The Spanish Inquisition and the Spread of Conversos in the Americas
by Shahrouz Khalifian
A road trip down to the Mexican-American border would yield much of what you would expect — miles of endless and vacant deserts, a compelling glimpse at the lives of rural south westerners, and a humbling reminder of something close to what the early settlers and colonizers must have endured.
As you cross the Texan border, you come across a Catholic church just north of the Mexican border city of Monterrey. Naturally, as a predominantly Catholic state, it is not much of a surprise to encounter these types of ecclesiastical sites. However, upon closer inspection, you’re perplexed by something rather puzzling: each of the windows are actually adorned with a Magen David.
This is not an isolated phenomenon — an inspection of a number of Spanish-language Catholic churches in the area, even as far north as New Mexico, produce similar results. Scholarly inquiries reveal a scattered population of Spanish-speaking Catholics who, much to the arousal of academic fascination, light candles on Friday evenings and refrain from work on Saturdays instead of Sundays.
The historical implications induced, especially with a passionate history enthusiast like myself, a flood of interest. In 1492, the infamous Spanish Inquisition (distinguished by its capitalization) intensified as Ferdinand and Isabella issued severe regulations of faith. As the vestiges of the Muslim conquerors were finally being eradicated from Spain, the Spanish monarchs reacted to centuries of Islamic occupation by dictating harsh policies that would assure Catholic dominance. Muslims and Jews were given a choice: convert or get out.
A huge population of Jews fled eastward — establishing Sephardic communities in North Africa, the newly-founded Ottoman Empire, and other territories — and then some elected to convert, many still secretly engaging with their Jewish customs. This last group, labeled as conversos, just one well-known example of Crypto-Judaic populations that existed all across the world, became the dread of the Catholic sovereigns and clergy. They were distinguished and oppressed as “New Christians.” Their legacy remains in Spain and other nearby areas, as modern Jews and heirs to these conversos seek to reconcile their cultural and religious ancestry.
But the year 1492 is distinguished for another major event: in August of that year, a Genoese navigator by the name of Christopher Columbus was sponsored by the same two aforementioned monarchs to sail west off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, subsequently encountering what would later become the Bahamas. It was in the very same year that many Jews fled from Spain that Columbus “discovered” the New World. The ensuing circumstances are what lead us to our current story.
It’s not clear when the first conversos may have arrived in the New World, but it is highly unlikely that they came before the mid-16th century. It took a few decades for the settlements and colonies to really get going, and, judging by the nature of the phenomenon we are currently encountering, it is mostly likely that the conversos set sail as, well, Crypto-Judaic conversos; not open Jews. In other words, the reason that we are not discussing pockets of Jewish settlements in Spanish-speaking territories is because these Crypto-Jews crossed the Atlantic with Catholic colonizers, leaving Spain possibly as a means of escaping the precarious strains of their secret lifestyle in such close proximity to their oppressors. They needed approval from the Crown to endeavor onto the New World, and therefore would need to sustain their Catholic front (many restrictions were even placed on New Christians), settle with Catholics, and continue (also by necessity) to live in the colonies with the Catholics. It would have been exceedingly perilous for a small band of Crypto-Judaic conversos to seek refuge in the New World by confronting the wilderness without the extensive resources possessed by their Catholic counterparts. In essence, it was more feasible and sensible to remain a Crypto-Judaic converso in relative peace than to revive their Jewish roots at risk of perishing.
Ultimately, this chronology of fascinating events rendered a unique blend of cultures that persists today. Genealogists around the world have been conducting extensive research on this matter, establishing strong DNA ties between these remote Crypto-Jews and the Sephardic gene (many have even been associated with the Kohanim gene). Over the generations, most of these converso populations have forgotten their Jewish roots, mainly continuing to practice these select Jewish traditions out of habit. However, thanks to recent scholarly inquiries, some of these groups are beginning to reunite with their ancestral heritage, with many Spanish-speaking Romanic Catholics citing their Jewish traditions and Sephardic blood as motivation to reestablish their Judaism.