'Crypto-Jews' In The Southwest Find Faith In A Shrouded Legacy

Code Switch has been writing about some overlooked cultural interactions that have helped shape what Jewish identity is today, and we continue the series with this post about the murky and fascinating history of crypto-Jews in the Southwest.

There were the grandfathers who refused to eat pork and wore hats at Saturday church services, the grandmothers who lit candles on Friday nights. The sheep and cattle ranchers who slit the throats of their animals, drained the blood, removed the sciatic nerve and salted the meat. These kinds of stories aren't uncommon in the American Southwest.

At a bedside altar facing the room's East wall, Sonya Loya's maternal grandmother, a staunch Catholic, would pray three times daily with a shawl over her head. Living in Alpine, Texas, a small town isolated in the high desert, she taught her family to routinely check their hens' eggs for spots of blood. Her last request before she died was that she be buried with her feet facing the East.

"There's something about it, deep within our souls," Loya says.

It wasn't until Loya was an adult that she learned of a possible Jewish legacy in the region — a narrative that the media would magnify and scholars would dispute. She matched her family surnames with names of medieval Sephardic Jews on an online database. Suddenly, her grandmother's unquestioned traditions dramatically changed in meaning. Had she been a Jew all along?

New Mexico's Hidden Jews

When Jewish-Latino photographer Peter Svarzbein drove through Ruidoso, N.M., and stopped at Sonya Loya's shop, he was overwhelmed to find a collection of Judaica for sale in the small town off US-70. "It was fascinating and emotional," he says, "not something that fit with the Jewish narrative of my life." He began taking pictures. That evolved into a project documenting crypto-Jews in the region who were making the "transition back" to Judaism. See Svarzbein's project at mongovision.com.

  • On the right is Sonya Loya's original glass shop. On the left is a section she opened after embracing a Jewish identity. Loya believes her family was among those who were forced to convert from Judaism during the Spanish Inquisition.
    Hide caption
    On the right is Sonya Loya's original glass shop. On the left is a section she opened after embracing a Jewish identity. Loya believes her family was among those who were forced to convert from Judaism during the Spanish Inquisition.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com
  • A man touches the mezuzah on his home in East El Paso, Texas.
    Hide caption
    A man touches the mezuzah on his home in East El Paso, Texas.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com
  • Rabbi Stephen Leon leads a Friday night service at B'nai Zion synagogue in El Paso, Texas. Leon has converted crypto-Jews in the region.
    Hide caption
    Rabbi Stephen Leon leads a Friday night service at B'nai Zion synagogue in El Paso, Texas. Leon has converted crypto-Jews in the region.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com
  • This dreidel-like Mexican top is used to play a similar game called toma todo. Its origins are unclear.
    Hide caption
    This dreidel-like Mexican top is used to play a similar game called toma todo. Its origins are unclear.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com
  • A group of men sits expectantly for Friday night dinner in Mexicali, Mexico.
    Hide caption
    A group of men sits expectantly for Friday night dinner in Mexicali, Mexico.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com
  • Mr. and Mrs. Ysidro Chavez walk in Sunland Park, N.M. Beyond them is Mt. Cristo Rey, where New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico, meet.
    Hide caption
    Mr. and Mrs. Ysidro Chavez walk in Sunland Park, N.M. Beyond them is Mt. Cristo Rey, where New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico, meet.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/ mongovision.com
  • Daniel Diaz-Huerta dons his tallit, or prayer shawl, in front of the Organ Mountain near Las Cruces, N.M.
    Hide caption
    Daniel Diaz-Huerta dons his tallit, or prayer shawl, in front of the Organ Mountain near Las Cruces, N.M.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com
  • Svarzbein opened a kosher taco truck, called Conversos y Tacos, to raise awareness about crypto-Jews in the Southwest. It will be touring New York City this summer.
    Hide caption
    Svarzbein opened a kosher taco truck, called Conversos y Tacos, to raise awareness about crypto-Jews in the Southwest. It will be touring New York City this summer.
    Courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/mongovision.com

1 of 8

View slideshow i

A Religion In Hiding

Spain, 1391: Anti-Semitic riots broke out across the Iberian Peninsula. Thousands of Jews were murdered; thousands more converted to Christianity, mostly by force. But even the converts were still targets. In the 15th century King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella feared that these Jews who converted to Christianity, conversos or Cristianos nuevos, continued to secretly adhere to Judaism. To root out and punish the crypto-Jews (crypto as in concealed, hidden) they established the Spanish Inquisition, whose first tribunals were established in 1480 in Seville.

In 1492, the practicing Jews who remained were officially expelled from Spain. Jews and crypto-Jews alike immigrated to Portugal and the Spanish colonies for new opportunity and more religious freedom. But the Inquisition spread to Portugal, then to the empire's farthest reaches: first Peru, then Mexico City.

Those who claim to be descendants of crypto-Jews — and the academics who support them — believe that converso populations sought refuge in what is now the border region between Texas and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.

When Sonya Loya learned about this legacy of crypto-Judaism, she was running a glass shop in the small mountain town of Ruidoso, N.M. She'd been raised Catholic, like her grandmother, but never felt much sense of belonging. When she was 18, her priest told her not to come back.

But something else was in order for her. "I had the courage to keep asking questions until I had my answers," she remembers.

Years later, a friend invited her to a gathering of Messianic Jews near Santa Fe, and it was there she witnessed her first Sabbath service. Seeing other Hispanics wearing yarmulkes and reading Hebrew stirred her curiosity unlike anything had before.

"I walked away from that weekend with a few tools in my hand to continue my journey," she says.

A woman at the gathering explained the history of the crypto-Jews to Loya and encouraged her to look into her genealogy. After learning online her ancestors may have been Sephardic Jews, some of whom were persecuted by the Inquisition, she began teaching herself Hebrew and studying Torah.

Legitimacy Of The Legacy

She wasn't aware of it at the time, but the "crypto-Jewish" identity in the Southwest has been the subject of heated controversy. In 1981, New Mexico's newly appointed state historian, Stanley Hordes, began work in Santa Fe and immediately began receiving visitors in search of family records, believing themselves to be the descendants of conversos.

He began tracing through the state's archives and Inquisition records. He discovered genealogical links between families in the Southwest with vestigial Jewish traditions and victims of the Inquisition in Mexico, Portugal and Spain.

"The biggest challenge in completing a study of this kind was determining the history of a group of people who for centuries tried desperately to cover their tracks ..." Hordes writes in the introduction to his book, To the End of the Earth.

His findings became popular in the Southwest, but many remained skeptical. Folklorist and Case Western Reserve University lecturer Judith Neulander has concluded that the "folk evidence" of a crypto-Jewish survival in the Southwest — six-pointed stars on tombstones, supposedly kosher practices — is inadequate.

Many of those traditions, she said, could as easily have come from a separatist sect of Seventh-day Adventists in the area, whose practices were notably more Hebraic than other forms of Protestantism. The crypto-Jewish identity, she argued, could instead be an origin myth Hispanics in New Mexico appropriated in lieu of one previously debunked — that they were the descendants of conquistadors.

"People will reconstruct the past in the way of the greatest social benefit to their communities," Neulander says.

Forward To Israel

Loya began selling Jewish items in her store in Ruidoso and turned a section of the space into the Bat Tziyon [daughter of Zion] Hebrew Learning Center, which hosted weekly Torah-study classes and Shabbat dinners. While many community members became involved, others were vehemently opposed and tried to get it banned. She says a Christian radio station ran several programs about her, accusing her of brainwashing Christians and blasting her Judaism.

"Some pastors run the other way when they see me," Loya says.

But against doubts and opposition, she completed her conversion to Judaism in 2005 and has since filled out her papers to emigrate to Israel. At the age of 54, she hopes to study to become a rabbi.

"Sometimes I wake up and I think, 'Why am I doing this?' " she says. "And then I remember — it's for all the thousands and thousands of the others who are trying to make it back."


Editor's note: The government of Spain recently announced its intention to offer citizenship to descendants of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled in 1492.

As part of our series, we also wrote about Persian identity and Latin-Jewish cooking and music. Share your ideas on Jewish cross-cultural interactions with us: Send your thoughts to Emily Siner or tweet at Code Switch.

Comments

 

Discussions about race, ethnicity and culture tend to get dicey quickly, so we hold our commenters on Code Switch to an especially high bar. We may delete comments we think might derail the conversation. If you're new to Code Switch, please read over our FAQ and NPR's Community Guidelines before commenting. We try to notify commenters individually when we remove their comments, but given that we receive a high volume of comments, we may not always be able to get in touch. If we've removed a comment you felt was a thoughtful and valuable addition to the conversation, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing codeswitch@npr.org.