This paper was retrieved from archive.org. I have made no changes in the paper from the form it was in 1999 other than correcting some spacing problems, and minor editing. It was based on several oral testimonies videotaped at the Hispano Crypto-Jewish Resource Center in Denver. All the participants signed releases, including the use of the tapes for scholarly analysis. One later clarified that she did not want her name used on web postings.
Persons of crypto-Jewish heritage, like everyone else, modify their opinions as they develop and grow. Acceptance and understanding of the Crypto-Judaic heritage today has advanced beyond what it was in the 1990s and the profiles here should not be considered to reflect the current views of these individuals—only the views they expressed in the video testimonies and my analysis.
Reposted October 16, 2012
Profiles of Converso Descendants in the Southwest U.S.: Manito, Marrano, Sephardic and Jewish Identities among the Crypto-Jews of contemporary New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
University of Denver
This paper is a revised version of a paper presented August 8, 1999, to the Society for Crypto-Jewish Studies, meeting in Los Angeles, CA, which is in turn a fuller presentation of a paper presented to the 11th British Conference on Judeo-Spanish Studies in June, 1999. For other papers and essays by the author: http://www.du.edu/~sward/essays.html. The process of reformatting this to Html format precluded inclusion of notes, and transcriptions of the videotapes shown at the Conference have not yet been included.
© Seth Ward, 1999
Potchin bikhvod akhsania. Many thanks to Gloria Trujillo for her work in organizing the conference but for her enthusiasm about accepting my paper. Also to Stan Hordes for never-ending encouragement, and Isabelle Sandoval for the inspiration of her poetry.
As members of this society are well aware, since the 1980s, many individuals of Hispanic heritage in the Southwestern part of the United States have come forward with claims of being "Crypto-Jews"—to be sure, using various terms such as Marranos, Anusim, Sepharadim, etc. Generally, they note (1) that they have Jewish ancestors; (2) that their families preserved some aspect of Jewish identity–often unknowingly; and (3) that therefore, as they might put it, somos judios "we are Jews." Indeed, much of the discussion and controversy about "Crypto-Judaism" in the contemporary southwestern U.S. refers to precisely these three issues: (1). Genealogy, (2) The Canon of Evidence, and (3). Identity.
I would like to add my comments about the current gathering and the wonderful spread in the Los Angeles Jewish paper. The report underscores the great changes that have obtained in only the past few years regarding the degree of communi ty identification. For many people here, the openness and the direct way in which issues of heritage can be discussed is a great and important change. Although this observation is necessarily subjective, only a few years ago, there seems to have been a fa r greater degree of reticence and indeed a disease about some of the directions in which people might proceed. Some members of the community have made peace with where they have chosen to stand; a large and committed crowd present at this conference is fu rther indication of healthy progress. Yet the changing nature and degree of identity in the late 20th century and into the early 21st century are areas which needs to be even more deeply researched.
I will try in the following to avoid some of the extremes: finding examples of Crypto-Judaism under every stone, and conversely, rejecting an attitude which couches a negative approach in scientific terms. Moreover, we must balance sens itivity to research needs and and respect for individuals; some of the poetry produced my members of the Crypto-Jewish community has compared the prodding of researchers to the Inquisition—unfavorably, I might add.
This evening I will show excerpts from taped interviews conducted by the Hispano Crypto-Jewish Resource Center in 1996. The interviewer was Yitzhak Kerem. All the interviewees were happy to sign releases clearly allowing use for researc h purposes and inclusion in educational presentations.
The original aim of the project was to interview individuals who participated in what is sometimes called "Manito" culture. The word is based on the Spanish hermanito, and is used to refer to descendants of sixteenth an d seventeenth-century Spanish colonials who reached the northernmost parts of New Spain along the frontier in what is now northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, especially in small villages near Santa Fe. Their ancestors, according to what I have cal led the foundation narrative of this phenomenon, , strove to avoid the inquisition, prior to the seventeenth century, by migrating to remote villages along the Rio Grande. There, in what is today New Mexico, southern Colorado, Texas and northern Mexico, t hey retained various practices, married primarily among similar families, and secretly maintained some sort of identity until the twentieth century. In practice, however, our formal interviews and our informal records encompass primarily individuals who h ave found their way into Colorado. The U.S. phenomenon includes individuals originally from California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. It seems to me that studies need to take into account the very real differences in the histories of converso descenda nts from various areas—whether Mexico, South America, Belmonte, or Ibiza. But it also seems that narratives about identity by American adults—wherever their provenance—are clearly shaped in much the same ways as their neighbors. Perhaps, therefore, the in formants should be characterized as persons currently living in the cities of Colorado’s Front Range. Research perhaps needs to devote more attention to the degree to which the statements of our informants share points of contact with persons whose spirit ual quests fall outside the framework of the Crypto-Jewish narrative.
Genealogy, Evidence, and Identity
Time permits only brief introductions to the general themes.
Are they really descended from New Christians? Jacob Rader Marcus estimated that 10% of the Spanish colonials were New Christians; more recent research, such as that of Stan Hordes, has been unable to confirm his guess or to provide a m ore accurate quantification of the percentage. But whether or not this number is correct, inquisition and other records provide ample testimony for new Christian settlement in this region. In his important encyclopedia of eighteenth century residents of N ew Mexico, Fray Angelico Chavez traced multiple genealogical links from his own family back to Luis de Carvajal and other well-known New Christians of the first century of Iberian colonization of Mexico. Even if few others demonstrated their genealogy so convincingly and completely, it seems unlikely that they would reach other conclusions. It hardly seems open to doubt that many Manitos have at least some New Christian ancestors, although it would seem that some individuals also find Jewish ancestors fro m more recent times.
The question of evidence has perhaps been the most explosive. Many of the individual elements of the canon are problematic, to say the least. For example, some individuals recall playing pon y saca, a put-and-take game with t ops in December. Clearly, many who proudly point to this as evidence of a crypto-Jewish dreidle game are projecting Ashkenazic customs. Similarly, finding the six-pointed magen david, is hardly unambiguous. Although it is found in Hebrew-character Genizah texts from 12th -century Cairo, it is also clearly in evidence in Medieval Iberia and for that matter, in nineteenth century Protestant religious movements. Taken individually, many if not most of the phenomena taken as evidence are pro blematic, and polemics and counter-polemics about names, tops, pork, blood, and even candles are familiar from the literature and from personal experience. Much of these assume that the converso descendants adapted ancient traditions to their environment, and did so in a vacuum, totally lacking exterior contacts. For the most part this is patently false, even if perhaps contacts were few.
I would maintain that what is important is not only the elements of the canon of evidence, but the way they are understood by those who practice them. Some clearly include mixed references, e.g., referring to a meeting place for secret Jews of Sephardic heritage by the Ashkenazic term "shul;" referring to dreidels and potato pancakes and the like. Seth Kunin has described the process by which some Crypto-Jews attach Jewish understandings to items from their culture whi ch seem to be similar to Jewish practices—even if those are Ashkenazic and not precisely Sephardic, employing the term "bricolage" as used by social anthropologists. Far from indicating its falseness, this process, which has sometimes been calle d "imagining culture," underscores the healthfulness of a culture which continues to enrich itself by attaching new meanings to old practices, and to adopt and adapt customs that speak to the culture’s sense of vitality and meaning.
Let me restate my point: deliberations about genealogy and evidence tend to obscure what may be the most important question, that of identity, even if such issues quickly are reduced to questions of genealogy and evidence. In the p opular mind, the identity question is indeed often the one which looms largest: "are they really Jewish?" seems to underlie much of the debate; it was this question, for example, which motivated the piece in the LA Jewish newspaper.
