How a South Texas Mexican American Came to the Conclusion That She Is Jewish

Like Judaism itself my story has several sides historical cultural and spiritual that blend together to become a complex entity

I grew up in a small South Texas town within a small group of Baptist families of Mexican – American decent We were a minority within a minority so it always felt natural to be different from others I had very little contact with people outside our group and never questioned my identity or roots That changed when I went off to college I attended college on a Baptist scholarship and therefore was required to take certain religious courses One such course was called Comparative Christian Thought We were encouraged to attend churches of different denominations throughout the semester For me this was the beginning of almost thirty years of religious exploration In 1977 I quit being a Christian and became a Bahai Bahai’s believe that there is only one God (no Trinity) and several prophets that have come as messengers for God throughout the ages Jesus was one of those prophets and should not be worshipped as God This was a giant step for me and it wasn’t taken lightly After all if I were wrong I would be sending myself straight to Hell After several years I became a Unitarian Universalist I felt free to explore religious ideas while still affirming my belief in one God This openness allowed me to later study all aspects of Judaism without fear or hesitation

Growing up in South Texas the only history about Mexicans I was taught was that they were lazy and slept too much which is how they lost the war over Texas I couldn’t relate to those lazy Mexicans so it never occurred to me that they were speaking about my people Also my family never spoke much about the past so I basically grew up without a history That might explain why I was never interested in my history courses in school They weren’t anything except meaningless dates and names to memorize I was never taught much about the Spanish Inquisition and the Inquisition in Mexico was definitely never mentioned They didn’t teach Mexican history not even in the Spanish class Once upon a time I had read an article in a newspaper about a group of “Cryptojews” having some sort of convention I remember the article explaining what “Cryptojews” were and that there would be books available to buy in the hotel lobby Something about the article gave me the feeling that I could be one of those people There was a recognition or a familiarity in the items mentioned The article made enough of an impression on me so that I was tempted to sneak in and buy a book to find out more But I didn’t go because of the fear that someone would approach me The idea that I could be a Jew seemed so far fetched that I was sure I’d be laughed at I still didn’t know that Spain had once had many Jews and that the term “Hispanic Jew” was not an oxymoron Soon I had forgotten all about Cryptojews

In 1992 I moved to New Mexico and although I wasn’t happy there the move turned out to be a blessing in disguise Just before Hanukkah 1994 the local newspaper ran an article which mentioned foods associated with the holiday It caught me by surprise to read that bunuelos were Hanukkah food Eating bunuelos was part of my family’s New Year’s traditions so it seemed strange that they would be associated with Jews I love to read and learn about almost anything so about a week later I picked up a free copy of a magazine that was full of stories about the local Hispanic people and their ways Only this issue turned out to be special to me It contained a section devoted to the subject of Cryptojews Sephardic customs and Ladino It also had a list of surnames of people who’d been caught by the Mexican Inquisition It blew me away because I saw myself in those pages! The customs the language and the names were all my family’s I couldn’t believe it! I would have to research this myself

From 1975 until 1984 I’d worked as a researcher for the military so this project was right up my alley and I jumped in with both feet I had to start from scratch because I didn’t know anything about Jews or Judaism I have used the resources at the Zimmerman Library at UNM; the NM State Library; the Judaic library at Brandeis U in MA; the library at Trinity U in San Antonio TX as well as the Main Public Library in SA; the Main Public Library in Boston MA; the Main Public Library in Corpus Christi TX; the libraries at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque NM and Congregation Beth El in Corpus Christi TX I’ve also visited several Mormon churches to use their genealogical resources and have attended several conferences on Hispanic genealogy Cryptojews and Jewish history I’ve joined organizations such as the SCJS; NM Jewish Historical Society; JCC’s in NM and TX; National Jewish Women’s Council and the Las Vegas (NM) Jewish Community I’ve subscribed to publications such as ’Moment’ ’Avotaynu’ and the Jewish Book Club I have bought videos music software and books: have I BOUGHT books! And of course I’ve read them One thing I quickly learned is that there is no end to the study of Judaism or Cryptojews

Historical:

I found out that my mother’s family and my father’s family have known each other since at least the 1600’s if not longer Some of the family trees intertwine which is amazing because the families are as different as night and day and don’t associate I learned that Jews once were a large portion of the population in Spain The surname Franco my mother’s is or was quite common among the Sephardim I found stories in history books about Francos being persecuted as long ago as the 1200’s and 1300’s One thing that struck me about the history of Mexico was how early in its discovery families started coming to settle The battles to conquer Mexico had barely stopped when women and children started arriving from Iberia Some Spanish women even helped with the fighting One common idea that many people have is that all Mexicans are Mestizos I now believe that may not be true although most Mexicans are of mixed races This is an important point because many people use it to automatically dismiss the possibility of Jewish heredity I learned that a Jewish Portuguese man named Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva Governor of Nuevo Leon brought over a whole shipload of his Jewish family and friends Also that Nuevo Leon was called the “tragic square” and covered an area that included as far north as San Antonio

Almost all of my ancestors were Spaniards Portuguese Basque or Canary Islanders who settled in early Nuevo Leon (some came with Carvajal) They were among the founders of Zacatecas Saltillo Monterrey and Cerralvo Later they were among the families who went north with Col Jose Escandon to colonize the towns near the Rio Grande River My ancestors include Juan Fernandez Castro Juan Gonzalez Paredes Gonzalo Baez Benavidez Juan Navarro Marcos Alonso de la Garza Arcon Diego Velasco Temino Diego de Torres Juan Farias Agustin Abrego Pedro Salazar Baltasar Castano de Sosa Juan Renteria Cristobal Hernandez Diego Montemayor Pedro de Salinas and Juan Diego Franco The women’s list also reads like a ” Who’s Who among Jewish Colonial Mexican Settlers” It includes Constanza Garza Isabel de Sosa Catalina Rivera Ana de Alvarez Maria Navarra and Ines Rodriguez Finding information is not difficult since so many books and family histories have already been written The two most amazing things are that 1) all my grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ family trees have some common ancestors and 2) most ancestral lines do not include indigenous persons (this is a work still in progress and I suspect my maternal grandfather may have some Native ancestor(s) plus some ancestor who was Mestizo may have been designated as European in records)

My mother’s family tree that is the TorresFranco family has proven to be the most difficult to find information about and that coincides with my belief that they had the most reasons to hide Not only were their names better recognized as Jewish but also more of them had been killed as Jews Most of my mother’s kin were not military or aristocratic like my father’s My maternal grandfather and grandmother have the same two sets of grandparents (they were first cousins on both sides of their families) The pattern of cousins marrying cousins is well established throughout their ancestral trees The surnames Torres Sosa Franco Gomez Ramirez Flores Abrego Guevara and dela Cruz are the most common In the Inquisition trials data I found a Duarte de Torres a Portuguese born in 1620 whose wife is Josefa dela Cruz a Mestiza These may be the ancestors I’ve been searching for in my grandfather’s tree More work is needed here Also Carvajal’s family had a friend named Diego de Torres who had a hacienda near the Panuco River close to Tampico Since a known ancestor of mine Lope de Sosa sold Carvajal some land near the Panuco River there is a possibility that this Diego de Torres is my ancestor In Martin Cohen’s book The Martyr: The Story of a Secret Jew and the Mexican Inquisition in the Sixteenth Century a man named Franco who is imprisoned in the same cell as Luis (El Mozo) Carvajal clues him in on the inquisitors’ trickery Several people with the surname Franco appear in Inquisition records What I have discovered is that the names Franco and Torres are mentioned usually in connect to someone else but are not elaborated upon in historical literature They seem to be always in the background without further explanation

Cultural:

Through reading what others already knew I came to see some of the Jewish aspects of my life Much more I was able to recognize after I met and grew to know fellow Jews The way we think and speak; the way we are around our close friends and family; and our sense of ourselves and our responsibilities to others Those things that you can not copy because they are formed as you grow up Your sense of self or your way of being is what I’m trying to convey I remember my mother’s parents always appeared to be arguing Only they were just expressing their different opinions and they never agreed on anything My parents are the same way We get loud but not in public and everyone has a different opinion Also everything is everybody’s business and everyone gives you advice My parents have five children that are spread out geographically but every day they call to see how my folks are doing AND if one doesn’t call you’ll hear them constantly wondering why and worrying The scenarios they can come up with : you should hear!

I actually grew up in a very superstitious world with 15th and 16th century Jewish ideas We believe in the Evil Eye (El Malojo) and in signs as in “God send me a sign” By the way to prevent the Evil Eye all you have to do is run your open hand over the child’s face You normally make a comment about how beautiful the child is and say “may God bless her/him” If on the way to your mouth your food drops it’s because someone at your table wanted some of what you’re eating and you didn’t offer to share If you covet something that someone is eating you will get a little sore of the tip of your tongue If you look at a dog when it’s urinating you will get a sty in your eye We sweep the dirt on our floors toward the center of the room then pick it up We collect all our clipped nails in a pile then throw them away We cover our mirrors when someone close to us dies Our mourning period is called “estar deluto” and we are required to wear dark colors (red is definitely taboo) and be respectfully sorrowful The unspoken tradition concerning the aging parents is that the oldest daughter stays at home or close to home to look after them

I have several Sephardic cook books and some of the dishes are very similar to my family’s What stands out is not so much the particular dishes as much as the method of cooking The spices we use on most of our dishes are garlic and cumin We cook with olive oil and like to add tomatoes to most anything My mother had fig trees growing in our front yard Corn tortillas which are unleavened are our favorite as opposed to flour tortillas by other Hispanics We love fideo empanadas pan de semita chicken soup albondigas arroz con pollo and promegrantes We make bunuelos capirotada frijoles made with salt pork and nopalitos all said to be foods common to Converso or Cyptojudaic families As a youngster I saw many chickens hung upside down to have the blood drain out A spot of blood or a “baby” on an egg yolk meant it had to be thrown away Our tacos never had cheese sprinkled over themthat may be an American idea

The language we learned at home was Ladino; the language we learned in school was Spanish Some examples:

English Spanish Ladino

Corner Esquina Rincon

Never Jamas Nunca

Put place Poner Meter

Iron Hierro Fierro

Third Tercero Trecero

Around Alrededor Alderedor

Red Rojo Colorado

Beverage Bebida Bevyenda

Herbs Hierba Yerva

Hair Pelo Caveyo

Auto Auto Carro

Prison Prision Carsel

Much Mucho Muncho

Spiritual:

Earlier in this article I mentioned that my parents’ families were very different My dad’s family was Catholic in name only and rarely attended church I remember going to maybe one wedding at the Catholic Church Anyway my mother was in charge of our religious education Her family breathes and eats religion Not a day goes by or an event occurs that does not include the mention of God When my grandfather was alive he used to make everything and anything that happened into a religious lesson with reference to an occurrence in the Bible I should explain that although they are Christian they strongly believe in one God and only one God They are able to do that because of their belief in the Trinity You’ll never see them kneeing before statues or putting up shrines to crucifixes and other idols Growing up I was told that if I didn’t go to church in order to watch a television show then I was making an idol out of the TV Anything that you put before God is an idol and that is the absolute worse thing you can ever do We studied the Bible both Old and New Testaments and memorized verses During my fifth grade of school I had to start going to church after school for Spanish classes We learned by reading our Spanish Bibles I was thirteen when we had a small ceremony in front of the church Our pastor had us read from the Spanish Bible On New Year’s Eve we when to church where we prayed until the New Year arrived People would take turns standing up to pray thanking Him for all the blessings they’d received that past year It seems like my grandfather would always be praying when the New Year’s firecrackers could be heard in the night outside I don’t think he ever heard them I have a Sidur in Hebrew with translations in Spanish When I read it in Spanish I can almost hear my grandfather’s voice

We have a very personal relationship with God We talk to Him often (we call Him “Senor”) and sometimes we get angry and argue with Him But we know He’ll never let us down even if we can’t understand why some things happen I believe we carry the Covenant in our hearts It may be hard for some people to accept or understand how we could still be Jews after so much time but that’s okay because God does

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