New Mexico's Crypto-Jews are rediscovering their heritage (illustrative)
New Mexico's Crypto-Jews are rediscovering their heritage (illustrative)Thinkstock

The crypto-Jews of Spain have fascinated Jews for decades. But it was not always fascination – it was once more about the frustration, even resignation, that hundreds of thousands of Jews had been stolen in martyrdom or in forced conversions to Catholicism. In 1492, consolidating their gains following the conquest of Granada, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella enforced the Spanish Inquisition to offer Jews under their rule three infamous options: leave, convert or die. For those who converted, it was a shallow change of religion.

Jews passing themselves off as converts – conversos in Spanish – took advantage of Spain’s expansion into the Americas to escape, not expecting the Spanish Inquisition to follow. Within a generation the Inquisition had set up shop throughout what would become Latin America, forcing devout Jews to go even further out. After the Inquisition consolidated itself in Mexico, some Jews headed toward South America while others went north into what would become New Mexico.

“Years ago, my brother and my aunt were doing our family’s genealogy,” says Bernadette Martinez, a real-estate developer in New Mexico who claims descent from New Mexican conversos and has been involved in the redeveloping community for years.

“We had heard rumors of descendants of conversos in New Mexico. I didn’t think we were part of that because didn’t seem to me we had any practices that were strange or been from a Jewish background. I didn’t think much about it until I saw a segment on TV with Dr. Dell Sanchez.”

Dr. Sanchez has been active in the cause of New Mexican conversos for years. He has written several books on the subject, including Aliyah!!! The Exodus Continues and The Last Exodus.

“When he came to our community and talked about it, Dr. Sanchez asked if I thought I too was descended from that group.”

For generations, it has been a legend. Yet recent historical research, collected testimony about family traditions and even DNA have made it irrefutable that communities in northeastern New Mexico are definitely descended from Jews.

“Since 1987, I’ve been to Israel about 30 or 40 times,” says Martinez. “At about that time, former state historian Dr. Stanley Hordis published his book From the Ends of the Earth and highlighted seven or eight families who were the original families (who settled the community) in 1598. I thought it was just interesting until he reached the point he picked up on our family name and traced it all the way back to Spain. Were kind of stuck at the 1700s and need to get further back.”

What makes the communities of New Mexico unique is how concentrated they are. According to Martinez, there was very little intermarriage with Native Americans or other Spanish settlers. This point is further stressed by the unfortunate concentration of BRCA1 mutations in the community’s DNA. These mutations commonly produce cases of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, a similar pattern to how a mutation in the HEXA gene may lead to the proliferation of Tay-Sachs Disease for Ashkenazi Jews.

“These people stayed there and never left. They for the most part stayed together and intramarried with each other.” As a result, “BRCA1 has become a serious issue in whole communities in places like the San Luis Valley.”

That information finally spurred Martinez to get more involved raising awareness of her community. She helped produce a documentary called Hidden Heritage of New Mexico, chronicling her story and the genetic danger to women in the region who had a common converso ancestry.

She recently returned from Israel where she attended a conference at the Netanya Academic College called Mapping the Anousim Diaspora (anousim / anusim being the Hebrew term often employed for ‘coerced’ converts to other religions).

“They are alerting Israeli society, ‘Hey, there’s a group of people out there that we’re related to!’” shifting the discourse for some converso descendants to questions like, “Will I ever be allowed to be an Israeli citizen?”

The Law of Return does not stipulate a need to be Jewish according to Halakha, but a hereditary descendant via at least one grandparent. For New Mexico’s community, the clear Jewish genetics and relative isolation over the centuries raise questions if they might have earned their qualification at least under the Law of Return’s current form.

When asked if the conference focused on any activism or community-organizing plans, Martinez said most of the talk about politics or community organizing happened on the sidelines. However, issues of identity and relating to Israel certainly were on the minds of participants.

“It came up in several discussions but there was no workshop dedicated just to that. The conference was really more of an academic conference except a couple Rabbis who spoke near the end.”

One topic that got some attention among participants was the matter of Israel extending the Law of Return to communities like hers. While not all converso descendants claim to have remained as part of an independent community that did not intermarry with other groups, her group has.

“As crypto-Jews, they had to be very, very good Catholics. I had an uncle far back who bought his way out of the Inquisition (near Santa Fe, New Mexico). But people lived in fear of being found out and kept the secret so well that 500 years later it was almost forgotten.”

When asked if she felt that in cases like hers that converso descendants should be granted the right to Aliyah under the Law of Return, particularly for communities as unadulterated as the one in New Mexico-Colorado region, Martinez answered in the affirmative.

“I think so. I think that because we in New Mexico are very lucky and have such good documentation. We don’t have the kind of exact records to show they (our ancestors) converted on an exact date, yet we have genealogy from Dr. Stanley Hordes that we come from these communities in Spain.”

“I know many people who are more Zionist than even the assimilated Jews in America.”

Dr. Stanley Hordes is also another prolific researcher on New Mexico’s crypto-Jews. A former state historian for New Mexico, he was approached more than once with stories of people who had latent Jewish history in their families. His historian side shifted to focus on that issue, resulting in his work To the End of the Earth. It is the product of amounts of research that has traced a number of New Mexican families – via Spanish Inquisition records – back to Portugal and Spain prior to coming to the Americas.

While some readers might be familiar with the often-cited legend that crypto-Jews in former Spanish colonial areas would pass on traditions like lighting candles on Friday night – whose meaning would be lost on descendants until alerted of the minhag’s Jewish implications – Martinez emphasizes that these are not merely legends, but definitively common and real. She mentions other customs though that nail the awl to the doorpost.

“”There is one story of a man in Albuquerque where his grandmother lived in a community for years. After she died, her house was falling apart.”

Some houses in the area are generations old, Martinez explains. So when they were going through it, they “took frame off the front doorpost and found a mezuzah case. There used to be a picture of a Catholic saint there that relatives would kiss when they walked through the door, but really it was clearly a reference to the mezuzah.”

You can watch the documentary, Hidden Heritage in New Mexico here: