|Graves like this are pointed to as evidence of a continuing Crypto-Jewish culture in remote New Mexico by some but the Star of David motif is dismissed as decorative by critics.|
What’s a blogger to do? Yesterday was both the real Mexican Independence Day and, as of sun down that evening Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days. These are both occasions I would normally mark with blog entries.
Should I expound on the Grito de Delores and Father Hidalgo and why Cinco de Mayo is an upstart pretender, a mere local celebration which became a marketing and drinking festival in the U.S.? Or should I explain the significance and rituals of Rosh Hashanah and the peculiarities of the Jewish lunar calendar?
Sometimes when events like this collide on the calendar, I have been known to commit poetry. See Purim/International Women’s Day 14th day of Adar 5772/March 8, 2012 or September 12, 2007 The Day After 9/11—Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah among others as an example. But nothing felicitous came to mind today.
Then I remembered a tidbit tucked away in an obscure corner of my brain. Something about the secret Jews of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As I recalled from reading an article some years ago, some Spanish speaking residents of the remote mountainous region that stretches from New Mexico into Colorado on the eastern side of the Rio Grande River drainage were found to be privately practicing Jewish rituals and prayer. Some, allegedly, had lost understanding of what they were doing, others dimly remembered a lost family connection. Or so I recalled.
So I did what every respectable blogger would do—I Googled. What I discovered was at once more complicated and vastly more interesting. And it has taken me two days to process.
As you might recall Jews in Spain were having a hard time in the 16th Century as the Inquisition continued to do its dirty, brutal work. In 1492 Jews who would not convert to Catholicism were exiled King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of a newly united nation after the last of the Moors were driven from Grenada. As Christopher Columbus left port on his famous voyage—paid for, legend has it by Isabella’s jewels some of which were obtained as bribes by Jews begging for mercy and some of which was simply confiscated—he passed shiploads of baleful Jews sailing into their own uncertain future.
Left behind were those who publicly accepted conversion—and who paid heavy taxes and bribes for the privilege. Some took their conversion seriously. Others had their fingers crossed behind their preverbal backs. By the mid 1500’s as the Conquistadores turned to making their conquests viable colonies, many conversos jumped at the chance to hacer las Américas—find new adventures in America. And get some distance from the Inquisition.
Some groups of immigrants were said to be made up of as many as half Cristianos Nuevos—recent converts and included members of wealthy and influential families. Among the colonizers were also equally persecuted Portuguese Jews. This much is historically verifiable.
As is the fact that many of these people or their immediate decedents left the Mexico City area, where the Inquisition was establishing itself in the New World for the northern reaches of Nuevo España, the frontier regions of Nuevo León and Coahuila. But what is not known is if any of these people continued to practice Judaism in secret.
Some oral traditions, including deathbed declarations that “we are Israelites” and some private customs suggest that at least some cultural connections may have been passed along, even as the families considered themselves faithful Catholics.
The Spanish re-conquered Santa Fe and surrounding Nueva Mexico in 1692 following the Pueblo Revolt. They needed to re-populate their loosely held northern province to defend it from resurgence of the Pueblo and from the Apache and Navaho as well. Settlers were recruited largely from the very regions in the north where the conversos had settled.
Some settlers pushed far north of Santa Fe and established villages and farms in the remote Sangre de Cristo. These people were on the fringes of Empire and civilization. Although Catholic, few priests established churches. At best the remote villages might be visited once or twice a year to conduct baptisms, confirmations, and marriages in otherwise empty churches. After the Mexican Revolution, Spanish civil government, such as it was, virtually disappeared. When their land fell into American hands after the Mexican War, they were hardly aware of it.
Isolation was increased by years of bloody Apache uprisings, and even the American Civil War, which saw its most westward battles fought by Kit Carson commanding mostly Spanish speaking militia trying to repel Texan invaders.
In the meantime, know conversos and their decedents were among those who settled the Rio Grande Valley in Tejas in José de Escandón 1749 settlements.
Life in the remote villages remained largely undisturbed well into the end of the 20th Century.
In 1981 a young scholar named Stanley Hordes, who had written his doctoral dissertation on the Crypto-Jews of Mexico—the handful of families who seem to have maintained a secret Jewish identity despite outward profession of Catholicism—became the state historian of New Mexico.
After relocating to Santa Fe, he began hearing stories of strange rituals secretly conducted and began to investigate the possibility that Crypto-Jews persisted in the state. Hordes continued to collect and investigate evidence of the perpetuation of Jewish customs even after leaving the state employment. As word got around of his interest, more people came to him with more anecdotal evidence and recollections.
In 1987 a NPR radio documentary highlighted his work, setting of a firestorm of wider interest, particularly in the Jewish community. Funds were offered to continue and expand research. Conferences on Crypto-Judaism were held across the Southwest. In the early ‘90’s Hordes helped found the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies.
All of the publicity also brought forth individuals ready to claim the secret Jewish identity. Others found things in their family traditions that convinced them of Jewish origins. Several individuals went through the Rite of Return, performed for Jews who come back to Judaism after having been forced to give it up. Some had Jewish conversion to make their connection stronger. Others simply studied and incorporated more Jewish tradition and prayers into their faith life while openly embracing what they thought was once a shameful secret.
By the early 90’s, the supposition was that Hordes and other researchers had established a real connection. The first major dissent came from Judith Neulander and Indiana University graduate student in folklore who had done previous work on Jews in Mexico. She conducted extensive interviews and conducted investigations into claims. In 1996 she published her findings in Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review in which she blasted Hordes, the thriving Crypto-Jewish movement, refuted the validity of several of the reported customs, and exposed some promoters as outright frauds.
Her case was outlined in a 200 article in The Nation, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews” by Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan. Nathan, by the way is a native Jewish Texan from Houston, a widely respected reporter, and, co-incidentally, a classmate of mine at Shimer College.
Neulander showed that some of the rituals and memories recalled by those giving oral testimony were either false or had other explanations. Reports of playing with dreidels were easily dismissed—the toys associated with Chanukah were Ashkenazi, not Sephardic and did not appear until after the fading of the Inquisition. Neulander showed that people were most likely recalling a common game with tops played across northern Mexico and associated with dreidels only after the idea of Jadishness had been implanted in the subject’s minds.
Likewise she said that veneration of a Saint Esther, a figure not included among official Catholic saints, was not a thinly veiled reference the Old Testament heroine Queen Esther, but was a commonly venerated “folk saint” in Iberian peasant traditions.
She argued that other remembered rituals and observations of holy days came not from a Jewish heritage, but from Church of God Seventh Day missionaries who were active in the region in the 1920s and made several conversions. This sect incorporated Jewish holidays and traditions because of their belief that they are inheritors of the Jewish covenant with God. They pulled out their missionaries generations ago. Neulander argues that many of the traditions they introduced continued to be privately celebrated even as the memory of how they were brought to family practice faded.
Perhaps Neulander’s most damaging assault was the exposure of one of the highest profile self-identified Crypto-Jews, folk artist Juan Sandoval who was closely associated with Hordes, as a charlatan and con artist who faked evidence such as gravestones with the Star of David carved out of Styrofoam photographed, reinvented his biography and family history, and preyed on the affections of wealthy Jewish women.
Finally, acknowledging that Crypto-Jewish identity had been embraced by many, Neulander argued that it came from a kind of racism. By claiming to be descendent from Spanish Jews, the believers could assert European ethnicity. Many vehemently deny any connection to the Mestizos of Mexico and their tainted “mixed-blood.” This despite the fact that many of them obviously shared that mixed racial heritage. It also allowed them to distance themselves from the flood of new emigrants from Mexico and Central America which they believe have displaced them and threatened their livelihood with cheap labor. Crypto-Jews, like other Spanish speakers who trace their residence in New Mexico and Colorado back hundreds of years, are often outspoken and vehement opponents of recent immigrants.
Neulander’s criticism undermined Hordes claims, as well as those of a growing number of other researchers into the subject. Hordes points out the even Neulander acknowledged that not all of the reported practices and traditions can be debunked or dismissed and that just because some can be proven fraudulent doesn’t mean that all claimants are. But there was no question that his theories were under assault, even though other researchers like Janet Liebman Jacobs, Schulamith Halevy, and Seth D. Kunin support his broad assertions with fresh evidence.
Hordes case for the presence of ethnic Jews in the Southwest got a boost in 2001 when researchers found a form of breast cancer genetically linked to Jews was present in patients from the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. They found the marker in six cases in the relatively small population, a significant number. Researchers note that “not all of the patients acknowledge any Jewish connection.” But over hundreds of years many of Jewish origins would completely merge with the dominant culture, anyway, even if some others continued to honor it in some way.
Geneticists have shown that 30% of people of Iberian origin and descent carry identifiably Jewish—originating among Semitic people in Biblical lands—genetic markers. So it is hardly surprising that some would show up in any Hispanic population.
But further research had identified other conditions associated with Jews in the same populations, indicating a higher than normal concentration.
A few individuals have by DNA testing now been able to establish links to specific converso families known to be living in Nuevo Leon in the 18th Century. It is safe, therefore, to assume that members of those particular families did indeed find their way to the north and settle there. Because of the relative isolation of their communities, they tended to marry within the group to a much higher degree than standard, preserving ethnic traits that may otherwise have been subsumed by more genetic variety.
So where does that leave us today? It can be shown that there is, after all, a population that can be genetically linked to Sephardic Jews. Some members of those families seemed to have passed on vague notions of Jewish origins—the common link of “death bed” of well documented confessions—and even preserved certain practices and fragments of ritual. But there is no evidence of the survival of an intact Jewish religious practice. Those intriguing Crypto-Jews of the Sangre de Cristo are more Crypto than Jewish and are a reminder that we are all related under the skin if we go back far enough.