Different Cultures, Same Goals – ANUSIM AND HMONG

By Adam Savran

The history of the anusim, while often not on the forefront of Jewish historical studies, is well known to many scholars. Oftentimes, Crypto Jews are considered the primary example of a culture and religion kept alive by secretive cultural and religious expression, during an era of extreme oppression and genocide (Jacobs, 2002). What is less known to scholars is the more modern history of the Hmong people in Laos, who, like their anusim counterparts, used secretive methods to keep their culture and religious heritage alive, during political oppression and genocide waged against them as was described by Hamilton-Merritt (2002).

During the Vietnam War, Laos was split by a civil war and secret American and Vietnamese involvement in that conflict. The Lao people sided mainly with the communist Pathet Lao government. The Hmong people, an ethnic minority in Laos, sided mainly with pro-American militias. When the United States pulled out of Laos and Vietnam, the Lao government waged a systematic campaign against the Hmong culture, religion and language. The Hmong religion, which blends Christian and animist beliefs, was particularly targeted because the Pathet Lao considered their Christian oriented religion to be western (Windland, 1992). The Hmong then hid their culture, religion and language inside the symbols of Lao nationalism, Buddhism and Communist propaganda (Cohen, 1987). Many of the methods used to disguise the Hmong way of life were similar to methods used by the anusim, particularly in Latin America. This paper contrasts and compares methods used by these two cultures to keep their respective ways of life alive in an environment of intolerance, providing evidence of each respective group protecting their culture using art, music, architecture and ethnic games. The evidence will be provided in the form of literature, first hand accounts and interviews.

Using Art to Mask Religious Practice

Both cultures used art as a way of hiding their culture and religion. This art manifested itself in various ways.

While the Jews in Latin America were being persecuted by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitors, it was not uncommon for them to use art as a way of practicing and protecting their Judaism (Klasbald, 1987). Historically there was the idea that Jews could not be artists because of the traditional Jewish rule against making graven images (Exodus 20: 4-5; Deuteronomy 5: 8), but there have been conflicting interpretations about the meaning of these verses. Lavender (2003) claims that there have been many interpretations of the graven images rules within Judaism and that art was important to Jews living in Spain and Portugal before the Inquisition. It is not coincidental that the descendants of these people, who were living under persecution, not only practiced artistic expression, but also used it as a cultural survival tool.

In Mexico, it was quite common for Crypto Jews to use murals as a way of means of expressing ideas to each other. Among many, various abstract designs corresponded with Ladino letters and messages were conveyed in this manner (Morozoff, 1999). Jewish symbols were also transformed into either abstract designs or symbols found in another culture.

Another way Crypto Jews used art to practice their culture was not in what they displayed, but what they did not display. Oftentimes, in Latin America, Crypto Jews got themselves jobs as artists in cathedrals. They would then simply paint only Old Testament displays and avoid painting New Testament images. This omission was a signal to crypto Jews that a Jew was in that church (Ouaknin, 2000). Ironically, they used the symbols and headquarters of their oppressors to convey a Jewish message.

The Hmong, like the Crypto Jews, also used symbolism in art to disguise their own nationalism, as well as their Christian religion. They are famous for their artwork in Southeast Asia and that group has a long history of artistic expression (Wilcox, 1986). It is not coincidental then that the Hmong would use artwork to practice their culture and religion cryptically.

The Hmong, are famous for their textile work and often use these textile wares to tell the history of their villages. Anti-government sentiment was (and still is) not allowed in communist Laos. and the Hmong could not speak out about their nationalist aspirations, due to a brutal crackdown against separatist leanings. Therefore, the Hmong communicated their thoughts in textiles (Chan, 1990). They created scarves, linens and other cloths, which donned the Hmong national colors. So as not to arouse suspicion, these colors were made dull. They also created textile wares with the red, white and blue of their American allies in the Vietnam War. In addition, the Hmong used large hawks to represent the American eagle (Chan, 1990).

Religiously speaking, the Christianity of the Hmong was strictly banned. Therefore, artists hid their Christianity within the symbols of the Communist Revolution. Hmong artists would go to local police stations, government buildings and even army barracks, and draw figures important to Communist History. These figures were then drawn in such a way, that they actually represented biblical figures. For example, Karl Marx, the founder of communism was drawn in poses that would represent crucifixion. As was Christianity, Hmong ancestor worship was also banned in atheist Laos. The Hmong countered this problem by drawing their ancestors in a manner where they looked similar to Communist historical figures. Ironically as with the case of the crypto Jews, the Hmong used the symbols of their oppressors in the headquarters of their oppressors, to convey their ideas.

Another way these people hid their Christian affiliations was with the “cosmic cross,” a religious symbol used by Hmong. A type of red cross was used by the Hmong to worship their ancestors and spirits they deem holy (Dunnigan, 1986). This also represents the Christian cross. When altered artistically, it also appears similar to the Communist red star. So the cross, when displayed, married the shamanist and Christian religions of the Hmong in harmony, while appearing like a symbol of Lao communism (Cohen, 1987).


Another way anusim and Hmong people hid their cultures and religions from their oppressors was by using music, which was utilized in the following ways:

Urban Crypto Jews used church hymns to pray in a Jewish manner. By omitting references to the New Testament in their prayers, they actually prayed Judaically while in a Catholic Church. For example, when a song or hymn would speak about Old Testament figures, the anusim in the Catholic Church would pray particularly loudly. When the song would go on to describe events in the New Testament, the Crypto Jews would often give each other symbolic gestures and turn silent (Interview July 20, 1998).

In rural Northeastern Brazil, Crypto Jews would often find employment as vaqueros, or cowboys. The cattle calls vaqueros used were often made into songs. Crypto Jews often prayed in the mornings by making the lyrics and sounds of their cattle calls, similar to Jewish prayers (Interview, August 12, 1998).

The Hmong people also used music as a means to hide their culture and convey various messages. Their language is unique in that it is very complex and tonal. For that reason, it is very hard for any non-Hmong to completely comprehend it. The Hmong language is so complex and cryptic, that it was used by the American Army for code purposes during the Vietnam War (Hamilton-Merritt, 1999). For this reason, the Hmong were able to easily convey messages within the context of daily tunes sung by them.

Songs that conveyed certain political messages were sung in a certain tone, a call for action would be indicated by a tonal change, the tonal change in the song would be too subtle for a non-Hmong to notice. Basic instructions were also given this way. For example, if a Hmong village wanted to hide a fugitive, they could simply raise the tone of their song and that would indicate that now the fugitive should escape the village before the authorities check more carefully.

The Hmong language is also quite cryptic and many words and sounds have a double meaning or are puns. During periods of persecution, the Hmong would utilize the double meaning of words in songs and be able to speak freely in verse. This would allow them to convey officially illegal ideas related to politics or their Christian and animist religions (Catlin, 1997).


Both the anusim and the Hmong used architecture as a way of protecting their respective cultures and religions. This was done in the following ways:

When designing homes, Crypto Jews often created hidden rooms either under their homes or behind walls, which were designed to conceal their entrance and exit. These were used to conceal fugitives of the Inquisition.

Another Crypto Jewish architectural design was a secret escape hatch. This was built into their secret synagogues, as well as in churches where many Crypto Jews were in attendance and secretly practicing Judaism. An escape hatch such as this is found in the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue in the United States (Fisher, 1999).

A final design in the architecture of the anusim is the concealment of the building. In Latin America it is common for large walls to be used to protect homes. Crypto Jews took advantage of this phenomenon and built their houses of worship behind walls and gates. The synagogue of the Crypto Jews in Venta Prieta, Mexico, for example, is not visible from the street. One could walk right by ten times and not even realize that they are near a synagogue, due to the concealing nature of the architecture.

Using the circular settlement patterns of Hmong villages, the Hmong built secret churches, which were hidden behind the rest of the houses in the village, in the center of a circular pattern. This situation was perfect for them, as they needed also to pray to Hmong spirits, because spirits in the animist religion are supposed to dwell in the center of villages (Lemoine, 1999). In addition, the Hmong created their churches with unadorned walls and ceilings, with the ability to contain pigs and chickens, like a barn. When the communist authorities would find these churches, the locals would simply remove all Christian materials which were portable and hide them; then move the animals, which were stored in the next house, a barn disguised as a residence. A small underground chamber would allow the animals to travel from the disguised barn to the secret church (Vang, 1998).

Ethnic Games

A final method used by both the Crypto Jews of Latin America and the Hmong in Laos to conceal their culture and religion was the use of games that were common in the area.

In New Mexico and perhaps Mexico proper, secret Jews would gather for prayer by sitting around a table with cards on the table with prayer books on their laps. When strangers came by they would play cards and, when they were alone, they would turn to the prayer books. It should also be noted that in New Mexico, cards are called baraja. The word baraja alludes to the word Abaraha, the word for prayer in Hebrew (Benveniste, 1999).

The Hmong, like the Crypto Jews, also made use of games to hide their prayer. They like to play a game with a type of dice. The playing of dice is common throughout this part of Southeast Asia. The Hmong, however, arranage the dice as numbers in reference to Old and New Testament verses (Baker and others, 1995).


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ADAM SAVRAN received his MA in Geography from Louisiana State University with his thesis on “Historical Geography of the Jews of Surinam” Adam has been an assistant lecturer at Southwest Texas State University and is currently the Assistant Associate Dean in the Faculty of Management Science, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand. Research projects and conference presentations related to the anusim include “The Jewish Underground: The Secret Jews of Mexico,” Cultural Geography of the Crypto-Jews in Northeastern Brazil.” and “ An Urban Geography of Sephardic Jews in Hong Kong.