In 1492, the Spanish monarchs decreed that all of the Jews in Spain would have to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Of the several hundred thousand Jews living in Spain, about half left into exile, where they could continue to practice their faith openly. The other half remained and converted. Five years later, the king of Portugal also issued an edict forcing the Jews in the country to convert.
Some of these conversos accepted baptism sincerely, but other converted in name only, while practicing their ancestral faith in secret. Life became very difficult for these crypto-Jews, or secret Jews, as there developed within the Spanish Catholic Church an institution known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Inquisition had no jurisdiction over Jews, but as Catholics, these crypto-Jews were vulnerable to persecution.
That same year, Christopher Columbus uncovered an entire “New World” for European eyes. Among the thousands of immigrants to settle in Spain’s (and Portugal’s) American colonies were Iberian crypto-Jews. There they could remain subjects of the monarchs of Spain and Portugal, living nominally as Catholics, but able to practice Judaism secretly away from the prying eyes of the inquisitors, initially, at least. While inquisitorial persecution was a large “push” factor in emigrating from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas, economic opportunity served as an important “pull” factor, as well.
Ultimately, the Inquisition became established in the Spanish colonies, and sporadic campaigns against Mexican crypto-Jews in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries stimulated a migration of these people to the far northern frontier of Mexico, including New Mexico. Inquisition trial records show clearly that not only could crypto-Jews be found among the New Mexico colonists in the mid-1600s, but more importantly, with few exceptions, their presence did not attract attention of the authorities.
Today in New Mexico vestiges of this crypto-Jewish heritage can still be found among the Hispano community. Some families retain only suggestive practices, disconnected from any consciousness of a Jewish past, such as the lighting of candles on Friday night, observance of the Sabbath on Saturday, refraining from eating pork products, and male infant circumcision. (The practice of male infant circumcision can be traced back to the period prior to the 1930s and 1940s when doctors were advising that this procedure be done for hygienic purposes.) In other cases, knowledge of a Jewish past has been passed down through the generations to the present time.
Resources and Publications about Crypto-Jewish History and New Mexico Crypto-Jews:
Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies
Centro Sefarad of New Mexico
“New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory”
Mona Hernandez (author) and Ori Z. Soltes (forward)
Cary Herz (Photographer)
The University of New Mexico Press, 2011
“To the End of the Earth”
Stanley M. Hordes
Columbia University Press, 2005
“Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity Among Crypto-Jews”
Columbia University Press, 2009