The Militant crypto-Jewish Carlos Esparza

By Carlos Larralde

During the twentieth century, numerous civil rights leaders surfaced in South Texas. Leaders such as Aniceto Pizana, Luis de la Rosa, and Jose Cantu and others, whose sensibility, confidence and industriousness made them legendary. They all loathed aristocratic snobbery and pretensions and hated class divisions. Everyday these leaders, along with other Texas Latinos, faced the harsh realities of impoverished life in the region. A majority of Texas Latinos lived below the poverty level, due to the fact that most of them had lost their land when Texas became part of the United States. Throughout the countryside, wretched sanitary conditions existed. Yet, the legislative body in Austin had no interest in ameliorating these dire problems.

The remote late nineteenth century figure of Carlos Esparza (1828-1885), a nonconformist poet and rebel in his own right, inspired Texas Latinos to take action. These included his sturdy and fearless relatives Francisca Reyes Esparza and J.T. Canales, who became fervent civil rights leaders during the 1920s through the 1950s. As Canales said, “Esparza blazed a path for all us when it came to civil rights.”1 Latino civil rights leaders became devoted to studying Esparza‘s political activities. In a sense, they helped their fellow Latinos in political and economic matters while they were inspired by Esparza‘s honesty and blunt ideas.2

Carlos Esparza was born in 1828 in Matamoros, Tamauilpas, to Pedro and Felicidad Villarreal Esparza, and was privately educated. His mother was the granddaughter of the anti-clerical crypto Jew, Tomas Sanchez, who established the settlement of Laredo in May, 1755. Sanchez was a direct descendant of Luis de Carvajal. With his father, Esparza managed a ranch twenty near Brownsville on the Lower Rio Grande.

During Esparza‘s era faith was part of the philosophical underpinning of crypto-Jewish genealogical efforts. Just like New England families, who settled the area in the 1600‘s, and later dedicated Mormons, care for historical family materials were typical among Latino settlers. They focused on the eternal family unit and different religious concepts that extended throughout time and eternity. They were all obsessed with genealogical material and preserved and studied precious documents. By the twentieth century much of this material ended-up in religious or federal archives.

To the crypto Jew, genealogy was a noble connection to keep in touch with those who brought and nourished the faith in Monterrey before the Inquisition dismantled Carvajals‘ colony during the 1590s. At times during Friday evenings, they lit candles and read a collection of special prayers, some dated during the 1600s.3 Sometimes scrolls of genealogy were used to recite the names of ancestors as far back as the Carvajal‘s settlement. While the Bible was used, only the Old Testament was read. To them, the New Testament was kept as a pretense of Christianity. In Texas there were certain curanderos de la Fe, (spiritualists of the faith) while in New Mexico they were called resardores.4 They served as the rabbis in some parts of the Southwest.

In 1850 Esparza married Francisca Garcia, daughter of Roman Garcia, a prosperous merchant. They married in a local Catholic church in Brownsville. Marriages were conducted in Catholic churches to give their relationship lawful meaning and a gesture of
good public relations as .a noble Christian family.

Esparza, along with his father and an associate, Enrique Sanchez, and other citizens of the area attempted to establish a territorial government and separate themselves from the rest of Texas, known as the Territory of the Rio Grande. At first it promoted the interests of Hispanics. The proposal became politically complicated and was eventually dropped.5

A spirit of rebelliousness overcame Esparza. As always he questioned deeply held beliefs and traditions. Upsetting the status quo was his nature. From 1859 to 1876, Esparza became a guerrilla strategist and a spy against the Texas Rangers and other enemies of Juan N. Cortina. The stern and persuasive Esparza persisted in supporting Cortina and the Cortinistas. A bitter civil rights movement to defend Latinos ripped throughout South Texas and it caused much desolation, untold causalities and endless sorrow.6

With his sturdy perseverance, Esparza encouraged the participation of women in politics. He also recruited them as spies and soldiers, a far cry from when women were segregated in the synagogue from men and forbidden to teach doctrine. Even in the Catholic Church, women were forbidden to be priests or teach theology as well. Esparza respected prostitutes in a world where Anglo-Puritan tradition detested them. He recruited them as spies. He needed aggressive women who really understood men and he was not disappointed. They were excellent spies.

