A Thread in the Tapestry

The Narros of Saltillo Mexico in History and Literature
By Kathleen Alcalá

Presented to the Society for CryptoJudaic Studies

 

August 21 2001 Pueblo Colorado

 

Published in Halapid Volume IX Winter 2002

My name is Kathleen Alcalá and I am a writer who lives in Washington State My first novel Spirits of the Ordinary is based on the story of my greatgrandparents Pablo Narro Narro and Eleuteria Valdes Rodriguez My greatgrandfather had the gold fever and was wasting the family’s resources prospecting for gold My greatgrandmother was able to cut him off financially I had always wondered about this relationship and the status of women in Mexico at this time around the 1870’s At the same time I began my research into the Jews of Mexico I did my research in my uncle’s private library in Chihuahua Mexico at the Institute of Texas Cultures in San Antonio Texas at the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon Arizona and in various libraries and archives in Mexico City

I ended up writing three novels rather than one about my family in Saltillo my grandmother Rosa’s family in Sonora and Arizona and about the feminist movement in Mexico City at that time The novels span the era of the Porfiriato from around 1870 to the early 1900’s when Porfá­rio Dá­az was president of Mexico

While I was growing up I heard many stories from my aunts and uncles about our family and its origins They included stories of two brothers who came from the border region between Spain and France These brothers were Jewish and moved to Saltillo in the late 1700’s Growing up in San Bernardino California it was bad enough that we were Protestant but the idea that we were also Jewish was too much to take seriously especially given the Eastern European orientation of the Jews in our community We were definitely brown and they were definitely white in a town that made much of these racial differences Nevertheless our mother Lydia Narro and her brothers and sisters insisted that this was the case and went as far as to say that the brothers Narro were not only Jews but rabbis

During the 1970’s and 80’s my uncle Miguel Narro and later his son Miguel Narro begin inquiring in earnest after our family roots My cousin eventually commissioned a family tree from a researcher in Saltillo confirming the origin of the family in a town called Nyer It is on the French side of the border between France and Spain just east of the principality of Andorra According to this research the original family name was Nyerros and they spent their time feuding with a family called the Cadells The town of Nyer was under the protection of the Banyuls family and there is to this day a stone castle at the site This is in accord with the the Narro family crest which is “de oro con un castillo de piedra al natural cantonado de cuatro estrellas de azur” – of gold with a castle of stone natural colored surrounded by four blue stars – four sixpointed blue stars (Diccionario de Apelllidos Tomo LIX Lámina 3a Barcelona)

Not until I began writing my novels in the early 1990’s did I take a real interest in the family history Having written a story about my greatgrandparents I realized that I needed some background on the time and place 19th Century Saltillo By then I was living in Seattle Washington I had already finished my first book a collection of short stories called Mrs Vargas and the Dead Naturalist based in part on family stories In the University of Washington Library I found a book by Vito Alessio Robles called Saltillo en la historia y en la leyenda (A Del Bosque Impresor México DF 1934) Much to my surprise it contained an entire chapter on the Jews of Saltillo including the story of Governor Luá­s Carbajál the governor of the province who was roasted alive in a dry cauldron for being a practicing Jew The governor was exposed in part by the writings and personal confession of his nephew and namesake who had undergone a profound personal conversion back to Judaism and wrote under the pseudonym of Iosef Lumbroso (15671596) Six other members of the governor’s family were also executed in 1596

At about the same time in researching an article for a magazine I met an elder in Seattle named Isaac Maimon He is a member of the local Sephardic Bikur Holim synagogue and had been quoted in the paper about the impending commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition He was born in Turkey in 1913 and came to Seattle when his father became the first Sephardic Jewish rabbi in the state Seattle now has the third largest Sephardic Jewish community in the United States I went to Mr Maimon’s home in Seward Park to interview him While we spoke sitting at the dining room table surrounded by his research papers his wife Rachel stood in the adjacent kitchen and baked

Toward the end of the interview I mentioned my own family stories He immediately turned the tables and began to interview me He told me that there is a lack of written documentation in most Crypto Judaic familes because of course it was a secret People went to great lengths to hide their backgrounds in their small isolated communities In preparation for the 500thanniversary of the Spanish Diaspora in 1992 he said many Sephardic communities and families worldwide had come forth with stories and relics of the past The only people who had not he said were the Crypto Jews of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States They were so tightly integrated into the fabric of their communities both Catholic and Crypto Judaic that they prefered to stay as they were thank you

I suppose most of you have had a moment of profound insight at some point while doing your research or speaking with family members This was the first time that I understood the direct connection between the Spanish Inquisition and my family This was the first time that I understood the meaning of many of the stories that had been told quietly but urgently over the years It was the first time that I realized that my family was not an anomaly an isolated event in time We were one of many

Still the fact that our branch of the family was now Protestant seemed to further set us apart from our ancestors When my grandfather Miguel who was born in 1876 was seventeen he was sent to Michigan to study English in preparation for college intending to study mechanical engineering Instead he was befriended by a family who encouraged his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism He was subsequently disinherited and excommunicated by his family At that time he went in 1894 to live and work with his uncle Oscar Narro in Tucson Arizona where he met and married my grandmother Rosa Martinez shortly after her fifteenth birthday She was the illegitimate daughter of an Opata Indian woman Pastora Curiel and an Irishman George Voughan Pastora later married a Mexican doctor whose last name was Martinez so that my grandmother was married under the name of Rosa Martinez They went on to have twelve children My mother Lydia Narro was born in 1916 in Durango Durango Mexico

Because of the conversion many of the traditions associated with Catholicism had been left behind as superstitious or idolatrous My family did not drink smoke dance or play cards Although steeped in religion we did not wear crosses The worship services of my relatives did not have crosses in front of the church and were organized along the lines of the early Christians with elders giving the sermons or serving the communion Mostly we did not eat pork but I understood that to be for health reasons When my grandfather’s conversion was recounted by families members it was always accompanied by the phrase “no se pagó el catolicismo” Only in researching my novels did I realize that the Catholicism didn’t stick because it had been pasted on over a Jewish heart

In early 2000 I saw a documentary called “Expulsion and Memory: Descendants of the Hidden Jews” directed by Simcha Jacobovicz and Roger Pyke (Canada 1996) in which Dr Tomás Atencio talked about the fact that his father had been a Presbyterian minister and showed a menorah carved into the foundation of one of the churches in which his father worked in New Mexico Dr Atencio went on to say that many Crypto Jews converted to Protestantism when the missionaries came to the area around the turn of the century because it offered access to the Scriptures something not possible under preVatican II Catholicism All of this time most CryptoJudaic practices had been perpetuated almost purely through memory

While my grandfather confirmed our Jewish heritage to his children I have only found one piece of evidence in his journals As a working minister he kept extensive notes on a daily basis about his travels sermons and the people with whom he came in contact That evidence is his attempt to teach himself to read Hebrew In his journal from 1914 he had carefully written out the Hebrew alphabet and the basic rules of grammar and I’m sure studied it in his few spare moments

The Jewish identity would explain why my family might reside in a French bordertown for three hundred years and manage to retain a distinct identity But I was still puzzled about their immigration to Mexico Although it was two hundred years after the worst of the Inquisition in Mexico it was still an oppressively Catholic country I have come up with two possible explanations The two brothers Narro are supposed to have immigrated in the late 1700’s This would have been shortly after the French Revolution which took place in 1789 The first explanation is that things had been going well for the family and took a turn for the worse after the Revolution prompting them to flee The second possible explanation is that in 1791 the newly Republican French government for the first time granted full rights of citizenship to its Jewish inhabitants At the same time the Bourbon reforms in Spain begun in 1700 was encouraging new economic growth in her colonies and by 1800 Mexico’s economy was booming This combination of circumstances may have induced the Narros to make the journey to an existing Jewish community in Saltillo They may havee been able to travel with documentation that did not mark them as Jewish

Recently I have begun to make more systematic inquiries into our family’s genealogy I posted a message on FamilyHistorycom asking for stories about the Narros I have heard from three people one also seeking information and two with a little One is a young man from Saltillo who was in Oregon as an exchange student His name is Felipe Narro Monseváis and he has the same general information that I did about Jewish ancestors and our relationship to Manuel Acuña a famous poet The third person Albert Villegas is a resident of Plano Texas and has done extensive geneological research He was able to confirm our relationship through his great x 6 grandfather and my great x 5 grandfather Juan Jose Francisco Alonso Narro Martinez Guajardo He confirms our ancestors as conversos but has few family stories Ben Nahman’s website confirms Narro as a Sephardic name (http://homeearthlinknet/~bnahman/AtoZlisthtm) My oldest sister who has visited Spain several times has been told that the name was sometimes used as a psuedonym by Jews who changed their names from more overtly Jewish names When I visited Mexico City in 1998 I found 17 Narros or NarroGarcias in the phone book I was told by a Catholic family that the Narros they knew were Jewish

Every Narro I or my immediate relatives have met can be traced back to Saltillo including the child of a sailor stationed in Scotland during World War II They were until recently closely intermarried in keeping with the colonial patterns of Northern Mexico Texas and New Mexico As times have changed members of my family have begun to talk more openily about our Jewish heritage and some of the women wear stars of David One of my male cousins also attended temple in El Paso Texas for a time but to my knowledge there have been no outright conversions back to Judaism at least in our branch of the family Nevertheless the connection is strong enough to have endured through all of these centuries and two religious changes Today there are Narros in twenty of the United States and the District of Columbia over half of them in Texas

It was with great sadness that I read the article in the Atlantic Monthly discounting the evidence of Crypto Judaic heritage in New Mexico I think that my own research independent of any larger movement or personal agenda offers plenty of proof that these communities have existed do exist and will continue to flourish The Narros are just one thread in the wider community of Hispanics of Jewish heritage Because the name is distinct and the family is welldocumented in Saltillo with an agricultural college named after it as well as several writers and artists of note the Narros offer a window onto the past that supports the research and family stories of many others

(Revised June 19 2003 More about Kathleen’s writing at wwwkathleenalcalacom)

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