24th Annual Conference Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies Dallas, TX July 20-22, 2014 The 24th annual conference of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, will take place in Dallas from Sunday, July 20, through Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Our keynote speaker will be Angelina Muñiz Huberman, a Mexican novelist and poet of Sephardic origin whose work has […]
CALL FOR PAPERS 24th Annual Conference Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies Dallas, TX July 20-22, 2014 Please join us for the 24th annual conference of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, which will take place in Dallas from Sunday, July 20, through Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Our featured speakers are prolific authors and professors of Hispano-Jewish literature. […]
In 2010 I made a series of monotypes on the subject of Doña Gracia Nasi y Mendez, which were used as part of the game-board for the game “Befrienders and Betrayers” that I presented to the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies Conference in San Antonio, TX. The monotype template was from a photograph I took of […]
A Comparative Study of the Identities and Perceptions of Crypto Jewry and “Traditional” Mexican Jewry
Abstract Crypto Jews are Jews, or descendants of Jews, who converted to Christianity under the threat of death. Much research exists both about crypto Jews in Mexico and the Southwest United States and about “traditional” Mexican Jewry and formal Jewish communities in Mexico. However, little is known about the complexities of the dual identities of […]
24th Annual Conference Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies
July 20-22, 2014
The 24th annual conference of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, will take place in Dallas from Sunday, July 20, through Tuesday, July 22, 2014.
Our keynote speaker will be Angelina Muñiz Huberman, a Mexican novelist and poet of Sephardic origin whose work has been recognized with prestigious literary awards such as the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prize.
The Third Annual Martin Sosin Address to Advance Scholarship in the Crypto-Judaic Arts will be delivered by foremost scholar of Hispano Literature, Ilan Stavans, Professor at Amherst College. He has taught courses on a wide array of topics such as Spanglish, modern American poetry, Latin music, popular culture in Hispanic America, world Jewish writers, the cultural history of the Spanish language, the history of the Spanish language, Jewish-Hispanic relations, and U.S.-Latino culture.
The program will include:
Presentations by noted scholars in the field
Individuals describing their discovery of a Jewish heritage.
A musical presentation
and much more
See the full program and register online at:
The Conference will meet at
CHECK THIS WEBSITE FOR UPDATES.
See the CALL FOR PAPERS
CALL FOR PAPERS
24th Annual Conference
Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies
July 20-22, 2014
Please join us for the 24th annual conference of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, which will take place in Dallas from Sunday, July 20, through Tuesday, July 22, 2014.
Our featured speakers are prolific authors and professors of Hispano-Jewish literature. Angelina Muñiz Huberman (National Autonomous University of Mexico–UNAM) will present the Keynote Address.
Ilan Stavans (Amherst College) will give the Annual Martin Sosin Address to Advance the Crypto-Judaic Arts.
We invite papers on crypto-Judaism from any discipline (e.g., anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, literature, music, etc.) and from any geographic location or time period.
We also welcome papers on all aspects of the Sephardic experience and that of other communities exhibiting crypto-Jewish phenomena. Papers addressing research on crypto-Jews in Texas, New Mexico, and southern Colorado are particularly welcome.
Interested scholars and professionals, including advanced graduate students, are invited to submit proposals for papers, presentations, or workshops. Proposals are also welcome from individuals with personal stories or other personal research relating to crypto-Judaism.
Proposals may be for individual presentations or for complete sessions on specific topics. Please indicate if presentation represents completed research or work in progress.
Conference presentation proposals must include a title, an abstract or summary of 200 words, and a brief bio.
Please send proposals or inquiries to
Matthew Warshawsky, International Languages and Cultures, University of Portland
In 2010 I made a series of monotypes on the subject of Doña Gracia Nasi y Mendez, which were used as part of the game-board for the game “Befrienders and Betrayers” that I presented to the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies Conference in San Antonio, TX. The monotype template was from a photograph I took of a woman I saw at “Las Falas” in Valencia, Spain that same winter that I modified into the silhouette of a sixteenth-century woman.
A month after that SCJS conference, I visited my daughter who was living and teaching in Oaxaca Central, State of Oaxaca, Mexico and we celebrated the anniversary of El Grito together. We also visited Monte Alban, one of the ceremonial sites and cities of the Zapotec/Mixtec peoples. I had taught Mesoamerican and Chicano Art History in 1970-71 and was amazed by how much more had been learned about the site and, also, how incorrect my teaching had been then. What did we know forty years ago?
In 1989, when my daughters and I began our return to Judaism our questions always included, “How did Jews in Mexico observe Judaism?” We knew that, for a while, my mother’s family had hidden and lived in the mountains with los Indios, so we tried to construct a Jewish context without flour, the four species, olive oil, and other agricultural practices and element of Judaism. What did they eat at Pesach? Rosh Hashanah? Sukkoth? My visit to Oaxaca was my first to interior Mexico and it awoke so much in me.
Doña Gracia in Oaxaca
Upon my return to my art studio in Tel Aviv, I started drawing images from the Oaxaca trip. One of the first was on a piece of paper from which I had cut a Doña Gracia template, a woman’s silhouette. My family had come to Mexico in the Sixteenth Century, so, perhaps, my distant ancestor looked like that silhouette. I tried to create a place in the high mountains where the city is nested that was magical then, but erased by time. At first I thought of the woman as me visiting my daughter or, maybe, my daughter bringing me but then I saw Doña Gracia, who traveled so far fleeing danger to find her hidden converso Judaism and freedom in a strange land. Who knows? Maybe she, too, would have visited Monte Alban.
A Pre-Columbian Torah
If we were in Mexico without a Torah, how did we study? If we were living with los Indios, what language did we speak? I thought of making a Torah in Mixtec picto-glyphs. I do not know Nahuatl, nor can I read the glyphs, or at least only a few, so I decided to construct a Torah such as might possibly have been written before the conquest, before the Sixteenth Century. It would be carved into stone like a Mesoamerican stele around which a tree would have grown, enveloping it with its bark. And for the cambium growth layer in a tree between the life, the phylum, and the bark, I used a map of the world split on the latitude of Israel and showing the countries of the Sephardic Diaspora. I created my own picto-glyphs to express concepts in the books of Genesis and Exodus.
The Pre-Columbian Torah is read like Japanese, from the right side down a column and then up to the top of the next column. I used some images from the Mixtec codices, mounds on platforms for cities, mounds with grass lines for the desert, footprints for traveling. At the beginning there are no words for the creation so I created images that expressed the feelings of HaShem’s words of creation. I only got to the part where the Israelites leave Egypt when I reached the bottom of the revealed Pre-Columbian Torah and would have needed to unroll more.
Making these works allowed me to bring to light and to bring together parts of my historic identity that had been hidden to me. I will be attending the SCJS conference in Colorado Springs this July and hope to share these drawings and other work with you.
Nitzah Avigayil, née Mercedes Gail Gutitérez, is featured visual artist at SCJS’s upcoming conference in Colorado Springs. Born in East Los Angeles, near the end of World War II, her parents were Mexican-American Activists. Her father, Félix, was from an old Californio family and her mother, Rebecca Peréz Muñoz, from an old converso Mexican family. She received a full scholarship to Stanford University where she studied Pre-Medicine and Studio Art. After graduation, she was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to study sculpture in Madrid. After, she obtained a Masters degree in Sculpture from the University of California-, Berkeley in 1970. Her work has been exhibited widely. In the late 1980’s, she and her daughters began to study Judaism to learn more about her mother’s family and her Jewish heritage. The influence of this reconnection pervades her subsequent work, in particular her feelings of otherness and secrecy. Though trained as a sculptor, she began working with printing processes to use the transparency and resist techniques to express her “veiled” self and how it relates to her Judaism. In 2007, she made Aliyah to Israel and began using her Hebrew name, Nitzah Avigayil Bat Rivkah v Abraham v Sara.
Crypto Jews are Jews, or descendants of Jews, who converted to Christianity under the threat of death. Much research exists both about crypto Jews in Mexico and the Southwest United States and about “traditional” Mexican Jewry and formal Jewish communities in Mexico. However, little is known about the complexities of the dual identities of Mexican Jews and how the identities of crypto Jews differ from those of “traditional” Mexican Jews. This study is based on a review of the literature pertaining to crypto Jewry and “traditional” Mexican Jewry, on two personal stories of crypto Jews, and on two personal interviews of “traditional” Mexican Jews conducted by the author. An analysis of these sources finds that crypto Jews and “traditional” Mexican Jews have identities distinct from other Mexicans, from other Jews, and from each other, as developed over time and through different experiences. The formal Jewish community associates crypto Jews more closely with a Mexican heritage, whereas “traditional” Mexican Jews are associated more closely with a Jewish heritage. This study provides a better understanding of how crypto Jews perceive themselves and their struggles for a connection to Judaism and may allow for more sympathy and inclusion from “traditional” Mexican Jews who are already an accepted part of the Jewish community.
The Jewish people are one of the most diverse groups in the world. After millennia of persecution, Jews have found themselves spread across the Earth, enveloped in different cultures, languages, laws, and practices. Even within the same country, Jewish customs differ depending on when and from where a Jew emigrated. Crypto Jews and “traditional” Mexican Jews have a similar history until the late fifteenth century, when the Spanish Inquisition targeted Jews in Spain. From this point on, their histories developed quite differently despite their final location. The unique experiences and histories of both groups have caused crypto Jews and “traditional” Mexican Jews to have identities distinct from other Mexicans, from other Jews, and from each other. These distinctions have allowed for the inclusion of “traditional” Mexican Jewry and the exclusion of crypto Jewry from the organized worldwide Jewish community.
History of Crypto Jewry
Crypto Jews are Jews who converted to Christianity under the threat of death during the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition of 1536. They are known interchangeably as conversos (Spanish for converts), as Anusim (Hebrew for forced converts), and unfortunately, as Marranos (Spanish for swine). The pursuit of Jews and crypto Jews to escape persecution began as early as Christopher Columbus’ voyage to ‘India,’ a place where they tried to retain aspects of their culture, such as circumcision, Jewish dietary laws, and observing the Jewish Sabbath. The largest wave of immigration to Mexico however, came in 1531, one year after the Royal Viceroy of Nueva Espagna established law and order in the New World. Conversos who came to Mexico were welcomed at first. Jews from Spain had much needed skills in the new colony, as they had been doctors, lawyers, notaries, tailors, teachers, and silversmiths. They married into prominent Mexican families, and for forty years enjoyed the freedom to practice Judaism openly.
In 1571, however, the Jews and conversos of Mexico found themselves amidst yet another Inquisition aimed at oppressing all non-Catholics, including them and the indigenous people of Mexico. Some of these Jews and conversos moved to a colony north of Nueva Espagna, specifically created for them. The colony was started by Portuguese nobleman and converso Luis de Carvajal and was named Kingdom of Nueva Leon. However, by 1641 the colony was gone, and its members moved yet again to Texas, New Mexico, California, and Arizona, bringing elements of Judaism with them. Many Jews and conversos who did not move to the Kingdom of Nueva Leon, instead found refuge among the indigenous population, thereby creating Jewish-Indian communities throughout Mexico. Many of these Jews changed their names and assimilated into Indian tribes in order to escape persecution from the Inquisition. It is speculated that intermarriage of the two communities often occurred between the female conversos and Indian men, since Judaism is matrilineal, resulting in the creation of a Mestizo-Jewish population (Albalat). By 1650, openly practiced Judaism had all but disappeared, leaving some 20,000 Mexicans with nothing but the memory of Jewish ancestry and custom in its wake.
