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New Mexico’s Secret Jews

Now is it safe to tell? 

Growing up in Santa Fe in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Anna and Celina Rael watched their maternal grandmother light Friday night candles and listened to their father say a blessing before he butchered sheep, carefully removing the sciatic nerve.

When the sisters and their two younger brothers visited their grandmother’s house, she always asked them what they had eaten earlier to make sure that they wouldn’t mix meat and milk while eating at her house. Every spring, right before Holy Week, Anna and Celina’s mother cleaned the kitchen cabinets, their Grandmother Pino covered her tables and cabinets, and the entire family ate “gaitas,” a flat, cracker-like bread. Mr. Rael and one of his sons have a lactose intolerance, a genetic disease common to Sephardic Jews.

All the boys in the family were circumcised by a doctor when they were eight-days old. Babies of both sexes were given coral jewelry to ward off the evil eye, recalls Anna, who wore a coral ring and bracelet as a child. And in the two cemeteries where the Raels and Pinos are buried, a star of David, menorahs, and the Hebrew letter “shin” are engraved on many of the family tombstones.

None of this is at all unusual except for the fact that Anna and Celina were raised as Catholics.

Because most of their neighbors on Agua Fria Street practiced the same customs, neither sister questioned them. It wasn’t until Anna was in high school and began reading popular novels by Jewish authors on Jewish themes that she noticed the similarities between the rituals she was reading about and those practiced by her family.

“I’d say, ‘Hey, we do that!'” said Anna. But she had no idea why. It’s quite likely that the Raels, Pinos and their neighbors (many of whom have Jewish surnames) are descendants of conversos — Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Catholicism in order to survive the Inquisition 500 years ago, but who, in the safety of their own homes, secretly continued to live as Jews. Often called marranos, a derogatory name meaning pig in Spanish, they are more respectfully known as crypto-Jews, secret Jews, and conversos.

What few people know is that the Spanish Inquisition was not confined to the Old World. In the 1590’s, it took hold in Mexico, too. Many converso families who had fled to Mexico seeking safety fled again — this time to New Mexico. The same names which appear on the Mexican Inquisition’s “wanted” list also show up on the roster of the first white people to settle northern New Mexico. The Raels have been in New Mexico since 1610.

Conversos often lived together in small villages, marrying each other in order to preserve their religion, and practicing Judaism in the privacy of their own homes. One way that conversos could recognize each other was by their surnames. Rael, for example, is believed to be an abbreviation of Israel. Often, says Celina Rael de Garcia, people have said to her, “Oh, you’re a Rael; you’re Jewish!’

In 1981, shortly after New Mexico’s state historian Stanley Hordes assumed his position, he began receiving regular visits from people who would come to his office and tell him things like, “So-and-so doesn’t eat pork’,’ or “So-and-so lights candles on Friday night!’ Intrigued, Hordes, an Ashkenazic Jew, began interviewing the people who were doing these “unusual” things and tracing their family histories through public records. He concluded that a converso population has been living in northern New Mexico for nearly 400 years.

“Conversos range from direct biological descendants of original conversos, to people who practice rituals but don’t even know those rituals are Jewish” says Hordes. “Some live in organized converso communities in northern New Mexico, others don’t!’

Ben Shapiro, a radio and film producer who interviewed approximately 70 conversos for his 1988 radio documentary, “The Hidden Jews of New Mexico,” says that despite many marriages among converso families, “there’s no physical resemblance among them!’ Very few have pure, Jewish genealogy, Anna Rael Delay concurs, adding that members of her own family range from dark-skinned, brown-eyed brunettes to light-skinned, blue-eyed blondes.

Why, after centuries of secrecy, do some conversos — especially those in their thirties and forties — want to talk? Hordes, who has spoken to dozens of people who suspect they’re Jewish, believes that they, like many other Americans their age, are searching for their-roots, and they finally feel secure enough to do so. Still, appointments between conversos and both Hordes and Shapiro are often broken.

Says Hordes, “After 500 years of keeping a secret, you don’t just start blabbing about it!’

Fear of anti-Semitism is another reason for secrecy. “Living in a small, Catholic, rural town, it’s hard to suddenly say that you’re Jewish!’ said Shapiro. “Besides, secrecy is an important element of their culture!’

Perceived as Catholics, conversos fear losing their jobs or customers if the predominantly Catholic northern New Mexico population learns that they are Jewish. (Approximately 1,500 of Santa Fe’s 56,000 residents are Jewish, says Hordes.) Also, many conversos have grown up feeling socially excluded from mainstream America because they are Chicanos; to be both Chicano and overtly Jewish would, they believe, make acceptance and assimilation virtually impossible.

Interestingly, women more than men are the ones who keep up Jewish customs, and grandmothers are the strongest repository of knowledge. Many people remember their grandmothers telling them secrets about Jewish folkways. The name Esther is extremely common among converso women, taken from the historical Queen Esther, who saved her people by pretending not to be Jewish.

What follows are the reflections of three converso women: Anna Rael Delay, her sister Celina Rael de Garcia, and their mother, Juanita Pino Rael.

Anna Rael Delay, 44, and Celina Rael de Garcia, 42, the oldest of Florentino and Juanita Rael’s five children, grew up in an adobe house on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Their father is a carpenter and adobe house builder; their mother is a state employee. Although Anna says that her family wasn’t particularly religious, Mrs. Rael insists, “We were very devoutly Catholic!’

Like the other families on Agua Fria Street, Anna and Celina’s maternal grandparents, Felix and Vivianita Pino, were subsistence farmers and owned several acres which they shared with their two children. The “family compound” included three houses: the Pinos’, the Raels’ and that of Anna and Celina’s aunt and uncle. When it was mealtime, the grandchildren ate at whichever house they happened to be at, said Celina, who lived with her grandparents until she was 13, when her grandmother died.

The Pinos came to New Mexico from Mexico City in the 1850’s, and were once large landowners, as were many conversos, said Celina. Although her grandfather was, like his own father and grandfather, an educated man who had studied at St. Michael’s College in New Mexico and read and wrote about the Bible, he didn’t tell his granddaughter why the family had certain traditions.

“There were many unexplained customs’,’ said Celina, an outgoing, energetic woman who works as a management consultant. She remembers playing with four-sided, hand-carved, wooden tops that had “take all,” “put back” “take one” and “nothing” written on the sides in Spanish, but she didn’t know that it was a dreidel. Her father taught her how to butcher an animal in the kosher Sephardic style — extracting the sciatic nerve — but last December when she and Anna asked him why he did it this way, he couldn’t tell them. He truly doesn’t know why. And, says Celina, “All of northern New Mexico eats kosher meat!”

When she was growing up, people often told Celina, “Raels are Jewish’.’ Years later, her husband, Joe, a “cultural Catholic” would look at the Raels and say, “You guys are a bunch of Jews!’ This puzzled them. A branch of Joe’s family, the Salmerons, have Stars of David engraved on their tombstones.

Celina’s memory of her reaction to these remarks varies. Sometimes she tuned it out “because I had no idea what it meant to be Jewish;” other times she recalls having “some sense of pride” and thinking, “Oh yeah, how neat that I might be Jewish! Because I saw it more from a Biblical point of view — I’d seen pictures of shepherds and Bible movies. I certainly didn’t in any way identify myself with Ashkenazic Jews living in Santa Fe!’

Celina’s sister, Anna, a bilingual elementary education teacher, distinctly remembers going to a restaurant in Mexico with her family and having the waiter tell them that they “looked Jewish!’ She accepted such comments without introspection. Talking about con versos “was a hush-hush” she said. She never asked the nuns questions about her family’s customs during the three years that she attended parochial school. “I was afraid to” she said, but she doesn’t exactly know why.

Since about fifteen of the Catholic families on Agua Fria Street did the same things as the Pinos and Raels, the sisters grew up assuming that these customs derived somehow from being Hispanic Catholics with Indian blood. (Their maternal great-grandmother was a Pueblo Indian.) Clearly the family’s style was to accept, not analyze. When an “Anglo” teacher began asking questions about the students’ family customs, Celina remembers that her Grandmother Pino said “don’t tell! They’ll take it apart. What is, is,” Her grandmother wasn’t trying to hide anything, Celina insists — she simply wanted to reserve their distinctly “non-Anglo” way of life.

Today, both sisters believe that many of the families in the neighborhood, like their own, were con versos, but that few, if any, were actually aware of their Jewish roots. After 400 years of assimilating into northern New Mexico’s increasingly entwined Catholic, Hispanic and Indian cultures, this is understandable. As Celina said,
if her brothers had become bar-mitzvah, “I probably would have thought it was an Indian rite of passage!’ Conversos who are now actively exploring their Jewish roots, seeking each other out and agreeing to be interviewed by journalists and cultural historians, comprise a very small segment of the population.

Discovering, acknowledging and accepting their Jewish ancestry has been “an evolving process” for both Rael sisters. Because they grew up in a Spanish-speaking home in a rural community that was both physically and psychologically isolated from mainstream America, the sisters had virtually no knowledge of Judaism nor contact with American Jews. It was all but impossible for them to know that their family practiced Jewish customs. The rare “informed” comments by fellow Chicanos concerning converso culture seemed so peculiar and dissonant to them that it was easy to let the comments pass.

Books provided the first hardcore evidence. In high school and college Anna and Celina read novels by popular Jewish authors, such as Chaim Potok and Cynthia Freeman. Anna remembers thinking, “Gee, we do that!” or, “My grandparents did that!” when the authors described certain rituals.

