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...

  • Blogs Sports Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas will wear a leotard bearing Hebrew lettering when she competes at the P&G Gymnastics Championships over the weekend. Douglas’ Swarovski-outlined outfit will feature the Hebrew word “Elohim,” meaning God, on its left sleeve. The Hebrew detailing honors the athlete’s “rich heritage of faith,” according to apparel manufacturer GK Elite, which produced the leotard and released a preview of it on Wednesday. The company said Douglas’ sister, Joyelle “Joy” Douglas, created the Hebrew design. The outcome of the P&G Championships will help […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    Britain’s world heavyweight champion, Taylor Fury, should be banned from boxing for making Nazi-like comments, a former world champion from the Ukraine said on Thursday, ahead of their upcoming match. “I was in shock at his statements about women, the gay community, and when he got to the Jewish people, he sounded like Hitler,” Wladimir Klitschko told British media, according to Reuters. “We cannot have a champion like that. Either he needs to be shut up or shut down in the ring, or […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Hanoch Hecht just made television history; but, unfortunately, he couldn’t have his rugelach and eat it too. Hecht became the first rabbi to compete on the hit show “Chopped,” where contestants are forced to use four random ingredients in their recipes, and have 20-30 minutes to create an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. A contestant is eliminated after each round. Hecht, 32, said that while the dishes and utensils were new, the kitchen was not kosher, so he couldn’t taste […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox singer and entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer is starring in a new Pepsi Max commercial for the company’s campaign in Israel. The commercial begins with a bunch of Jewish men eating at a restaurant, when Schmeltzer walks in and tries to decide what to order. An employee at the obviously Israeli eatery offers him a variety of foods, but the entertainer in the end decides on a bottle of Pepsi. Everyone in the restaurant then joins him, drinking Pepsi Max and dancing to […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Book Reviews Jewish Author’s ‘Messy’ Draft Transforms Into Rock Star Novel on Amazon

    Jewish Author’s ‘Messy’ Draft Transforms Into Rock Star Novel on Amazon

    JNS.org – “Writing is a messy process,” says author Elizabeth Poliner. “People who don’t write fiction would be surprised to see what early drafts could look like.” But readers wouldn’t know “what a mess it was for the longest time,” as the Jewish author puts it, when reading Poliner’s critically acclaimed latest book, As Close to Us as Breathing. The volume garnered Amazon’s “Best Book” designation in March 2016 as well as rave reviews from the New York Times,W Magazine, NPR, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Sundance Tour Features Short Film About Elderly Jewish Woman’s Decision to Eat Bacon for First Time

    Sundance Tour Features Short Film About Elderly Jewish Woman’s Decision to Eat Bacon for First Time

    The Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour, which started on Friday in New York City, features a mini-documentary about an elderly Jewish woman whose journey away from Orthodoxy leads her to taste forbidden food for the first time in her life. In Canadian director Sol Friedman’s Bacon & God’s Wrath, Razie Brownstone talks about ending her lifelong observance of keeping kosher as her 90th birthday approaches. The recently declared atheist said the discovery of the search engine Google spurred a lapse in her Jewish faith and made her decide to […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Food Chabad Rabbi From New York Competes on Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ Cooking Competition

    Chabad Rabbi From New York Competes on Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ Cooking Competition

    A Chabad rabbi from Rhinebeck, NY, will face off a priest, a pastor and a nun-in-training in an upcoming episode of the Food Network‘s reality show, “Chopped,” Lubavitch.com reported. Rabbi Hanoch Hecht – who teaches up-and-coming chefs about the intricacies of kosher dietary laws at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) — was nominated for the show by a professional chef, and went through a rigorous interview process at the Food Network’s studios in Chelsea, NY. Months later, he was informed he had been accepted as a contestant in the popular TV cooking competition. “I thought […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief (BOOK REVIEW)

    Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief (BOOK REVIEW)

    Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief by Asaf Romirowsky & Alexander H. Joffe (Palgrave Macmillan; 2013) Although this book came out several years ago, it remains pertinent. This is a meticulously researched book that concentrates on a very small bit of history: the time period from 1948-50 when the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, was organizing refugee relief in Gaza. Before UNRWA, the UN created the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR). It outsourced […]

    Read more →