Book Review: New Mexico's Crypto-Jews: Image & Memory
Review by Jay Levinson
New Mexico's Crypto-Jews: Image & Memory
by Cary Herz
Publisher: University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, (2007)
By nature I am a skeptic, not easily persuaded by unusual theories or by less than fully documented historical records. I started to read this book with the same dubious attitude of yet another eye-catching title backed up with no substance. I am not ready to subscribe to the claim that crypto-Jewish customs remain in New Mexico, but I am certainly willing to accept that there is enough evidence to warrant serious consideration.
The Edict of Expulsion of 1492 heralded the onset of the Spanish Inquisition. Jews were ordered either to convert or to leave the Kingdom of Isabella and Ferdinand. Initially, the edict applied only to European Spain, but soon it spread to the Western Hemisphere as Spanish explorers expanded the boundaries of the empire. Other countries as well, such as Portugal, soon followed the Spanish model.
The response of most Jews was to abandon their homes and move to Portugal, why that was still possible, and the Netherlands. Soon the more tolerant Ottoman Empire received large numbers of exiled Jews. There were those Jews who took upon themselves the Roman Catholic faith. Some, conversos, were serious and accepted their imposed conversion. Others accepted Catholicism, only to become disillusioned with their new religion. Then there were the "Jews in secret," crypto-Jews, who outwardly behaved according to Christian norms but privately adhered to Jewish traditions.
As new territories opened up, many Jews felt they could flee government dictates by immigrating to the New World. They were wrong! The hard hand of compliance dictated religious policy in the Spanish colonies, in most cases well into the 19th century.
Colonial Mexico is an example of religious intolerance. Historical lore relates that several conversos accompanied Hernan Cortes in 1519. There is insufficient documentation to reach a definitive conclusion about the veracity of these claims, but what is provable is that by 1571 there were enough conversos and crypto-Jews in Mexico to justify the establishment of a local Tribunal of the Inquisition to seek out those practicing Judaism in secret.
The Tribunal pursed its mandate with zeal. By the mid-17th century some 1500 residents of Mexico were tried for observing Jewish rites in private. Punishment ranged from prison sentences to death tied to a burning stake.
Some conversos and crypto-Jews sought safety in the relative anonymity of rural Mexico. Luis de Carvajal, the grandson of a converso, fled northward to today's province of Nuevo Leon, and in 1579 he became governor. Distance and government position guaranteed no protection. In 1590 he was sentenced for crypto-Jewish practice, and even though he repented his sin of deviance from the Catholic faith, he was sentenced to prison, where he died during the following year.
How many conversos and crypto-Jews fled northward to escape the Inquisition? How far did they travel? The answers to these questions are a matter of speculation, but a few basic facts are known.
In 1590 and again in 1598 Spanish colonists moved further north into today's New Mexico (acquired by the United States as a result of the Mexican War of 1848 and the Gadson Purchase of 1853). Over the next century members of several families were deported for trial in Mexico City. Their crime --- practicing Judaism in secret. Some Jews were acquitted; others faced punishment. If nothing else, the arrests and trials had a chilling effect on the crypto-Jewish community.
Over decades and centuries assimilation can take a heavy toll, particularly in an atmosphere where the only Jewish education was secret family practice. How many of residents of New Mexico can trace their background to Jewish roots? Conjecture is stronger than evidence. What does linger, however, are family customs. Are they Jewish in origin? Or, are they just co-incidence?
Richard Valdez relates, "My maternal grandmother is a Lujan. She lit candles on Friday night to the holy souls. She covered mirrors when someone died. She never swept until after the Saturday, Shabbat. He kissed her hand and then touched the door. My cousin says it was the hidden mezuzah, an invisible remnant."
Gloria Trujillo also tells a story. "My grandfather would go down into the basement to pray every morning and evening. He was baptized, married, and buried in the Church, but other than those times, he wouldn't go into a church. He always wore a hat in the house." Trujillo and her sister, Mona Hernandez, traced their roots to the Gomez Robledo family. In the 17th century Francisco Gomez Robledo was arrested, convicted, and sentenced by the Tribunal of the Inquisition for being a crypto-Jew.
Are these Jewish practices diluted over the centuries? Are these people the true descendants of crypto-Jews? This book is certainly worth reading, so that the reader can decide for himself.
from the April 2008 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine