The Spanish Inquisition and the Spread of Conversos in the Americas

April 27, 2012 11:47 am 4 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.

4 Comments

  • 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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Education Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    JNS.org – My wife Suzy and I will never forget our wedding day. It was not just the uplifting ceremony and beautiful party that left an indelible mark. Some life-altering advice that we received from one of our guests informed and shaped our lives from that day forward. My high school teacher, Rabbi Moshe Yagid, pulled us aside just before the chuppah and challenged us to choose one mitzvah that would be the foundation of our marriage and our lives. He explained [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    JNS.org – At the turn of the century, a young Jewish immigrant arrived in New York. So begins the history of many American Jewish families. It is 27-year-old Albert Allaham’s story, too, with a few unusual twists. Albert’s “century” is the 21st—he arrived almost 100 years after the massive waves of European Jewish immigration. Rather than coming from a small town along the Danube river, his shtetl was Damascus. His first American business was not a pushcart on the Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Mitzvos New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    JNS.org – Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels. There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea. Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything—and that means everything—goes for five shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    The new FX Network drama Tyrant was shot entirely in Israel, just 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, Bloomberg News reported last Tuesday. Tyrant follows the life of an Arab dictator’s second son Barry, played by Adam Rayner, who reluctantly returns home to the Middle Eastern nation of his birth to join the family business away from his suburban life in America. The elaborate set production for the primetime drama included a crew of 300 and a reported cost of over $3 million [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Skokie, Il-born 25-year-old Erin Heatherton (Erin Heather Bubley) is rocking the modeling world. And in a new interview accompanying a cover spread for Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, she says Jewish moms are “constantly trying to set her up with their sons.” Imagine that – who would have thought? “The moms, they’re doing what they do. It doesn’t matter what country they live in, what city – grandmothers, too,” she admitted. “But I’m probably going to do that too one day.” Heatherton was [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.