For almost three decades intriguing stories have been published about descendants of the “secret” Jews of the American southwest Sephardic Jews who escaped five hundred years ago from the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal and found refuge in the northern reaches of New Spain Almost always any accompanying photographs have carried the credit line of Cary Herz

Now photographer Herz has given her own account of her search and discovery in New Mexico’s CryptoJews published in December by the University of New Mexico Press A longtime member of SCJS Cary was honored at the organization’s 2007 conference in Albuquerque for her contributions and dedication to the subject of cryptoJudaism

Many of the Jewish fugitives while appearing to adopt Catholicism clung secretly to their old faith When the Inquisition came they fled northward continuing their lives of secrecy

To gather evidence Cary traveled 10000 miles and then stopped counting searching old cemeteries for evidence of a Jewish presence such as gravesites with Hebraic writing or symbols such as a sixpointed star or candelabra used in religious ceremonies And she interviewed scores of descendents who knew or suspected they had Jewish heritage

It was not easy I know because I trailed along on one of her searches through an ancient camposanto an old cemetery this one in New Mexico I followed complaining about hiphigh weeds and muttering about snakes and scorpions She was indefatigable

She also was a persuasive interviewer Still I was surprised flipping pages in her book to find a photograph of the late Loggie Carrasco a teacher in New Mexico who was the mentor of many young descendents of converso heritage but avoided media and refused to be photographed

She herself was a descendant of Manuel Carrasco an ancestor arrested by the Inquisition on charges he carried matzo in his hat He was taken in 1648 to Mexico City for trial and his possessions confiscated including the family’s sugar plantation

She agreed to a talk but ordered me to “put away your pencil” She was not looking for celebrity Cary explained But she talked to me about old family practices Her ancestors had no candles for the traditional ceremonies Instead they substituted cuts of sugar cane buried in sand She asked for my pencil and drew a picture of a flaming sugarcane candle

Cary Herz photographed her smiling and showing off a candelabra she bad fashioned from thread spools Many of the young people who were searching for their Jewish past I was told called her “mama Lowe

In 1994 I teamed with Cary and traveled to Belmonte Portugal for a conference of the Society for CryptoJudaic Studies which was attended also by a number of young people from New Mexico eager to learn about their roots Cary recalled how many of them were struck by the similarity of hills and valleys and their own surroundings at home in the southwest

Listening to the comments historian Stanley Hordes another conference participant found it entirely plausible that their fleeing ancestors had chosen to resettle where they felt they were in a familiar setting

Cary and l also made a trip with New Mexicans Dennis Duran and Paul Marez from Belmonte to Lisbon passing through Coimbra She wrote about visiting the city’s old cathedral and its plaza

“Dennis became very quiet and sad” she wrote “saying ’Some of my family was murdered in the plaza in front of the cathedral by the Catholic Church for being Jewish’ ”

She also recalled how many of the young participants at the conference had remarked that the Portuguese when they learned about the visitors’ ancestry also were more welcoming

Her comment reminded me of the many times l had seen evidence of her talent for winning cooperation One example stands out in my memory On a mountain road she spotted a shepherd with his dog and sheep She wanted a photograph of this scene but how to communicate? In an instant she was out of the car and gesturing enthusiastically to the old man Without words she pulled out a photograph of her own beloved dog Lincoln a standard black poodle She won him over completely scribbled down his address and promised to send him a photo

Cary wrote that her goal was to “put a face on the invisible ones the Anusim To open a small window into their world to show their pride and diversity”

But she was mindful that in focusing her camera on this relatively littleknown group she would be opening up possibilities for their world to be vulnerable to unwanted exploitation She recognized that her book is likely to around public curiosity about the old camposants And she hopes future visitors will also show respect

In her book she mentions that she had approached her search with reverence For instance she took care never to tread on the burial sites she photographed Or as she put it she “never climbed a fence”

I found her overly modest about her talents insisting she was neither a trained sociologist nor historian and referring to her work as “only a photographic diary of individuals with a hidden past”

While that obviously is true she does seem to have some compensating qualities she has demonstrated incredible sensitivity toward the people she photographed

See Cary’s photos at her website: