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Mistaken Identity

Photograph by Maggie Heinzel-Neel

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

by Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan

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.
Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Thread of Time," by Kitty La Perriere (February 1998)
Imagination often fails us when we try to understand a long-abandoned world.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Sephardic House
The Web site of an organization devoted to "researching and promoting Sephardic history and culture." Offers discussion forums, Jewish news, events announcements, and a page devoted to "Hispano Crypto-Judaism."

Halapid: The Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies
The Web site of an organization for those who believe they are descended from crypto-Jews. The site offers research papers, personal essays, and information about upcoming conferences.

The Leona G. and David A. Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives
The Web site of a University of Arizona archive of materials pertaining to the history of Jews in the American Southwest. The site offers suggested readings, general information about crypto-Jews, and a collection of memoirs and articles.

"Our primary goal is to find lost and dispersed remnants of Jewish migrations and to help those who wish to rejoin the Jewish people." The site offers an overview of "lost" Jews in various parts of the world, with links to related Web sites pertaining to each "lost" community.

"Yom Kippur in El Paso," Morning Edition, NPR (September 20, 1999)
A five-minute-long audio file from an episode of Morning Edition: "Brenda de Anda reports that Yom Kippur, the Holiest of Jewish holidays, has special meaning for Crypto Jews in El Paso. Five-hundred years after the Spanish Inquisition forced their families into Catholicism, two women in El Paso share their experience of pain and renewal in embracing Judaism."

The Jewish Presence in Downtown Mexico
The site of an organization that offers guided walking tours of remnants of the Jewish presence in colonial Mexico City. The site includes a brief history of Mexican Jews, vintage photographs, and links to information about contemporary Jews in Mexico.

Jewish Community Online
A Web site designed "to serve all Jews from the most observant to the most secular." The site offers news, columns, personals, links to online editions of Israeli newspapers and magazines, and an "ask a rabbi" feature that addresses Jewish-related questions (including an exchange that explains differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews).

New Mexico Jewish Historical Society
The Web site of an organization dedicated to promoting an appreciation of New Mexico's Jewish heritage through lectures, films, field trips, conferences, and genealogy workshops.

"Converso Descendants in the American Southwest: A Report on Research, Resources, and the Changing Search for Identity," by Seth Ward, Proceedings of the 1998 Conference of the European Association for Jewish Studies,
A paper evaluating the claims of crypto-Jews in the Southwest, given by the director of the Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.

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.

Near the end of World War I some descendants of these Jewish remnants were discovered in isolated villages in Portugal. But historians have traditionally considered their survival an exception. Outside Portugal the religious practice of crypto-Jews decayed within a few generations to fragments of prayers and other elements of ancient observance -- a refusal to eat pork, for example. According to the historian David Gitlitz, the phenomenon had for the most part died out by the end of the 1700s. Before it did so, however, the Inquisition had become expert at ferreting out what it called Judaizers, or practitioners of "La Ley de Moisés" -- The Law of Moses. The story of these rebel faithful has continued to haunt scholars and others.

For his dissertation Hordes had received a Fulbright-Hays fellowship to examine the Inquisition in Mexico. Poring over archives there and in Spain, he found the surnames of accused crypto-Jewish families, and the alleged details of their Mosaic rites. Gitlitz, in his book Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews (1996), provides a list of crypto-Judaic customs, based on Inquisition records. According to prisoners' indictments and confessions, these customs included bathing on Fridays and afterward donning clean clothes; ritually disposing of the blood drained from slaughtered fowl; fasting on Yom Kippur; eating tortillas (which are unleavened) during Passover; burning hair and nail clippings; circumcising sons (or merely nicking the penile shaft); and, in one instance, excising a chunk of flesh from the shoulder of a daughter. The Inquisition's punishments for such transgressions ranged from the forced public wearing, for months or even years, of the humiliating sanbenito -- a knee-length yellow-sackcloth gown -- and headgear resembling a dunce cap to years of imprisonment in a monastery to garroting and burning at the stake. By the time the Inquisition was abolished in Mexico, in 1821, it had put to death about a hundred accused crypto-Jews, and many suspected Judaizers still languished behind bars.

Hordes had not expected to deal with any of this history when he took the job in Santa Fe. As he tells it, his main reasons for coming to the Southwest were the weather and the hiking. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and after a childhood on the muggy East Coast and doctoral studies in New Orleans, he was fed up with humidity. He had earned his master's degree at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, and loved the desert and the mountains. After receiving his Ph.D., he worked as a historian, first in Louisiana, where he was a curator at the state museum, and then with the National Park Service, where he advised on issues of historic preservation. Academia held no attraction for Hordes: he disliked what he saw as its political atmosphere. When the Santa Fe job came up, it seemed perfect, both professionally and geographically. His office -- several blocks from the venerable Palace of the Governors, with its Spanish coats of arms on the outer adobe walls -- was lodged in the state archives building, an adobe-less concrete-block structure.

The drab location did not discourage people from seeking Hordes out. Many came for assistance in finding old family records. The archives are a trove of baptismal, burial, and marriage documents, gleaned from centuries of paperwork by Church scribes throughout the area; in addition, they contain judicial records and documents pertaining to the Inquisition. Hordes also helped Hispano and Native American visitors find land-grant records to assist in the endless litigation filed by those seeking to regain holdings from real-estate developers and the federal government. Doing this work, the young historian became acquainted with certain contours of life in the New Mexico countryside. After five o'clock, though, the contours of his own life resembled those of any young Anglo professional in Santa Fe. He lived in a faux adobe house. He spent his spare time hiking and developed a taste for southwestern cuisine.

In Santa Fe such pleasures often are shared by Hispano and Anglo professionals. The latter, however, rarely seek more than a tourist's view of the homes and churches of poor Hispanos. The divide can be even more pronounced when the Anglos are -- as Hordes is -- Jewish. To make a distinction that will later prove germane, he is an Ashkenazi. Ashkenazic Jews trace their ancestry to Northern and Eastern Europe, whereas Sephardic Jews trace theirs to Iberia. Almost all Jews in North America today are Ashkenazim. Before the late nineteenth century the Jews in Latin America were overwhelmingly Sephardim. Throughout the Diaspora, Sephardic Jews have eaten food made with olive oil, chickpeas, and other Mediterranean ingredients; Ashkenazic foods such as bagels, lox, kugel, and borscht are not traditionally part of their diet. Yiddish, with its German and Slavic components, has nothing to do with Sephardic Ladino, which mixes Hebrew with medieval Spanish, Turkish, and Moroccan. Today Sephardic Jews make up only 10 percent of the Jewish population worldwide.

The particularities of Jewish demography seemed entirely irrelevant as Hordes began his work. Nor were they on anyone's mind when his gossipy visitors began showing up. Hordes has recounted the story in many interviews with various reporters. As he told a magazine produced by the University of New Mexico, "They would come into my office, close the door behind them and whisper over my desk, 'So-and-so ... lights candles on Friday nights.'... 'So-and-so ... doesn't eat pork.'" At first Hordes was mystified by these tales of seemingly Jewish practices among Hispano peasants, and simply dismissed them. Little by little, though, he started wondering, What if the stories involved the same phenomenon he had described in his dissertation? What if crypto-Jews had fled north from colonial Mexico in the seventeenth century to escape the Inquisition? And what if, almost 400 years later, Jews in New Mexico's isolated Hispano villages still secretly managed the feat of preserving their forefathers' faith?

Hordes was not the first person to engage in such speculation. At the University of New Mexico the sociologist Tomás Atencio had been mulling over his Hispano family's history. Atencio's father was converted at age twelve to Presbyterianism, and went on to become one of New Mexico's first Hispano Presbyterian ministers. Tomás was thus born into an anomaly: a Hispano Protestant family. That identity became painful in the 1960s, when, prompted in part by the black civil-rights movement, many young Hispanos developed a jaded view of their white heritage and embraced Chicano politics. Many in the Chicano movement espoused the idea that Latinos were "La Raza Cósmica" -- the Cosmic Race, a concept that arose in Mexico in the 1920s in response to racist Anglo claims that Latin Americans were morally and intellectually inferior because of their mixed ancestry. Raza Cósmica theory -- itself a racist formulation -- holds that miscegenation, among as many races as possible, creates a superior people. It instilled pride in many Chicanos and also fueled their anger at institutions they viewed as Anglo colonial impositions -- for example, the Protestant Church.

Atencio could not understand how his father could have gone along with such colonialism and become a Protestant minister. When he asked, his father retorted that Protestantism wasn't just for Anglos. The answer was not satisfying. Tomás also remembered a time in the early 1950s when a distant relative had laughed about being able to take land from the Atencios because the relative's family were "mejores judíos que ustedes" -- "better Jews than all of you." Tomás asked his father about his cousins. "Yes," the minister said, "there's been talk that they're Jewish."

Such references to a Jewish past may have been factual, or they may have been the usual anti-Semitic village rumor-mongering. In any event, by the time Hordes heard his first stories, southwestern Latinos already had several sources to help them identify relatives or neighbors as Iberian crypto-Jews. In Texas the amateur historian Richard Santos had for years been publishing articles suggesting that the diet and customs of some border dwellers were influenced by the habits of colonial-era converted settlers. Another Texan, Carlos Larralde, had written a doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Los Angeles contending that the south of Texas was filled with crypto-Jews who had long been subjected to a "holocaust" at the hands of racists (whose ranks, in Larralde's view, included the Texas Rangers). The evidence compiled by Larralde that these people were secretly Jewish consisted of certain border customs, including the preference of Spanish-speakers for goat meat over pork and, among some, the keeping of the sabbath on Saturday. Emilio and Trudi Coca, an elderly couple who lived in New Mexico, had for some years visited Latino graveyards, where they found and photographed headstones inscribed with surprising first names -- for example, Adonay (Adonai is the Hebrew word for "Lord"). The cemeteries contained both headstones with crosses and ones with six-pointed stars similar to the Star of David.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

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).

Photographs by Maggie Heinzel-Neel.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico's "Hidden Jews" - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 85-96.