Modern Crypto-Jewry in Mexico and the U.S.
Today, crypto Jews are found in large communities in the Mexican cities of Venta Prieta, Puebla, Veracruz, Vallejo, and in the U.S. states New Mexico, Texas, California, and Arizona. The crypto Jews in particular communities of Mexico have largely returned to mainstream Judaism. In Vallejo in the early 20th century the community of crypto Jews began organizing publicly with the introduction of a more anticlerical Constitution. Crypto Jews in Venta Prieta also began their return to mainstream Judaism in the early 20th century. By 1920 they had established the Kahal Kadosh Bnei Elohim community. Rabbi Lerer, a Conservative rabbi dedicated to bringing crypto Jews closer to Judaism, converted almost the entire community in the mid-1900s. Rabbi Lerer also converted crypto Jews in Puebla in the early 2000s, and in Vera Cruz, where crypto Jews began returning to Judaism in the 1970s. By the 1990s thirty practicing Jewish families lived in Vera Cruz (Ghiuzeli). In 1994, an organization called Kulanu (Hebrew for All of us) was created to investigate the status of crypto-Jewry that had not yet been made aware of their Jewish background. Many Catholic families have since discovered their Jewish background because of Kulanu, though their return to Judaism, as explained later, has been largely unsuccessful.
The crypto Jews in the U.S. are most commonly found in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. It is not as common for them to live in closed communities as it is in Mexico, though they too have retained many of the same Jewish customs for hundreds of years. In 1990, a small group of crypto Jews joined in founding the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies and have since helped many other Mexicans discover their Jewish roots. DNA testing has become common for U.S. crypto Jews in an effort to prove a Jewish background, and many have done so successfully. A recent study of Mexicans in New Mexico found that of the 78 people tested, 30 had the genetic marker for Cohanim, Jewish priests. Since less than 1% of non-Jews have this, it is likely they came from a Jewish background.
Crypto Jews continue to practice many Jewish customs, even though most do not know they are Jewish. For example, many crypto Jewish women light candles on Friday night, a Jewish custom to celebrate the Sabbath. Many do not eat pork and do not mix milk with meat. Some close their businesses on Saturdays. Some crypto Jews believe these customs are Catholic in origin, but most consider them to be senseless rituals passed down through the generations. Additionally, a widespread legend amongst conversos is that they are Spanish nobility and must only marry other people of Spanish nobility, a story contrived to limit intermarriage with non-Jews.
The crypto-Jewish identity is complex and multi-faceted. Most only discovered their Jewish roots in the last three generations, formerly believing their Jewish customs to be of either Catholic or senseless origin. This section will highlight two of the many memoirs of crypto Jews collected by the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies and will then analyze these accounts using the work of Margaret Montoya.
Sonya Loya grew up in a Catholic family in New Mexico, with a grandmother who prayed three times a day to the east with a scarf covering her head. She never felt satisfied with Catholicism; “[she] waded [her] way thru [sic] the Christian maze, never feeling like [she] fit or belonged.” She recalls feelings of “the strangest connection to Jewish people that I didn’t seem to have with just any one. All my friends called me the Jew magnet.” However, only after attending a Jewish conference did Sonya find out she might be a crypto Jew. She decided to start a Hebrew learning center, and when she approached her parents asking them for their blessing, her father admitted he had known he was Jewish since the age of six. Sonya felt “shock…anger, joy, confusion, and relief, all at the same time.” Her first trip to Israel was “an amazing part of [her] journey to Judaism. [She] felt at home; for the first time in [her] life [she] felt like [she] was where [she belonged].” Sonya proceeded to begin the process of conversion, and during this time also took a DNA test, receiving the results that her genes pointed to Ashkenazi Levites. The last comment of her memoir was, “In this lifetime, I hope to restore to my family what was taken from us by force.”
At the age of seven or eight, Steve Gomes, “in some important but seemingly unknowable way, [knew he] did not fit in with the rest of the kids at the Catholic schools [he] was sent to.” By the time he got to graduate school Steve had the recurring question in his thoughts, “Could I possibly be Jewish…It is an identity shattering kind of question which at that time had no basis in fact. It was relentless. [He] could not shake this feeling that [he] was, in fact, seemingly Jewish somehow – someway.” He proceeded to convert to Judaism. The last step of the conversion process is entering the mikvah, the ritual bath. For Steve, this “was a completion—a sense of coming full-circle, of finding and reclaiming [his] elusive long-lost Jewish soul, [his] neshama, for now and always—never to be lost again…[He] was home at last.” However, “besides great joy, the certainty of this ‘knowing’ also brought with it a great sadness. I felt the pain of our forefathers and ancient grandmothers, having their children, their traditions, their very heritage forcefully ripped away—seemingly forever until now…And now I feel such a great responsibility to rectify this loss in some way—to make it somehow worthwhile.”
These two memoirs exemplify the feelings expressed by many crypto Jews. Of the dozens of personal stories collected by the Society, most recounted childhood feelings of not fitting in or missing something. They shared a strong and unexplainable connection to the Jewish people before knowing anything about them. Like Montoya, “as [children they] painstakingly learned [their] bicultural act: how to be a public [Mexican] while retaining what [they] valued as [Jews] in the most private parts of [their] soul” (Montoya 10). Many felt confused, happy, and most importantly angry when they found out they were crypto Jews. They were angry that their history had been stolen from them. In discovering and embracing their Jewish background, they regained their history and identity. Unfortunately though, the identity of most crypto Jews is still incomplete. Many have not yet discovered their Jewish roots and continue to practice rituals of unrecognized origin. Other family and friends misunderstand many of these practices. However, “even when there are no recriminations from friends or family, there can be internal doubts… Concerns about ethnic identity and personal authenticity are imbedded within the question, ‘Who am I really?’” (Montoya 5) and most crypto Jews have yet to answer this question. The stories of crypto Jews who have discovered their pasts are essentially the same; the discovery completes their identity. As Montoya succinctly puts it, “The pursuit of Mestizaje, with its emphasis on our histories, our ancestries, and our past experiences, can give us renewed appreciation for who we are as well as a clearer sense of who we can become” (Montoya 16). This renewed appreciation of crypto Jews of their true identity has come in the form of conversion, or reversion, back to Judaism, and also of DNA testing to identify Jewish background. Ian Lopez’s remarks challenging a biological basis of race seem to refute the importance crypto Jews have placed on the practice of DNA testing: “Races [are not] marked by important differences in gene frequencies…contrary to popular opinion…intra-group differences exceed inter-group differences” (Lopez Concepts of Race 23). Yet identifying genetic differences that distinguish Jews from other people has become an important feature in defining the crypto-Jewish identity.
History of “Traditional” Mexican Jewry
The Jews of today’s “traditional” Mexican Jewish community are mainly descendants of immigrants who came to Mexico beginning in the late 19th century until just before World War II. Shortly before Benito Juarez banished the Papal Nuncio in 1867, large numbers of German Jews came to Mexico to improve its economy. With the assassination of Russian Czar Alexander II in 1882, Jewish immigrants from Russia followed. This constituted the first wave of Jewish immigration to Mexico. Many became merchandise peddlers throughout the country. Within three years the first Jewish congregation was established. It is suggested that these Russian Jews are ancestors to half of all “traditional” Mexican Jewry today. By the time the next wave of Jewish immigrants came to Mexico from the falling Ottoman Empire in 1911-1913, most of the former Russian Jewish merchandise peddlers had permanent stores. These new immigrants took over as merchandise peddlers and “sidewalk” businessmen, as the first wave immigrants moved to the larger cities of Mexico. The new Sephardic immigrants had an easy time adapting to their new lives in Mexico, due to their dark complexion and their Jewish dialect of Spanish, Ladino. The last wave of Jewish immigration to Mexico came after World War I, again from Russia. Most immigrants who came during this time either already had family in Mexico, or went there with the intention of staying only temporarily before immigrating to the U.S. since the U.S. had passed restrictive immigration laws in 1921 and in 1924.
It was this last wave that led to the formation of the first organized Jewish communities in Mexico. What began as a Chevra Kaddisha (volunteer group to help bury the dead) in 1922 soon turned into the first Ashkenazi community, Niddehei Israel. This third wave also created the Zionist Federation, an umbrella organization that united the Zionist groups throughout Mexico. Unfortunately, the third wave also created a rift between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry of Mexico. With the influx of Ashkenazi Jewry, the Jewish community began to use more Yiddish, alienating the Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews. By 1925, the Sephardic community founded its own Zionist organization, B’nai Kedem, and other cultural organizations. Some divisions between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities still exist today.
Modern “Traditional” Mexican Jewry
in Mexico and the U.S.
Today the “traditional” Jewish community in Mexico is tight-knit, vibrant, and strong. Since immigration in the early twentieth century, the “traditional” Jewish community of Mexico has grown to approximately 40,000, reaching estimates as high as 50,000. About 37,500 of these Jews live in Mexico City. Smaller communities are found in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tijuana, Cancun, and San Miguel (Wolf). Roughly 95% of all Jewish families are directly affiliated to an organized Jewish sub-community: Ashkenazim from Central and Eastern Europe, Sephardim from Turkey, Mizrahim from Aleppo, Syria, Lebanese Jews, English-speaking Jews, and Mexican-born Jews. Each sub-community has its own synagogues, but all are united under the Central Committee of the Jewish Community of Mexico. Another uniting Jewish organization is the Jewish Sports Center, which boasts 28,000 members and representation from all sub-communities. There are 30 permanent synagogues in Mexico, most of which are Orthodox, and a few of which are Conservative. Approximately 90% of Jewish children attend one of the sixteen Jewish day schools in Mexico. These schools range from religious to secular to Zionist, all of them teach both Hebrew and English, and three also teach Yiddish. The intermarriage rate is between 2% to 6%, which is an extremely low figure. In addition to many Jewish organizations created for the Jewish community, there also exist many Jewish inter-communal programs that aim to help the wider Mexican community. The “traditional” Jewish community and the broader Mexican community are on very good terms and live and work together comfortably.
In recent years Mexican Jewish women have begun marrying later and having fewer children on average, despite persistently low intermarriage rates. Approximately 18% of Jewish women are housewives, though this estimate varies among sub-communities. A considerable number of Jewish women are observant, with 93% holding a Passover Seder, 50% eating only kosher meat, and 25% keeping a strictly kosher home. Though in some aspects the Jews of Mexico may be acclimating to modernization, the retention of Jewish culture is extremely strong in the traditional Jewish community of Mexico and there are few signs predictive of assimilation occurring in the near future.
Traditional Mexican Jewish Identity
The Jewish aspect of the Mexican Jewish identity is strong. The traditional Mexican Jewish community is tightly knit, bound together by Jewish practice, and reinforced by Jewish organization. This section will review and analyze the interviews of two people who identify as traditional Mexican Jews referencing the work of Margaret Montoya.
