UNM Institute Supports Project to Document Crypto Judaism in Spanish Caribbean Islands

The Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico has initiated a project to document the history and ethnography of cryptoJudaism on the Spanish Caribbean Islands of Cuba Dominican Republic Puerto Rico and preEnglish Jamaica The project involves the collaboration of historian Stanley M Hordes Adjunct Research Professor and anthropologist Seth D Kunin University of Durham (UK)

These individuals outwardly Hispanic Catholics are descendants of the original conversos Jews forced to convert to Catholicism after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 Many of these cryptoJews eventually found their way to the Spanish Caribbean over the course of the sixteenth seventeenth and eighteenth centuries To be certain much has been lost over the past several generations and some traditional customs have undergone significant changes After nearly five hundred years of secrecy descendants of conversos in various parts of the Hispanic world including the Greater Antilles are just now beginning to express willingness to explore their possible Sephardic roots and cooperate in a scholarly project to study the phenomenon in a comprehensive manner

The data derived from the historical investigations will be of great value not only in helping to understand the sociocultural fabric of a vital part of the Caribbean but also in bringing to light the activities of the earliest Jewish communities in the Americas

The historical literature relating to the cryptoJewish community of Mexico and the northern frontier of New Spain is well developed Similarly much is known about the Sephardic Jews who were able to practice their faith openly on the Caribbean islands administered by England France Holland and Denmark By contrast very little has been published about their cousins who had to maintain their faith in secret on the islands under Spanish rule The recent emergence of people who are exploring a cryptoJewish past in the Caribbean now offers a unique and unprecedented opportunity to trace the origins of these people back to the early Spanish colonial era Through the genealogical information secured by means of interviews with informants and subsequent archival research scholars can examine possible links between the living remnants of converso culture in the Greater Antilles and the flourishing cryptoJewish communities in Mexico South America Spain and Portugal of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

New light will be shed on demographic occupational and migration patterns of cryptoJews over the course of the last three hundred years in the northern Caribbean region Did cryptoJews continue to play a significant role in commerce? To what extent did they serve as economic and cultural links among Mexico the Caribbean Islands and the Iberian Peninsula ? What was the role of Cuban Dominican Jamaican and Puerto Rican conversos in the slave trade? Did Caribbean cryptoJews continue to follow the pattern of marrying among themselves? To what extent did they interact with openlypracticing Jews living on the British French Dutch and Danish Islands ? What was the role of these individuals within the structure of the Catholic Church? Was there any discernable pattern of interaction between them and the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews who arrived in the Caribbean in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

The information derived from this project will provide a unique window into the past and will greatly enhance the community’s understanding about an intriguing yet poorlyunderstood aspect of Latin American and Jewish history

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