Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico's "Hidden Jews"

Imagine descendants of Jews pursued by the Spanish Inquisition, still tending the dying embers of their faith among peasant Latinos in the American Southwest. The story has obvious resonance, and it has garnered considerable publicity. The truth of the matter may turn out to be vastly different, and nearly as improbable.




THE telling has become almost stylized through repetition. In the mid-1980s a number of people with Spanish surnames began stealing into an office in Santa Fe, peering over their shoulders, shutting the door behind them, and whispering that their neighbors were engaging in strange customs that were decidedly out of place in the region's overwhelmingly Catholic culture. Soon those reports would lead to proud testimonials from southwesterners of Iberian descent claiming kinship with Jewish victims of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. And not just genetic descent: some of these people would say that though outwardly they were raised as Christians, their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were secretly observant Jews. Such stories are now so common in the Southwest that almost everyone takes them at face value.
The phenomenon's first elaborations can be traced to Stanley Hordes, who in the early 1980s was New Mexico's state historian. New Mexico is a state in which history matters more visibly than in most. Santa Fe was for generations the northernmost seat of rule for Nueva España -- the New Kingdom of Spain, Madrid's colonial holdings in the Americas. Today, of course, Santa Fe is the nexus of a tourist industry that has gained international cachet by aggressively marketing the old conquistadors and the peoples they vanquished. City laws require, among other things, that the downtown buildings be made of adobe -- or at least something that looks like it, even if the effect is achieved with dun-colored stucco.

Amid these real and faux constructions Santa Fe's entrepreneurs -- who mostly come from the East and West Coasts, and from the ethnic group that New Mexicans call Anglo -- market expensive silver-and-turquoise jewelry, moccasins made from luxurious dyed and fringed leathers, and quaint wooden figures of saints.

Just under this layer of consumerism Santa Fe and its environs harbor a population whose forefathers were the victorious Spaniards, and who have experienced steady impoverishment at the hands of newcomers to the region. These beleaguered New Mexicans call themselves Hispanos -- not Chicanos, because that word signifies Mexicans, which in turn implies an admixture of Indian blood, and not Hispanics or Latinos, broad terms that also leave open the possibility of descent from Native Americans, whether from Mexico or the United States. Although many Hispanos have the high cheekbones and dark complexions associated with mestizos -- people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry -- their heritage, as they see it, has nothing to do with the Aztecs or Mayas, let alone with the Pueblos, Apaches, and other northern tribes that the conquistadors thought fit only for peonage. Moreover, most Mexicans in the Santa Fe area arrived only recently, bringing their urban Spanish, their immigrant status, and their readiness to take tourist-driven dishwashing and construction jobs, and thereby, reportedly, depressing wages for Hispanos. It is painful enough that such lowly employment must be coveted. Once, Hispanos labored on their own land. In the past generation, under pressure from an influx of Anglos and from rising land prices, thousands of them have quit their farms and villages for cities.

On the Gray Line tour New Mexico may be the Land of Enchantment, with a charming mixture of piñon smoke and three cultures -- Native American, Anglo, and Hispano. Off the tourist track the last group stews in nostalgia and resentment. Elderly and middle-aged men and women yearn for their villages with imagery that evokes the lovely paintings and coffee-table books for sale in Santa Fe. Few remember in the haze of recollection that the villages also had a mean, dark side, typical of many peasant enclaves. There were quaint hand-carved santos, but there were also priests who monitored their parishioners' reading matter and behavior, snooping for signs of heterodoxy.

Such vigilance was perfused with a paranoid anti-Protestantism. Often it also cloaked anti-Semitism. In the seventeenth century New Mexicans came to the attention of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. In the late 1600s the governor of New Mexico and his wife were accused of practicing Judaism; soon thereafter the same charge was leveled against a soldier and bureaucrat named Francisco Gómez Robledo, who was also said to have a tail -- supposedly the mark of a Jew. All were examined by the Holy Office. All were acquitted.

IN 1981 New Mexico was seeking someone for the post of state historian, and to his delight, Stanley Hordes was awarded the job. These days Hordes is an ample, bearded man whose tweed jackets and Dockers slacks hint at his solidifying status as a professional historian. Twenty years ago he was thirty-one and had just defended his doctoral dissertation, which was written at Tulane University, in New Orleans, and dealt with the Jews of colonial Mexico. More specifically, it dealt with what are known as the crypto-Jews -- a people whose ranks swelled in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain ordered all Jews to convert to Christianity or be banished from the kingdom. Up to 50,000 of Spain's 125,000 to 200,000 Jews were baptized, joining 225,000 descendants of the converts of previous generations. The others would not give up their religion. Some fled to North Africa, Italy, and Navarre (then a kingdom on the border between Spain and France). Many more went to Portugal, though Portugal itself would soon demand conversion, and thousands of Jews there also underwent baptism. In both Spain and Portugal many conversos sincerely embraced the Church and intermarried with so-called Old Christians. A smaller number, however, continued secretly in their old beliefs, under cover of Catholicism. These were the crypto-Jews.

Presented by

Barbara Ferry is a reporter for The New Mexican.

Debbie Nathan is the editor of the NACLA [North American Congress on Latin America] Report on the Americas and a co-author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (1995).

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