Contemporary Crypto-Jews, whatever they call themselves, see themselves as heirs to a Jewish heritage, in some sense as being Jews or Sephardim. This impacts how they see the evidence and the genealogy. Thus one sometimes encounters a c urious use of unambiguous Jewish ancestry to support what I have called "evidence" – and not genealogy. Several informants, for example, cite their father’s marriage to a woman from an unambiguous Jewish background from the Middle East. Unfortun ately, I do not have these individuals on tape, although, as we shall see, I do have a similar example in which paternal ancestors who are unambiguously Jewish and Ashkenazi are downplayed. In any case, what is interesting is that the fact of Jewish ances try is not presented to establish their own unambiguous Jewish identity –although typically they do not deny this—but read it as evidence that Father was a crypto-Jew—otherwise why would his family have accepted his marriage to a Jewish woman? In such cas es, the informant might well be aware that the maternal heritage is important for halachic reasons—for example, it would make formal conversion unecessary if the informant were interested in association with a synagogue or normative Jewish community—but i s sometimes presented as irrelevant or less relevant to the informant’s description of the desire for Jewish identity, which is based on a Crypto-Jewish background.
The Oral History project
The tapes I am showing are from a pilot project if the HCRC. We received a small grant and several sessions were conducted. The subjects were individuals who had filled out a form indicating their interest in sharing their personal stor ies "with a facilitator." Those who participated in the project were all willing to sign releases for their oral history, and none indicated any restrictions on the use of their videotapes. While one can hardly call this system scientific sampli ng, we contacted everyone who had filled out a form for the HCRC and checked the appropriate box, and interviewed everyone who was able to meet with us during the scheduled time.
In reviewing the tapes at this time, the difficulty of concentrating on the identity issue is manifest. Try as I might, I often selected passages which made better video, even if they were less relevant to my central theme. I have not g one back to follow up with these individuals, although in most cases it would not be difficult. One further word: the tapes were made with professional quality equipment. The copy I made for today’s presentation was necessarily made on home equipment, and has a number of technical problems.
Born in 1945, as Lita Sandoval, in Wagon Mound, in northern New Mexico. She lived in a ranch not far from there. Her husband is from Ohio; she ran away to get married, as it were, although late came back with her husband and lived for a while near her family before coming to Denver.
Her narrative about crypto-Jewish roots starts in the cemetery she played in as a young girl. (Video clip). She claims that the weird practices, as she called them in the interview, were on her father’s side, although she pointed out th at her maternal grandfather made the design for the tombstone, not anyone from her father’s side, Also, it turns out that the stars were not the six-pointed ones associated by many with Judaism.
Food practices also have given her cause for reflection. Her grandmother always made "Papitas" but it is not clear to me that they were traditional for December only. (video clip).
Here we see an example of one of the great problematics of the oral interview tradition. The interviewer is very suggestive, although the suggestion was already made by others well before the interviewer came around. Rogers also referre d to not eating pork, and to panocha made at Easter time, a flat bread.
Rogers had no idea why they spent September in town, although the interviewer assumed that it was to observe the High Holy Days.
[At the Los Angeles conference, a researcher presented parallel evidence that in some crypto-Jewish communities, playing cards was practiced to avoid suspicion of the Inquisition, maintaining that this was documented in Inquisition reco rds and practiced in other locations. Specifically, he recounted awareness of contemporary individuals in Barcelona, Spain who play cards on days which turn out to be Rosh Hashana. I have been unable to follow up on this as of yet].
Rogers is aware of family members who said "non son Catolicos" did not go to church; her father, for example, could only be dragged once a year by her mother. But she is searching for "signs" that, as she would put i t, "we might be Jewish."(two last clips).
