Case VIII: Chapter 2: The Crypto Jews of New Mexico

Chapter 2: The Crypto-Jews of New Mexico

Abe Goldman called Dudley early the following morning.  “I’m at the Jewish Community Center on Wyoming Boulevard and can pick you up to drive to Hector’s.”

“I would really appreciate that, Abe.  Thanks.  I’ll look for you out front about 10:30.”

On the drive to downtown, Dudley briefly described the La Vida Aureo Community Assist Program to Abe and asked for his impressions and any suggestions.  Abe smiled and said, “Our small community tends to be pretty self-sufficient.  It helps that so many Jewish mothers encouraged their sons to become doctors.   But, it sounds like your program is really about information and preserving dignity and that would be beneficial to our community.  How about I arrange for your Team to make a brief presentation of what they’re up to?”

“That would be great, Abe. I know the Team would really appreciate the opportunity.  They’re still in the formative stages of deciding exactly how to approach these large and complex issues.”

Dudley was eager to see his friends again; it was always a positive experience, despite their constant teasing.  He would have to remember to be extra careful not to mention anything about Janetta.  He was eager to hear more from Abe about these so-called Crypto-Jews.

Hector was waiting for them to get settled at their usual table.  He had prepared a fresh pot of coffee and some just out-of-the –oven pastries which he brought to the table and took a chair with them.

Dudley began the conversation, hoping to preempt any questions about himself or the recent events at La Vida Aureo. “I don’t understand why these people are referred to as Crypto Jews.  I’ve known many Jewish people in New Mexico and they certainly don’t seem confused about their heritage or identity.   Perhaps you could start with a better explanation of this Rabbi you spoke of, Hillel?”

Abe began, “Hillel is one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He lived about two thousand years ago and is often credited with the first expression of what has become known as The Golden Rule.  There are several versions available, but they are variations of “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another”.  The remainder of the traditional quote, which is the subject of some debate is “That is the whole Torah.  The rest is the explanation. Go and learn.”  “So, you can understand that when I heard Hector repeat the Golden Rule part followed by “that is the whole story”, it sounded very familiar to me.  Also, many people with Jewish heritage who came from Spain spoke a language called Ladino which is a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish.  Maybe, just maybe, that is the language Hector’s grandmother spoke which is why she was often difficult to understand.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard about this, said Dudley.  It certainly never came up in all my time here in the State and with any of the people I’ve ever met.”

Abe continued. “If Emilio will help me with Spanish history, I will tell you what I know and my story begins in southern Spain, near Seville, about the time of Columbus. Don’t you find it interesting that Hector named his place Saville and Sons?  Maybe it is really Sons of Seville!”

“If you’re going to tell that story, interjected Hakim, I believe I have something to contribute.  Remember, my people were involved, too.”

Abe began. “The southern part of Spain, near the city of Seville, was an area where culture flourished for centuries.  There was great art and literature and I personally believe that it was because the environment encouraged people of many different cultures and religions to live and work together cooperatively.  Then, in what Spanish historians call The Unification, Queen Isabella of Castile married King Ferdinand of Aragon resulting in the joining of these two monarchies to form modern day Spain.  One of the benefits of that union was that they financed and launched Columbus’ voyages to the New World. The bad news is that the new King and Queen issued the Proclamation of Alhambra (also called The Edict of Expulsion) which banished Jews and Muslims and any other non-Catholics, from Spain.  To make sure this was carried out, the Catholic Church instituted the Inquisition to determine who was really a true Catholic.”

“The Jews from Spain are known as Sephardim as distinguished from the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe from whom I am descended.  Many of the Sephardim converted to Catholicism and others, rather than face persecution, left the country for New Spain, Mexico. The ones who converted and were baptized into the Catholic faith are known as conversos although some continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret.  To avoid detection, many changed their names to sound more Spanish, often adopting a form of the town in which they lived or the name of an important local person. Some immigrated to Mexico where they hoped to avoid persecution, but the Inquisition followed them there.  Eventually, some families migrated north into what is now New Mexico, settling in small communities where they hoped to be safe, that is, away from the Catholic priests who were aggressively trying to convert the local population of pueblo Indians.  These immigrants often changed their names and adopted local customs to blend in with the local population and avoid further persecution. One particular problem had to do with reading.  Jews are known as the People of the Book and reading and learning have always been an important part of our culture.  The priests forbade all Catholics to read, particularly the new converts and, therefore, anyone caught reading or with a book in their possession was obviously a Jew. This situation continued until the Presbyterians showed up in New Mexico and started giving out Bibles. But, their arrival just added more complication to the issue of identity.”

“These actions make everything confusing and cause the story to remain somewhat clouded.   Because these people worked so hard to remain hidden, the available evidence can be hard to verify, leading to the expression Crypto Jews.  Most of it is circumstantial.  Like Hector, he remembers his grandmother saying certain things and I’ll bet he can remember some customs that she practiced that would appear to be Jewish in origin.  It has only been in the last few years that people here in New Mexico have tried to piece the entire story together.  There are many examples of Jewish culture and symbols that were simply accepted as the way older family members did things, rather than being identified as Jewish.”

“This story sounds very familiar to the experiences of my people in New Mexico,” added Ray.  “The priests gave us Christian names that were Spanish and forbade us to speak our native language or practice our traditional rituals. But, we were very clever and often disguised our ceremonies within the new Catholic practices.  We also hid our symbols in plain sight and were able to keep many of our traditions alive through our stories.”

“Those Jews who lived among Catholics and even those in small rural villages did many of the same things, added Abe.  It has been through the discovery of those hidden symbols and artifacts that their story has begun to emerge.”

“The practice of changing names or adopting a less Jewish-more Spanish spelling makes it more difficult to trace identities and further complicates things.  There are numerous examples of that practice in many cultures throughout history.  A similar thing happened in Germany as the Nazis came to power; many Jews there converted to Catholicism to avoid persecution, or worse. Sometimes, it was a simple as dropping an “n” so that, for example, Beckmann became Beckman, to appear less Jewish

Ray couldn’t resist injecting a bit of humor to this serious and often painful story. “Are you telling me that All-American characters like Superman, Batman and Spiderman could actually be Jewish?”

Abe laughed.  “Well, Ray, I think if you closely study the origin stories of some of those characters and the time in history that they were created, you will see a level of Jewish influence.”

“What about DNA testing or things like that”, asked Dudley.  “I understand that that technology has been used quite a bit to trace lineages.”

“True, it has been helpful, but again only circumstantial.  Unfortunately, there is no unique Jewish gene”!

Emilio picked up the story from this point. “The history of Jews in the New World and of Jewish identity is particularly confusing here in New Mexico.  Some New Mexicans claim to be Jewish as proof that they are pure Spanish, based on the assumption that a Jew would never marry an Indian, outside his race. It is generally accepted that there was considerable intermarriage between the first Spanish who came north from Mexico and the pueblo people who had been here for generations. After the initial attempt to conquer the native peoples, subsequent Spanish expeditions north were more intent on developing permanent settlements.  Unfortunately, the majority of written records are those kept by the Spanish priests and these were typically very detailed.  I suspect, however, that these were influenced by their personal views as well as an attempt to appeal to their superiors. The Inquisition-related records, for example, are particularly extensive.  The pueblo people relied on a tradition of oral history which was also likely influenced by their own perspective of people and events.”

“Over time, Emilio continued, there have been various views of identity here in New Mexico.  One view is that it is preferable to be 100 percent Spanish because the pueblo people and culture are viewed as inferior.  But for those who are descended from those early Spanish who came north from Mexico, that is probably unlikely; there were just too few Spanish men and too many pueblo women in those days.  Then there is the Raza Cosmica perspective that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s which argues that the more racially mixed people are the superior ones.  I’ve personally observed considerable prejudice even today when the discussion turns to heritage and identity. In addition to the perceived problems of Spanish versus Indian, there is considerable evidence of French influence from the fur trappers who were active along the northern reaches of the Rio Grande about the same time.  And, if you really want to start a fight about heritage, all you have to do is mention Estevanico an African slave who history says lead some early explorers searching for Cibola, the fabled Seven Cities of Gold.”

“So, it is easy to see how difficult it is to determine the true identity of many people currently living in New Mexico.”

The group was quiet for a few minutes before Dudley spoke. “It seems to me that Hector’s perspective and that of Rabbi Hillel are the most appropriate.  We should simply treat others as we want to be treated.  Anything beyond this always results in trouble.”

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