Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Spanish Inquisition and the Spread of Conversos in the Americas

April 27, 2012 11:47 am 5 comments

"Scene from an Inquisition" by Francisco Goya, painted much later than this story -- c. 1819.

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.

5 Comments

  • There are tens of millions of descendants of Jews in the Americas and Oceania. Let us welcome them to the House of Israel.

  • I’ve also formally returned and am raising our son as a Jews.

  • My own personal spiritual journey was compelled forward by my Sephardic DNA. I descend from the original colonists of New Mexico. My father died from a Sephardic genetic disease. This November I’ll undergo my formal conversion to mainstream Judaism. For me, it is a homecoming.

    Although Judaism may at best remain as fragments of tradition and recollection in northern New Mexico, it still exists nonetheless. We are very private people, but if you’d venture to look closer, you would see far more Judaism in practice than you’d ever suppose.

  • Christopher Columbus was foretold in the Book of Revelation 6:2. It reveals him when the first seal was opened and it talks about the Symbolic White Horse. Read the book “Out of Evil Cometh Good” published with Lulu.com.

  • I love this topic. Crypto-Jews who fled to the Netherlands also made it to the early colonies and hid within Protestant communities. Both my parents ancestors were originally Jewish. I have been researching the Protestant aspect of this for many years. It’s fascinating. Lots of Americans are of Jewish ancestry and haven’t a clue. Thanks for continuing this story.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features World Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Tour operators are calling attention to Jamaica’s little-known Jewish heritage by arranging visits to historic Jewish sites on the Caribbean island, including a cemetery where Jewish pirates are buried. A report in Travel and Leisure magazine describes the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, where there are seven tombstones engraved with Hebrew benedictions and skull and crossbones insignia. According to the report, centuries ago, Jewish pirates sailed the waters of Jamaica and settled in Port Royal. The town, once known as “the wickedest city in the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Telling Israel’s story. It’s the specific title of a short film that Eyal Resh created last year. It’s also the theme behind the 27-year-old Israeli filmmaker’s broader body of work. The widely viewed “Telling Israel’s Story” film—directed by Resh for a gala event hosted by the Times of Israel online news outlet—seemingly begins as a promotional tourism video, but quickly evolves to offer a multilayered perspective. “I want to tell you a story about a special place for me,” a young woman whispers […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →