History of Crypto-Jews in Mexico
I’ve previously mentioned my research into my family genealogy and the history of the Southwest. Through genealogical DNA testing it was discovered that my grandfather shares a DNA sequence with those that consider themselves Cohanim, a patrilineal Jewish priestly caste believed to be descended from the biblical Aaron. When I received this news, I was floored! As strange as it seemed to me at the time, Mexicans with Sephardic Jewish heritage are not as uncommon as I might have believed, especially in the Southwest. Around the time Columbus bumped into the New World (which was really the “One World” to a good chunk of my ancestors), Spain decided to kick out all the non-Christians from it’s kingdoms. That meant that communities of Moors and Jews who had lived together for centuries were all of a sudden forced to uproot themselves or convert to Christianity.
The diaspora of Muslims and Jews spread across Europe and North Africa. The conversion to Christianity wasn’t always a safe bet either, these conversos as they were known were often persecuted and hounded. Some were spied on and once caught practicing their old religion were brutally punished. Then the Inquisition started and it was bad news for conversos. Large number of Jews fled to Portugal where they were tolerated for the most part – the skills they brought with them were valuable and needed. Eventually, the King of Portugal with pressure from Spain decided to kick the Sephardic Jews out of his country too.
It is believed some Andalusian Jews and Moors mixed in with the recently arrived communities of Gypsies/Roma. There is little hard evidence (that I’ve found) to back up this theory but a look at the faces of modern CalÃ³s (Gypsies of Spain) is evidence of the blended heritage of this ethnic group.
The New World seemed like the most practical place to flee from the growing persecution of the Inquisition. According to official documents, a great number of conversos and other Portuguese and Spanish of sketchy heritage fled to New Spain (almost all of North America was considered New Spain at the time) . One of the most famous of these conversos was the founder of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, Luis de Carvajal y Cuevas and his nephew Luis de Carvajal (El Mozo). Unlike other conversos who practiced their religion covertly, El Mozo openly declared himself Judizante (Jewish) and was taken in by the long arm of the Inquisition as it expanded it’s reach across the Atlantic. The Carvajal family are most remembered because they were actually burned at the stake in 1596 for the crime of practicing Judaism. Due to the increased scrutiny converso and crypto-Jewish families received in Mexico City and other populated places, there was a push to move to the outer reaches of the New Spanish territory. The book To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico is an academic study researching the crypto-Jewish heritage of New Mexico’s founders. Most of the evidence for this theory is circumstantial, people are determined to have crypto-Jewish heritage based on such factors as having Portuguese ancestors or palling around with known New Christians/conversos. References to lifestyle habits are scrutinized and studied and documented in order to determine New Christian and hence Jewish ancestry such as bathing on Friday and relaxing or hiding out on Saturdays (the Sabbath).
One may ask, how prevalent was this Sephardic heritage in the history of Mexico and the Southwest? The answer leads to a number of very interesting theories and investigations…