Michael Atlas Acuña
Acuña was born in 1950, in Douglas, AZ, a border town. He moved to San Bernardino in southern CA at a young age. His parents came from Sonora in Mexico; his father was born in Pachuca, in Mexico, a town described by Raphael Pata i when he studied a nearby community of Venta Prieta. Here is how he begins his personal narrative: (video)
According to his personal narrative, Acuña began his interest in Judaism independently of family, when he met the woman who became his wife. But he also recalled family practices of his Mother’s mother’s mother, Guadalupe Mendoza , and his mother’s own interest in Judaism. Even so, he reports that he began his interest in crypto-Jewish heritage only after reading an article in the regional Jewish newspaper. (video, video)
Acuña reports that his great-grandmother lit candles on Friday nights, never went to church on Sunday, refused to recognize Jesus and called worship of saints "idolatry." Of his grandmother, however, he says that she li t candles "all the time."
He reports having Abondegas, a soup made of meatballs and rice at Eastertime, and asserts that it is a Sephardic dish for the Seder. He also recalls Christmas tamales made with beef and finding it strange that Hispanos in Pueblo used po rk—although he reports that pork was eaten in his home. He does report that their Spanish dialect was somewhat different than those around him, headstones with no symbols.
His mother was an important link in this chain, but her knowledge and attitudes towards Judaism came from other sources. Acuña reports that she worked for a family that was Jewish and later for a company owned by Jews. She began to read about the Jews in Spain, and had begun to study with a Rabbi in northern California. He believed that her "last wish was to die as a Jew." So Acuña and his brothers arranged for the conversion to be completed and and they were abl e to give her a Jewish burial. He concluded: "She started to see all these things, dropped all this on us and then was gone."
Amalia Romero is somewhat older than Acuña and Rogers. She was born not far away from Rogers in a small town in Mora County, New Mexico.
Like Acuña’s mother, Romero could trace part of her interest in Judaism from working for Jews. (video).
She began to work cleaning the home of Dr. Grezias, a Jewish physician, about 1986, after her kids finished school. According to her account, she began to realize "this and this were done the same in my family." Although she m entioned ways in which the house was cleaned, when pressed for more examples she said "I can’t put my finger on it."
Nevertheless, she requested a mezuza from her employer, and reported having it on her door. Her father, also, had come into contact with Jews. He worked on occasion for a Jewish storekeeper in town, bringing in freight from the train st ation in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Interestingly, she offered the account of her father’s Jewish employer in response to a question from the interviewer regarding working on the Sabbath; her response about working for the Jewish employer did not address his question about the Sabbath at all.
Father did not like hunting, and did not to consume blood. She reports that while blood was a delicacy for the Indians, he did not like it and believed that the blood should be drained from an animal before eating. Romero reports that s he has traced her grandfather back to 16th century Spain, although in context it (although it seems to me that she may have traced only the name, not the specific genealogy). She also believes that her family has been living in northern New Me xico for 400 years. They did not feel different from Catholics, her father was not a member of the Penitentes, went to Church only once a year. Some people lit candles, and were called brujas "witches." Her godmother lit candles once a we ek; in the interview, she sometimes said it was Saturday and sometimes Friday night.
Romero reported few other elements of the "canon"—no special language, no feeling of difference, no oral tradition about endogamy or names. Nevertheless, she did report in her own family, some married close relatives of their siblings’ spouses, and the males’ names (but not the females) were Biblical; the oldest boy was "Adonais." She did, however, mention a feeling of persecution, more specifically, of prejudice against Hispanos which made it hard to get jobs in the mines or as migrant workers.
Romero noted that people from her area in northern New Mexico had unusual practices, but do not know why, and she reports being unaware of anyone from these circles who has converted. Still, she would like to know more, to be able to un derstand her family’s background.
According to G.A.’s report, her original family name was Augusta de la Silviera, and her father’s ancestors came from Floris in the Azore islands. Thus, she is more like the Portuguese in fall River studied by David Gitlitz. Her great grandfather married an Ashkenazi woman, and she reports that her research turned up a German or French Jewish traveler to the Azores who married one Maria de Armas in the 1840s. Nevertheless, she sees her Jewish identity entirely from the Sephardi c side: Note that she does not deny the truth of the "crypto-Jewish" label—indeed, she stresses that her father tried to hide his ancestral religion from her. But note which label she prefers, and how she views that identity (Video).
