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Conversos & Crypto-Jews

Stanley M. Hordes, writing in To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of
New Mexico, describes his attempts to document the presence of conversos and
crypto-Jews in New Mexico. He states that the book was difficult to write because
the Inquisition, established in the 1480s and lasting until the late 17th century,
maintained only a sporadic interest in prosecuting the Jews. He writes, “This
inconsistent activity on the part of the Inquisition resulted in the production of a
fragmentary record of the crypto-Jewish communities. By the late colonial period,
historians had no trial records on which to base their observation of the nature and
extent of crypto-Judaism.”

Hordes bases his research on the following evidence:
*Solid documentation provided by the Inquisition or other church or civil
*Where hard evidence is absent, alternate means such as establishing
extended family relationships to those that the Inquisition has mandated
penitence for practicing Judaism;
*Connecting a relatively uncommon surname to Jewish populations in a
small town in Mexico or on the Iberian Peninsula;
*Associating an individual’s occupation with trades characteristically held
by Jews and conversos;
*Tracing a person’s family to the Jewish quarter of a town in Spain or
*Documenting a family’s possession and reading of the Hebrew bible or
books cited by the Inquisition as substitutes for the Hebrew bible; or
*Discovering a family’s use of names from the Old Testament for its

Many times more than one of these characteristics was shown.

Original crypto-Jews came from the Iberian Peninsula, the area of southwest
Europe between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Straits of Gibraltar, now known
as Spain and Portugal. Jewish populations existed on the Iberian Peninsula from
before the Common Era until the 15th century.

At the end of the 14th century, the Inquisition forced the Jews in Spain and
Portugal to leave or convert to Catholicism. Many of those who converted, or
“conversos,” continued to practice their faith illegally and in secret through the
16th and 17th centuries. A large number of these conversos and crypto-Jews
immigrated to Spanish and Portuguese American colonies where enforcement by
the Inquisition was less stringent than on the Iberian Peninsula. During and after
periods of persecution by the Mexican Inquisition, crypto-Jews and their
descendants migrated to isolated frontier areas, including northern New Spain
which later became New Mexico.

Dr. Hordes suggests that on the basis of the clues provided by the historical record,
material culture, genetics, genealogy, and ethnography, it appears that crypto-Jews
and their descendants have constituted and remain an important part of the
culture in New Mexico. Conversos and crypto-Jews were in the state from the
exploration and colonization by the Spanish in the late 16th century to the present.
Descendants of Iberian crypto-Jews in the early settlement of the state in the 17th
and 18th centuries represented efforts by conversos to escape persecution by the
Holy Office of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal after the expulsions and
forced conversions in the late 15th century. The further the conversos and crypto-
Jews could migrate from the centers of the Inquisition, the greater their chances for
survival. After the establishment of the Inquisition in Mexico City and its sporadic
campaigns against crypto-Jews, the northern frontier of New Spain came to be one
of their most secure havens.

There is some conjecture among historians that Christopher Columbus was Jewish
because the departure date of his expedition was precisely the deadline imposed
on the Jews to leave Spain. Dr. Hordes believes that more research needs to be
done into Columbus’ genealogy before any conclusion can be drawn as to his
ethnicity. However, it is known that at least one converso among Columbus’ crew
on his first voyage, Luis de Torres, was recruited because of his knowledge of
Hebrew. As Columbus anticipated landing somewhere in the East Indies, he
assumed that there would be traders who spoke Hebrew. When Columbus and his
crew landed in the Bahamas in October 1492, there was no need for Torres’
knowledge of Hebrew.

Gaspar Castaño de Sosa was the first converso to travel into New Mexico in the
late 1570s. He accompanied Alberto del Canto in the founding of Saltillo and
participated in the conquest and settlement of the mines of Almadén and became
lieutenant governor of Nuevo León. Castaño was identified as a Portuguese, a
term that at that time was synonymous with “Jew.” In 1590 Castaño and his party
left the mining community of Almadén and headed north, reaching the Rio
Grande. They continued northward to the confluence of the Rio Pecos and
continued up the Pecos, arriving at the pueblo of Pecos.

Following a skirmish with the Native Americans, they crossed the Glorieta Pass,
explored the pueblos of northern New Mexico, returned southward to visit the
Pueblos of the Galisteo Basin and finally established headquarters in the Middle
Rio Grande Valley near the pueblo of Santo Domingo. This expedition was not
authorized by royal officials who sent soldiers to apprehend Castaño and his men.
Castaño submitted to his captors without resistance and returned with them to
Mexico City. He did not know if he had been arrested because of his expedition or
because the Inquisition was seeking him. He wrote a letter to royal officials in
Mexico City defending his actions and explaining that the mission had been
successful in that he had discovered lead and silver mines and secured the
allegiance of the Pueblo Indians to the King. However, Castaño was convicted of
treason in 1593 for having disobeyed royal authorities by having invaded the
territory of peaceful Indians. He was sentenced to exile in the Philippine Islands
for six years. Though his conviction was overturned, he died in the Philippines
soon after his arrival when he was killed in a revolt of Chinese galley slaves in
October 1593.

Juan de Oñate, holding the offices of governor and “adelantado” (person
advancing the frontier) traveled northward to New Mexico in 1598 after several
years of preparation. In recent years scholars have argued that Oñate descended
from converted Jews on his maternal side. One such scholar, Donald T. Garate, has
stated that the office of treasurer of the mint and other high administrative
positions were held in Spain by one of Oñate’s maternal great-grandfathers and
great-great grandfathers. Garate concludes that “despite the fact the intent of a
pureba [proof of nobility] was to prove that the candidate had no Jewish or
Moorish heritage, a close examination of the original document lends support to
the promise that Oñate did have Jewish ancestry through his maternal

The other historian, José Antonio Esquibel, presented a more comprehensive
analysis of Oñate’s Jewish ancestry. He conducted extensive genealogical research
and discovered that his fourth great-grandmother had been a member of a very
prominent Jewish family of Burgos and his extended family included the sister of
the chief rabbi of Burgos. It is unknown if Oñate was aware of his Jewish origins.

Several New Christian or recent converts who had served in Castaño’s enterprise
journeyed to New Mexico with Oñate and several others among his ranks could
be traced to Jewish origins or activities in Mexico and on the Iberian Peninsula.
Other participants in Oñate’s expedition display more tenuous but still very
possible links to converso families in Mexico, Spain, and Portugal.

The expedition finally departed from the mining town of Todos los Santos in
January 1598 with 460 people: 129 soldiers, an almost equal number of women and
children, and about 200 others including free and servant Indians, Blacks,
Mestizos, and Mulattos. When the party reached the Rio Grande and celebrated
the first Thanksgiving in what later was to become the United States, Oñate issued
his famous proclamation, taking possession of all the kingdoms and provinces of
New Mexico in the name of the Spanish monarch. The party continued north until
it reached the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Chama. There Oñate
established the capital just across the Rio Grande from the pueblo of San Juan.
Then Oñate set out to explore the region in search of the Pacific Ocean.

At Acoma 13 soldiers including one of the governor’s nephews were killed after a
dispute over the pueblo’s supplying provisions. Oñate attacked the pueblo and
killed hundreds of Acomas and captured many more. Male prisoners were
sentenced to amputation of one foot followed by 20 years of servitude. The
children were removed from their parents and turned over to the Franciscan
monks for a Christian upbringing. At this point Oñate needed reinforcements to
secure the territory. Victoria Carvajal came north from Mexico City with 72 men,
women, and children. Two of the men are believed to be descendants of conversos.

The lack of support from Spain and Mexico, the failure to find significant amounts
of precious metals, the allegations of abuse of the Pueblo Indians, and the
dissension among the ranks of colonists all contributed to the removal of Juan de
Oñate as governor of New Mexico. Before the viceroy enforced the king’s order to
remove Oñate from office, the governor had submitted his resignation.

Many of the Spanish and Portuguese men, women, and children who had
immigrated to New Mexico in the various waves of settlement between 1598 and
1604 stayed on and became part of the farming and ranching colony that was to
remain through the 17th century. Many were descendants of crypto-Jews who had
evaded arrest by the Inquisitions of Spain, Portugal and Mexico by finding refuge
in remote New Mexico.

Oñate was succeeded by Governor Pedro de Peralta in 1610. The decades that
followed were characterized by material challenges, conflicts between the Spanish
and the Pueblo Indians and political struggles between civil and religious officials.
There was a brief period of intense activity by agents of the Inquisition in the 1660s
after which the policy returned to one of tolerance. In 1680 grievances against the
Spanish, both civil and religious, worsened by years of drought and food
shortages, led to attacks of the Pueblo Indians against the Europeans. Men,
women, children, priests, soldiers, and civilians, Old and New Christians—all
were killed as for what the Indians called “revenge for eight decades of abuse.”
The governor organized a retreat of the surviving colonists southward beginning a
13-year exile in the area around El Paso. Among the refugees were the descendants
of the converso settlers.

In the late 16th to mid-17th centuries there was a new era of cooperation between
governors and friars and a general lack of interest on the part of the Mexican
Inquisition in prosecuting Jews. But also gone were the trial records of the Holy
Office of the Inquisition that provided demographic information on the
background and practices of conversos in New Mexico. Thus it is difficult to
determine the extent to which those who resettled New Mexico had a crypto-
Jewish heritage.

In 1691 after 11 years of exile in El Paso, Diego de Vargas became governor of New
Mexico and turned his attention to its reconquest. He was able to obtain a promise
of peace from the Pueblo forces holding Santa Fe, though he encountered
resistance when he and his men moved into the city.

The most successful merchant family in New Mexico from the late 18th century
through the Mexican republican government and through the American territorial
administration were the ancestors of Josefa Dolores Gonzales Groff: the Pereas of
Bernalillo. By 1846 the Pereas were one of five families along with the Armijos,
Chaveses, Oteros, and Yrizarris, who controlled the sheep trade and monopolized
the importation of goods from the United States. The great-great grandfather of
Josefa Dolores was the first in a line of prominent merchants whose success would
continue into the 20th century. One of his lines can be traced to Bartolomé Romero
who enlisted as an officer in the expedition of Juan de Oñate and who likely had
converso roots.

One of the wealthiest individuals in the state on the event of Mexican
independence was Don Manuel Delgado, who operated an extensive mercantile
operation based in Santa Fe. He had an estate valued at almost 25,000 pesos at the
time of his death in 1815. He owned a store, ranches in Pojoaque, Cerrillos,
Cuyamungué, and San Miguel del Vado, and other property in Los Palacios and
Santa Cruz de la Cañada. He died without a will, and in the partition of his estate
among his heirs, there was an inventory of his holdings including 19 non-fiction
books on topics ranging from history to law, religion, military codes and
agriculture, as well as 17 novels. Four of the 19 non-fiction works dealt with the
Old Testament. It is known that conversos often used Christian sources to
reconstruct traditional Jewish holy books as they used such works as substitutes
for reading the Hebrew Bible. Two of the books owned by Delgado were among
those described as commonly found in the possession of Mexican Crypto-Jews.

There is little official documentation on part of Spanish or Mexican authorities,
either civil or religious, about secret Judaism after the 1660s. It is hard to assess the
extent of such practices in succeeding periods. With the extension of United States
Constitution to one-half of New Mexico’s national territory and the grant of
American citizenship to Hispanics in the state by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
after the Mexican War, freedom of religion came to New Mexico.

Sociologist Tomás Atencio hypothesizes that descendants of Crypto-Jews may
have been some of the early converts to Protestantism in New Mexico. Atencio
was aware of his family’s Jewish heritage and that of other residents in Dixon
where he grew up. On the basis of both his family background and his sociological
analysis of New Mexican culture, he argues that a link existed between Crypto-
Judaism and early Hispano converts to Protestantism. Access to the Hebrew bible
was the principal reason the conversos turned to Protestantism. The Catholic
Church, with Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy as its leader, had forbidden parishioners
from interpreting the Bible for themselves.

