Crypto-Jews of the Southwest & New World

History & Definitions

  • Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies
    Created to foster research and networking of information on the historical and contemporary development of crypto Jews of Iberian origin. Be sure to check out the papers in HaLapid, the Society's journal including annual conference proceedings.
  • The Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives
    Housed at the University of Arizona Library, the research collection is dedicated to collecting and recording the history of Crypto-Jews and other pioneer Jews in the Desert Southwest, covering Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas.
  • Arthur Benveniste
    Articles the scholar has written about the history of Sephardic Jews, with a special interest in Crypto-Jews.
  • Columbus Was a Catalan-Speaking Jew, U.S. Scholar Says
    Linguistics professor, Estelle Irizarry asserts that peculiarities found in Columbus' writings that are associated with Ladino, suggest that Columbus was Jewish. Irizarry states that “Columbus even punctuated marginal notes and he included copious notes around his pages. In that sense, he followed the punctuation style of the Ladino-speaking scribes.”
  • Kabbalistic Signet Indicates Columbus was an Exiled Jew
    Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu's article asserts that a recently rare triangular Kabbalistic signet indicates that Columbus was a Jew named Salvador Fernando Zarco and was among those expelled from Spain in 1492. Proof is that the unique monogram is similar to inscriptions on gravestones in Jewish cemeteries in Spain and southern France.
  • Destination: The New World
    Howard M. Sachar, Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, explores the legend that Columbus consulted with Jews and transported some to the New World at the time of the expulsion, thus giving rise to new Jewish communities around the world.
  • Crypto-Jews in Mexico During the Spanish Colonial Era
    Paper from the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Israel discusses Spanish policy toward New Christians, accusations of Judaizing, the Carvajal affair, and the Auto-da-Fé of 1649; with bibliography and links.
  • Members of the Tribe Who Live Extremely South of the Border
    Roberta Sotonoff, freelance writer for JUF News, tells the rich history of Chilean Jews. The first migration to Chile was in 1536 when Pedro de Valdivia, along with an army of other crypto-Jews founded Santiago in 1541. These Jews soon thought of themselves as "big-time Spanish conquerors," and eventually assimilated. Even so, some of their descendants perished in Peru’s Auto de Fe in 1639. Today many living in southern Chile, known as Sabatistas or Cabañistas, don’t consider themselves Jews, although they maintain the old secret rituals of observing the Shabbat, lighting candles on Friday night, and reciting prayers in Hebrew.
  • The Virtual Jewish History Tour of Mexico
    The Jewish Virtual Library's history of the Jews of Mexico. Many prominent Mexicans claimed conversos roots, including Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero and Jose Lopez Portillo, and artist Diego Rivera who publicly announced his Jewish roots when he wrote in 1935: "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work." To see the works of Diego Rivera, visit the Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum.
  • Jews Thriving on Peace of the Rock
    Before the existence of the State of Israel, Gibraltar was a state for Jews. It was ceded to Conversos in 1474 at the urging of the Duke of Medina Sidonia by the converso Pedro de Herrera of Cordoba.

