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Exhibit illustrates scourge of the Spanish Inquisition

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DURING THE Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain that spanned approximately 500 years, Jews, Arabs and Christians collaborated in astronomy, medicine, philosophy, poetry and letters, and attracted many Jews to Spain.

The Black Death, which killed up to a half of the population of Europe in the mid-1300s, created a social and political upheaval during which Jews especially were scapegoated.

As anti-Semitism increased in Spain in the late 14th century, pogroms claimed thousands. Many Jews converted to Catholicism.

A hundred years later, the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 forced the entire Jewish population of Spain, an estimated quarter of a million Jews, to leave or to convert.

The limpieza de sangre, a document that attested to blood purity going back two generations to show no taint of Jewish ancestry, was a requirement to board boats for the New World from Spain, but forgeries were common.

When the Inquisition reached New Spain in full force, Jews were burned at the stake in autos-da-fé in Mexico City for Judaizing, for being conversos who secretly practiced Judaism.

Being burned at the stake was called being “relaxed.”

There were Jews who fled north to the farthest ends of New Spain (now northern New Mexico and southern Colorado), where persecution might diminish; and who  maintained Jewish customs in hiding.

The threat of persecution and the need to blend in with Catholicism made the secret practices take on different mixtures of Judaism and Christianity, unique to each family. In some families, the secrecy became so great that the secret was only passed on, principally through the women, by one family member to another of the next generation.

The communities were remote and insular and intermarriages within this relatively small community of converso families were common.

Cancer clusters have been identified in these communities today caused by the deadly BRCA1 mutation.

A number of other rare genetic diseases are being found within this population, which have been associated with Sephardic or Ashkenazic Jews.

THE DOCUMENTS of this history will be shown for the first time in the exhibition, “Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, The Inquisition, and New World Identities,” opening May 22 at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, through Dec. 31.

More than 175 items document Jewish heritage and persecution, including both centuries-old objects, books, documents, paintings and modern day photographs, from museums and private collections in Spain, Mexico and the US.

Bringing the story to life are essays and stories told by an international group of seven scholars and historians, including former New Mexico State Historian Stanley M. Hordes, and Fran Levine, the museum’s former director, now president of the Missouri History Museum at St. Louis, who five years ago began the hunt across two continents for these hidden Jewish relics and documents.

THE CHALLENGES presented by this exhibit are unusual. Historian and co-curator Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, assistant professor of history at CU, Colorado Springs, and Josef Díaz, curator of Spanish colonial arts and history at the museum, continued the search for artifacts.

Díaz said the museum had to prove that it could provide climate controlled cases, regulated by temperature, light and humidity. Certain pieces required their own special level of humidity.

In the exhibition catalogue, co-authored by Martínez-Dávila, Díaz and cultural anthropologist Ron D. Hart,  Fran Levine’s essay tells the story of a new governor of New Mexico, Bernardo López de Mendizábal.

Soon after arriving in 1659 his arrogance ran afoul of local politics and church officials: He prohibited the Franciscan priests to force the Native Americans to work if they were not paid a salary and he recognized their right to practice their religion.

Within a few years, he was arrested, accused of Judaizing and brought in shackles from Santa Fe to the dark Palace of the Inquisition in Mexico City.

His wife, Doña Teresa Aguilera y Rocha, soon was also taken from her airy rooms in the Palace of the Governors on the plaza in Santa Fe, and brought to the prison.

Highly literate, Doña Teresa asked for paper and pen, and in her cell in 1664 wrote a testimony of the corruption in the new colony, which saved her life at trial.

Her husband would not be so lucky — he had already died at age 43 in the dank prison.

Doña Teresa’s remarkable case documents have been housed in Mexico City at the Archivo General de la Nación (“General Archive of the Nation”), itself a former prison that dominates the landscape and where many documents are stored in temperature-controlled former cells.

Díaz photographed the manuscripts there, along with some of the highly important Carvajal Inquisition records (the Carvajal family was burned at the stake in Mexico City), but until almost the last moment, he didn’t know whether he could secure permission to take them out of the country.

On a Tuesday morning, three weeks before the exhibition opening, I was interviewing Díaz over ice tea at a coffee house in Corrales, New Mexico when he was interrupted by an important call.

He became animated. The Inquisition trial records of Gov. Mendizábal and Doña Teresa had finally been approved for travel and would arrive in Santa Fe just in time for the exhibit.

DIAZ BELIEVES there are three copies of the Edict of Expulsion in museums in Spain. One will be coming from the Archivo General de Simancas north of Madrid, arriving, he noted dryly, “on Friday the 13th.”

An illuminated manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed will be arriving the next day.

On Sept. 9 and 10, a symposium will be presented at the museum featuring the essayists in the catalogue.

The exhibit, along with the recent announcement of Spain’s offer of citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were expelled 500 years ago, have stirred a lot of activity.

Along with the catalogue, new books will be coming out by Fran Levine about Doña Teresa; Ron D. Hart on the complex history of the Sephardim; and Martínez-Dávila on the blending of Jewish and Catholic families during the 15th century.

Three different Jewish historical societies will hold their annual conferences in Santa Fe in conjunction with the exhibit.

A mini documentary is being shot by author and lecturer Daniel Díaz-Huerta, celebrating the Festival of Saint Esther, patron saint of the crypto-Jewish community whose Fiesta of St. Esther has been celebrated in churches in New Mexico around Purim.

A full-length documentary, “Challah Rising in the Desert,” produced by Paula Amar Schwartz about the Jews of New Mexico, is also underway.