When I first arrived in Taos in 1981, I remember calling my father to tell him some great news!
The Espinozas did not all perish, I informed him, they live on in Taos. They even have roads named for them.
Although my dad was in no way Spanish, he was a Spangophile (and an Arabist), proud of the oral family history that informed him of not so distant, Babylonian roots; Jews who had remained in the Fertile Crescent after the first Diaspora. Descendents of the High Priests of the Levites. Kohanim.
He despised Zionism, loved Arab and Spanish Culture (the Moors), and spent the last twenty years of his life living in Mexico, where he fled to after George Bush Sr. was elected POTUS.
“America’s gone to the dogs,” he told me upon his arrival in Guadalajara. “Mexico is still civilized.”
Family lore passed down told of a town in Georgia in the late 1700’s, that lost their Kohane to old age and needed a new one for Brit Milah’s and other ritual events. His great, great-grandfather came from the Babylonian Academies to do the duty. He married a local Ashkenazi woman and voila! From Russia they eventually arrived at Ellis Island in 1897.
My great-grandfather, Nathan Cohen was a Scribe. He copied Sacred Texts onto vellum he prepared himself. Presumably from animals he slaughtered; he was a Shochet. A ritual slaughterer,
Nathan’s son, my father’s father, married the daughter of my great-grandmother Miriam, a descendent of Bohemian and Austrian Jews who had moved to Vilna where they owned a Mill before they also fled Europe for the New World. My paternal grandmother was born in NYC in 1900.
Fleeing was a common theme in the stories I heard. My father’s mother told me all she knew. It’s been a treasure I’ve guarded fiercely along with the photographs left to me by she and my late father.
On my mother’s side, I was not so lucky. My mother’s mother died when I was six, though I remember her vividly. A beautiful woman with Auburn hair and blue, blue eyes with skin like milk. Her mother’s maiden name was Espinoza. They were Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had wound up in Amsterdam.
Her father was Ashkenazi but my grandmother carried on her mother’s traditions as daughters are wont to do; from the food she cooked to the insistence on the children being educated in Catholic Convents and monasteries (“If the Inquisition returns, you’ll know how to say Mass.”)
When the time came to choose a school for me, my father (the son of by now, secular NY Jewish intellectuals), balked at the thought of my education being supervised by nuns, and the compromise was an all girls Anglican school. “For the education, darling, “ I was told.
I was also told that the Jews of Amsterdam (including my Espinoza relatives), had all perished under Hitler. Essentially they were extinct.
Well now, I had found them on Espinoza Lane in Taos!
“Oh yes,” my father told me, “Hispania is full of the descendents of Jews. They all converted to Catholicism though, so they no longer count.”
Did he count having declined to follow in the ways of his forefathers? I don’t think he cared. Ethocentricity was not part of his philosophy, which was all-inclusive.
“The only pure race exists in the mind of a Hitler,” he would remind me.
When Arthur Koestler’s controversial book The Thirteenth Tribe came out, he sent it to all of his Jewish friends. The book claimed that the descendents of Eastern European Jews were in fact due to a Turkish Tribe (the Khazars), who had converted to Judaism in the 13th Century.
My father died delighted with the idea that he was the son of wild Turkish horsemen who roamed the Steppes and plains of Western Asia. A few years after he passed away, my brother had his DNA done. It went straight back to Babylon, on to Jerusalem and back again! With the Cohen Modal Marker firmly imbedded in the Y chromosome. J1 Haplotype – common in the Arab world and among Mizrahi Jews.
Now imagine if you will, the descendants of Jews pursued by the Spanish Inquisition, still tending the dying embers of their faith hidden in the mountain villages of Northern New Mexico. Perhaps even a few Espinoza’s still among them.
The story has resonance, and has, over the years generated considerable interest.
The phenomenon’s first whispers can be traced to Stanley Hordes, who in the early 1980s was New Mexico’s state historian. New Mexico is a state in which history matters more than in most. Santa Fe was for generations the northernmost seat of rule for Nueva España – the New Kingdom of Spain, Madrid’s colonial holdings in the Americas.
