The Crypto-Jews: An Ancient Heritage Comes Alive Again

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Historians recounting the Jewish presence in the American Southwest have dated Jews in Texas about 1820, in New Mexico in the early 1840s and in Arizona in the mid-1850s. Today we know that Jewish history in the Southwest actually can be traced back some four hundred and fifty years.

This new dating is not the work of revisionist historians, but rather the result of a dramatic and often mysterious emergence of so-called crypto-Jews, who also have been called marranos and conversos. Marrano, the Spanish word for swine, often was used in Spain during the bitter days of the Inquisition by non-Jews who despised, perhaps even feared, Jews who had converted to Catholicism but were thought to be secretly practicing their old religion. They were feared because even after conversion they often were returned to their same posts under Spanish kings because of their special expertise in various areas.

The conversos, or converts, who fled the Inquisition in Spain came into the New World, often with new names and forged papers because of the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella that no Jew could live in any Spanish territory. They came and settled into new lands that had only had native Indian populations, but shortly after the earliest arrivals the Inquisition followed them into the New World, setting up Holy Courts at Lima, Peru, in Cartagena, Columbia and the most active one in Mexico City in Nueva Espana.

Now, with the Inquisition on their heels once again, the conversos began to move again. Some found ways to remain in lands of South America, Central America and Mexico, but others once again moved to where they hoped to be safe. They have been traced to every area of the North American continent where Spaniards had adventured. One party of Sephardim fleeing from Recife, Brazil after it became a Portuguese posession and landed on the Dutch- owned island of Manhattan.

This article, however, is directed to one area that has been the center for the recent emergence of crypto-Jews--the American Southwest. There are direct links between those conversos who travelled from Spain to New Spain and those who moved north into what is now Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Here, in this area, Hispanics who have followed Catholicism for generations, now are tracing their roots back to Spain, or to Portugal, through the research capabilities of the Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives at the University of Arizona. Their stories are those that we are presenting in this article. A few of the stories have been told in lectures, some are being presented for the first time and in many cases no names are used because of sensitivities within Hispanic families. Some want to search out their roots, but in the same family there are those who either are indifferent or antagonistic and do not want to know of a different historic past.

Before turning to these stories it should be understood that descendants of crypto Jews can be found from Florida across the country to California. While research has been heaviest in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, more will be done in these other areas in the years ahead.

The following are some of the interviews that have been recorded by the Southwest Jewish Archives:

An administrator on the University of Arizona campus recalls that when he grew up in Tucson "there was a kid who spoke a funny Spanish. We used to kid him. One day when I was in the University library I ran across a Ladino dictionary. I finally realized that kid had been speaking Ladino. I asked myself: `Was he a descendant of conversos from Spain?' Then I began to think about my own family and I puzzled as to why we always had a menorah in our Catholic home!"

A minister in the Assembly of God in Florida one day found the birth certificate of his grandmother from Havana, Cuba dated in 1901. He called the Southwest Jewish Archives because he was stunned to find written on the official document--"descendiente Espanol Judio". He has left his ministry, has been circumcised and is considering joining an orthodox Jewish congregation.

'Mrs. O.' in Flagstaff called the Archives to ask for some research on her family name because she said "I have a feeling I must be Jewish." Asked for a further explanation she said she was raised in a Hispanic community where "we were the only family who were intellectuals, so therefore we must have been Jewish." Pressed further, she said, "Well, we were the only family there who had books in our house therefore we must have been Jewish." She added that there was never a crucifix in their home.

A professor at the University of Arizona remembered that when his sister died his mother told him she had to tell him a secret that had been passed down through generations of their family, but only through women. Now that his sister was gone, he had to have the secret. The professor said, "She leaned over and whispered to me, `Somos Judios.' I was stunned to learn that we were Jews, but then I remembered that in our house my mother never served pork or shell fish."

A young man from a small, ingrained community in New Mexico, described the different feelings within families. He told interviewers that he remembered seeing his grandfather carve menorahs and place them in the window of their house at Chanukah. "My grandmother," he said, "would take them out quickly and insist we have a Christmas tree." He also remembered that in the spring his grandfather would hang a lamb, cut the jugular vein (according to Jewish tradition) and let the blood run into the ground. "He would cover the blood with soil," the young man said, "but my grandmother would get angry because she wanted the blood to make sausage. I also remember my grandfather going to a secret house to pray. I think he prayed there in Hebrew, although we were raised Catholic."

A dentist in Denver joined a Jewish congregation in Denver, saying he did not have to convert because although his father was a church-going Catholic, his mother did not want him to go to church and told him repeatedly that she was Jewish and therefore he was as well. "My mother was the clever one in our family," he recounted. "She was the business woman and had a store in the Hispanic area of northeast Denver. She always closed the store on Yom Kippur, even though our Catholic friends sneered at us. I am sure we are descendants of Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain." His family name is one that was called by the Inquisition not once, but many times.

In Phoenix a retired school teacher, raised by a Catholic mother, became convinced that the family had a Jewish heritage tracing back to the Iberian peninsula. He became irritated by a letter that had appeared in THE ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL in 1991 and wrote to the newspaper: "The revelation that Sephardic Jews or their descendants migrated to northern New Mexico is cause for deep-seated soul searching. The traditions that your letter-writer is attempting to re-establish are somewhat superfluous in view of the fact that both Catholicism and Christianity are both inherently Jewish sects. The tradition of familial heritage became lost when Sephardic men produced offspring, whether married or not, by non- Jewish mothers.

"...scratch a New Mexican and his Indian blood will flow. Scratch a little deeper and his Jewish or Moorish blood will flow. Scratch no deeper 'cause that's all you need to know. Can you believe, 500 years and we're still looking for our identity?"

Ruth Ruiz Reed, a Spanish translator on the University of Arizona campus, brought an amulet to the Archives for identification, She said it had been passed down through the women of her family for generations but she had no idea of what it really was. It turned out to be a silver amulet in the shape of the tablets with the Ten Commandments insribed in Hebrew. When she was told this, Ruth Reed began to search her memory. She recalled that her grandfather Jose Maria Ruiz went to a seminary in Jalisco, Mexico. There the bishop told his pupils that they should live by the precepts of the Old Testament and at graduation he gave eight boys Old Testament bibles.

Ruth Ruiz Reed also recalled that her grandfather told her that his father used to take candles "and do certain ceremonies" at night in his room and also read the Old Testament. She said, "My mother never served pork or shell fish in our home."

Most recently a young Hispanic raised in the eastern section of Los Angeles learned that he came from a converso background and converted to Judaism. "Not long after that," he said, "I met a young Hispanic girl and I fell in love and decided to marry her. I told her that we might have a problem. I told her that I had converted to Judaism and that she would have to keep a kosher home.

"She looked at me, I remember, smiled and said, `That's no problem, you see, because I am from a hidden Jewish family.' "

Southwest Jewish Historys