Mania S. was born in Mexico City in 1927 and lived there for 76 years. She identifies as a white, Hispanic, Ashkenazi Conservative Jew, raised in a non-observant home in an Orthodox community, synagogue, and Jewish day school. Growing up, she learned English and Hebrew in school, but Yiddish was emphasized the most, because all of her teachers were from Europe. Her parents came to Mexico from Ukraine in 1925, during the third wave of Jewish immigration. They “couldn’t come to the U.S. because of immigration laws so they went to Mexico to wait for their papers.” Even though she “had non-Jewish neighbors and some friends” she “grew up in a Jewish atmosphere among her Jewish aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.” Mania never felt anti-Semitism, and even used to work with Keren Kayemet and Naamat, Jewish organizations that conducted community service projects in various communities in Mexico. When asked how she would describe her identity, without hesitation Mania answered, “First I am Jewish. I always knew I was Mexican, but I always felt first that I am Jewish. I grew up in Mexico but my culture and way of thinking are different from the native people. I had non-Jewish friends but I had a stronger bond with my family and with my Jewish friends.” She indicated that her identity does not change depending on whom she is with: “I think and feel like a Jew.” Mania however, does feel different from other Jews. Having moved to the United States seven years ago she has noticed that American Jews are different from Mexican Jews, and she spends most of her time with Mexican Jews “who think the same way.”
Paul S., 23, was born and raised in San Diego, California to Mexican Jewish parents. He identifies as a Caucasian, Ashkenazi Conservative Jew of Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian descent. His parents grew up in Mexico City and left before Paul was born because of crime and economic recession. Paul’s grandfather came to Mexico in 1926 at eight months old, during the third wave of Jewish immigration. All of his other grandparents were born in Mexico. In high school Paul was the leader of Ken, a Jewish youth movement in San Diego brought over from Tijuana. Approximately 99% of members in Ken are from Latin America, and 85% are from Mexico. When non-Jewish Americans find out he is both Jewish and Mexican and that he speaks Spanish, the most common reactions are confusion and shock: “people don’t understand that Jews immigrated to Mexico.” When asked about his identity, Paul identified as “more American than Mexican, because I was born here, even though my family speaks Spanish and a lot of my culture is Mexican and Ashkenazi. I also feel more Jewish than Mexican. I don’t consider myself Latino because I don’t look it or live it.” He expressed that his identity does not often change because he tends to hang out with the same group of people, but “when I’m around a more Mexican crowd I do act more Mexican. I mostly hang out with Mexican Jews, all of whom were raised in the U.S.” He spoke of the difference he perceived between Mexican Jews who grew up in Mexico and those who grew up here. “American Mexican Jews have a distinct identity; we’re not like the Mexican Jew and we’re not like the American Jew. We’re a combination of both.” In America, Paul says he feels different from other Mexicans as well. “Even the wealthier Mexicans have a different mindset; they talk differently and act differently.”
“Feelings masked because of ethnic and racial differences is directly linked to the process of cultural assimilation” (Montoya 4). The “traditional” Mexican Jewish community as of yet has not suffered this masking of self. The bonds among Mexican Jews as well as their minimal exposure to anti-Semitism has allowed the “traditional” Mexican Jewish community to remain unmasked and culturally unassimilated. In line with new thought that “sociocultural adjustment is…a multi-faceted process that depends upon complex variables, rather than a unilevel process whereby the customs of one culture are merely substituted for those of another” (Montoya, Margaret, Pg 5), Mexican Jewry, both in Mexico and the United States, identify with multiple aspects of their identity, Mexican, Mexican American, and Jewish, though the Jewish component tends to dominate.
Perceptions of Crypto-Jewry
by Traditional Mexican Jewry
Crypto-Jewry and traditional Mexican Jewry can be differentiated in several respects; by the eras in which they immigrated, by the amount and forms of persecution they experienced, by their current connection to Judaism, and by their appearance. The two groups can also be differentiated by the way the traditional Mexican Jewish community perceives crypto-Jewry. When the author asked interviewee Mania S. if she knew about conversos she responded, “Yes of course! In Mexico we have some converso communities, but they are really native Mexican people. Sometimes they feel and act even more Jewish than us—they keep kosher, and a lot of other things that we have relaxed. Our community knows they’re Jewish but they are not accepted in our society. They have their own communities.” This view is prevalent among traditional Mexican Jews. While it appears that the organized Jewish community does not outwardly dislike crypto-Jewry, they enforce stringent community entry restrictions, akin to “quasi-common sense racism,” based on the characteristics, categories, and properties they place onto crypto-Jewry, making it almost impossible for them to be accepted. “Quasi-common sense racism” is used here because the “body of knowledge so widely shared and so frequently depended upon that most people treat [the] beliefs as timeless truths,” (Lopez Common Sense Racism 119) is derived directly from Jewish law.
The exclusion of crypto Jews from the organized Mexican Jewish community is fourfold. Firstly, the majority of the traditional Mexican Jewish community is Orthodox. Orthodox Judaism deems that only people born of proven Jewish mothers are Jewish and conversion is discouraged. Despite intermarriage being very uncommon amongst crypto-Jewry, it is now impossible to prove a concrete matrilineal Jewish line without the generations of Jewish marriage contracts and Jewish cemetery documentation that crypto Jews have not recorded or lost. Given that Orthodox Judaism also does not proselytize, it becomes difficult for organizations that actively encourage crypto Jews to convert, like Kulanu, to gain credibility. Secondly, Jews have resentment towards those who chose to convert under the threat of death. The Jewish religion states that one must die rather than convert away from Judaism and those who do not are essentially excommunicated. On a personal note, of the three alternative terms used to describe crypto-Jewry, the author only recognized the term Marranos (swine), as it is the predominant term used by her Jewish community. The descendants of these Anusim, with assimilation evidenced by their dark complexion, still bear the cost today. Thirdly, there is an underlying, and perhaps unsubstantiated, fear that encouraging crypto Jews to convert away from Catholicism will lead to an upsurge of anti-Semitism in Mexico. And fourthly, many crypto Jews, though happy to rediscover aspects of their past, choose to continue to practice Christianity. An additional deterrent is that Judaism is a law-based religion that requires much from its people, including circumcision of male converts.
The organized Jewish community has defined Marranos as a category, whose characteristics are cowardice and a weak grip on Judaism. Their property is the lack of a proven Jewish matrilineal bloodline. “These component notions of [religio-ethnicity] always continue to function as a background knowledge,” (Lopez 205) and serve to reinforce the community’s adamant refusal to actively bring them back to Judaism. Perhaps this is why crypto Jews are often viewed as more stringent observers of Jewish law than most; just as “Mexican Americans had attempted to counteract negative views regarding themselves by asserting that they were white persons with Spanish surnames,” (Lopez 205) so too crypto-Jewry assert Judaizante (observance of Jewish law) more strongly to be accepted by the organized Jewish community.
Historian Gerson D. Cohen wrote that, “no matter how christianized [sic] the Marrano way of life may have become…they need not – and apparently did not – cease to be a Jewish group historically, sociologically, or even religiously” (Liebman 215). Yet despite this, today’s organized Jewish community does not accept crypto Jews as Jews, instead categorizing them as Mexicans with Jewish heritage. This is due to lingering resentments of Marranos, the strong emphasis on the matrilineal line, and most importantly, the current guiding Jewish practice of discouraging conversion and the associated fear of provoking anti-Semitism. Until just before the exile from the Roman Empire, Jews actively and successfully proselytized; approximately 10% of the Empire was Jewish. It was only after the Emperor began sentencing both proselytizers and converts to death that Jews implemented the law forbidding active conversion (Prager and Telushkin), unintentionally impeding the return of lost Jews. Yet for almost 4,000 years Jews have been oppressed and persecuted in every part of the world, and as a result many have dispersed and assimilated. Perhaps in the post-Holocaust era, after having lost six million Jews, it is now time for the Jewish people to begin the process of revisiting past injustices done to their brethren. It is time to show compassion to the descendents of those forced to make incredibly difficult decisions. The recent and growing trend of self-discovery among crypto Jews presents an opportunity to the organized worldwide Jewish community that we must embrace. It is time to join and support groups like Kulanu, and actively find and bring back the hidden Jews of the world.
Bibliography / References Cited
Albalat, Magnolia. “Mestizo Jews: The Hidden Treasure of the World.” Society for Crypto Judaic Studies. Society for Crypto Judaic Studies. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://www.cryptojews.com/mestizo.html>.Magnolia gives brief history of Jews in the Inquisition and how they came to Mexico. She also mentions how intermarriage came about and Jewish rituals that were retained.
Ghiuzeli, Haim F. “Native Mexican Jews.” Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People.The Nadav Foundation. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://www.bh.org.il/database-article.aspx?48722>.
Ghiuzeli makes the distinction between crypto Jews and the believers of the Iglesia de Dios. He proceeds to discuss various crypto-Jewish communities within Mexico including those in Venta Prieta, Puebla, Veracruz, and Vallejo.
Gomes, Steve. “RETURN.” Speech. Conference of the SCJS. San Diego, CA. Aug. 2002. Society for Crypto Judaic Studies. Web. 09 Dec. 2010. <http://www.cryptojews.com/return_Steve_Gomes.htm>.
Kelly, David. “DNA Clears the Fog Over Latino Links to Judaism in New Mexico – Los Angeles
Times.” The Los Angeles Times: Article Collections. The Los Angeles Times, 05 Dec. 2004. Web. 09 Dec. 2010. <http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/05/nation/na-heritage5>.
Lenchek, Shep. “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 1: Mexico History.” Access Mexico Connect – Current Issue – The Electronic Magazine All about Mexico. Mexico Connect, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/677-jews-in-mexico-a-struggle-for-survival-part-1>.
Lenchek gives a detailed account of the jobs Conversos had in Mexico as well as the extent to which they assimilated into the Catholic population from the time of the Spanish Inquisition until the 1930s.
Lenchek, Shep. “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 2: Mexico History.” Access
Mexico Connect – Current Issue – The Electronic Magazine All about Mexico. Mexico Connect, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/676>.
Lenchek discusses what Converso communities in Mexico look like today and how the organized Jewish community in Mexico receives them.iebman, Seymour B. New World Jewry, 1493-1825: Requiem for the Forgotten. New York:Ktav Pub. House, 1982. Print.
Liwerant, Judit B. “Mexico.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women’s Archive, 20 Mar. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mexico>.
Liwerant discusses the different kinds of Jewish communities in Mexico, namely the difference and interactions between the Sephardic, the Ashkenazi, and the Jews from the Levant. She also discusses the role of Jewesses in these communities as homemakers and as retainers of the Jewish tradition.
Lopez, Ian H. “The Social Construction of Race: Some Observations on Illusion, Fabrication, and Choice.” A Reader on Race, Civil Rights, and American Law: a Multiracial Approach. Ed. Timothy Davis, Kevin R. Johnson, and George A. Martínez. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2001. Print.
Lopez discusses the social construction of race. I will apply this theory to the identities of both crypto Jews as well as “traditional” Mexican Jews and how each perceives the other and also how everyone else perceives them.
Lopez, Ian H. Racism on Trial: the Chicano Fight for Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2003. Print. Lopez discusses common sense racism and how people are divided by characteristics, properties, and categories. I will apply this to Mexican Jews as a distinct group that others label a distinct category with distinct characteristics and properties.