Esparza chose his aids for their merit and strict discipline. With Cortina he played the Union and Confederate forces against each other, while promoting the Cortinistas‘ cause. From 1860 to 1876 he provided military supplies and funds for the Cortinistas. Esparza appeared as an ordinary rancher, possessing neither Cortina‘s striking appearance nor leadership qualities. The eccentric, sharp-tongued Esparza remained Cortina‘s man in the shadows. Cortina gave him an honorary superintendent‘s position in Matamoros so that he would have access to city resources and information.

In 1873, Esparza was appointed special deputy inspector of hides and animals in Cameron County. Texas Ranger Leander H. McNelly was probably referring to Esparza when he referred on January 24, 1876, to the Cortinistas‘ .organization….called the
=rural police.‘ The chief man is owner of a ranch, or the superintendent. He is a civil officer…He sends an alarm to one ranch and it is sent from ranch to ranch in every direction..7 After Cortina was arrested in 1875, Esparza retreated to his ranch. Except for his activities as a stockholder with the Rio Grande Railroad Company in Brownsville and other business matters, he became a recluse to avoid criminal charges for his controversial political activities.

Despite his reclusiveness, Esparza did not deteriorate or stagnate. Instead, he saved himself with his witty sayings and business talents until he died on September 28, 1885. The kinds of dichos (sayings or proverbs) that Esparza said or wrote were also popular in Levantine Sephardim literature.8 And they were often the product of fasting and mystical meditation. In a sense, these sayings revealed the vibrant Sephardic cultural background of Esparza‘s world. Some of his sayings were also echoed in one way or another by other Sephardic figures along the Lower Rio Grande. They, in return, were reverberated from the Monterrey colony of the Carvajals‘ followers, victims .by the forces of obscurantism.9

Esparza‘s sayings reveal his love for books, a common Sephardic habit. .Love of books went hand in hand with love and encouragement of the written word. Book collecting would continue as an active tradition..10 It started in Sephardic Spain where new forms of creativity flourished.

In a sense, Esparza was the product of that tradition with its unique rabbis, mystics and spiritual personalities. One can see him attacking orthodoxy while his house became an intellectual gymnasium where new ideas and revolutionary ideas were tested.
As we shall see with the following sample of some of his sayings, Esparza refused to view any intellectual concepts as sacred.

A Sample of Esparza’s Proverbs

Authority – Authority must be questioned. When authority becomes scared, then it becomes dangerous.

Criticism - To help ourselves more effectively, we must be more critical of ourselves.

Devil – In this life, even the devil has a noble purpose. If he sees a man idle, he will assign him a task.

Education – Do not be ashamed to be helped.

Enemies – Our enemies seem wiser than they are.

Friends – If you made two or three friends in your lifetime, you have
accomplished a great task.

Genius – Genius and candor have much in common.

Life – When a man thinks that he is indispensable in his job, he is

Literature – What is good literature today may be rubbish tomorrow.

The State – What few rights as citizens we have were born in the heat of
bloodshed and can only flourish in the struggle.


1. Interview with J.T. Canales, September 10, 1971.

2. Carlos Larralde, Carlos Esparza: A Chicano Chronicle (San Francisco, CA:
R & E Research Associates, 1877.)

3.The Inquisitional records of 1647 concerning Geronimo Fernandez Correa,
who lived in Campeche, Yucatan, .had written a collection of prayers when he
and his two brothers were in Campeche. His parents used to write to give them
the dates for fasts and particular prayers.. See Seymour B. Liebman, The Jews in
New Spain; Faith, Flame, and the Inquisition (Coral Gables, Florida: University
of Miami, 1970), 323.

4. David M. Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto Jews
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico), 511.

5. Frank H. Dugan, .The 1850 Affair of the Brownsville Separatists,.
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, October 1967.

6. Juan N. Cortina: Two Interpretations (New York: Arno Press, 1974); Carlos
Larralde and Jose Rodolfo Jacobo, Juan N. Cortina and the Struggle for Justice
in Texas (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 200).

7. Testimony of S.H. McNally, Washington D.C., January 24, 1876, in 44th
Congress, lst Session, Number 343, .Texas Frontier Troubles., Serial Number
1709 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1877), 11.

8. Paloma Diaz-Mas, Sephardim: The Jews from Spain (Chicago: University of
Chicago, 1992), 115.

9. Martin A. Cohen, The Martyr: The Story of a Secret Jew and the Mexican
Inquisition in the Sixteen century (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society
of America, 1973), 275.

10. Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience
(New York: The Free Press, 1992), 67.


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