Emilio and Trudie Coca, a NM couple, went from one little Norteño cemetery to another, photographing gravestones. Many of the headstones were inscribed with surprising names such as Adonay, similar to the Hebrew word for Lord, Andonai. Crosses along with six-pointed stars like the Star of David were engraved on the tombstones.

This headstone displays a cross along with an inscription in Hebrew.

This headstone displays a cross along with an inscription in Hebrew.

Crypto Jews around 1900.

Crypto Jews around 1900.

Catholic priest and Crypto Jew, Father Sanchez of Albuquerque, NM.

Catholic priest and Crypto Jew, Father Sanchez of Albuquerque, NM.

by Mary Lowers

Crypto Jews were victims of the Spanish Inquisition who, while outwardly Catholic, were secretly observant Jews. In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the newly united Spain ordered all Jews in their realm to convert to Christianity or be banished from their homes. It is estimated that 50,000 of the kingdom’s 125,000-200,000 Jews were baptized. Those who refused to abandon the faith of their fathers were forced to flee.

Many went to North Africa, Italy, and Navarre, a kingdom that existed between Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula. Some fled to Portugal where soon conversion was demanded. Some of these “converses”, as they were called, went as far as the Americas. Many converses sincerely embraced Christianity and intermarried with so-called “Old Christians”. A small number continued to practice Judaism in secret under the cover of Catholicism. At the end of World War I, a previously unknown community of Crypto Jews was discovered in an isolated Portuguese village. Prior to this discovery historians felt most of the Crypto Jews for a few generations worshiped in secret, then only kept up a few elements of the Jewish faith; for example, they knew fragments of prayers and did not eat pork.

The Inquisition was madly hunting Crypto Jews. The Inquisitors called them Judaizers or practitioners of La Ley de Moises (Law of Moses). This was not the first or the last persecution of Jews in Europe. It must be remembered that Jews first settled in the Iberian Peninsula about 900BC. The Jews called this land Sefarad and the Romans called it Hispania, from which we get the name Spain.  Jews from southern Europe are known as Sephardim. Jews who trace their ancestry from north eastern Europe are called Ashkenazim. Early Christians on the Iberian Peninsula persecuted the Jews under Frankish and Visogothic rule. It was during this early inquisition that Jews first went underground, becoming the first Crypto Jews. This period lasted from 489AD to 711AD.

When Muslims from North Africa began their conquest of much of the peninsula in 711AD, a three hundred-year period of tolerance for Jews and Christians came to pass. Muslims, Jews and Christians were all seen as people of the book with roots in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible had many common characters and stories with the Muslim holy book, the Koran. Non-Muslims had to pay a special tax. Jewish art, music, medicine and education thrived until the Muslim kingdoms began to fall apart (1002-1149AD). King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who united the powerful kingdoms of Aragon and Castile in 1492, drove the last remaining Muslims or Moors out of Spain. They instituted a powerful inquisition headed up by the Jesuit priests or “soldiers of Christ.” They wanted to rule a wholly Christian nation. This included Spanish colonies far away from the Iberian Peninsula.

In 1571 the Spanish Inquisition came to the Americas in force. Many Crypto Jews moved to the northern reaches of the Spanish Empire, into what is now northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, to get as far as possible from the prying of the inquisitors. According to records from the Inquisition in the Americas the first official expedition into what is now NM, led by Juan de Oñate in 1598, included converses. In the late 1600s the governor of NM and his wife were accused of practicing Judaism. During the same period a soldier and bureaucrat, Francisco Gomez Robledo, was said to have a tail, “the mark of a Jew.” The governor, his wife and the bureaucrat were all acquitted by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. When the Inquisition was at last abolished with Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, it had killed about a hundred Crypto Jews and had held many in prison. Rumors of secret Jewish ancestry had been whispered among norteños, descendents of northern settlers, for generations in northern NM and the San Luis Valley of CO.

Research discovers Crypto Jews in New Mexico & Colorado

In the early 1980s NM State Historian Stanley Hordes received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to examine the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico. While examining records in Mexico and Spain he discovered the surnames of Crypto Jewish families. Hordes had records of NM families who came to him with traditions in their families hinting at Jewish roots. Somehow it seemed Crypto Jews in northern villages had managed to preserve the faith of their fathers. Emilio and Trudie Coca, a NM couple, went from one little norteño cemetery to another photographing gravestones. Many of the headstones were inscribed with surprising names such as Adonay, similar to the Hebrew word for lord, Andonai. Crosses along with six pointed stars like the Star of David were engraved on the tombstones.

In 1987 National Public Radio aired a documentary on the Crypto Jews. By 1990 norteños and latinos from Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona were discovering pieces of Jewish heritage. Many recalled playing with four-sided tops like the dreidel of Hanukkah. Some said in the spring their families baked unleavened bread. Stories of mothers and grandmothers crying out on their death beds, “Children we are Israelites” were remembered.

Isabelle Medina Sandoval spent her childhood in the 1950s and 60s in WY. But her parents and grandparents were from villages in Mora County in the northern part of NM. After Sandoval attended a talk by Stanley Hordes describing Crypto Jewish customs, she recalled her family hardly celebrated Christmas and showed little interest in Catholicism. She recalled her parents drinking wine with a label showing people sitting around a table in funny little hats, yarmulkes. When she asked why they were drinking Jewish wine she was told it was clean, kosher. Keith Chavez, an Albuquerque engineer who was born Catholic and now attends an orthodox synagogue said, “My great grandmother told me that we were Sepharditos.”

Genetic markers & breast cancer

One of the more dramatic revelations of Crypto Jewish identity is the story of Father William Sanchez, an Albuquerque priest. He knew as a child that his family was different. They spun tops at Christmas, avoided eating pork and spoke in private of a past in medieval Spain. Father Sanchez did a DNA test after watching a TV special on genealogy. The owner of the DNA company phoned Father Sanchez asking if he knew he was Jewish. He learned he was a Cohanim, a member of a priestly caste with Judaism tracing its roots to Aaron, the brother of Moses. The genetic marker of the Cohanim is strong because the priestly caste tended to marry other Jews. Michael Hammer, a Jewish genetics expert, said these findings, along with Jewish traditions and practices, make the Crypto Jewish story believable.

Father Sanchez embraced his new knowledge. He said, “Some of us can practice rituals of Crypto Judaism and still be good Catholics.”

In the early part of this century, doctors in CO discovered that women from certain norteño families in the San Luis Valley were susceptible to an aggressive breast cancer linked to a genetic mutation called 185delAG, closely associated with people who had Jewish roots. This mutation was first found in CO families and soon appeared in northern NM. An unmutated BRCA gene protects certain cells of breast and ovarian regions from aggressive cancers.

The 185delAG mutation has been traced to two thousand years ago when someone among the Palestinian Hebrew tribes dropped the AG from the 185 site of the BRCA gene. Because Jews often intermarried, particularly those who were Colhanim from the priestly caste, the 185delAG mutation grew very strong within the population. Scientists believe that one in one hundred Jews carry this harmful mutation. Stanley Hordes, who had long fought for the Jewish genetic thread of norteño families said, “. . . that more important than the Jewish connection is that a population at high risk of potentially deadly diseases was identified, thus providing the opportunity for early detection and treatment.”

The extended Valdez family of San Luis, CO attended a meeting about their medical history as Crypto Jews and the 185delAG mutation. When the oldest family member at the meeting, Elsie Valdez Vigil, 68, was asked if she wasn’t disturbed by the discovery of Jewish ancestry, she responded, “Jesus was Jewish.”