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Are some of New Mexico's Hispanics descendants of converted Jews who fled the Inquisition, and then kept the secret so long they forgot it?

In 1981, the State of New Mexico hired Stanley Hordes to be the state historian. Hordes had just defended his doctoral dissertation, which was written at Tulane University, in New Orleans, and dealt with crypto-Jews of colonial Mexico.

Soon after Dr. Hordes came to New Mexico, he talked with many Hispanics who reported that their families light candles on Friday night, avoid pork and that children play a gambling game with a wood top called "put in and take out." Dr. Hordes was able to explain to them that ancestors may have been Jewish. They have hid the fact for so long that, over the generations, they forgot.

Dr. Hordes may not have been the first to come up with the idea, but he was the first to promote it. It makes a great story, and one that resonates with Jews and some Hispanics. By the early 1990s, Hispanics from New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona were coming forward with tales of a Jewish past.

It may, however, be a myth. This would not be surprising since the center of the epiphenomenon is New Mexico, where the local culture is largely one giant collaborative art project, and about as authentic as Hotel Santa Fe at Euro Disney. Perhaps. But it's a highly plausible myth.

From the Moorish invasion of the 700's, to the completion of the Reconquest of Spain in 1492, the Jewish community in Spain was the largest and most important in the West. When Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and from France 1306, many moved to Spain.

After 1391, anti-Semitic riots broke out in Seville and some other Spanish cities. Some Spanish Jews converted to Christianity, and were known as New Christians, conversos (Sp.) or anusim (Heb.) (the latter term suggesting the conversion was involuntary). Many of the conversos were very sincere, even fanatical Christians. (e.g. Torquemada). Others had converted merely because it was expedient, believing their culture would be tolerated if they at least publicly purported to be Christians, as had been the case under Islam. These became “crypto-jews” maintaining a sketchy Judaism, deprived of rabbis, temples, yeshivas or religious books. A very small number of “crypto-jews” exist in Portugal to this day, practicing a syncretic form of Judaism which involves such oddities as worship of Saint Moses and Saint Esther.

Upon the completion of the Reconquest of Spain from the Moors in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella announced the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. This was followed by the expulsion of all Jews from Portugal in 1497. Persecution of conversos by the Spanish Inquisition lead many of them to emigrate to the New World.

Unfortunately, the Inquisition followed them to New Spain. In 1649, the largest auto da fe in the New World was held with 109 victims. Thirteen were sentenced to be burned alive and 57 in effigy. Of the thirteen, twelve "repented" and so were garroted before being burned. The Inquisition in Mexico was not abolished until the Mexican Revolution in 1821.

This much is not very controversial. The subject of some controversy is whether distinct crypto-Jewish customs and practices survived into the Twentieth Century in New Mexico.

Many Hispanics of New Mexico consider themselves to be "Spanish", not Mexican, despite the fact that their ancestors were citizens of the Republic of Mexico from 1821 to 1848. They are offended at being called “Mexican,” “Mestizo,” or “Chicano”, with the implication that they are part Native American and therefore non-white or non-European. Many New Mexicans claim origin from “pure blooded” conquistadors or hidalgos, whether or not their ancestors intermarried with the local Native American population. Indeed, it is indisputable that the origins of many New Mexico families date back to colonial times. Their distinctive dialect, folklore and customs have been the subject of many a book. In some towns in New Mexico, because of the isolation of the people and because it suited the climate and the economy, the old medieval life of Spain remained largely unchanged down until recent years.

There are, however, two possible sources for "crypto-Jewish" customs, other than a long dormant Sephardic Jewish background.

First, there has been a very substantial Jewish immigrant population in New Mexico ever since it became a United States Territory. Shortly after the Mexican War, in 1848, New Mexico was ceded to the United States of America. Thereafter, instead of relying on the Camino Real (the Royal Road down the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso), Northern New Mexico was connected to the world by the “Santa Fe Trail” from St. Louis. The last stop of the Great Plains, before heading up into the mountains to Santa Fe, was "Las Vegas", New Mexico ("The Meadows"). Jewish immigrants from the eastern United States, and hailing ultimately from Central Europe, began settling in Las Vegas, particularly after the arrival of the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe railway in 1879. In 1886, Las Vegas became the site of the first Synagogue in New Mexico Territory. Thus, since at least the 1880's there has been a substantial Ashkenazi (northern European) Jewish presence in New Mexico.

Also, many Jewish practices, such as observing the Sabbath on Friday night, have been adopted by Protestant sects, like the Seventh Day Adventists. The Church of God (Seventh Day) had very successful missions among the Hispanic populations of New Mexico in the early Twentieth Century.

Current research into the crypto-Jew hypothesis strives to avoid relying on cultural artifacts which can be derived from the Bible, since these could be of relatively recent Protestant origin, and not proof of 400 year old dormant Jewish influence.

Sources:

http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/12/ferry.htm

http://www.cs.huji.ac.il/~schalevy/sch/Folklore.txt

I can confim this somewhat with personal anecdote. My family is one of the original 38 that settled New Mexico in 1598, and we know several other old colonial families. I know of at least one family that recently discovered their Jewish origins. This particular family was remodeling their 250-year old adobe home and found a mezuzah hidden in the wall next to the front door. They were shocked, being a very devout Catholic family. I spoke to the patriarch of the family about it, and he did mention playing with something like a dreidel as a child as well as an avoidance of pork. They were all very embarrassed about the whole thing.

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