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From the classroom

One of the worst things is to be sick with flu during vacation as you’ve been forced to stay at home. However even at home I was not able to do much. When the period of inactivity was coming to an end  I just wanted to run out of the house no matter where even to do grocery shopping.  Away from computer :) So when finally I went to work today I felt so happy that I am back to the classroom where we learn, think and explore together with my students. Today with the older grades we learned about the Jewish presence in the New Spanish Empire. I had some unresolved questions referring to the Jewish history at this time and place. Why, for Heaven sake, some poor Jews who have been prosecuted in their homeland went to Americas  under the leadership of the same antisemitic King instead of escaping to Ottoman Empire, Netherlands etc?! The possible answer I found in the article about the Crypto Jews in Mexico. It is well known that the same year Columbus sailed to find India Jews were expelled from Spain. It happened in 1492. So whoever left was forced to convert to Christianity.  Many just outwardly but there were some who decided to be devoted Catholics. So by the time Spanish established colonies on the American soil many conversos already thought of possibilities to have  better life on the different continent far from the pressure of Inquisition. Conversos started to settle in the New World approximately around 1520. Some even had prominent positions in government offices in New Spain like Luis de Carvajal, el Conquistador, who was granted the official power in a newly created province, the New Kingdom of Leon.   However it was an illusion and a big mistake!  Just several years later Spanish clergy became the real influence in the New Spanish society. The New World’s colonies were settled in accordance with Catholic rules and traditions. More than that,  the structure of society in the New Spain was such that only peninsulares, who were born on the Iberian Peninsula, were allowed to hold the highest positions in government and church. Creoles, people with Spanish ancestry but born already in Americas, were not able to play prominent roles in politics. I think it was done having in mind that a person has  strong connection to his Motherland and if he was already born somewhere else besides Spain he wouldn’t  be completely loyal to the Royal Crown. Therefore, the Jews in the far away land, where they hoped to find peace, met the same devoted bishops and others who enforced Inquisitorial rule and executed punishment for the divergence from these rules.  In 1571 the Holy Inquisitional Office had established the Holy Inquisition of New Spain (The Mexican Inquisition). By 1590 a large Jewish community had already made their home in Mexico City. Unfortunately the following history of conversos in Mexico was full of tortures and burning at the stake.

There is another interesting hypothesis regarding what happened to certain groups of Jews who wanted to escape the danger of Inquisition. I’ve never heard of it before. Mestizo Jews. Originally the term “mestizo” means the mixture of Spanish and Native American backgrounds. However when the definition “the mestizo Jews” is used it means the mixture of Jews and Native Americans. Interesting, right?  So how was it possible? The Jews were trying to hide themselves from the powerful hand of catholic church among the Indian population who themselves were Christians cause they’ve been converted as well by many missionaries. Luckily for the Jews these Indians weren’t so zealous as the Spaniards. The result was the establishment of mixed Jewish – Indian communities throughout all of Mexico.  Some of these communities still exist today in Venta Prieta, State of Hidalgo; Toluca, State of Mexico; Apipilulco, State of Guerrero; and Monterey, State of Nuevo Leon. Some of them were trying to convert Native Americans to Judaism in order to marry them and keep the laws of Torah, some mixed together Cristian and Jewish traditions, some thought that’s OK for the Jewish girls marry Indians because their kids will be Jewish anyhow, according to Othodox Judaism, some believed that the Native Americans were among lost ten tribes of Israel so there was no problem to intermarry  with them.   As the number of Mestizo Jews increased, so did their communities.  Venta Prieta is the best known Mestizo Jewish community in Mexico.

However the historian Americo Castro doesn’t support the theory of possible intermarriages between these two groups of population in Mexico at that time. He wrote: “The people who really felt the scruple of purity of blood were the Spanish Jew… there is a punctilious concern for family purity… as a consequence of the persecution in the fifteenth century he became still more acutely aware of his exclusive particularism” . There are also some people in the Venta Prieta and Mexico City “Mestizo Jewish” communities who claim that their ancestors were converted to Judaism only in the very recent past.  Nothing concrete has been established to refuse or support the theory of mestizo Jews but from historical point of view I think it is a very interesting hypothesis of possible developments in the New Spain.

Photo: Ida Cowen, USA

Jews in their shabbath clothes, Venta Prieta, Mexico, 1940