Loya, Sonya A. “My Personal Journey.” HaLapid (2005). Society for Crypto Judaic Studies. Aug. 2005. Web. 09 Dec. 2010. <http://www.cryptojews.com/sonya_loya.htm>.
Montoya, Margaret. Mascaras, Trenzas, y Grenas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, 17 Harv. Women’s L.J. 185 (1994) and 15 Chicano-Latino L. Rev. 1 (1994).
This article can be applied to how crypto Jews and “traditional” Mexican Jews fuse their numerous identities and allow for all of them to be exposed at various moments in their lives.
Prager, Dennis, and Joseph Telushkin. Why the Jews?: the Reason for Antisemitism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Schlosser, Mania, and Paul Shteremberg. “Experience as a Mexican Jew.” Telephone interview. 7 Dec. 2010. I interviewed “traditional” Mexican Jews to find out more about their experiences in the Mexican Jewish community, their distinct culture, and their knowledge and perceptions of Mexican Crypto-Jewry.
Wolf, Isaac. “The Virtual Jewish History Tour – Mexico.” Jewish Virtual Library – Homepage.
American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Mexico.html>.
Wolf describes the rifts between the Sephardic crypto-Jewish communities and the Ashkenazi communities that came to Mexico in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
World Jewish Congress: Mexico. Rep. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
1 Shep Lenchek, “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 1: Mexico History,”
Mexico Connect (2000), accessed November 11, 2010 <http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/677-jews-in-mexico-a-struggle-for-survival-part-1>.
2 Lenchek, “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 1: Mexico History”.
3 Shep Lenchek, “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 2: Mexico History,” Mexico Connect (2000), accessed November 11, 2010 <http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/676>.
4 David Kelly, “DNA Clears the Fog Over Latino Links to Judaism in New Mexico,” The Los Angeles Times (2004), Accessed December 09, 2010 <http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/05/nation/na-heritage5>.
5 Shep Lenchek, “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 2: Mexico History”.
6 Sonya A. Loya, “My Personal Journey,” Society for Crypto Judaic Studies (2005), accessed December 09, 2010 <http://www.cryptojews.com/sonya_loya.htm>.
7 Steve Gomes, “RETURN,” Society for Crypto Judaic Studies (2002), accessed December 09,
8 Shep Lenchek, “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 1: Mexico History.”
9 Isaac Wolf, “The Virtual Jewish History Tour – Mexico,” Jewish Virtual Library, November 11, 2010 <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Mexico.html>.
10 World Jewish Congress: Mexico, December 09, 2010 <http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/communities/show?id=115>.
11 Judit B. Liwerant, “Mexico,” Jewish Women’s Archive (2009), November 11, 2010 <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mexico>.
12 Shep Lenchek, “Jews in Mexico. A Struggle for Survival Part 2 Mexico History”.
Jessica Felber is a doctoral student of Israeli Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, where she serves on the Academic Freedom Committee of the Academic Senate. Since graduating from University of California-Berkeley in 2010, Jessica has worked with several Jewish and Israel non-profits including JerusalemOnlineU.com, Hasbara Fellowships, Alternative Action, and Creative Zionist Coalition. She currently serves on the Young Leadership Board for JerusalemOnlineU.com’s Core18 Leaders Lab.
Unending Crypto-Jewish Faith:
When we think of the Iberian Inquisition today, images of intolerance, zealotry, and torture often come to mind. A happier outcome of the Inquisition’s devotion to procedure and establishing its version of truth was the compilation of vast quantities of records that, paradoxically, gave voice to the very people whom the tribunal endeavored so methodically to silence. During the Inquisition’s more than three-centuries-long existence in the Iberian world, the first and largest group of such people consisted of conversos (baptized Catholics of Jewish descent) accused of secretly practicing Jewish heresy. Between the end of the 1500s and middle of the 1600s, the Holy Office of the Inquisition in New Spain alone prosecuted several hundred New Christian converts (conversos) for the heresy of being “Judaizers,” or secret Jews. One of these individuals was Justa Méndez, whose commitment to Judaism subsequently led her to resist the Inquisition for more than half a century. Based on published transcriptions of Inquisitorial testimony, this article analyzes the beliefs and practices of Justa Méndez at the time of her proceso (trial) in the mid-1590s, when she was a young woman. This trial record shows quite clearly the steadfastness of her Jewish faith in an environment of coercion and marginalization.
The ordeal to which the Inquisition in New Spain subjected Justa Méndez was the inevitable outcome of more than a century of Inquisitorial involvement in the social and political fabric of Iberia. In 1478, Fernando and Isabel had obtained permission from Pope Sixtus IV to establish an inquisition under royal control with the purpose of correcting Jewish heresies among New Christians in the southern region of Andalucía. Religious figures such as the Dominican friars Alonso de Hojeda in Sevilla and Tomás de Torquemada in Segovia convinced Fernando and Isabel to establish an updated version of the medieval tribunal by claiming that Judaizing was widespread throughout the monarchs’ kingdoms. Subsequently, despite actively pursuing crypto Jews during the 1480s, inquisitors were unable to stop openly practicing Jews from making recidivists of conversos. Therefore, led by Torquemada, the first Inquisitor-General, they convinced Fernando and Isabel to convert or expel the Jews from their kingdoms, claiming that such a drastic measure would remove a pernicious influence on New Christians. After 1492, the crypto Judaism of converts to Catholicism in Spain and its American colonies became successively less recognizable as an expression of normative Judaism, due to the scarcity of learned teachers, books, and access to openly practicing communities. The Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Lima, capital of the viceroyalty of Peru, in 1570, and in Mexico in 1571. Within the space of less than a century it had greatly reduced the clusters of Judaizers in both capitals.
A desire to see what sort of relationship Justa Méndez forged with her contemporary and inspiration in crypto Judaism, Luis de Carvajal, the most famous secret Jew in colonial Hispanic America, in part stimulated my interest in her case. At the time of Justa’s first arrest and his second, in 1595, she was 20 and he 30. Both were unattached and very bright; additionally, she was known as “la hermosa” (the beautiful one). Not surprisingly then, the two were reputed to have been in love. However, while Luis is mentioned repeatedly in Justa’s trial records, as a witness against her and as one of her teachers of crypto Judaism, I was unable to discover any evidence showing that they were more than teacher and student. Luis was burned at the stake after the auto de fe (act of faith) of 8 December 1596, along with his mother and three of his sisters. The sentence pronounced on Justa at the same auto included three years of prison (more likely a kind of house arrest) as well as the order to wear the sambenito (penitential sackcloth) in public until inquisitors deemed it no longer necessary (Liebman, Valerosas criptojudías, 17). These punishments accompanied her status as reconciliada, a term that described an individual brought back into Catholicism and hence given a second chance to demonstrate the sincerity of her faith.
During the next nearly four decades, however, Justa Méndez showed herself to be a staunch crypto Jew. She married Francisco Núñez, a fellow converso of Portuguese origin who had abjured crypto-Jewish heresy at the same auto in which she was penanced. Together they taught Jewish beliefs to their three children, all of whom received varying degrees of punishment at the auto grande of April 11, 1649, the largest such auto de fe in the Inquisition’s history on either side of the Atlantic. One daughter, Isabel Núñez was reconciled to Catholicism after an unusual last-minute confession the night before she was to be executed. Their other daughter, Francisca Núñez, was “relaxed” in effigy, which meant that a wooden likeness of her was handed over to secular authorities for burning. The couple’s son, Luis Pérez Roldán, was also reconciled at this auto, sentenced to 200 lashes, and ordered to leave New Spain, but apparently never did so. Justa Méndez died in 1644, shortly after the Inquisition in Mexico detained about 200 conversos because of the so-called “Complicidad grande,” or supposed plot of conversos to help Portugal gain control of Spanish territory in the Americas. After condemnation as a relapsa (relapsed heretic), her bones were disinterred and burned after the same auto at which her children were punished.
Justa’s early years exemplify the mobile nature of the era in which she lived and also indicate the realities of existence for conversos then. According to the autobiographical information she provided inquisitors during her first audience, in February 1595, she was born in Sevilla, approximately twenty years previously to Clara Enríquez and Francisco Méndez (probably spelled Mendes in Portuguese), both of whom were Portuguese. In Spain at this time, Portuguese often signified converso, since a great many Portuguese who arrived in Spain during the years when the latter kingdom ruled the former were in fact New Christians. When Justa was five she learned how to sew, and at the age of seven, after the passing of her father, she and Clara Enríquez undertook the dangerous voyage to New Spain, apparently as part of a group of settlers brought by the new governor of Nuevo León, Luis de Carvajal the elder. In response to the inquisitors’ formulaic questions about lineage, Justa stated that she did not know to which casta y generación (social class and ancestry) she belonged. However, during the same audience she effectively confirmed her New Christian heritage by relating how a now-deceased shipmate, the Portuguese Luis Pinto, told her to observe the Law of Moses, “porque en ella se salvaría y mediante su guarda tendría muchas riquezas y bienes temporales” (in it she would be saved, and by means of practicing it she would have many riches and temporal goods; AJHS, Justa Méndez134). Justa assented to Pinto’s teachings, in actions as much as words, by observing the fast of the Día Grande (Great Day, referring to Yom Kippur) that occurred shortly after her arrival in Mexico. By choosing to follow the path of Judaism, Justa, who was still several years shy of ten, made a decision that would alter significantly her life and those of her offspring.
Once settled in Mexico, Justa and Clara made ends meet by working as seamstresses. However, they focused their energy on the small, tightly knit community of crypto Jews in the city, nearly all of whom were of Portuguese origin or ancestry. Admitting to inquisitors that her mother was also a crypto Jew, Justa described her as “una mujer cerrada, callada, melancólica y enferma” (a closed [or perhaps closed-minded], quiet, melancholy, and sick woman; AJHS, Justa Méndez 142).
This portrait contrasts markedly with what one might say about Justa, a remarkably energetic woman who subsequently studied Judaism actively and made it the driving force in her relationships with friends and family alike. However, as a 20 year old in 1595, her transformation into defiant crypto Jew was not yet complete, as evidenced by her apparently sincere desire to be reconciled to Catholicism: “dijo con muchas lágrimas que está apartada de la creencia de la dicha Ley de Moisén, y que quiere creer y tener la ley evangélica de gracia de nuestro redentor Jesucristo” (she said with many tears that she is now separated from belief in the said law of Moses, and that she wants to believe and hold the evangelical law of grace of our redeemer Jesus Christ; AJHS, Justa Méndez 141). The Inquisition only considered such confessions entirely valid when the defendants making them described all their heretical behavior, or in caput proprium (lit. “against one’s own head”); as well as that of all other individuals whom they knew, or in caput alienum (lit. “against another’s head”), especially family and friends. While Justa may have suffered emotional pain incriminating other secret Jews to comply with this demand of the Inquisition, she also knew that the Holy Office built its case against her using testimony from these very same individuals.