Since the 1980s Dr. Hordes reveals that sociologists, anthropologists, and social
psychologists have collected and analyzed data confirming the presence of a
crypto-Jewish legacy in New Mexico. This is supported by documents and genetic
and genealogical research. Israeli ethnographer and historian Schulamith C.
Halevy on the basis of her fieldwork has identified practices in the state such as
celebrating the Jewish Sabbath, ritually slaughtering animals, refraining from
consuming meat and dairy products at the same meal, and observing Jewish
burial customs—all of which she believes confirms the existence of a crypto-
Jewish presence in modern times.
When the interior of the Church of San Felipe de Neri in Old Town Albuquerque
was renovated around the turn of the 20th century, artisans placed six-pointed
stars in the cornices of the arch over the altar. A century later these “stars of David
“were said to symbolize the Jewish faith. In addition, the main altar of the parish
church on the plaza of Santa Fe around the turn of the 19th century depicted
images of the Hebrew bible figures of Aaron, Moses, Samson, and David. These
are the only known examples of Old Testament paintings to grace a New Mexican
colonial church.

Another material indication of the influence of the conversos in Santa Fe is the
tetragram above the entrance to St. Francis Cathedral. The four consonants of the
ancient Hebrew name for God, known as the Tetragrammaton, are inscribed
within a triangle, a common Christian symbol for the Trinity. It is not known if
Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy intended this simply as a traditional Christian
symbol, or if he had the inscription added to honor his friendship with the Jewish
community of Santa Fe, which contributed generously to the construction of the
cathedral. According to Elizabeth Nordhaus Minces:

“In 1967 Grandfather Staab was posthumously honored at the Annual Conference
of Christians and Jews for his help in building the Cathedral in Santa Fe. On three
different occasions Grandfather loaned money to construct the church. When the
mortgage came due, the Archbishop announced sadly that he could not repay the
loan. Grandfather tore up the papers, and in gratitude, the Archbishop put the
Hebrew inscription on the door of the cathedral and there you will find it when
you go to Santa Fe.”

Conversos were able to assimilate easily into Spanish society. While the Jewish
origin of some of the early colonists is well known and documented, many other
settlers probably had similar roots but were not discovered by Inquisition officials
or future historians. With the lessening of interest on the part of the Holy Office of
the Inquisition in prosecuting Jews in Mexico and New Mexico after the mid-17th
century, documentation recording the presence of crypto-Jews diminished. Hints
of a converso presence in the state could be found in the 18th, 19th and early 20th
centuries through occupational patterns, the tendency of certain families to give
their children names from the Old Testament or to practice circumcision of male
infants, and incidental references in documents to the presence of crypto-Jews in
the region. Some scholars believe that in the late 19th century some Catholic
descendants of crypto-Jews took advantage of the more religiously tolerant
atmosphere to convert to Presbyterianism, Methodism, and other Protestant faiths.

The survival of crypto-Judaism into the late 20th century is suggested by analyses
of anthropologists, sociologists, and social psychologists conducting fieldwork
and research in New Mexico among descendants of the conversos. Hints of this
persistence are also found in objects of material culture found in churches and
cemeteries throughout the state. Genetic and genealogical research supports the
survival of crypto-Judaism as autoimmune diseases that appear disproportionately
in Jewish populations are also found among Hispanos whose genetic backgrounds
are comparable to those of Jews afflicted by such diseases.

Dr. Hordes concludes:

“Few people, save a handful of historians, are aware of the rich and dynamic
interplay among Muslims, Catholics, and Sephardic Jews on the Iberian Peninsula
from the eighth through the fifteenth century. During this era of convivencia
(living together), Iberians could be Muslim and Spanish, Catholic and Spanish,
and Jewish and Spanish. Following the forced conversions of the 1490s, the
descendants of this rich ethnic mix could be found in all corners of the Iberian
empire, from Europe to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, carrying with them
remnants of their ancestral faiths and cultures.”

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