The Spanish & Mexican Inquisitions

  • The Edict of Expulsion of the Jews (1492)
    An English translation of the Edict signed by Ferdinand and Isabella and a photo of a page of the original Edict housed in the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Israel.
  • The Inquisition in the New World
    Paper by Clara Steinberg-Spitz: A brief overview of the origins of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, the Spanish territories in the New World, and the arrival of Crypto-Jews to the newly discovered lands.
  • In the Clutches of the Inquisition (PDF)
    Dr. Yitzchok Levine, author of the Jewish Press column "Glimpses Into American Jewish History," writes about the life and trials of Luis de Carvajal, Jr. (1567-1596), one of the most interesting personalities to be tried by the Inquisition in Mexico during the sixteenth century.
  • The Inquisition In Mexico (PDF)
    Dr. Yitzchok Levine asserts that it was not just economic opportunities that attracted the anusim to Mexico, but also the hope that in the New World they would be free to secretly practice the religion of their ancestors without interference from the Christian Inquisitors. Unfortunately, the Inquisition would soon follow them to New Spain.
  • Burned Alive at the Stake (PDF file)
    Dr. Yitzchok Levine's essay shows that despite threats of torture and confiscation of property, as well as sufficient knowledge of Jewish ritual and practice, historical records prove that New Christians practiced as much Judaism as they could. One such story is about Tomas Trebino de Sobremonte, a martyr who was burned alive at the stake in the Mexican Inquisition of 1649.
  • Purim and Spain's Hidden Jews
    During the black days of the Spanish Inquisition, instead of getting drunk on Purim and drawing the inquisitors' suspicions, crypto Jews took on the custom of fasting for three days, as Queen Esther had ordered the Jewish people when threatened with annihilation.
  • Dr. Samuel Nunes 
    A well-known physician and crypto-Jew from Lisbon, Nunes was one of the first Jewish immigrants to the Georgia colony in 1733. The Portuguese Inquisition arrested Nunes and his family in 1703 on charges of practicing Judaism in secret and encouraging other conversos to reject Christianity. The physician provided vital medical aid to the Georgia colony, which helped the settlement survive its early years.

Resources for Those Researching Their Crypto-Jewish Heritage

  • Shavei Israel - "Israel Returns"
    An Israel-based organization comprised of academics, educators and rabbis, whose goal is to assist "lost Jews," or those with Jewish ancestry in coming to terms with their heritage and identity "in a spirit of tolerance and understanding." Also see their "Anousim "section for articles and history about the Anousim.
  • Kulanu – All of Us
    An organization dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people (anusim/crypto-Jews).
  • Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue
    Be'chol Lashon's goal is to expand and strengthen the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness. The organization recognizes the anusim as a vital component for potential growth. "If the forced conversions, expulsions, and inquisitorial persecutions had not occurred, the Sephardic population today would number in the tens of millions. Be'chol Lashon seeks to restore a link that was broken and thereby strengthen the future of the Jewish people."
  • Kol Tuv Sepharad: All the Good of Spain
    Rabbi Juan Mejia's website is a repository of educational resources about Judaism for descendants of Sephardic/Marrano/Converso Jews who were expelled from Spain after the Inquisition. Jewish texts, Torah, prayer, music, anusim, and conversion resources. Read more about Rabbi Mejia in the "Personal Stories" section below. Also in Spanish
  • The "Secret Jews" of San Luis Valley
    In Colorado, the gene linked to a virulent form of breast cancer found mainly in Jewish women is discovered in Hispanic Catholics. Is this another link to proof of a crypto-Jewish past?

