Some Communication Codes Between CryptoJews in the Secret Prisons of the Inquisition in New Spain

Groups of judaizers arrived at the coast of New Spain in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century and in the hopes of escaping the persecution and repression promoted in the Peninsula thought the new continent would offer them a better life and greater freedom to practice their religion and keep their language and Hispanic cultural heritage at the same time After establishing themselves in the cities the converts who already knew rejection and marginalization in Spain encountered it again contrary to their hopes on the new continent

Thus the New Spain converts who seemed to be Catholics but practiced Judaism in the privacy of their homes covertly tried to form a cohesive community The restrictions to achieve this were a strong fear of being discovered and informed upon to the Supreme Council of the Holy Office; the absence of official religious authorities such as recognized rabbis; the lack of sacred objects; and the lack of knowledge of Jewish rituals All of these forced crypto Jews to seek forms to adapt their religious practice and unknowingly move toward inevitable syncretism

The need to preserve their millenarian culture in adverse conditions generated behavior and covert expressions understood only by group members It is well known that one identity trait is based on the possibility of being different from others; a means to reassert one’s own identity based on external factors For New Spain CryptoJews group recognition was essential to foster their beliefs and ritual practices associated with Moses’ Law There were several doublemeaning actions and expressions seemingly carrying a straightforward message that in the eyes of converts revealed a hidden truth

The goal of this paper is to show how CryptoJews used internal codes which in addition to revealing an alternative message made it possible for them firstly to preserve their cultural idiosyncrasy and secondly to encourage group cohesion in a context of fear and repression Therefore the codes were an outlet for their needs of expression and also a different means of communication to safeguard their ideological integrity

The New Spain context was structured under the same peninsular patterns throughout the seventeenth century The implementation of the inquisitorial and evangelization system kept in the first decades of the century the attention of authorities elsewhere setting aside the punishment to judaizers though they were considered heretics enemies of the Church and Crown That offered greater mobility for the propagation of the Mosaic faith even if it was clandestine So secret meetings provided the framework to foster the group’s global vision By recognizing one another stressing differences and developing alliances they would work out a way of communicating by using codes understood only by them to engage in the prayers associated with Jewish rituals

There are several testimonials found in the National Archives in Mexico and other sources showing how the group’s internal points of reference were agreed upon creating connections based on trust among those of the same faith such as that of Margarita Moreira who stated that “: [a] black child dressed in red was pushed unseen into the streets to walk and play a small drum which was the signal to meet and judaize”

As the fragile community of “new Christians” formed in New Spain kinshipbased networks were a fundamental factor for the faithful to recognize one another since acceptance or rejection implied the accumulation of social capital and reassertion of their identity

Owing to the absence of official rabbis religion became a domestic and arbitrary element So amid these difficult circumstances women were in charge of its informal transmission risking betrayal when revealing their hidden identities Because of that they would discreetly inquire into the beliefs of “others” given the uncertainty of their Mosaic faith even if they belonged to the same family One example of the women’s proselytism to attract those who were adept to the Judaic Law was that of Justa Mendez as she asked for the religious orientation of Maria de Rivera and explained some points of reference to Judaism to her

[: ] come here Maria are you not one of us? to which she responded ” what does that mean?” And the aforementioned Justa Mendes told her that it meant that she had to fast for an entire day And she answered: Why? So the aforementioned Justa Mendes told her it was to save herself by observing Moses’ Law which included some fasting especially on the big day and that Moses’ Law was good true and necessary for salvation rather than that of Jesus Christ our Lord which this confessor professed as false and she was wrong to follow it

The private circumstances under which women gathered after recognizing one another propitiated risky codes that violated the religious tenants of others The evident trust among them made them mock the most sacred Catholic symbols imposed upon them The testimonial of Margarita de Rivera told what they nicknamed Jesus Christ stressing the differences and reaffirming their own through comparing external factors:

And that before all aforementioned persons and this speaker has referred many times over to our lord Jesus Christ as Don Manuel and his holy mother as Doña Maria because after adhering to Moses’ Law she never wanted or had any inclination toward the Holy Virgin or her precious son [: ]

Derogative expressions of Christ carried an underlying moral message demarking good and evil The women’s mockery stripped the sacred dimension of context to insert it in the mundane plane Thus the message’s meaning was diversified making evident the disdain for the symbol Hence they unsanctified God by placing him at the same level as human beings stripping him of his superiority and omnipotence: calling Christ Don Manuel was deemed earthly and trivial They also called him by another name: Horco “which in the Portuguese language is the same as: demon a word the followers of said law used to vituperate and lessen Catholics”

However the indulgence experienced before 1642 during which time authorities tolerated certain hidden practices was soon reversed and gave way to a wave of persecution of judaizers especially of Portuguese origin which resulted in the apprehension of many of them

One of the inquisitors’ tactics for information gathering and making the power mechanism work was the use of informants who represented their main source of investigation so they would exhort the population via excommunications the threat of incarceration and torture to be alert of neighbors’ “bad” behavior particularly those attempting against Catholicism Any suspicious act from neighbors had to be reported to the Holy Office so the prevailing social dynamic was one of fear and distrust Thus both in and out of jail informing on others was a means of survival and hope for most of the population Turning in judaizers witches and other types of transgressors became a practice that vindicated Christian informants that felt morally bound to their religion since it was a consciencecleansing action For CryptoJews the result of these incriminations was the disbanding of their pseudocommunity which was already in danger

Inside the secret jails one of the inquisitors’ strategies to uncover other judaizers still at large was to hide behind cell walls and listen to conversations in the middle of the night This way they were able to register paper in hand the members of the CryptoJew community without the knowledge of informants Furthermore the fear threat of torture and being burned at the stake compelled some of the Jewish faith to confess the culpability of their acquaintances Therefore the lack of trust was widespread even among the group’s members

However the need for communication in the CryptoJewish community both in and out of prison was pressing in the early months of 1642 because the uncertain future created concerns they did not know how to solve This caused exchanged mechanisms used among those that kept the faith Thus the codes emerged as a cohesion and understanding resource since nobody could decipher the message except for the users who knew the underlying references The word acquired a certain power as long as its meaning was clear emphasizing the differences among those who possessed the knowledge and those who did not However securing the general agreement of issuers and receptors living in the same cultural system was necessary for the creation of coded language Thus certain rules were established which had dual meaning understood by the actors that worked on transforming expressions of a given system into others censored by them The code therefore was an artificial set of transformation rules inserted in a context common to issuer and receptor to produce their own derivative messages

Nicknames were a subterfuge to conceal the person’s identity from authorities As a concealing strategy CryptoJews created false name that erased all reference to the subject in question more than defining them Among jailed individuals nearly all of them had sobriquets that alluded to personalities physical traits or habits The purpose of this practice was to cover up compromising activities and refract signs alluding to them directly Some of these were El Pavo Real [The Peacock] assigned to Blanca Enriquez because of her social standing in her community Toluca for Ana Gomez Gonzalo Vaez was Ocotepec or Velasquillo his sister Leonor was La Panadera [The Baker] and Las Blancas the sobriquet of the Rivera sisters because it was their mother’s name These are some examples that generalized and dissuaded identification by authorities Those in charge of watching and judging them were also given nicknames: Francisco de Estrada was El Gordo [The fat one] o El Barrigón [Potbelly] ; Azas de Argos El Caduco [The Senile One] o El Aposentador de la Modorra ; Juan Saez de Mañozca Antojuelos [Cravings] Collectively authorities were called: faraones [Pharaohs] cuervos [crows] gavilanes [sparrow hawks] or canalla infernal [knave from hell] all of them pejorative names manifesting catharsis by abusing and devaluating the tyrant

Nevertheless not all was as simple and trivial as a name change The need to know the situation of others agree on what to say or keep to themselves find out about the system in the tribunals and trials taking place or know who had been taken last led the prisoners to find a way to create a system based on wall tapping in which each tap meant a letter of the alphabet However spies working in cahoots with the inquisitors in jail for other reasons took it upon themselves to decode the meaning of each tap which reached the Holy Office On the other hand there were judaizer prisoners that communicated by singing Such was the case of Gonzalo Vaez his sister Leonor and Ana Gomez who exchanged their messages in couplets by adapting them to the rhythm and melody:

And a woman’s voice was heard saying many endearments to the aforementioned Gonzalo Vaez in a strong voice: “Be calm and speak for I am your sister and your mother and I am very sad disconsolate as I had not spoken to you before” And the aforementioned Gonzalo responded by singing: “Rejoice so I too can hear you but do not talk to me; what does it matter; and I will tell you in song whatever you ask me”

The singing was a strategy of coded expression because in addition to reflecting the strong supportive bond that kept them true to their faith it hid messages known only to them between the lines of popular lyrics In addition they invented words so others would not find out what they referred to as they sang; obscure expressions that the following testimonial of the spy Gaspar Alfar did not understand:

And said woman who is Leonor Vaez sister of the aforementioned Gonzalo Vaez told him: I am pleased to tell you my pet have you done the [ : ]”; and Gonzalo said to her: “I do not understand”; and Leonor Vaez asked him: “Have you talked about it?” And Gonzalo answered: “I do not know anything about anything this is what I have talked about” saying this in song

The topics covered interspersed in popular verses generally revolved around people of the same faith that remained steadfast and those that did not; that is individuals that became informants or those that never said a word to the judges Other names used to mean “confession” were: “spit” “vomit” “throw” “turn” “sign” “make huhu” Avoid informing on others was to be “forte” (Alberro 242) They also talked about the ritual fasts they had to observe especially on the “big day” or Yom Kippur which implied the atonement of sins