By the standards of Inquisition trials of the time, Justa’s case was relatively small, with only thirteen witnesses testifying against her. These individuals included other well-known crypto Jews such as Clara Enríquez, her mother; several members of the Carvajal family, including Luis el mozo (the younger); and other Portuguese New Christians who had come to Mexico via Sevilla, such as Manuel de Lucena, a merchant in the mines of Pachuca, and his wife Catalina Enríquez. The information they provided, as well as information provided by Justa herself in response to their testimony, provides a remarkably clear and consistent picture of crypto Judaism more than four centuries ago. Justa and her cohort celebrated Yom Kippur, which they called the Día Grande, and Passover, or Pascua del cordero, by fasting on the first holiday and eating tortillas and pan cenceño (unleavened bread) for eight days in observance of the second. On one such Yom Kippur, they gathered in the home of the aforementioned Manuel Lucena, where, dressed in their best clothes, they sang and danced to a prayer that read in part, “Cantemos con alegría / alabanzas al Señor / que todo que en él confía / no le falta su favor” (Let us sing with happiness / praises to the Lord/ that all who in Him trust / do not lack his favor; AJHS, Justa Méndez 229). Afterwards, those in attendance ended the fast with a meal of garbanzos, boiled tuna, stewed sea bass, salad, olives, and cooked and fresh fruit. On a more weekly basis, this small group of secret Jews often fasted Mondays and Thursdays, avoided pork, kept the Sabbath by changing clothes and sheets on Friday nights, abstained from work on Saturdays when possible, and gathered in each other’s homes on this day while dressed in their finest clothes. On at least one occasion Justa wore a “saya de tafetán carmesí vareteado y una ropa de tafetán morado” (skirt of patterned crimson taffeta and clothing of purple taffeta) and often the group would eat a roast prepared Friday so that its members could “guardarlo [el sábado] con más puntualidad” (observe the Sabbath with more precision; AJHS, Justa Méndez 86, 219). When Justa and her cohort could not be together or when, for the sake of appearances, they attended mass on Sundays, they kept the Sabbath in their hearts “por no ser sentidas,” so that prying neighbors might not suspect them of false Catholicism (AJHS, Justa Méndez 93).
An important component of crypto Judaism consisted in denying the legitimacy of Catholicism, and thus the record repeatedly shows how Justa and her circle believed they would achieve salvation through the Law of Moses, the “good law,” through a kind of doing by not doing (AJHS, Justa Méndez 67). Thus these individuals rejected the trinity and the divinity of Christ, avoided mass and confession whenever possible, claimed they would not be saved in Catholic Christianity, and waited for the Messiah to reunite them in Israel. Coexistent with this strategy of defining Judaism by negating Catholicism was the singular role of Luis de Carvajal in forging the group’s identity. When the families of Luis and Justa gathered, Luis read aloud passages from the Hebrew Bible using a copy of the Vulgate, which he translated simultaneously from Latin to Castilian. Or he might read from an unidentified book written in romance (Castilian) that described the lives of patriarchs and prophets. In this way, Justa heard the psalms of David as well as what she stated were prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah asserting the core crypto-Jewish belief that the Messiah had not yet arrived (AJHS, Justa Méndez 213). Luis had access to a bible after he had been transferred from a hospital to the library of the Franciscan Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco as part of the sentence from his first trial; clearly a heaven-sent transfer for someone of his bent (AJHS, Justa Méndez 149; Bodian 63-64). The clandestine meetings that Luis led took place on Friday evenings and Saturdays. They often lasted three hours, during which time Justa, her mother, the Carvajals, and other participants turned towards the east, genuflected, and recited prayers, two of which began with the lines, “Señor del mundo yo vengo delante de ti” (Lord of the world, I come before you) and “Bendito tú nuestro Dios rey del mundo” (Blessed are you our God, king of the world) (AJHS, Justa Méndez 212, 220). The fragments of these prayers show to a certain extent the personalized nature of crypto Judaism at a time when its adherents could look only inward or to their few fellow believers to affirm beliefs anathema to the dominant ideology.
The strong Jewish identity that distinguished Justa during the decades after her trial confirms the importance of the insular crypto-Jewish community and of Luis de Carvajal in particular during the five years prior to the auto of 1596. This formative period prepared her to become a knowledgeable teacher of Jewish beliefs in her own right. Subsequently, she studied the Hebrew Bible, fasted twice weekly, led celebrations of holidays, and to the end of her life never compromised her beliefs.
Bocanegra relates an anecdote that, regardless of whether it is apocryphal or not, testifies to Justa’s unwavering identity: apparently suffering from an undisclosed illness of the throat that left her unable to speak, she refused to kiss a crucifix that a sincere Christian gave her, instead sticking out her tongue at it just before she died (218). Justa Méndez has not achieved the attention she deserves in scholarship of the Inquisition era, perhaps in part because she did not produce written texts nor achieve fame as a martyr. Instead, her immediate legacy was the Jewish beliefs she taught her children and grandchildren. A more long-term one has been to confirm and increase our knowledge of crypto Judaism today, as well as to show the extent to which this belief system established strong roots in Latin America more than four centuries ago.
American Jewish Historical Society, New York. 2010. Transcription of Proceso de fe contra Justa Méndez, doncella hija de Clara Enríquez, portuguesa, de casta y generación de cristianos nuevos. Archivo Generalde la Nación, Mexico City. 1595. Inquisición, tomo
Bodian, Miriam. Dying in the Law of Moses: Crypto-Jewish Martyrdom in the Iberian World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2007.
Bocanegra, Matías de. Jews and the Inquisition of Mexico: The Great Auto de Fe of 1649.
Ed. and trans. Seymour Liebman. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1974. (Translation ofgeneral de fe celebrado […] en la muy leal ciudad de México […] el 11 de abril de 1649).
Hordes, Stanley M. To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto Jews of New Mexico. New York: Columbia UP, 2005.
Jiménez Rueda, Julio. Herejías supersticiones en la nueva España (los heterodoxos en México). México: Imprenta Universitaria, 1946.
Liebman, Seymour. Valerosas criptojudías en la América colonial. Trans. Florinda F. de Goldberg. Buenos Aires: Congreso Judío Latinoamericano, 1973.
Matthew Warshawsky, (This photo was taken at El Alcázar of Segovia, Spain), received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University. He is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Portland, where he teaches courses on the Spanish Golden Age and Hispano-Jewish literature, among other topics. His research focuses on Iberian Jews in a trans-Atlantic context, particularly converted Jews prosecuted by the colonial Inquisition. Dr. Warshawsky is Program Chair for SCJS.
The Eighth Annual Anousim Conference took place in Israel in 2012 and it was the first visit to that land by many of the Anousim in our group. This was a home land journey most had only dreamed about, until we departed on August 1st. It was almost the same date that Cristobol Colon set sail, when he left Spain for the New World.
One of the first visits was to Beit Hatefutsoth, the diaspora museum. In three previous trips to Israel, I had never found any reference to my family name. This time, it was different. I learned that the surname de Loya is associated with the village of the same name in the Diocese of Pamplona, Navarre, Spain. I found three centuries of Loyas in Marrakech, Morocco. In the 17th century, Meir de Loya was rabbi there, and author of Hiddushim. The 18th century found Isaac de Loya as Chief Rabbi and head of the rabbincial court. He died in 1711. And in the 19th century, Judah Ben Mordekhay de Loya was a rabbi there.
It took a long day of touring for us to reach the Sea of Galilee. Our first nights conference dinner was held at Casa Dona Gracia Hotel and Museum in Tiberius. Visual artist Gail Gutierrez was our featured speaker.
The next day our group set off across the Galilee on a boat ride, while singing and dancing in great jubilation to Israeli music and song.
The day we rode up to Jerusalem was solemn and tearful for many, finally arriving in the city of King David. It was the day before Tisha B’av and the much anticipated visit to the Kotel, joining the thousands who were fasting and mourning the destruction of our Holy Temples, the exile of the Jews of Spain and the Holocaust, as well as to honor “the return of the Anousim to Judaism.” The latter was the subject of a resolution approved by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism that had been submitted by Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion, El Paso, TX, who accompanied our tour.
Our private tour of the Temple Mount was led by Rabbi Chaim Richman, of the Temple Institute. The group experienced the rabbis’ tunnels and the old city of Jerusalem and joined the Conservative group in Ramat Rachel, overseeing the old and new city of Jerusalem, to read the book of Lamentations together.
After the fast we joined The Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism, in their synagogue for a concert in Ladino with Vanessa Paloma.
The tour ended all too soon for many after ten days. Rabbi Leon, his wife Sharon, my husband-to-be Carl and my self, stayed an extra week. Carl and I were married in the courtyard of the Sephardic Educational Center, in the old city. Rabbi Chaim Richman & Rabbi Yeshayahu Hollander, two orthodox rabbis signed our ketubah and Rabbi Leon officiated, a beautiful sign of Jewish unity. The feature of our last day in Israel was a visit with my friend Dr. Malka Shabtay, Israeli anthropologist. She phoned one of the fifteen Loya families I had discovered in Tel Aviv, and we seemed to have hit the jackpot of Loya knowledge! The oldest Loya clan member, who was 90 at the time, told Malka of the migration patterns of the families who had fled Spain, in 1492. They migrated to Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, Bulgaria and Israel by the middle of the 1500′s. I have been told that there is an ancient Loya Synagogue south of the Galilee.
My hopes are to go back to Israel soon to find the Loya Synagogue and to reconnect with the families sharing my surname, who maintained their Jewish identity all these hundreds of years. May we continue to work towards great causes in healing the face of Judaism.
Sonya A. Loya is the founder of the Bat-Tzion Hebrew Center, which initiated the First Anousim Conference in 2004. Working with Rabbi Stephen Leon, the center facilitated the return of several B’nai Anousim to Judaism. It closed in 2010, as Loya intensified her work internationally in education for Jewish and Anousim communities. She works with Road Scholars of Albuquerque, speaking on her journey from Catholicism to Judaism. A glass artist, she is renowned for her work, which she has exhibited at SCJS conferences.
First of all, you must be able to sing in Spanish. Then, you must be able to sing as if all you had ever known was Love. Then the bull will hear you. Then the bull will respect you, will come running.
The Rio Grande Valley of the Deep South was home to my parents, home to our ancestors. My parents were born there. The six-acre parcel I was on was purchased in recent times by my aunt and uncle, Tia Pila and Tio Fino. Pila is my mother’s oldest sister. She and Fino, along with my mother and father, left the world of farming to move to Illinois to work in factories and raise families. My aunt and uncle raised their large family down the block from us. When my mother died, my aunt, uncle, and father moved back to this place where they had grown up.
This land holds history for my family. Ancestors who lived in the Valley, probably since it was New Spain, owned land here. The dirt I was standing on may have been home to me if it hadn’t been stolen. Although—Native Americans believe land can never be owned. It belongs to Mother Earth.
I often wonder what life would have been like growing up here. Would I have traveled so much? Would I have gotten an education? Or would I be a singer in a mariachi band, singing “cu-cu-ru-cu-cu paloma” instead of “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” in new-thought churches?
Maybe if I had felt this attached to the land growing up, I wouldn’t have been so restless. Yet, the Midwest gifted me with mulberries, applies, sour rhubarb, wild grapes, and corn fields in the summer. Oh, how I loved rolling in the autumn leaves. And the spring! Somehow I was always becoming one with the mud in the springtime, but that’s a different story. The winters were harsh, and there were too many frozen layers between me and the ground. I looked like Snow White in the winter, with my black hair and light skin. In fact, that was my first nickname when I moved to Israel. It was in the holy land that I realized I preferred being sun-kissed to my original pale color.
The July heat was oppressive, even for the southern tip of Texas, right along the border, and here too my skin could remain sun-kissed. On this day, Tia, Tio, and I were outside in the shade, catching the breeze and enjoying time together. We had nowhere to go, nothing to do. It was one of those rare moments when you really get to savor time together. How many times can we say that happens in our harried, hectic, modern lives?
It was a beautiful sunny day, with few clouds in the sky. There was no one around for miles. All the other houses were too far in the distance to be seen. It occurred to me that this scene could have been set in any century. At that instance, I could not hear the humming of modern appliances or planes overhead—not even one car on the rural road, and from our vantage point, there was not a road in sight. Time seemed to stand still. My heart was overflowing with gratitude for the moment, for the quiet time with my favorite aunt and uncle and for the beautiful voice with which I was gifted. The only thing left to do was sing.
I began singing a beautiful fifteenth century Spanish song that for many reasons is close to my heart. “Los Pelegrinitos” is a song about two pilgrims who are cousins who wish to marry, but have to travel to the pope to ask permission to do so. The English translation is on page . It is expressed in story form from a mother to her daughter. It is a dear song to me because it illustrates the complexities of the period, whose history is also an integral part of my family’s heritage. In that period, the 1400’s, the Jews were expelled from Spain or forced to convert to Catholicism. Many Spanish Jews kept their practices in secret. Often they married within the family to keep the faith. In Judaism, it is allowed for first cousins to marry, so I have always conjectured this story to be about Jewish cousins wanting to marry.
Even more important than the significance of the lyrics to me, was the intention behind my singing. In that moment, I was singing from an open heart with pure love for my family, my ancestors, my history, my surroundings, for the moment, and for the gratitude of my God-given instrument.
As I sang, “Sombrerito de hule lleva el mozuelo,” I heard my aunt and uncle saying to each other in Spanish, “What are they doing coming now? They never come now.”
I continued “Y la pelegrinita, Mamita, de terciopelo, niña bonita, de terciopelo, niña.”
I opened my eyes to see brown specks coming toward us. Tia and Tio were speaking in surprised tones, but I was too busy feeling the song and the love to hear all they were saying. I kept my eyes on the brown specks as they quickly came our way.
“Al pasar por el Puente de la Victoria…tropezo la madrina, Mamita…” I began to realize the brown specks were cows, all except for one. “Callo la novia, niña bonita, callo la novia, niña.”
The cows were led by a bull. George was a full-grown, huge picture of potent power. He was a beautiful chocolate brown with hints of Indian red. He was so massive that his parts dragged on the ground—his cojones, his polla, all of it. It was a wonder he moved so quickly to my song. I continued singing while in awe of this gorgeous symbol of earthiness and masculinity. “Le ha preguntado el Papa que se han pecado…”
Tia and Tio were still wondering what George was up to. He came as closely as he could to me. “El le dice que un beso mamita.” I was very grateful for the thin barbed wire fence between us, which I hadn’t noticed before. “Que le habia dado, Niña Bonita, que la habia dado, niña.”
George came up to the fence, not more than a few feet directly in front of me. “Las campanas de Roma ya repicaron…” He tilted his head, lifted his left ear high, and his face melted. I swear, I could hear him sigh. “Porque los pelegrinos, Mamita, ya se casaron, niña bonita.”
I’ve seen very few bulls in my life and never before or since have I seen one this huge, and I certainly have never heard of a bull swooning. But that is exactly what George did: he swooned just as I finished singing the last verse, “Ya se casaron, niña.” My aunt and uncle chuckled when they realized George had run all this way with the cows following behind him so he could hear my voice and be near me.
I have experienced many instances of charming animals since, but my first time was with George. I felt extremely honored that such a powerful magnificent creature would pay me such a compliment as George did that day.
I have the ability to charm bulls. There is nothing I cannot do.
Following is an English translation of Elisheva’s song to the bull, as arranged by the poet, Federico Garcia Lorca.
The young pilgrims
To Rome they’re walking
for the Pope to wed them, mamma
‘cause they’re cousins, pretty baby,
‘cause they’re cousins, baby
A little felt hat
he’s wearing the lad
and the pilgrim girl, mamma
a velvet one, pretty baby,
a velvet one, baby
When they were crossing
the bridge of Victory,
the bridesmaid stumbled, mamma
the bride falls down, pretty baby,
the bride falls down, baby
They arrived in the Palace,
and in the Pope’s hall, mamma,
they were brought down, pretty baby,
they were brought down, baby
The Pope asked them
what are their names,
he says it’s Pedro, mamma,
and she says it’s Ana, pretty baby,
and she says it’s Ana, baby
The Pope asked them
what is their age
she says it’s fifteen, mamma,
and he seventeen, baby.
The Pope asks them
where do they come from,
she says from Cabra, mamma,
and he from Antequera, pretty baby,
and he from Antequera, baby
The Pope asks them
whether they have sinned,
he says just one kiss, mamma,
that he had given her, pretty baby,
that he had given her, baby
And the pilgrim girl
who is shy
her face has turned, mamma,
into a rose, pretty baby,
into a rose, baby
And the Pope responded
from his quarters:
I wish I was pilgrim, mamma,
to do the same! pretty baby,
to do the same! baby
The bells of Rome
are pealing now
because the pilgrims, mamma,
are married now, pretty baby,
are married now, baby.
Elisheva Herrera is author of the forthcoming book, Why Does Joy Follow Me Everywhere? Her life-long interest in the healing arts was validated by her aunt, a curandera, who told her at a young age that she was also destined be a curandera like several other aunts before her, who in the crypto-Jewish tradition, served as their isolated community’s sacerdotistas, priests. Elisheva’s spiritual practices and studies have taken her from the Midwest to a kibbutz and yeshiva in Israel, to Europe, and to San Clemente, CA where she now serves as an intuitive spiritual life coach, vocalist, teacher, Laughter Yoga leader, and transformative artist. She has a BA in economics with a minor in music from Tufts University. Elisheva’s private coaching programs include Journey to the Self Through Singing, and The Power of Joy. . Find her at www.thegoddesssings.com or on Facebook.
Pioneer historian of crypto Judaism was
welcome speaker at SCJS Conferences
One morning last February, friends and colleagues of Richard Santos received a message from Juan Marínez, Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University, informing them that the pioneer historian of crypto Judaism in the American southwest had passed away at the age of 73, at his home in Pearsall, Texas. Richard was a speaker at several SCJS conferences and the author of Silent Heritage, subtitled “The Sephardim and the colonization of the Spanish North American Frontier 1492-1600,” published in 2000. In his Publisher’s Preface to the work, SCJS member William J. Munter wrote:
Relying on actual documents from various Mexican archives (including the Inquisition, published documents, diaries, land records and vital statistics, he has put together the story of a people determined to survive at all costs. Thus the role, participation and contributions of the Sephardic Crypto Jews and conversos on the Spanish North American Frontier and U.S.-Mexico Borderlands is finally being told.
Following is Juan Marínez’s message of February 22, sharing some of his memories of Richard Santos, followed by a tribute from SCJS member Isabelle Medina Sandoval.
From Juan Marínez
“…his greatest pride would be his scholarship
on Sephardic contribution to Mexico, Tejas,
New Mexico and in the Americas.”
I am sending all of you this sad message that a good friend and colleague Richard G. Santos passed away last night February 21. … A few hours ago we lost a great individual who cared about learning and teaching our history, like he would say many times over “La verdad, no peca, pero encomoda”! Truth does not sin but uncovers! He taught me so much of the greater Texas family history and much more. He was a walking encyclopedia of Tejano history. He was an active participant of both living and recorded historical periods; studied and taught early history of Native people of Tejas, Spanish, Mexican, Tejano and Texans. Although, I would think that his greatest pride would be his scholarship on [the] Sephardic contribution to Mexico, Tejas, New Mexico and in the Americas. When I first spoke with Richard many years ago, I asked him to write a bit of himself that he could share with me. Below is what he wrote me. I would like to share it with you.
“I was archivist of Bexar County, then full time Instructor and Director of Ethnic Studies at Our lady of the Lake University, a part time instructor at Trinity University’s Graduate School of Urban Studies and part time teach[er] at the school of Aero Space Medicine…. Since moving to Crystal full time, I have taught history and English for the SWTJC….I write a weekly column for the Zavala County Sentinel, located in Crystal City. Secondly, I am a bonafide international research historian…, presently employed by the City of Pearsall [and] a member of the Board of Directors of the Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail.”
From Isabelle Medina Sandoval:
“Beyond the historian persona,
Richard was a brave spiritualist,
bridging medieval Inquisitional families
with authentic descendants of crypto Jews…”
While reading electronic Southwestern educational updates by Juan Marínez this past February, I was stunned to decipher the sad news about Richard Glafiro Santos.
Meeting Richard decades ago at conferences sponsored by the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies, I was intrigued with his knowledge and zeal for advocating for the inclusion of Sephardic crypto Jews within the discipline of history. As I listened to his presentations on crypto Jews pioneering Texas and New Mexican lands while surviving and escaping Spanish/Mexican mandates, I was spellbound with his scholarly research. In truth, I observed a lone, brown Hispanic historian chronicling valid history outside of an accepted normative historical framework. As an intellectual educator, he proposed lucid logic for crypto Jews seeking residence in new lands. Experiencing an extraordinary Jewish spiritual connection, I understood the complexity of his rationale.
Richard was a man of accomplishment—speaking about and writing books documenting the colonial existence of Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic Jews settling in Mexico, Texas and New Mexico. Serving as an archivist for Bexar, Texas County, Richard was also a professor at Trinity and Palo Alto College as well as directing ethnic studies at Our Lady of the Lake University.
Most of all, I will miss Richard’s intense ardor for crypto Jews. Beyond the historian persona, Richard was a brave spiritualist, bridging medieval Inquisitional families with authentic descendants of crypto Jews in this modern era. I will miss his genuine, inquisitive, gentle spirit and high standards.
And the wind sings another old song
in a soulful flamenco guitar long gone
I attended the First International Conference on Jewish Heritage in Portugal last November, which was created to acquaint people new to the surge of interest in Jewish Heritage—academic, cultural, religious and secular.
For me it was a matter of personal interest, genealogy and other explorations into my life in Portugal since I retired, probing more deeply my past, my ancestors and their links to Portugal. The conference reinforced my observations of how Portugal’s past still affects its present; that so many people today can say that they knew that members of their family were Jewish. In my case, my Portuguese wife, brought up as Catholic, bears evidence in her family to a Jewish past and some of my Jewish ancestors bore Portuguese names.
It is significant that the conference was held in Tomar, which contains the best preserved, surviving synagogue in Portugal. Tomar was possibly unique in having had two synagogues at one time. The site of the second is known, although no vestiges remain.
The conference was sponsored by the Association of the Friends of the Sinagoga of Tomar (AAST). Its President, João Schwarz Da Silva, is grandson of Samuel Schwarz, discoverer in 1917 of the crypto-Jewish community of Belmonte, in Portugal’s north. The latter wrote about his experiences in later years and purchased the Tomar synagogue, now a museum.