Crypto-Jewish Writers & Artists

  • The Searchers: Seven South Americans Uncover Their Converso Roots
    Gabriela Böhm, filmmaker and a child of Holocaust survivors, discusses her film, The Longing. The film follows the return to Judaism of a group of South Americans who were raised as Catholics. They undergo conversion, but in the end face the heartbreaking reality that the Jewish community of Ecuador does not accept them into their community. For the filmmaker, a more important story emerged: "What happens when the forces who are saying 'no' are the Jews rather than the Catholic Church?"
  • Frida Kahlo: The Unchosen Artist
    Menachem Wecker, painter and author, asserts that Frida Kahlo was most certainly a Jewish artist, and discusses the role Kahlo’s identity played in her life and work; e.g., how she delighted in “wheedling anti-Semites in America,” and although she was an atheist, “she abhorred the Catholic religiosity of her mother,” and “did embrace her Jewish ethnicity, if not the tenets of Judaic faith.”
  • Artist Diana Bryer
    Bryer has made the Espanola Valley of New Mexico her home since 1977, where she has been inspired by traditions and customs that reflect the centuries-old lives of its Spanish settlers. She is especially intrigued by the area's hidden Jews who retain elements of Judaism in their diverse religions. The artist often uses Sephardic symbols in her work, such as in her painting " Rosa de Castilla": it portrays a yellow rose that grows in northern New Mexico brought from Castille by settlers in the 17th century. Read more about Bryer's life and art in this Jewish News of Greater Phoenix article.
  • Writer Kathleen Alcalá
    Alcalá is the author of the short story collection, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, and three novels: Spirits of the Ordinary, The Flower in the Skull, and Treasures in Heaven. Her recent collection of essays, in which she explores her family's crypto-Jewish heritage in Saltillo, Mexico, The Desert Remembers My Name, was recently published by the University of Arizona Press. Also, read Alcalá's presentation to the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies, "A Thread in the Tapestry: The Narros of Saltillo, Mexico, in History and Literature."
  • Crypto Jewish Images by Photographer Cary Herz
    New Mexico's Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, Cary' Herz's twenty-year search for descendants of crypto-Jews, with essays by Mona Hernandez and Ori Z. Soltes; published by UNM Press. Also see Picturing Today’s Conversos, in which Herz discusses her observation that "even today New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews are ambivalent about their integration into the largely Ashkenazic New Mexican Jewish community." More Herz photos.
  • Crypto-Jews Project
    Photographer Peter Svarzbein's slide show of crypto-Jews of the Southwest. Website does not provide good background information about the photographer or the photographs, but there are some touching photos here that are worth viewing.
  • Was Miguel de Cervantes a Converso?
    Abraham Haim, a scholar of Sephardic history and culture, states that Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha is the product of "the silence experienced by a Jewish soul." He points to numerous references to the Kabbalah and Jewish traditions and asserts that the only possible explanation is that Cervantes belonged to a family of conversos.
  • Consuelo Luz
    Raised in Greece, the Philippines, Spain, Italy and Peru by Sephardic/Chilean/Cuban/Mampuche Indian parents, Luz now lives in Northern New Mexico. She sings Sephardic (Judeo-Hispanic) songs that "embrace all of humanity and envision a transformed and loving world celebrating its diversity while at the same time honoring its oneness."

Personal Stories of Crypto Jews/Anusim

  • The Jewish Shepherd of Tijuana
    The story of Carlos Salas Diaz, founder of Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California. A converso, born in Mexico to a Catholic family, he was ordained as a Methodist minister, later converted to Judaism and became a rabbi. Diaz tells about his life and how he returned to Judaism. He has converted many Mexicans and also provides Jewish instruction to Mexican Jews, including conversos, such as the hidden Jews of Venta Prieta.
  • Hanging By a Wick
    Musician Vanessa Paloma, who has a CD of Ladino music with Flor de Serena, tells her family's story by following the lives of strong female predecessors, starting with the expulsion from Spain as they moved from country to country through the Netherlands, Italy, Morocco, Panama, Columbia, and eventually to the United States.
  • Zakhor: A personal Account
    Rabbi Juan Mejía, a descendant of Columbian Anusim, recounts the personal story of his decision to pursue the rabbinate. He asks, "After all, who was I? Just a Jew back from the dark woodwork of the Inquisition after 500 years? Could I aspire to learn as much as people who has been Jewish all their lives...?"
  • In Spain our Name Was Messiah
    Read about Rabbi Juan Mejia's long-term plans for establishing a unique yeshiva for anusim in the Southwest United States in order to attract conversos from Mexico and South America; founding a leadership school for anusim; and establishing a special rabbinical court for conversions tailored to their needs. He is also working on a special siddur (prayer book) that preserves the format of prayer that was used by the expelled Spanish Jews.
  • Researching a Name
    Southern Californian Enrique A Navarro-Pinto tells the story of how researching his name led to the discovery of his Jewish roots. Be sure to check out the rest of the website, Am I Jewish?: Questions and Answers as it offers many resources for those interested in tracing their Jewish ancestry.
  • Reclaiming Jewish Traditions in Mexico
    Rabbi Daniel Mehlman, of Southern California, was asked to provide guidance to a group of crypto-Jewish Mexicans practicing Judaism in a Mexicali home on their own, without rabbi or synagogue. This is the story of his visit.
  • Sparks of Holiness Rekindled
    Through the stories of anusim from Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and Bolivia, Rabbi Daniel Ginerman and Shumith HaLevi answer the question of why Crypto-Jewish families don't just come out openly as Jews and put the Inquisition in the past.
  • The Inquisition: Full Circle
    The story of Nuria Guasch Vidal, a crypto-Jew from Barcelona who discovered her family's secret when her grandfather lay on his deathbed and pulled her aside, instructing her not to allow a priest in the room once he died.
  • Finding Their Way Home
    Andree Aelion Brooks gives an overview of the hurdles faced by bnei anousim who seek to join traditional Jewish communities as well as some of the outreach programs designed to help them with integration. The sense of exclusion has led many anousim to take on leadership roles by organizing their own communities and entering the rabbinate.
  • Latina Discovers Her Jewish Heritage Explains Mystery
    The story of Gloria Trujillo, a board member of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies (SCJS). Ms. Trujillo says that there exist many Latino families of the Southwest that either haven't yet made the connection to their Jewish heritage, or choose to still keep their secret. Trujillo makes herself available to help other Latinos who think their family might be descendants of crypto-Jews, both through her genealogical research and her work for the SCJS.

Culture & Folklore

  • Preserving the Heritage
    Renee Levine Melammed, author of A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective, writes about the practices of crypto-Jewish women of Spain and how they managed to observe some Jewish holidays, especially Yom Kippur, even after the forced conversions and under the watchful eye of the Church.
  • Converso Dualities in the First Generation: The Cancioneros
    Cancioneros are collections of popular poems that flourished in the fifteen century. Often satirical and irreverent, using plain language and simple rhyme, the poems dealt with current events, people, and cultural norms. The Cancioneros provide a glimpse into "the converso situation and its early dualities." Many authors of the poems were conversos of the first generation, as was the first compiler of their work, Juan Alfonso de Baena. Several poems use Hispanized Hebrew idioms, and many attack as well as defend conversos. (From Jewish Social Studies Volume 4, Number 3, by Yirmiyahu Yovel.)
  • Texas Mexican Secret Spanish Jews Today
    From An interesting article by Anne deSola Cardoza on how Jewish food, oral traditions, culture, and secret religious customs are in evidence today in the folklore, habits, and practices of the descendants of early settlers in South Texas and the nearby areas of Northern Mexico.
  • Flour Tortillas and Other Jewish Legacies of Colonial Texas
    Charles M. Robinson, historian and McAllen, Texas author, discusses the unleavened tortilla and other culinary traditions of the crypto-Jews of the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Note: The original link disappeared, and I found a copy of the original essay posted on All Empires Blog. The article is there in its entirety, but the format is poor; however, I thought it was worth including it here because of the unique information it offers.
  • Capirotada
    The history and theories of the origins of "capirotada," or the bread pudding that is shared by both Hispanic Christians and Jews for Lent and Passover, respectively.
  • Judeo-Spanish Ballads from New York (e-book)
    The Sephardic community of New York City, numbering over twenty-five thousand, is an excellent source of ballads representative of the Judeo-Spanish communities of Turkey, Morocco, the Balkans, and South America. Maír José Benardete collected the ballads from mainly women older than forty years of age. Their archaic ballad repertoires retain many features of the Spanish ballad tradition as it existed at the time of the expulsion from Spain. Many narrative types date back to medieval times and still survive among Sephardic Jews.

Book Reviews: Secret Jews of the Southwest

  • Remnants of Crypto-Jews Among Hispanic Americans
    The author, Gloria Golden, first became acquainted with Crypto-Jews of the Southwest while taking a photography course in New Mexico. She began taking portraits and recording the oral histories of conversos. Golden states that she was "not specifically searching for Jews, but for remnants of Judaism practiced by people living in Catholic communities.” Read more about her work in Glimpses of a Secret, a review of her exhibit presented at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, CA.
  • The Heart Is a Mirror: The Sephardic Folktale
    Tamar Alexander-Frizer, chair of the Folklore Program and director of the Gaon Center for Ladino Culture at Ben-Gurion University, presents a study of Judeo-Spanish folktales based on over four thousand stories told by descendents of the Spanish Diaspora. Contains an analysis of several genres present in the folktales, including legends, ethical tales, fairy tales, novellas, and humorous tales, as well as a discussion of the folktale's role in helping to create a cohesive group identity. The book's table of contents is available here.

Links updated on September 21, 2013
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