Today Santa Fe is the nexus of a tourist industry that has gained international cachet by happily marketing the history of the Conquistadors along with the Peoples they vanquished. Santa Fe’s entrepreneurs – who mostly come from the East and West Coasts, and from the ethnic group that New Mexicans call Anglo – also market Native made, expensive silver-and-turquoise jewelry, weavings, moccasins made from fringed and beaded leathers, and quaint wooden figures of saints, called Santos.
Beneath this layer of consumerism Santa Fe and its environs harbor a population whose forefathers were the victorious Spaniards, and who have experienced steady impoverishment at the hands of newcomers to the region.
Many of these New Mexicans call themselves Hispanos – not Chicano, because that word signifies Mexicans, which in turn implies an admixture of Indian blood, and not Hispanics or Latinos, terms that also leave open the possibility of descent from Native Americans, whether from Mexico or the United States. Although many Hispanos have the features and dark complexions that speak of mestizo heritage – people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry – they deny it. As they see it, their heritage has nothing to do with the Aztecs or Mayans, let alone with the Pueblos. In fact, most Mexicans in the area arrived only recently, bringing their urban Spanish, their immigrant status, and their readiness to take low-paying tourism-driven jobs, and thereby, reportedly, depressing wages for local Hispanos.
Once, Hispanos labored on their own land, granted to their intrepid forefathers by the Spanish Crown, but in the past two generations, under pressure from an influx of Anglos and rising land prices, thousands of them have sold off parcels of the Land Grants, leaving them impoverished and forced to take menial jobs.
The Land Of Enchantment continues to promote a tri-cultural utopia, but in reality and off the tourist track the last locals suffer from both nostalgia and resentment. Elderly men and women yearn for their villages, describing them with romantic imagery that evokes the dreamy paintings for sale at our galleries but few remember that these same villages also had a darker side. There were quaint hand-carved santos, but there were also priests who zealously monitored their parishioners’ reading matter and behavior, while looking for signs of heterodoxy.
Such vigilance was infused with a paranoid anti-Protestantism, but often it was also cloaked in anti-Semitism. In the seventeenth century New Mexicans came to the attention of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. In the late 1600s the governor of New Mexico and his wife were accused of practicing Judaism; soon thereafter the same charge was leveled against a soldier and bureaucrat named Francisco Gómez Robledo, who was also said to have a tail -supposedly the mark of a Jew. All were examined by the Holy Office. All were acquitted.
In 1981 New Mexico was seeking someone for the post of state historian, and Stanley Hordes was awarded the job. He had just defended his doctoral dissertation, written at Tulane University, in New Orleans, that dealt with the Jews of colonial Mexico. More specifically, it dealt with what are known as the Crypto-Jews – a people whose ranks swelled in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain ordered all Jews to convert to Christianity or be banished from the kingdom.
Up to 50,000 of Spain’s 125,000 to 200,000 Jews were baptized, joining 225,000 descendants of the converts of previous generations. The others would not give up their religion. Some fled to North Africa, Italy, and Navarre (then a kingdom on the border between Spain and France). Many more went to Portugal, though Portugal itself would soon demand conversion, and thousands of Jews there also underwent baptism.
In both Spain and Portugal many Conversos sincerely embraced the Church and intermarried with so-called Old Christians. A smaller number, however, continued secretly in their old beliefs, under cover of Catholicism. These were the Crypto-Jews. I have come to believe, my own ancestors for a time, were among them, until they arrived in Holland and were free from persecution before Hitler came…
In 1991, after returning to Taos from NYC, Anita Rodriguez, the famous Taos writer and artist, took me under her wing and began showing me a few ropes, She had learned of my Sephardic heritage and as she was painting Crypto- Jewish skeletons at the time, she decided to let me in on a few secrets,
“Oh, and you must talk to Stanley Hordes,” she said, putting me in touch with him immediately.
As I listened to Hordes describe unusual customs and gravestone markings (which I have since seen for myself), I began to rethink my own past. My family practiced Judaism and had shown no interest in the Catholic saints, but sent their kids to religious Catholic schools!
Here I learned that certain families too, even though they claimed they were Catholic, hardly observed. Hordes told me that one woman recalled her parents drinking Manischewitz wine and lighting candles on Christmas. She asked why they were drinking Jewish wine. Because it was “clean,” she was told. Hordes realised that”clean” meant “kosher.” As for the candles. “There were always candles,” she had responded cryptically.
