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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Theater US & Canada New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    In his new play Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, playwright Oren Safdie tackles an issue that he has a major concern with: the relationship between Israelis and left-leaning Diaspora Jews with their “I know better” critical views. At the heart of the one-act play is Tony, a Jewish and gay Palestinian sympathizer who expresses strong anti-Israel sentiments when the play begins and at one point even sides with a Palestinian terrorist who holds his captive. Tony, who is also an [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    A Jewish comedy troupe released a parody video on Wednesday of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off in which they joke about taking extensive time off from work for Jewish holidays. “And the goyim gonna stay, stay, stay, stay, stay. And the Jews are gonna pray, pray pray, pray, pray. I’m just gonna take, take, take, take, take. I’m taking off,” goes the chorus for I’m Taking Off. Menachem Weinstein, the video’s lead singer, is the creative director at [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    JNS.org – The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on Dec. 15 presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time. That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Music US & Canada EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem. The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Personalities ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    JNS.org – It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers—high on heroin, rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt. But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the son of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi replaced Israeli star Gal Gadot as the female lead in the new Ben-Hur remake, Hollywood.com reported on Tuesday. The Homeland actress will play Esther, a slave that Ben-Hur sets free and falls in love with. Gadot quit the movie when it became clear that filming conflicted with her schedule for the Man of Steel sequel. The Israeli actress plays Wonder Woman in the superhero film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Actor Jack Huston takes on the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.