Family Secrets and Secret Families: the Hidden Jews of New Mexico
December 21, 2015 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Following the Christian Reconquest and unification of Spain, concluded with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the victorious Catholic sovereigns decreed on March 31, 1492 that all Jews convert to Christianity or leave Spain by the last day of July. Whether they stayed or left, many Jewish families continued to practice their faith in secret. Such crypto-Jews passed their traditions down the generations and around the world, some ending up in the Southwest. 500 years later, New Mexico's "hidden Jews" were found among strong Hispanic Catholic communities. Though some were skeptical about the origins of certain family practices, additional research and a pattern of breast cancer lead to genetic testing and confirmation of prior beliefs.

The long arm of the Spanish Inquisition reached to the New World.
In the seventeenth century New Mexicans came to the attention of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. In the late 1600s the governor of New Mexico and his wife were accused of practicing Judaism; soon thereafter the same charge was leveled against a soldier and bureaucrat named Francisco Gómez Robledo, who was also said to have a tail -- supposedly the mark of a Jew.
With that history of religious persecution, it is not surprising that families kept practicing in more secretive ways, to the point that family members didn't know why their parents and relatives had certain traditions. Still, there were whispers in those communities, which reached Nan Rubin in Denver and Ben Shapiro in Albuquerque, who worked together to research the topic, finding people willing to speak, though they wished to remain anonymous. They produced a 30 minute program that was edited down to 12 minutes for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. The program got such attention after its 1986 airing that it was re-broadcast annually around Yom Kippur, getting broader distribution each time.

In 1990, the New York Times ran an article titled Scholars and Descendants Uncover Hidden Legacy of Jews in Southwest, furthering attention to this hidden history in the Southwest. Rubin and Shapiro produced two additional segments, first in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of expulsion of Jews from Spain, then two of the original interview subjects traveled to Spain and Portugal to go to their roots in 1995. Nan Rubin has posted all three half-hour programs on Soundcloud: Search for the Buried Past: The Hidden Jews of New Mexico [1988]; The Hidden Jews of New Mexico: Rekindling a Spirit [1992]; The Hidden Jews of New Mexico: Return to Iberia [1995]
For the music, Rubin and Shapiro worked with ethnomusicologist Rowena Rivera. She had been doing research on music of the Southwest and brought in some very interesting recordings both from the holdings at the University of New Mexico and from her own private collection. She believes that much of New Mexico's traditional music was influenced by the colonial Jews. The music Shapiro and Rubin used was on vinyl (78s and 33s) and 1/4" tapes of contemporary musicians. This material also had to be transferred to 1/4" tape for editing. All of the original audio content used in the three programs was recorded specifically for these shows. They did not use any material from a sound library or foley sound.
Rubin and Shapiro worked with the New Mexico state historian, Stanley Hordes, who had been doing his own research on the topic, following in the footsteps of researchers in Texas, such as Richard Santos. Thanks to their ongoing research and outreach to local communities, the story of conversos who retained their religion in secret was discussed and documented broadly.

The NPR coverage lead Judith Neulander to do her own research, as she was intrigued that none of these stories had been verified by a professional folklorist. She entered Indiana University in 1989 to work on a doctorate in folklore, and had previously earned her master's degrees in folklore and Jewish studies. The more she talked and worked with Hordes, the more skeptical she became. She published a scholarly article in 1996 in Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review, disconfirming Hordes' claims. The article, The New Mexican Crypto-Jewish Canon: Choosing to be "Chosen" in Millennial Tradition, where she described what she believed to be crypto-Protestant traditions, specifically Church of God or Seventh-Day Adventists , whose practices can appear to be Jewish. She also wrote an article entitled Crypto-Jews of the Southwest: An Imagined Community.

These refutations of widely believed and embraced "new history" upset a number of people. Schulamith C. Halvey conducted further research in an attempt to bolster the facts that the Southwestern families were indeed maintaining Jewish traditions and in doing so, "discovered a number of Rabbinic practices that clearly distinguish their practitioners from members of any Christian sect" from first-hand interviews. Isabella Medina Sandoval also replied as one of the people who had talked with Hordes, and as a folklorist herself who had studied New Mexico folklore. Hordes also refuted Neulander himself, after previously writing the article The Sephardic Legacy of the Southwest: the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.

The discussion and debate between folklorists and historians was joined by a third side: geneticists. In 2001, a group of genetic counselors in Denver discussed some odd findings: they each had one or two cases of Hispanic women with roots in southern Colorado, each with aggressive breast cancer linked to a particular genetic mutation that had previously been found primarily in Jewish people whose ancestral home was Central or Eastern Europe. A later report states that the mutation, BRCA1:185delAG, probably originated in a Jewish founder. The possibility was bolstered by a later study, Haplotype analysis of the 185delAG BRCA1 mutation in ethnically diverse populations, which found that "Hispanic haplotypes seem to fall into two major groups, although both seem to cluster with a mix of Ashkenazi and Iraqi haplotypes." The article goes on to state "the results pertaining to the existence of the 185delAG*BRCA1 mutation and the date when it arose in Hispanics are in line with Jewish historical events," referring to the conversion or expulsion of Jews from Spain.

Earlier this year, Spain granted citizenship to 4,302 descendants of expelled Jews, as part of a law passed to correct the "historic mistake" of the country's Catholic monarchs sending Jews into exile in 1492.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
If you're interested in this field of folklore and societal study, the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies has a website and annual conference in New Mexico.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:07 AM on December 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I remember reading about this years ago in the New Mexican. Thanks for providing this interesting history.
posted by jabo at 11:14 AM on December 21, 2015

I think Neulander's argument that it has become impossible to separate 'reality from fantasy' is very salient. I did have a Jewish studies professor who claimed to have had a student whose grand parents would come winter, draw the blinds and light candles in the basement... a story that to me always seemed a little too perfect, and rather unverifiable. The gap between the known and unknown just seems too large to truly bridge - time has swept away the truth. I hadn't heard about some of the recent genetic testing - very interesting but as the Atlantic points out, with the number of generations in question, it becomes fairly trivial to claim anyone as an ancestor.

This is a particularly well put together post by the way. Thanks for taking the time.
posted by the_querulous_night at 11:32 AM on December 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

When Spain owned Louisiana, there was practice of exporting social/political outcasts to the new world. For instance, we have basques, canary islanders and sephardic jews that have all been assimilated to greater or lesser extent. Their foodways have left their imprints.
posted by garbhoch at 11:36 AM on December 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Beyond "known" vs "unknown" are the traditions that continue, but have changed over time, due to lack of reinforcement or at least community standardization through group meetings with a community leader, and furthermore the blending of traditions.

Their foodways have left their imprints.

The Atlantic article points to articles by Texas (amateur) historian Richard Santos' articles on the influence of colonial-era converted settlers on the diet and customs of some, but I didn't dig up any of those articles yet.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:42 AM on December 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Spanish Inquisition in the New World was told to turn a blind eye to syncretic practices of newly converted native people and instead to concentrate on looking out for crypto-Jews.

We know for a fact that many conversos emigrated to the New World, in the same way that there are many descendents of conversos in Spain. The genetic testing results prove nothing new that we didn't already know.

Isabella Medina Sandoval's paper inadvertently backs up a lot of Neulander's claims because her family really was made up of Seventh Day Adventists and really did insist on proving their status as pure Spaniards rather than mestizos. It will always be unclear whether the Jewish-like practices Medina Sandoval's family maintained were holdovers from Judaism or were adopted by them as 7th Day Adventists.
posted by deanc at 12:08 PM on December 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Such an interesting subject. Thanks for sharing
posted by gildenventures at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2015

It's interesting that the genetic evidence is associated specifically with Ashkenazi (not Sephardic) ancestry. I guess the theory would be that someone with that particular genetic trait brought it from Central/Eastern Europe to Iberia, mingled with the Jewish community there, and their descendants later migrated to the New World? Is that unusual, or was there a lot of interconnection between Jewish communities in Spain and those in Central Europe during the medieval period?

...Ah, I see the discussion section in the Nature article addresses this:
The results of the present study suggest that the 185delAG*BRCA1 mutation is indeed a founder mutation in Jewish mutation carriers that arose about 1200 years ago in Ashkenazi Jews, and that through the migration of a small subset of founder mutation carriers was introduced into the Hispanic population about 650 years ago, and to the Jewish–Iraqi community about 450 years ago. [...]

These results are somewhat unexpected, as the prevailing notion that was based both on historical events of the Jewish people and the finding of a similar haplotype in Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi (primarily Iraqi) mutation carriers prompted the tentative conclusion that the 185delAG*BRCA1 mutation is an ancient Jewish mutation that arose before the dispersion of the Jews in the Diaspora about 2500 years ago. Thus, the finding of a later age at which the mutation arose in Ashkenazim and that the date it was introduced into the Iraqi–Jewish community was significantly later in history is somewhat puzzling, and unaccounted for by historical events. Specifically, there are no records of any major influx of Ashkenazi populations from Europe back to the region of Modern-day Iraq. However, given the central role that Iraq and the area played in trade, the traditional involvement of Jewish Ashkenazim in trade, it is plausible that a few Jewish Ashkenazi individuals (including one or few founders) immigrated to Iraq as individuals and not as part of a big migration wave. Such a small and genealogically insignificant migration would not be captured by most historians.
(That is SO COOL.)
posted by Gerald Bostock at 12:54 PM on December 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Wow. I never thought I'd see an article about he San Luis Valley on the blue.

I'm Hispano, and family's from there. I lived there myself between ages ten and fifteen, and then again, briefly, in my twenties. I definitely remember ostensibly Catholic kids whose families had passover traditions, and once, seeing a kosher-esque goat slaughter.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:18 PM on December 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

I lived in New Mexico for many years.
The conversos sometimes were originally Jews, and sometimes originally were Muslims. I met descendants of both groups in my time there.
Certain surnames are more Arab origin and certain other surnames are more Jewish. Both groups tended to keep a few customs secretly, most notably, abstention from pork, and slaughtering methods.

This part is only my PERSONAL opinion, I have nothing to back it up, I believe many crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims left the Catholic Church to join religious groups such as the 7th Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons because either certain practices or certain doctrines sort of matched either Jewish or Muslim practices or doctrines.
I can't prove this though.
I knew a young lady who's family had the story of a young woman burned to death 400 years ago in Spain for refusing to convert from Islam to Catholicism and my parents knew a man who found his Jewish ancestry late in life. Both these people were native New Mexicans from old families.
I ran the idea by a Spanish teacher I had, that perhaps the choice of religions outside the Catholic Church was influenced this way.
He felt it is possible. He was Mormon and his family originated in Chihuahua, Mexico.
I'd love to see more research on this.
I'm not that surprised that DNA evidence backed some of the family lore.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:52 PM on December 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

Great post. I'm Jewish and I've been fascinated with this since I first read an article about it some years ago.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:56 PM on December 21, 2015

It was an interesting Christmas when my ex, who was a New Mexican evangelical Christian, had her father announce over the posole and tamales (both pork), "Merry Christmas; we're Jews!" He had the Ashkenazi genetic results to prove it, thanks to the UNM genetics study.
posted by answergrape at 8:59 AM on December 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this. Both my wife and I are descended from Sephardim, and although my family are Convertiste who settled in New Mexico, her family escaped to Poland. Thankfully they immigrated to the US after World War 1, but we both have tree branches that were pruned by the pope. Sadly, the insult"Marrano" is still uttered around these parts.

Excellent post!
posted by endotoxin at 11:46 AM on December 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Isabella Garcia-Shapiro character on Phineas and Ferb comes from a mixed Mexican/Jewish heritage (though probably a case of mixed-marriage, not "hidden" Mexican Jews). Regardless, I had to share the Mexican-Jewish Cultural Festival clip.

posted by Kabanos at 9:25 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

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