They also squeeze me and that is why they put me here so I would tell them about my uncles the Sevillas what I have done with them on the Cro and what they taught me about the Cro and where and how I did it with them; what do they care; I know nothing for I am a good ’cristina’; I believe in what I believe and from the heart I confess to thee God of Israel and I will die for you

As observed the ’Cro’ meant fasting on the Day of Atonement It was also known as ’suchil’ ’sá­ señor’ [yes sir] or ’trenzas’ [braids] The reassertion of beliefs was evident since the option between remaining silent or informing on others fasting or observing other Jewish rituals placed them as members of the community or outsiders between the acceptance and rejection of people of the same faith Fasting on the “big day” was a direct indication of their following Judaism as it represented the remedy through atonement for their forced transgressions such as venerating others’ sacred images going to mass confession and communion Fasting therefore meant observance of their faith; however the ritual process was inconsistent and arbitrary

Thus in the previous quote the loyalty of Leonor Vaez toward Mosaic Law became deeper as inquisitorial pressure increased the fact that did not happen to all prisoners since some gave in to fear Another coded reference to the fast was ’sorroloco’ as used in the following excerpt which tells the day in which it had to be done:

And the sorroloco on Monday and Tuesday I will do as we agreed

Behaviors were also coded to hide what authorities wanted but veiling their intentions Gonzalo Vaez would act as an insane person in the tribunals to achieve exoneration since insane people were excluded from society for being both morally and legally inconsistent and irresponsible The alleged departure from reality hid his true identity because in a calculated manner he would oscillate dangerously between talking and remaining silent Paradoxically insanity was his subterfuge to keeping his dignity since it was the only means he had to prevent being controlled by authorities The displacement between appearance and thoughts became part of how Gonzalo dealt with his reality:

And Gonzalo told her that when he is taken upstairs he said he is ’ido’ which means crazy and then they bring him down again and there is no cure for him that they do not get anywhere with him that he says ” I do not know I tell you ” and when they visit too

Being ’ido’ or ’doido’ meant ’out of one’s mind’ an expression that signified selfexclusion but justified his silence

These were some coded deviations that modified the direct reference to a traditional word and articulated again in another more complex one It is certain that tragedy enveloped all of these forms of expression in an environment of constant fear and risk though on some occasions it served as an escape to release the pressure For CryptoJews the danger implied in being discovered or having the real meaning of their message understood encouraged them to assign several code names to a single point of reference which involved more complex verbal construction

In conclusion we observe that both language and feigned actions carried certain preconceived destinations given meaning by the social group that used them Each coded expression summarized customs values beliefs orientations etc that revealed a particular way of looking at the world but in turn provided a space for language diversity and mobility Behind each word hiding its true addresser there were variations in meaning that had to do with the intention of those uttering it

Thus code words and acts functioned as a subterfuge from the oppressive reality The bifurcated messages had the quality of guiding the meaning and controlling albeit partially their environment The word therefore was understood using the particular perspective of small groups different from the ’ other’ dominant one The underlying meaning projected a new alternative to understand existence and forming with it identity and membership alliances

Bibliography

Moreira Margarita Testimonio de Francisco de Orozco Huntington Library San Marino California (HI HM) 35125
Alberro Solange Inquisición y sociedad en México 15711700 FCE México (1988) 2004
Archivo General de la Nación (AGNM) Inquisición vol 423 exp 3
Inquisición vol 403 exp 1
Inquisición vol 408 exp3
Gojman de Backal Alicia “La inquisición en Nueva España vistos a los ojos de un procesado Guillen de Lampart Siglo XVII” en Cuadernos de Investigación Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Comunidad Ashkenazá­ de México Marzo 2000
Masera Mariana (coord) La otra Nueva España La palabra marginada en la colonia UNAM Azul Barcelona 2002
Testimonial of Francisco de Orozco July 22 1643 HL HM 35125 f 120v
AGNM Inquisition vol 403 exp3ª f 304rv
AGNM Inquisición vol 408 exp1 f108r
AGNM Inquisición vol 408 exp1 f108v109r
The case of Guillen de Lampart who under pressure from the inquisitors wrote what each tap on the wall meant (A= one tap B= two taps C= three taps etc) Cfr AGNM Inquisición vol 409 exp 2 f 311v; AGNM Inquisición vol 38 exp11 y AGNM Inquisición vol 426 fs 534536
AGNM Inquisición vol 423 exp 3 f115r
Huelgo: huelga; placer regocijo y recreación ( Diccionario de Autoridades )
AGNM Inquisición vol 423 exp 3 f 115fv
AGNM Inquisición vol 423 exp 3 f256r
AGNM Inquisición f169v170r apud Masera p179

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