Her narrative emphasizes her father’s unwillingness to discuss details with her, noting that he had "no desire to leave the Jewish identity," yet no interest in talking about it. She quotes him as often having said "I’m just the son of a Portuguese Jew," although she had thought merely that her father "came from a black people" and wanted to keep some distance. He had some obvious antagonism to Catholicism, and approached it with sarcasm, making sure, for example, to take thirty pieces of silver with him if he was cajoled into going to church. The animosity and sarcasm she attributed to her father rubbed off on her: she referred to autos da fe as "entertainment for the Spanish and Portuguese" noting "they didn’t have a problem filling the seats, people would come out." She referred to a few practices from the canon: they did not eat pork, and separated milk and meat, but explained that it was for health reasons. She reports they had Matza at Eastertime, and reports eating lamb only once a year, also at this time. Her mother used coarse salt in preparing meat; they ate apple dipped in sugar in the fall, although she associated it with Halloween. Nevertheless, her father made anti-semitic remarks, prevented family members from attending some of the family events of the "Jewish side" of his family, and appears to have resolutely refused to discuss this issue with his daughter.
She recalls discovering her ancestry at age 28 or 29, although she is the only one in her family who is interested. She did not give any particular reason why she started doing this research. Her first husband was not Jewish, her second husband is, but she did not connect this with her spiritual journey. Her comment on her studies about her ancestry was merely: "When I started doing my research I felt like I was coming home."
Leonora Vera Cordova was born in 1947 in Villa Hermosa, Tabasco, Mexico. Although the town was remote, she was born there because her father, an engineer was sent to the rain forest.
When asked, she recalls virtually no knowledge of any of the items usually cited as evidence of crypto-Jewish background. Names are often considered part of the "canon of evidence," and the Biblical names on the male side of her family fit the scenario: her father was Joseph, and in addition to her brother Antonio (not a fit), there were Baltazar, Emanuel, Isaiah, and Elias. Nevertheless, she did not think the names of the male members of her family were unusual in any way. She did, however, recall that friends in college claimed that Perez was a Jewish name, a claim she was uninterested in at that time. (video)
Although she recalled burying the dead as soon as possible and noted that her father did not work on Saturdays, she did not think these practices different. Indeed, she reported that the family had almost no religion, practicing Catholicism only for baptism, marriage and burial. This, however, she attributes to religious persecution—not of Jews but of religion in general, when a provincial governor burned churches.
Cordova’s search for spirituality involved going to Rome to become a nun. She later left the convent, deciding to get married at have a family, but also wondering about some of the things that Rome did not teach her. Regarding the interest in Jewish identity, she did not cite a particular narrative for how this came to be important to her, although she cited things which–at least to my mind—are primarily subjective, such as the resemblance of a man from Jerusalem to her Uncle Isaiah an d her love of Middle Eastern music.
In the interview, she reported studying with a Rabbi in Fort Collins and hopes to be immersed. What does it mean to be Jewish? Cordova’s response is that her study of Judaism helped her understand some of the basics of Christianity.
Several questions may be addressed:
1. Do the individual narrative match the general foundation narrative for the phenomenon?
Of these five individuals, only two hail from the manito area, although neither used the word. Of these, neither had reported close contact with Jews in their home villages, but neither they nor anyone else—with the possible exception of Cordova—were as isolated from Judaism as usually thought. Even Cordova reported Jewish friends in college. Despite great dissimilarities in details, the stories, are similar in some of the main outlines and values, suggesting that they share a cultural background which plays a role in shaping the narratives.
2. How do they relate to the Jewish identity of their ancestors? To what extent to they see their heritage as Sephardic as opposed to Jewish?"
Acuña began his narrative by stating "I am a Jew," and others wondered whether they might be Jewish. This type of involvement in Jewish identity is far different from a statement along the lines of "we have Jewish ancestry."
This approach is hardly unique to the Sephardic world of the U.S. Southwest. While in England to give an earlier version of this paper I met a genealogist in Manchester who describes inquiries couched in much the same way—individuals who believe that they feel Jewish and must have Jewish ancestors. Her job was quite easier than that of the genealogist working with the manitos, as the Jewish ancestry in this case is usually no more than three to five generations back—and almost always Ashkenazi.
For GA, the Sephardic ancestry is the only one that matters: as noted, she found an Ashkenazi man who married into the family in the Azores in the early nineteenth century, and had an Ashkenazi grandmother, but she consistently downplays their importance to her identity. Yet others did not express any discomfort: Cordova is meeting with an Ashkenazi rabbi and Acuña is president of a largely Ashkenazi synagogue in Pueblo.
3. How are the differing issues of Family vs. Community articulated?
There are numerous aspects of the problematics of identitifcation accross the generations, and identification with the broader community. Janet Libman Jacobs’ research suggests a high degree of positive identification with the Jewish community among those who were available for full interviews: some who had formally converted to Judaism, others studying or attending synagogues and reporting consideration of conversion. My records of informal interviews showed much smaller percentages. Yet those who were available for formal videotaped testimonies were even more likely than Jacobs’ informants to either have achieved or to be actively exploring unambiguous Jewish community identification.
As far as family concerns, it is interesting that only Acuña, the only male in this sample, was primarily concerned with his mother, who had a positive attitude to the phenomenon. The women all recounted the Jewish connection on the father’s side, in some cases aware of possible or undisputed Jewish backgrounds among some of the female ancestors but ignoring it, or devoting more energy the paternal side, at least at first. As for the children: it would appear that for GA and Acuña, the attitude is unambiguous. Both referred to bringing up children as Jewish. For others, it is not so easy. I have written elsewhere about the striking difference between this community and the normative Jewish community, with its emphasis on whether one’s grandchildren will be Jewish. Yet I should also stress that the difference is that members of the Crypto-Jewish community are still wondering about their grandparents’ grandparents. Only once they are able to address their tradition openly and cognizant of its rich heritage will they have the luxury to consider what their children will make of it—and in some cases, we can already see a deep and sensitive approach among the kids.
4. Does the interview process bias the answers?
Our interviewer did not adopt a totally neutral protocol. Some questions were phrased in a totally neutral fashion, but others clearly were leading questions which directly suggested the answers expected, or offered an explanation to the informant for him to confirm. Nevertheless, time and again, the interviewees did not take the bait. They approached this seriously, not being led astray by suggestions. Given the high degree of interest by the informants in discussing their Jewish identity –and evidence for it—the degree to which they did not follow the lead is far more striking. None of the interviewees was untouched by the Jewish community; most could tell of contacts not only in their own but in their parents’ generations. The interviewer’s approach can be faulted, but it cannot be blamed for creating these ideas.
These personal narratives represent individuals at different stages of their spiritual search. All have ample reasons to believe they are part of a crypto-Jewish tradition, on the basis of genealogical research or on the basis of what is sometimes called the canon of evidence. Yet among those of us who have come forward for interviews, questions about identity, indeed the quest for identity –especially a religious identity—seems to me to be paramount, and colors the respo nses in the other areas. Moreover, these issues relate to family and individuals; unlike crypto-Jews from other places, the converso descendants who have made their way to the Colorado Front Range have not posited their Jewish identity within the framewor k of an intact, traditional community. The context of their current search should be as much a part of our retelling of our stories as the study of ancestry and evidence. It seems to me, moreover, that the key to the phonomenon, is not so much the ancest ry and evidence as it is the issues of religious and cultural identity which give the ancestry and evidence the significance and power to so many members of the Converso-descendant community.