Feldman left camp and never returned. I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m still trying to find out.”

Estafana, as a single mother, was living at Fort Bliss in El Paso with her three daughters. When Juanita was eight years old, Tucson’s Mayor Esteban Ochoa was there on business. “My great-great grandmother handed over Juanita and said, ‘please take care of her,’” says San Miguel. He did, she says, and “Juanita was raised in Tucson where she received the best education. She learned to read and write. That was unusual at the time.

“My mother’s last name was San Miguel. Her relatives were Jewish, too,” says San Miguel. “They were persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition.” Although San Miguel was raised Catholic, “in my heart,” she says, the message was “you are Jewish. Go.” Now 54, she started to explore her Jewish ancestry in the late 1980s. “Members of my family have European features,” San Miguel told the AJP. In 1990 she asked her father, Al Aquilar, if they were Jewish, and he said, “‘Yes, we are.’”

“I left the Catholic Church,” says San Miguel, who has raised her two teenage sons with Jewish traditions. “I’m still exploring. My artwork is very Judaic. It comes from my soul.”

She’s taught art at Tucson High Magnet School and in local middle schools, “throw-away kids who were high on drugs, involved in drive-bys, or had just had abortions,” says San Miguel. “I worked with them painting murals. I really wanted to affect their lives.

“I want to go to Israel and paint beautiful murals, inside and outside of the bomb shelters” for children there to see beauty, she says.

San Miguel’s newest book, “Mission San Xavier” (Arizona-Sonora Museum Press, 2011), recently won first place in the history/nonfiction division and second place in the fine art division in the Royal Dragonfly Book Contest. She illustrated “My Nana’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi nana,” a children’s book by local author Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford. San Miguel received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Arizona.

She recently participated on a Handmaker Services for the Aging Celebration of Lifelong Learning Series panel, “Between the Lines: A Conversation with Local Authors,” along with Edie Jarolim and Bill Broyles. Two of her paintings, “Honor Thy Father and Mother” and “Noah’s Ark,” hang at Handmaker.

In July, San Miguel will discuss Judaic artistic influences on the Mission San Xavier at the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies 22nd annual conference in Albuquerque, N.M.

She recently was interviewed for a documentary on the mission, which will be submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. San Miguel is currently working on illustrations for several children’s books, including a Chanukah story. And she’s considering future Judaic art projects.

“Walking into a temple and feeling at home,” she says, “is not as easy as I thought. I’m really part of two cultures. I’m trying to sort it all out.”