He told me about various other customs practiced in Northern New Mexico, including the ritual slaughtering of animals. That hit close to home!
Their first ancestor to set foot on this Continent was Jose Espinoza, a known Converso, who soon after his arrival in El Norte, was sent to Mexico City to be tried for Judaizing.
At this point Hordes was helping to organize a new group, the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, which facilitated connections among people who suspected that they were descended from Crypto-Jews.
A woman I met, claimed to belong to a clan that had practiced Crypto-Judaism for generations. She showed me a family heirloom she said dated from colonial times: a mezuzah. Some of her relatives recited ancient prayers and folk rhymes that she believed were Ladino. She also remembered the practice of hanging lambs and goats upside down after slaughter in order to make the meat kosher by draining the blood.
Another woman had skin like mine; fair with a vaguely olive cast, and her eyelids, like my own were slightly hooded. She read a lot into these features. She said when she went to college in California people would comment on her appearance. Some told her she looked Sephardic, before she knew what that word meant.
She told me that she had always felt different, not just from the Anglo kids but from Hispanos as well, and she often wondered about her true origins. Once, on a visit from California, she suggested to her grandfather that their family was mestizo. He vehemently denied having Native American blood: “We are Spaniards!” he proclaimed.
Years later, after meeting Hordes, she began to understand. This was but one of many stories I came to hear over the years, thanks to Anita who pointed me in that direction. Anita too believed she had some Jewish blood through her father, but no such thing showed up when she had her DNA analysed. She did however have Iberian traces showing up.
Last month my daughter Genevieve sent her saliva off to 23 And Me. The results were intriguing. 49.7% Ashkenazi Jew. Then the admixture from her father. Maternal Haplogroup V?
Relatively rare – 4% of Europeans have it – it reaches its highest frequency among the Sami (the indigenous Reindeer herders of the Arctic circle), the Basque and their Cantabrian neighbors, as well as the Tuareg in North Africa! Go figure. My older daughter and my own curiosity piqued, Angelica decided we should have have it done also, and gifted me with a kit from 23 And Me.
My results arrived over the weekend. 98.2 percent Ashkenazi Jew. But here, it gets really interesting. My ancestors appear to have only recently entered the Ashkenazi gene pool, which begins for me, somewhere around 1800. Only 200 some years ago. All other great great grand parents prior, going back to 1600 (post Edict of Expulsion), were Spanish and Portuguese (and Western Asian), affirming all I’d been told.
This morning I messaged Anita telling her my results. I love oral history that doesn’t lie, I added.
“Let’s get together soon!” She responded.
When we do I will tell her that I have done a bit of research and discovered that both Ancestry.com and 23 And Me rarely differentiate Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from other European Jewish groups; rather they say there’s an Iberian (or Spanish/Portuguese), trace and regarding Jews from Arab lands, Western Asian is the label they use. So many of the refugees from the Iberian Peninsula (and further afield) eventually intermarried with the extant Jewish populations and were assimilated into the prevailing culture, so are now broadly labeled Ashkenazi or European Jew. And in my case, almost 2% of unknown heritage along with a stubborn blonde, blue-eyed recessive gene, points north to the land of the Laplanders and their Reindeer herds.
My father was correct, there is no such thing as a pure race, We are all related. And in these times, more than ever, our differences along with our commonalities need to be remembered and celebrated!
In Taos you can visit the Martinez Hacienda to get a glimpse through a doorway into the not too distant past; a small room has been reimagined as a secret meeting place for prayer, complete with a menorah on the altar. Perhaps Los Hermanos made up the Minion, and gathered there on Shabbat, behind the sacks of beans and grain, stored for the winter.
For more on New Mexico’s secret Jews, please visit the sites linked below.
To see more of Anita Rodriguez’ amazing paintings of Crypto Jews and all of her work, please visit her site below
Editor’s note: Spain and Portugal now both offer Jewish descendents of those who left under the Edict of Expulsion in 1492 (during the same month Columbus sailed, his expedition financed by the sale of their stolen property), EU citizenship under the Right of Return. It requires proof of Sephardic heritage and your family name must appear on the lists they provide, but I encourage a boycott of this proposal until the children of the (Muslim) Moors who were also thrown out at the same time, are included in these reparations.
All images of Anita Rodriguez’ Crypto Jew paintings, thanks to the artist.