The conference paid tribute to Schwarz and to Aristedes Sousa Mendes, Portuguese consul during World War II. It was moving that many of Sousa Mendes’ family and descendants of the Jews he saved during the Holocaust were present to recognize his work.
Papers at the conference were presented in both English and Portuguese, and covered topics ranging from hiding of one’s religious identity as a way of life to manifestations of Jewish life in modern Portugal. As this was titled the First International Conference on Jewish Heritage, one expects more to follow, and from my experience, I hope it will not be the last.
Last summer, I was invited to exhibit my paintings at the SCJS conference and talk about my experience in creating them As this was the first time I had spoken in public about the paintings I call “The Crypto-Jew Series,” I thought long and hard about my thoughts and personal feelings about how it feels to be an artist. I was forced to plumb the depths of memory and pin down elusive, vague images and emotions and follow a trail that those who came before me deliberately tried to erase. The paintings that speak in visual language about this theme were on exhibit at the conference. I am still creating them as they grow out of the seedbed of my life experience and personal history like plants, like organic beings with lives and intentions of their own. They are the footprints of a still-unfinished journey. These paintings seem to be leading me deep into the places where we all live, deeper than the levels of our different religions or cultures, as if the paintings themselves seek to transcend the boundaries that separate us and find the universal truths that unite us. First I should tell you that besides being a painter I am also a writer, a woman of words. I like to say that I write in English and paint in Spanish. In any case my paintings are intensely narrative: every painting has a story. I use material from widely diverse sources: Jungian psychology, voracious reading of literature in both English and Spanish, New Mexican and Mexican mythology, legend, and history. Symbols from the Tarot sneak in, and my personal interests and obsessions leave their tracks and I confess to having an active and fecund imagination. So over time, out of this combination of sources I have developed a complex personal iconography. We artists are, in this day and age, Cassandras. Kurt Vonnegut says we are like the canaries that miners used to take underground to warn them of odorless, but deadly gasses. True, no one in their right mind would become an artist to make money – still less if you are a woman. Of all the important collections in this country p- the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, etc., the number of women r4epresent4d never even approaches 10%. More like 4%, 6%. No, the drive to make art comes out of deeper parts of our psyches than the part concerned with money. To be a painter is an act of profound, foolhardy courage—arrogance—how dare I think that smearing color on a canvas is more important than getting a “real job?” We painters are not trusted, steady citizens, like lawyers, accountants, doctors, or plumbers. We are the Cassandras, the unbelieved prophets. And we artists are thieves—we steal, we steal from death. We steal sunsets from oblivion; we want to preserve landscapes at that brief instant of dawn light, keep flowers from wilting, save faces from ageing. Thieves we might be, but like Robin Hood, we steal for moral reasons. And we dare to imitate God—to create. I believe that art is the antidote to violence. It is the opposite of destructiveness; it brings social and psychological change without hostility or the abuse of power. It convinces and transforms through beauty. In the language of symbol and color art tells us that we all have red blood, livers and eyes, and that our psyches have the same archetypal organs and functions. Making art, for me, is therefore a way of making pacifism manifest, of walking the talk of peace. As Gregory Bateson said, rational, linear, occidental thinking unmitigated by art, dreams and poetry, leads to hate. A civilization and a psyche without art cuts itself off from Nature, and turns against everything natural in itself. Beware the book burners, the politicians who think public money is wasted on art. And as for those schools who do not teach creativity, be afraid of them! I was born and raised in Taos, and my earliest memories are of a convoluted, complicated cultural diversity. My father was of Mexican descent and my mother an Anglo-Saxon from Texas. Cross-cultural families must always confront the conflicts and confluences of different world-views. For a bi-cultural child in a multi-cultural community it was a daily challenge to distinguish among so many different cultural etiquettes. My environment absolutely required I do what never even occurs to mono-cultural people, which was to become culturally conscious to a degree that is almost telepathi—or get in trouble. To navigate a pathway among the religions, ceremonies, customs and traditions in Taos 70 years ago was to walk through a mine field of potential faux pas, or as we say in Spanish, risk being “mal educada.” Among a plethora of dissimilar and sometimes even contradictory details there was one constant the two older cultures (Native and what is now called “Hispanic”) had in common – respect for privacy. This was not so important in Anglo culture, but among everyone else, respecting secrecy was a cornerstone of good manners. Secrecy was pervasive, it was in the water, we breathed it. Children were automatically admonished to never ask questions about anyone’s beliefs, their ceremonies or any object that could conceivably have anything to do with religion. To a very great extent this is still true, and it still forms an invisible but implicit barrier and shield separating insiders from outsiders. of historical factors contributed to our secrecy. Before the United States swallowed half of Mexico we lived for centuries in isolation and uninterrupted solitude. Inevitably, this had the effect of making us intensely xenophobic. It is difficult to exaggerate how powerful this feeling was in my youth—it was as if anyone who was not Native or Hispanic and born in our own little village was an extraterrestrial.
All people tend to regard themselves as the only real human beings, and the names people invent for themselves reflect this all over the world. The names tribes call themselves from Africa to America mean “The Human Beings,” excluding by implication anyone not a member of one’s own group. Our self-designated names reveal a universal human tendency of exclusivity. Following this rule, in the Taos of my childhood we believed that if you traveled beyond Albuquerque you would fall into the void. Although northern New Mexico had almost no contact with the outside world, inside our crucible of solitude there was intense mixing. During a period of roughly 250 years after the Spanish Conquest the two major mediums of economic exchange were horses and slaves. From Zacatecas to what is now the Canadian border, among Spanish settlers and Indian tribes, slavery was a ubiquitous fact of life. Women and children were captured, enslaved, traded and sold throughout this vast territory. As a consequence our blood became so mixed that we became genetically the same people. I can’t quote the source or verify this fact with mathematical accuracy, but I have heard that today’s Hispanic population is at least 80% Native, and among the Pueblos there is a corresponding mixture of Spanish blood. We have changed each other until we are woven into the same cloth. DNA is now revealing that Semitic, African, Chinese, and European ancestry is thickly distributed among New Mexicans and Mexicans whether they call themselves Mestizo, Spanish, Chicano, Crypto-Jew, Hispanic, or Native. Most of us are all those things. Women are the carriers of culture, and there were very few Spanish women among the early colonizers. Overwhelmingly, detribalized Native women were the mothers and caretakers of children, whether as legal wives, concubines or household slaves. Therefore life was saturated at the most intimate level with Native influences, permeated at the pre-verbal stage. Inevitably, we came to share the same material culture—architecture, agriculture, food, recipes, beliefs, herbal remedies, healing practices and tools. Along with material culture, the background Gestalt of life, such as unspoken attitudes and taken-for-granted ways of conducting oneself became common to Natives and Hispanics otherwise differentiated by language, cultural identity, collective historical experience and religion. As everywhere, genetic sameness did not prevent considerable tension between different groups. In this Taos was a microcosmic mirror of one of the most serious macrocosmic problems we face in the world today. Another factor that accounts for this intense preoccupation with concealment is the fact that reserve is characteristic of the Mexican personality. Read Octavio Paz’s famous book, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Mexicans, on principle, never reveal everything—something is always held back— and this attitude is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture even today. Another element in this picture is the secrecy of the Pueblo people regarding their religious practices, which was provoked by Catholic persecution and resulted in the revolution of 1680. They have built an impermeable wall around the tribes, which is still understood, respected by outsiders and emphatically enforced by insiders. After the Anglo-American conquest and the decree of Bishop Lamy that outlawed the Penitente sect, another pocket of defensive secrecy was created. There are still entire villages where it is an open secret that almost everyone is a Penitente and member of the local morada. Take for instance the village of Trampas where the morada is so close to the church you can touch both with your hands at the same time: everybody there is named Lopez.
All this secrecy was reinforced by geography – by the physical isolation of our villages, clustered around the few sources of water and tucked into the folds of the mountains that separated our settlements. Someone from a village fifteen miles from yours was not your neighbor, but an alien. Then I met Stanley Hordes and began reading about the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Another secret was revealed! I was fascinated by this one, and strangely moved by this story in ways that I could not account for and that made no sense, given the fact that I already knew about secrecy and multiple genetic strains. I was not the only one whose imagination was kidnapped by this compelling tale. Jews and Gentiles alike jumped on the issue; an emotionally-charged, academic discussion emerged; articles, books, lectures, and endless debate began. But something about this story crystallized and objectified for me not only the religious and cultural secrecy of New Mexican collectives, but the psychological secrecy of families and individuals and magnified it into something I could not get out of my mind. It was not only a huge “Ah-hah!”—a resonant “So that’s it!”—but something else that kept tugging at me, bugging me. I began to ransack my memories to recover possible Jewish practices in my extended family. There were almost none. There was no lighting of candles; we ate pork, no mezuzah on the door, if mirrors were covered when somebody died none of my cousins could remember. I was surprised to learn that not everyone slaughtered animals by stunning them with a sledgehammer, slitting their throats and hanging them up to drain out all the blood. I thought there was no other way to slaughter. As children, we played at what we called “la matanza”, or the slaughterhouse, where the walls of a small building had long disappeared and there remained only a patch of earth so saturated with blood that it was like concrete despite having been exposed to the elements for who knows how long. But that was hardly “evidence.” I was bemused by the fact that the name Rodriguez appears again and again on the list of Conversos tried by the Holy Inquisition for Judaizing and also for witchcraft. There is a whole paragraphs of accused Rodriguezes. But on the other hand Rodriguez is one of the most common names in Latin America. Everybody is named Rodriguez. Names like Abran, Benjamín, Davíd and Daniel occurred in my family, but there was not a preponderance of Hebrew names. My grandfather, Justino Jose Rodriguez was from Parral, Mexico, which according to Stanley’s book “The End of The Earth” was a site of considerable converso activity. So I went to Parral and poured over the records in the Registro Civil, the arcobispado, the parroquia, and never even found my grandfather’s name. Only that of my great-grandmother, Maria Felipe Olgin, born in a tiny town called Zape in nearby Durango that was a dot at the end of a thin line, indicating a terrible, dead-end dirt road that I was advised to forget about. The building housing the Registro Civil in Chihuahua City had burned in 1941, destroying records and so there was another dead end. A Jewish friend reported a somewhat strange conversation with a local Hispanic, in which my friend was told that my father, Alfredo Antonio Rodriguez, was a Jew. Then I began to fantasize that we might be descendants of the Portuguese Sephardic family Carvajal el Mozo, associated with Rodriguezes. Now that, I thought, would be interesting. Illustrious ancestors. I asked my sister what she thought, and she replied that she often ‘felt’ she was Jewish. “Have you ever wondered why we like Jews so much?” she asked. I went away wondering just how it feels to be Jewish, and admitting that, true, we did have a lot of Jewish friends. So I asked them what they thought. Without exception my Jewish friends all replied that they were sure I have Jewish blood. And when I told them there is no evidence to that effect in my family, they exclaimed, “That’s proof! It was a secret! They had to hide it!” This was hardly evidence. The only thing I was sure of was that I was obsessed. But then my complex racial mixture had always obsessed me. The contradictions of having different roots has been tremendously important to me because I come from cultures that have been polarized, turned into enemies, by historical, political and economic conflicts. It was only a natural consequence of my parent’s improbable marriage that a major theme of my life has been the conundrum of reconciling my different cultures. I didn’t invent this “identity crisis” – it was my inheritance, in place long before my birth. But now with this Crypto-Jew business it was getting even more demanding. Being Hispanic, a “woman of color” had its drawbacks and perils – but being Jewish can be downright dangerous. I invented a word to cope with this new complication in the already intricate landscape of my community’s genetic landscape: “Gringoy”. Naughty, I know, but nobody expects artists to act like grownups. I recalled that the first time I really understood what the Holocaust was occurred in 1956, at the age of fifteen, when I saw film clips of the American entry into Buchenwald. I was the only one in the whole theatre who was sobbing, sobs that hurt my diaphragm with their force and that I could not control. I felt terribly threatened, personally endangered – but in a world where something like the Holocaust can happen not even Gentiles are safe. I have been an enemy of racism in all its forms from the day I could think even the simplest thoughts. Those images of the camps have never left me, and in today’s political world they loom large and terrify me even more, and deepen my enmity against racism. But I had neither the time nor the skills to do a serious genealogical search. Besides, whatever that might reveal, what was most important to me transcended fact – it was more intangible and at the same time more powerful. So I resorted to art. Like the beam of a flashlight that illuminates the vast, shadowy territory of the collective unconscious, I aimed it at this preoccupation. Art has its own truth, truths that are deeper and more numinous than historical facts – which are always biased anyway. The conscious mind is like a little paper boat floating on the vast sea of the unconscious, and art is a compass that guides us. So I chose to resolve these burning but ephemeral questions and insistent uncertainties through my paintings, to use art as a means of breaking down the raw ore of my obsession, and precipitate out the gold. I began with secrecy. I grew up in a family with secrets, a community with secrets. I say that secrecy undermines unity, corrodes trust and sets the stage for conflict – invites it. Whether between governments and citizens, between parents and children, or inside the psyche of a single individual, secrecy causes division, compartmentalization, spliting. Family secrets guarded out of shame or embarrassment, when finally exposed, have a way of exploding into resentment and emotional bloodshed. For instance, many who realized that their families denied their Jewishness have been deeply disturbed and feel that they have been robbed of their heritage, that part of themselves has been stolen. Secrets we keep from ourselves because they are too painful have a way of detonating unexpectedly in behavior that shocks us and leave us thinking, “Whatever got into me?” Secrets have a way of sinking into the collective or individual unconscious and pulling strings from the invisible wings of life. It is a psychological truism that what is unconscious has more power over us than what we know with our conscious minds. Was that why I was so obsessed with Jewishness that I may never be able to prove? Can one be a Jew, or an Indian, or a black woman unconsciously? Given the greater power of unconscious things, would that be more important than my conscious roots? Does memory actually reside in the bones, or do the bones have no voice, as the scaffolding that houses the brain, the vocal chords? So I began to explore in my paintings the theme of secrecy, and to create a narrative in the language of image and color that depicted what the innermost thoughts and secret lives of hidden Jews might have been like. Did they compare religious ideologies? Did they examine Catolicism and Judiasm in parallel images? Did they question one or the other, did they chose parts of one and parts of the other and try and reconcile them? How did they deal with different world-views? What were their thoughts, their emotions? I began to read, question my Jewish friends about ritual correctness. I even found a Rabbi who was compassionate and liberal enough to tolerate my acute, urgent uncertainty and nagging ambivalence and we created our own yeshiva, and met by the banks of the Rio Grande in a discreet thicket of tamaris,—fittingly—trees imported from the banks of the Nile, where Jews labored to build the pyramids. There, we studied Maimonides. As I painted, my unconscious revealed itself to me, it raised questions, posited answers that led to more provocative and interesting questions. I realized that there is a larger meaning to this series, one that transcends the story of the Crypto-Jew. Just as we must all “come out of Egypt,” whatever our culture or country, that is how to achieve liberation and spiritual maturity. We must all leave division and inequality and seek wholeness, integration, become complete – not perfect, but complete. We cannot achieve inner tranquility or world peace until we integrate in all senses of the word and recognize the oneness of not only the human race, but of our personal psyches and that of the entire biosphere. I began to paint my way into this theme, to use my art as a tool to excavate the dark corners and shadows of a fragmented, divided life. Not only Crypto-Jews, but any cultural minority, all sexual orientations, everyone who is not part of the mainstream and dominant group has to leave part of themselves at home when they go out the door to work and live in the collective. They are forced to keep part of themselves a secret, hide it, suppress it in order to fit in, get the job, escape persecution, fit into the mainstream. On a still deeper level all of us must live out the primal struggle between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, make peace between the outer persona and the unknown part of the psyche, which is the ground of consciousness. In these paintings the simple and compelling story of the Crypto-Jew is on the surface, but underneath it is a story that applies to all of us. These paintings are a way of talking to myself—and my most thoughtful and intelligent viewers—about something so deep and wide that only symbols can express it. The complex challenge of integrating two paintings into one is my way of resolving one of the fundamental contradictions of being human. Perhaps by doing it I am working on myself, healing myself through art, kind of a sandbox. A nicho, like the one portrayed on the back cover of this issue, inside and out, is actually two paintings that have to work together as a single whole. They are very difficult to do. The arch above the doors, the sky or ceiling and the base of the nicho, the ground or floor, have to work both with the doors closed and opened. The themes of the two images have to harmonize, they have to be part of the same narrative, create a story that makes sense. The colors have to work together. The problem of the edges and the spaces along the hinges are always a challenge. And above all, I have to like it. It has to meet my personal standards of beauty. These nichos demand not only a lot of thought, but patience and the skill that refines itself only with practice. My use of skeletons is another way of talking about universal human experience. It is a Jewish saying that memory resides in the bones. People always ask why I paint skeletons. Death respects no differences, not age, class, gender or culture. Being of Mexican descent, it is only natural that the Mexican attitude toward death permeates my work as both a writer and painter. The jokes about death are so natural and ordinary in Mexican conversation, but they make people uncomfortable in the U.S. So I must emphasize – the attitude of the globally dominant culture and that of Mexicans toward death are strikingly different. In Mexico death is in your face, an inescapable part of life, not the end but must a point in the cyclical experience of time. There is no Mexican painter who has at one time or another, usually much more frequently, not used the image of death. From the pre-Columabian architecture and art to modern popular art – the skeleton is always there in Mexico. In contrast, the attitude toward death in the U.S. is distant, remote, sanitized. Death has no place in a mind-set of unlimited growth, endless expansion and eternal youth. We outsource death, it becomes collateral damage, and we can kill with perfect, uninvolved impersonality by remote control. We never see the last look of horror and surprise on the face of the victim. We never see their broken bones and torn flesh, let alone de we feel the grief and pain of their families. We prefer to keep death impersonal, remote—yet we can kill anyone, anyone in the world. They can’t hide if we want to kill them. So before you join in perpetuating the stereotyped image of the Death-obsessed Mexicans, let me quote a Mexican friend who said to me, “Si, we Mexicans kill, but at least all we kill are each other.” Some of you may have heard of the Mexican “Saint Death” and be familiar with the cult devoted to this image. There is a painting of this figure, known by multiple names, lla santisima muerte, la flaca (the skinny one), la pelona (the bald one), and in New Mexico as Doña Sebastiana. This cult has roots in the pre-Christian, pre-Jewish past of Mexico. Like an underground river in the collective psyche of Mexico, it disappears and re-emerges according to social and political conditions. The original manifestation is the androgynous Aztec goddess of the underworld, Mictlantecuitli. The Catholic Church has never succeeded in wiping out her cult despite five centuries of suppression. Indigenous traditions have a botanical advantage, they are rooted in native soil. They change and adapt, they disguise themselves with superficial costumes to escape detection and “pass”, but they persist and endure. When President Calderon, six years ago, declared war on the drug cartels, Mexico was swept by terrible violence. There is a saying in Spanish, “Si suena el rio, hay agua.” “If the river makes noise, there is water.” The archetypal river of Death’s image flooded Mexico with water, mas bien—with blood. Simultaneously with the violence, shrines to la santisima muerte sprang up all over the republic. They appeared by the roadside, in mercados, on T-shirts and jewelry. Her images were carried in processions, appeared in front yards, the windows of houses. Like colorful mushrooms springing from dormant spores, la Santisima appeared everywhere. One of the specialties of this un-Catholic saint is that she protects her devotees from a violent death. Out of the collective, Aztec unconscious of Mexico, she reappeared to protect and console her people who were terrorized by the narco-wars. So my use of skeletons in my art was inevitable, a product of my cultural background. But there are personal reasons why I am fascinated by this image. I have had a near-death experience twice, and both times it has had an enormous impact on my life. My experience was identical to that of the thousands who have gone through the same thing, there are books about it. I know that scientists attribute this experience to chemistry and changes in the brain as death approaches. However, I argue that reducing it to a “nothing but” misses the point. The validity and authenticity of empirical experience is gaining ground in our thinking these days, and we are beginning to realize that the left-brain, scientific or mechanical interpretation of human experience isn’t the whole story. Things that we have been educated to regard as superstition or primitive ignorance are being recognized as much more profound and important than we have been told. To use just one example, the native belief that Mother Earth is a living entity has been re-stated in terms of a biosphere seen in ecological perspective. What people believe is always more powerful than fact, as history has proven again and again. My personal experience convinced me that there is life after death. The skeletons in my paintings are very much alive, they are getting married, dancing, eating, driving around in their low riders and performing rites of passage. The message is very simple: life is eternal. Unless you are a doctor or forensic expert, you will not be able to distinguish the gender, class or culture of a skeleton without accompanying artifacts. Along with the experience of having a secret life, of being both conscious and unconscious, we all have skeletons. All you can tell about a skeleton is that it is human. Therefore to me, the human skeleton is a symbol of the deepest democracy and signifies our undivided oneness. Bones remember that we are all human— Jews, Gringoys, even Fascists. If that becomes more important than all political, religious and territorial differences – perhaps we will have peace and a world where those truths that only art can reveal are important and honored. And lastly, in the Middle East, from Jew to Moslem, there is a certain discomfort about representing the human figure. Ranging from an outright taboo to a subtle prejudice, painting the human figure is regarded with ambivalence. So I felt that painting the history of Crypto-Jews, i.e., the ancestors of my neighbors and possibly my own ancestors, as skeletons was a way of circumventing this problem. And besides, if memory lives in the bones, and if, as we Mexicans believe. the dead come back once a year on Day of the Dead, what better way to represent the past life events of Jewish ancestors than as skeleton? Anita Rodriguez uses brilliant color and dazzling draftsmanship, magical realism, Jungian symbolism, Mexican mysticism and humor to convey her distinctive perception of her beloved northern New Mexico. Descended from generations of Hispanic Taoseños, her creativity was nourished in a richly diverse and complex cultural environment. Her childhood was saturated with Native American ceremonialism, traditional curanderos, Mexican history and mysticism, Hispanic folk art, customs and religious art, the living presence of the old Taos artists, their art and the traces of crypto Jews.