That old time religion
A new exhibit examines the history of Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition, and identity in the New World
Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition, and New World Identities at the New Mexico History Museum
During the Jewish golden age in Spain, from about AD 900 to 1300, Jews contributed to the economy, arts, and pursuit of scientific knowledge that thrived during the sometimes uneasy coexistence of three cultures — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish — known in Spanish as convivencia. Though they were always the minority population in the country they called Sepharad, and they periodically experienced persecution at the hands of the ruling class, Jews were poets, astronomers, philosophers, merchants, and even advisors in Muslim and Christian courts until sentiment turned against them in the 14th century. Europe, ravaged by the Black Death, faced economic collapse and rising political tensions. As they had been for centuries and would continue to be for centuries to come throughout the world, Jews were violently scapegoated, their villages pillaged. They were encouraged to convert to Christianity, as were Muslims. In 1391, a yearlong pogrom forced Jews to either convert or be killed. About half of Spain’s Jewish population opted for conversion, which created a fourth group, conversos, or New Christians. “It is interesting to note that, during the fifteenth century, the hate, envy, and hostility toward Jews were transferred to the conversos,” Juan Ignacio Pulido Serrano writes in “Assault and Fragmentation: Emergent Identities from 1391 to 1492,” the second essay in the bilingual exhibition catalog that accompanies Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition, and New World Identities, opening at the New Mexico History Museum on Sunday, May 22. “This hostility was justified by a widespread suspicion held by the majority. Conversos were accused of being, in fact, false Christians by secretly maintaining the Jewish faith and practices. It was repeatedly said that if they had converted, it was to enrich themselves and gain power.”
Fractured Faiths, which follows conversos to modern-day Northern New Mexico, is curated by Josef B. Díaz, curator of Southwest and Mexican colonial art and history collections at the museum, and Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, a CONEX Marie Curie Fellow at the Universidad de Carlos III de Madrid and assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The exhibition, which includes historical documents and panels, synagogue tiles, arts, crafts, and documentary photography, is divided into three parts: “Hispania, Al-Andalus, Sepharad, España Pre-History to 1600”; “New World, New Woes, New Worries 1500-1800”; and “At Home
at ‘The End of the Earth’ 1800 to the Present.” The catalog offers readers six in-depth essays on the history of Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Inquisition in Europe and the Americas.
Identity has always been a complicated issue in Judaism, defined variously, inside and outside of the faith, by a mixture of religious observation, cultural affiliation, and genetics. In the catalog and exhibit, pains are taken to explain the Spanish vocabulary that emerged by the end of the 15th century to describe permutations of religious identity, while separating historical notions from 21st-century uses of the terms. For instance, “converso” was a general term for a Jewish convert to Christianity, with somewhat negative connotations, but a convert was likely to refer to himself as a “buen cristiano” or “good Christian.” Many 15th-century converts did not secretly retain their Jewish faith, though they were presumed to have done so by rebelling Catholics in Toledo, who accused them of scheming against the unity of Christians and wanted them banned from holding important offices. “The rebellion of Toledo in 1449 marked a key moment in the history of the converso problem,” Serrano writes. “The statutes of ‘blood cleansing’ or racial purity slowly began to spread throughout the country.”
Other forced converts did continue to practice Judaism or clung to certain rituals despite also being true believers in Christ, but it is unlikely they would have referred to themselves as crypto-Jews, or cripto-judío, which was a term used by Spanish Christians to describe false converts. The English term came into use in the 19th and 20th centuries and is embraced by some people who identify as Sephardic Jews. Today in New Mexico, “converso” and “crypto-Jew” are often used interchangeably. But in the 15th century, these labels were more than slurs or a reclamation of cultural pride.
Conversos had penetrated all levels of society by the mid-15th century, and the most elite conversos were eager to prove the purity of their bloodlines. An industry sprang up to create elaborate documentation of Old Christian status. Some of the illuminated genealogical patent letters of confirmed Jewish families convey falsified Old Christian heritage, such as the 1623 charter letter of nobility from King Felipe IV to Andres and Francisco de Cervantes Cabrera, included in the exhibition.
In 1478, in an effort to quell unrest among the populace, Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragón, known as the Catholic Monarchs, decided to take care of the “converso problem” once and for all by getting papal concession to begin an Inquisition (which lasted more than 350 years). Tribunals were held to adjudicate accusations of heresy among conversos, but there were still unconverted, practicing Jews in Spain at the time, and it was determined that continued contact between Jews and conversos could only have negative outcomes.
The inquisitors of the tribunals “solicited the kings to prohibit Judaism in their kingdoms and to force all Jews to convert,” Serrano writes. “Those who did not accept baptism should be expelled. Once they all became converts, it would be easier to combat those who practiced the Jewish faith in secret. The proposal was accepted. The expulsion decree signed by the kings was made public in 1492. Because of this measure, the majority of Jews were baptized to avoid exile, but an important number decided to leave Sepharad. The Jews of this new diaspora were known as Sephardic Jews.”
Jews had four months to flee. Leaving most of their possessions behind, they went to Portugal, France, Italy, the independent kingdom of Navarra, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. Conversos who stayed in Spain faced constant scrutiny, torture, and even death. As the Inquisition wore on into the 16th century, many began to see migration to the New World — Mexico — as the best possible option to escape oppression and practice their faith in peace, whether as Catholics or as crypto-Jews or something in between. Such migration was legally limited to Old Christians, but forged documents could be obtained for a high price, and many Jewish and Muslim Spaniards — who were similarly expelled in 1503 — were able to emigrate secretly, without papers. The decree of expulsion is included in the exhibition.
Unfortunately, the Inquisition followed conversos to Mexico, where their communities were discovered and rooted out. Many people were tried and put to death, some for Jewish heresy and others for witchcraft and other crimes of blasphemy. When the frontier of New Spain extended north into New Mexico, some conversos seized the opportunity to move again, this time to a land where the Catholic friars were too busy trying to wrest power from Pedro de Peralta, governor of New Mexico, and convert the Pueblo Indians to pay attention to who was or was not lighting Sabbath candles on Friday nights or fasting on Yom Kippur. In 1663-1664, New Mexico governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal and his wife, Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, were arrested at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe and transported to Mexico City, where they were tried at the Palace of the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism. Doña Teresa wrote an extensive 28-page refutation of the charges, firing back at many of her presumed accusers, that is included in the museum exhibition.
“That none of those arrested in the 1660s … were convicted of Judaizing indicates the disinclination of the Mexican Inquisition at that time to prosecute cases against conversos,” writes Stanley M. Hordes in “To the Far Northern Frontier of New Spain: Converso Settlement in New Mexico, 1598-1900,” the fifth essay in the Fractured Faiths catalog. In 1680, Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spanish colonists and settlers, driving them out of New Mexico for more than a decade. After the reconquest by Diego De Vargas in 1692-1693, civil and religious authorities were focused on defending against attacks from indigenous New Mexicans, and the converso issue eventually fell away. Without the robust record-keeping of the Inquisition, however, Hordes says, it becomes far more difficult to determine the religious roots of those who resettled here in the 18th century. According to Seth D. Kunin, author of the final essay in Fractured
Faiths, “Fluid Identities: New Mexican Crypto-Jews in the Late Twentieth Century,” there was very little expression of modern crypto-Judaism in New Mexico until the 1980s, when people began to reconsider and reexamine their ethnic and cultural identities. Genealogical research indicates that at least some who embrace Sephardic roots are descended from conversos accused of Judaizing, and in other cases their ancestors were conversos with no history of secret Jewish faith. Family traditions, stories, and heirlooms sometimes indicate old strains of Judaism, with genealogy, Kunin writes, functioning as just one aspect of Jewish identity and self-perception. A series of photos by Cary Herz captures modernday descendants of crypto-Jews around New Mexico, as well as cemetery headstones engraved with Jewish writing and imagery.
“What is important is how they view themselves and give their lives meaning — for some it will be through different forms of meanings and values attributed to their Jewish past and present,” Kunin writes. “It is those who consider the past to be part of their present identity (whatever their formal religious affiliation) who are the crypto-Jews and who are both the inheritors of a Sephardic past and creators of a crypto-Jewish present and future.”
Felipe IV, King of Spain, charter letter of nobility to Andres de Cervantes and Francisco Cabrera, Granada, Spain, 1623, illuminated manuscript on vellum; top, case documents of Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche relate to the arrest with her husband, New Mexico governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal, 16631664; they were tried by the Holy Office of the Inquisition
From left to right, The Five Commandments in Hebrew Letters, in a Catholic Cemetery in the Middle of the Río Grande Valley, 1905, photo Cary Herz; 14th-century chest piece, Spain; bottom, 13th-15th-century bronze horse bit, Spain
Late 14th-century glazed ceramic jar, Teruel, Spain; top, David and the Priest Ahimelech, Mexico, early 18th century, oil on canvas, by an unidentified artist; all images courtesy New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors