Southwest crypto-Jews make NY Times; crypto-Muslims still subaltern?

After centuries of clandestinity, the crypto-Jews or Marranos of the US Southwest are starting to boogie in public, and there are even numerous web pages devoted to them (Marranos, The Secret Jews, Who Are the Crypto-Jews?). You know their moment has really arrived when they get a write-up in the Sunday New York Times. By Simon Romero, Oct. 29:

Hispanics Uncovering Roots as Inquisition’s ‘Hidden’ Jews

HOUSTON, Oct. 28 – When she was growing up in a small town in southern Colorado, an area where her ancestors settled centuries ago when it was on the fringes of the northern frontier of New Spain, Bernadette Gonzalez always thought some of the stories about her family were unusual, if not bizarre.

Her grandmother, for instance, refused to travel on Saturday and would use a specific porcelain basin to drain blood out of meat before she cooked it. In one tale that particularly puzzled Ms. Gonzalez, 52, her grandfather called for a Jewish doctor to circumcise him while he was on his death bed in a hospital in Trinidad, Colo.

Only after Ms. Gonzalez moved to Houston to work as a lawyer and began discussing these tales with a Jewish colleague, she said, did “the pieces of the puzzle” start falling into place.

Ms. Gonzalez started researching her family history and concluded that her ancestors were Marranos, or Sephardic Jews, who had fled the Inquisition in Spain and in Mexico more than four centuries ago. Though raised in the Roman Catholic faith, Ms. Gonzalez felt a need to reconnect to her Jewish roots, so she converted to Judaism three years ago.

“I feel like I came home,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who now often uses the first name Batya. “The fingerprints of my past were all around me, but I didn’t know what they meant.”

It is difficult to know precisely how many Hispanics are converting or adopting Jewish religious practices, but accounts of such embraces of Judaism are growing more common in parts of the Southwest. In Clear Lake, a suburb south of Houston, Rabbi Stuart Federow has overseen half a dozen conversions of Hispanics in recent years. In El Paso, Rabbi Stephen Leon said he had converted almost 40 Hispanic families since moving to Texas from New Jersey 19 years ago.

These conversions are the latest chapter in the story of the crypto-Jews, or hidden Jews, of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, who are thought to be descended from the Sephardic Jews who began fleeing Spain more than 500 years ago. The story is being bolstered by recent historical research and advances in DNA testing that are said to reveal a prominent role played by crypto-Jews and their descendants in Spain’s colonization of the Southwest.

For more than two decades, anecdotal evidence collected by researchers in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas suggested that some nominally Catholic families of Iberian descent had stealthily maintained Jewish customs throughout the centuries, including lighting candles on Friday evening, avoiding pork and having the Star of David inscribed on gravestones.

The whispers of hidden rituals coming from thoroughly Catholic communities were at times met with skepticism. One explanation for these seemingly Jewish customs was that evangelical Protestant sects active in the Southwest about a century ago had used Jewish imagery and Hebrew writing in their proselytizing, and that these symbols had become ingrained in isolated Hispanic communities.

Skepticism aside, some rabbis view assistance to or conversions of crypto-Jews as a responsibility. “The American Jewish community provided support in bringing Soviet, Albanian or Syrian Jews to the United States, and helping them in their transition,” said Rabbi Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion, a Conservative congregation in El Paso. “I don’t see how the crypto-Jews are any different.”

Modern science may now be shedding new light on the history of the crypto-Jews after molecular anthropologists recently developed a DNA test of the male or Y chromosome that can indicate an ancestral connection to the Cohanim, a priestly class of Jews that traces its origin back more than 3,000 years to Aaron, the older brother of Moses.

Family Tree DNA, a Houston company that offers a Cohanim test to its male clients, gets about one inquiry a day from Hispanics interested in exploring the possibility of Jewish ancestry, said Bennett Greenspan, its founder and chief executive. Mr. Greenspan said about one in 10 of the Hispanic men tested by his company showed Semitic ancestry strongly suggesting a Jewish background. (Another divergent possibility is that the test might suggest North African Muslim ancestry.)

“The results have just blown me over, reminding me of something out of Kaifeng,” Mr. Greenspan said, referring to the Chinese city of Kaifeng, where a small Jewish community persisted for about 1,000 years until the mid-19th century when it was almost completely assimilated. “Lots of Hispanic people tell me they’re interested in something Jewish and they can’t explain it. Well, this helps explain it.”

Not everyone who discovers Jewish ancestry, either through genealogical research or DNA testing, has decided to convert to Judaism, but some Hispanics who have found links still feel drawn to incorporate Jewish customs into their life. For instance, the Rev. William Sanchez, 52, a Catholic priest in Albuquerque, spent years researching his family’s past in New Mexico before a DNA test three years ago showed that he almost certainly had the Jewish Cohanim marker.

Since then, Father Sanchez has sought to educate his parishioners on the connections between Catholicism and Judaism, and has helped oversee the Nuevo Mexico Project, which tries to identify Sephardic ancestry among Hispanics from New Mexico. He has encouraged more than 100 of his parishioners to take DNA tests.

Father Sanchez has also introduced some Jewish customs at St. Edwins Church in Albuquerque, where he serves; he blew the shofar, or ram’s horn, this month during the Yom Kippur holiday. At another parish where he used to work in rural northeastern New Mexico, in the village of Villanueva, he would hold an annual Passover supper.

“I have a pluralistic, not an antagonistic, view of our religions,” Father Sanchez said.

Still, others feel they have to make a clean break upon exploring their Jewish roots. John García, a lawyer in El Paso whose family moved to the United States two generations ago from northern Mexico, said he had heard stories since he was a boy that his family had a Sephardic Jewish past.

He formally converted to Judaism in 2001 and last year had a bar mitzvah in El Paso, at the age of 53, together with five other crypto-Jews. These days Mr. García, a lawyer in the public defender’s office in El Paso, never works on the Sabbath and is an active member of Temple Mount Sinai, a Reform congregation in El Paso.

“I’ve had to go beyond my comfort level in something I would call a reversion rather than a conversion,” Mr. García said. “There were an intervening 400 years when my family had become Catholic, but something about Judaism, I don’t know exactly what it was, was kept alive.”

But what about the crypto-Muslims, known in Spain as “Moriscos”? Logic dictates that they must exist in the Americas too, yet there has not been a similar public movement to reclaim their identity. The University of Colorado has the following page About the Moriscos, but it says tantalyzingly little about their presence in the Western Hemisphere.

About the Moriscos
In early January of 1492, the Catholic Monarchs decisively ended over eight centuries of sporadic Christian Reconquest by finally taking by military force the isolated and very vulnerable Nasrid Kingdom of Granada.

Despite the declining political power of Muslim Spain and the overall importance of Granada’s fall in 1492, it is crucial to remember that the end of Muslim rule in Spain did not mean the end of Muslim life and culture there. At the beginning of the sixteenth century — eight years after Granada’s fall — roughly half a million Spanish Muslims were still living under Christian rule (out of a total Spanish population of just under eight million). These mudéjar (i.e., Muslims living under Christian rule) communities were centered mostly in and around Granada and Valencia, though there were also sizeable communities in Aragon and smaller, more assimilated groups scattered throughout Castile.

Dragged under the Christian umbrella by force, the Granadan Muslims were hardly the sort of citizens that the Catholic Monarchs sought for their burgeoning nation-state: most were monolingual Arabic speakers, and there were numerous cases of Granadans expressing a common cause with other Muslim communities around the Mediterranean, including the ascendant Ottoman Turks. Yet, as evidenced by the surrender terms offered to the Granadans in 1492, there seemed to be little official desire on the part of Christian authorities to change the practices or allegiances of their new subjects. As had been the custom throughout most of the long period of Christian reconquest, these conquered Muslims, new subjects of the Spanish crown, were allowed (de jure if not de facto) a significant amount of political, cultural, and religious autonomy.

Shortly after the start of the sixteenth century, however, the fortunes of Spanish Muslims began to change. Pressured by the Granadan Archbishop Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros to take measures to bring the Muslims of that region into the Christian faith, and aware that alleged Christian abuses had provoked an uprising in the Alpujarras, King Ferdinand issued an order in 1502 requiring all Muslims in Castile to convert to Christianity or leave at once. The same law would reach Navarre in 1515 and Aragon in 1525. The king’s order was widely enforced (executed in large part by mass baptisms and coercive tactics), and by the end of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, the official Muslim population of Spain had been reduced from half a million to nearly zero.

Of course the speedy, mostly nominal conversion of Spanish Muslims to Christianity does not tell the whole story. Because the overwhelming majority of these conversions were performed by coercion and under duress, whole communities of Muslims (now nominally Christians) continued to practice Islam as they had before, some even doing so openly.

Oddly enough, even as members of the Spanish clergy were actively (and in many cases, brutally) seeking the conversion and religious instruction of indigenous populations in the Americas, there seems to have been only sporadic and largely unsuccessful efforts to catechize Spain’s newly converted Muslim population. Whether such efforts could ever have been successful in the first place is, of course, open to debate. In any case, as late as 1565 Spanish Muslims continued to practice their religion and maintain their cultural characteristics — in some cases openly — in areas where their population was most concentrated, such as Granada, Aragon and Valencia. All this, one should keep in mind, in spite of the best efforts of the Inquisition.

Violent and abrupt change came with the 1566 decree issued by King Felipe II. Through these laws, the Spanish crown went much further than it had ever gone in the past with respect to its Muslim — or crypto-Muslim — population. In a series of specific points, this decree called for the fundamental cultural, linguistic, and religious assimilation not only of crypto-Muslims, but of sincerely converted Christians as well. Besides other troubling points, the 1566 decree (which built upon a similar decree passed by Carlos V some years earlier) called for Spain’s former Muslims — now referred to as moriscos — to cease dressing in a style different from the Christian population; to cease speaking Arabic; to destroy all books written in Arabic; to leave the doors to their homes open for inspection on Muslim holy days; and to marry only according to the rules and customs of the Catholic Church. The impact of these new laws was tremendous in largely assimilated Castilian as well as Granadan, Aragonese, and Valencian Morisco communities, as it mandated not only orthodox Catholic religious faith and practice but also a wholesale adoption of Christian language and culture as well.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (and due largely to Christian inflexibility) the laws of 1566 — along with new royal policies that actively sought to rob agricultural land from Moriscos — also met with more combative, violent resistance. This was especially true within Granada and Valencia, where Arabic speech and Muslim customs had been most widely preserved.

Combative resistance in fact led to open rebellion in Granada, where an army of roughly 10,000 Moriscos took to the hills of the Alpujarras in 1568, gamely resisting Spanish military forces for nearly three years. The rebellion was violently put down by a seasoned army under the direction of Don Juan de Austria in 1570, and in its aftermath the Moriscos of Granada — not just the surviving combatants, but the whole population — were forced to leave Granada and relocate to other regions of Spain, principally Castile.

This mass relocation constituted a significant socio-cultural change for both the transported Granadans and the largely assimilated Castilian Moriscos, who in fact had very little in common with their new neighbors. This massive internal population shift had less of an impact on Morisco communities in Aragon, though it is safe to say that the pragmatics of 1566 themselves, as well as the unsuccessful rebellion in the Alpujarras, made things difficult for Moriscos everywhere in the Iberian Peninsula.

By the turn of the seventeenth century there was a wide debate in Spain about what should be done in response to the “cuestión morisca.” A number of Christian clerics advocated renewed efforts to give the Moriscos the religious instruction necessary for their full assimilation into Spanish society. Aragonese and Valencian nobles, whose large tracts of agricultural land depended extensively upon Morisco labor, were often outspoken advocates for patience and tolerance with respect to the Moriscos. On the other side, however, there were much louder and more powerful voices calling for the immediate expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain.

In one of the more unfortunate political coincidences of Spanish history, the public debate regarding the Moriscos heated up during the reign of the exceptionally weak King Felipe III, who reigned from 1598-1621. King Felipe’s government was run by the ambitious Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma (1533-1625), who personally saw to it that the policies of the Spanish state reflected his will during his tenure as the king’s right hand. One of a realtively small but influential group that strongly favored Morisco expulsion, the Duke of Lerma convinced Felipe to sign into law the forced expulsion of all Moriscos from Castile in 1609, and from the rest of Spain by 1614.

It is estimated that by 1609 there were slightly less than 400,000 Moriscos in Spain, making up almost five percent of the total Spanish population. This percentage increases significantly in areas such as Aragon and Valencia, where Moriscos made up a much higher portion of the regional population. Especially in Aragon, the expulsion of the Moriscos left whole villages empty, large quantities of crops ruined, and the local economy devastated. Beyond its economic cost, the expulsion exacted a high human cost as well: having to leave Spain by sea, many people, including the elderly and children, died in the rough waters of the Mediterranean or found themselves under attack by thieves, brigands, and even regional authorities upon landing in North Africa.

As with its expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and its policies and practices in the Americas during the same period, Spain’s treatment of the Moriscos stands as a tremendous scar on its national history. As early as the first decades after the fall of Granada, Spanish authorities began to single out this minority population of several thousand people, harassing them to varying degrees for over a century before expelling them by force. A cruel and narrow-minded solution to a difficult but workable — and hardly novel — question of coexistence. But, as Francisco Márquez Villanueva has argued, the Morisco expulsion was but part of a series of policies that allowed a powerful minority to chart a future for Spain that would transform it into the nation they desired it to be: homogeneous, resolutely Catholic, and secure from unwanted outside influences (1991).

During this entire century-long period of conversion, adaptation, negotiation, and flux, Spanish crypto-Muslims did a number of things to continue practicing Islam and hold themselves together as communities. One of these was the practice of taqiyya, a religious dispensation by which Muslims under compulsion or threat of injury were relieved of their religious requirements, including the observance of Ramadan, daily prayers, and dietary restrictions (Harvey 1993, 211). This flexibility built into Islamic religious practice allowed crypto-Muslims to adapt their faith and religious practice to their difficult situation, and thus continue on as Muslims in a real sense despite serious limitations and even danger. The concrete form of taqiyya practiced by crypto-Muslims in Spain throughout the sixteenth century varied from community to community, from person to person.

An important and effective means by which the Moriscos were able to maintain their religion and culture was the production and use of traditional narratives handwritten and actively recopied despite their illegality after 1566. These narratives were copied down in Castilian and Aragonese (with varying amounts of intercalated Arabic) using an adapted form of Arabic script known to modern scholars as aljamiado. This term comes from the Arabic adjective ‘ajamiyya, which means, in different though related contexts, “barbarian,” “non-Arabic,” or “foreign” and serves to mark the liminal status of Morisco written discourse. Defined in negative terms (as neither fully Castilian nor in any real sense Arabic), the written narratives of the Moriscos have been framed by Christian Spaniards and Arabs alike as the discourse of an intellectually, culturally, and spiritually impoverished “Other.” Yet these narrative texts played a number of very complex and important roles within Morisco communities, roles that were neither negatively defined nor instantiated without a keen first-hand sense of the frequently dire situation in which the readers of these texts, and their scribes, found themselves.

Adapted from: Barletta, Vincent. Covert Gestures: Crypto-Islamic Literature as Cultural Practice in Early Modern Spain. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.

There are a few webpages devoted to the Moriscos (The Moriscos, Revolt of the Moriscos), but they generally take a much more cautious and academic tone than those devoted to the Marranos. They also look mostly at the Moriscos of Spain following the 1492 reconquista—not at contemporary Moriscos in the United States. If anyone can provide further information about contemporary Moriscos in the Western Hemisphere, please contact us.

See our last post on the politics of contemporary Islam and the mysteries of Moorish identity.