In college, she wrote a paper on James Joyce’s Ulysses, entitled “The Wandering Jew Blooms!’ “Bloom wasn’t accepted by anyone’,’ said Anna. “I could identify with him, trying to be accepted, wandering around, not knowing where you are or are going. I was always trying to find a place, searching. I used to think it was just puberty, but now I think it was more!’

Celina said she was always drawn to Jewish subjects, particularly the Holocaust. “I’ve always had a real affinity for all things Jewish!’ she said, “I can’t explain it. The fact that people persevered and survived is a wonderful thing!’

In the 1960’s, many Jewish hippies came to Santa Fe and later, a sizeable contingent of Jewish artists and retirees from New York settled there. A self-proclaimed rebel, Celina met the newcomers at work and socialized with them at meetings of New Jewish Agenda, an organization which supports liberal causes. These associations, plus trips out of state, made her more aware of the similarities between her family’s customs and Judaism. Still she didn’t consider herself Jewish.

It was not until she was a teenager that the soft-spoken Anna began sharing her feelings and suspicions about family customs with Celina. As “the pieces fell together” she said, “it felt really right!’ Ten years ago she started to think about converting to Judaism. Last December she finally began the conversion process with a Reform rabbi in Santa Fe. “Conversion is making me feel complete!’ said Anna. “Before I felt as though I was walking through a grey shadow and now I’m coming into the light!’

Last spring Anna attended her first Passover seder. Her 11-year-old son, Nicholas, often attends services with her, and her husband, Charles, a non-observant Methodist, supports her decision, as does her family.

Her father, who considers himself a Catholic, said to her supportively, “You do what you need to do!’ and wished her good luck. Celina encouraged her, and on Rosh Hashana, her older brother called to wish her a happy New Year. Her mother and youngest brother are accepting, too. “It’s Anna’s choice, ” said her younger brother. “I don’t hold it against her!’ Still, when her mother first learned of her conversion, Anna sensed that she seemed afraid.

“Mrs. Rael is very typical of her generation, many of whom feel it isn’t safe to be publicly Jewish!’ explains Hordes. Although she seemed surprised at Anna’s decision (“Anna was a better Catholic than all of us put together. She said the rosary every night”), Mrs. Rael never asked her daughter why she was converting because, “I didn’t want her to get mad… Anna told me she had been thinking about converting for a long time. She’s old enough to know what she’s doing. I don’t want to stop her from doing what she wants to do!’

Last September, Anna participated in a panel on “The Converso Experience in Portugal and the United States” at the 1990 American Sephardi Federation Convention in Chicago. Stanley Hordes, playwright Rina Downs, and two rabbis were also on the panel, and several hundred people attended the session.

“It was wonderful!” said Anna. “I came away feeling really good!’ It was the first time she had been among Sephardic Jews and petite Anna, with her dark hair, dark skin, and hazel eyes felt an immediate rapport with the other conventioneers because of their similar physical appearance. “They look just like me’,’ she said.

There was also a cultural connection. “It felt familiar — like weddings back home. They were a lot warmer, more receptive, and open” than the Ashkenazic members of the Santa Fe synagogue she had been attending.

After Anna finished her presentation at the conference there was much applause and even hugs. The only sour note was one rabbi’s statement that only Orthodox conversions are acceptable to Sephardic Jews. With characteristic directness and self-confidence, Anna responded, “Well, the way we feel is the way we feel. I’ll do what’s right for me!’

Before the conference, Anna considered herself a Jew. Now, she says, she identifies with Sephardic Jews. “The conference clarified things for me!’

As for Celina, her religious evolution has had a different course from her sister’s. Living in El Ancon, a small farming community 45 miles south of Santa Fe, Celina doesn’t go to church (although she attended regularly until she was in sixth grade) or participate in Jewish services or rituals. Acknowledging her Jewish identity began, she said, when a cousin went to a conference and came back saying that more and more things indicate that the Raels are Jewish. Anna’s growing interest in Judaism also influenced Celina, and about eight years ago she began to search more actively for her Jewish roots. “There’s a big question mark. I need to know. There’s a sense of incompleteness until you pursue it!’

Unlike Anna, Celina wants to integrate Judaism into her Catholic and Indian identity. Discovering her Jewish ancestry has been “kind of overwhelming” she says, and she still considers herself a “cultural Catholic!’ “I’ve no denial, but there’s a defensiveness. In New Mexico there are a lot of negative attitudes about Jews. My mother only heard about the negative aspects of Judaism. Somewhere our linkage to Judaism ended and we bought into negativity!’

Her defensiveness may also be a result of being a non-Anglo in an Anglo country. By her own admission, she’s “hostile” when it comes to “Anglo” culture; for her, “American” culture and northern New Mexico’s Hispanic-Indian culture are mutually exclusive. So while she’s willing to expand her identity to include Judaism, she is not willing to do so at the cost of relinquishing other parts of her identity. “I guess I’m looking for a “Jews for Jesus” type of thing” she explains. On the other hand, her 19-year-old son is quite clear about the family’s religious identity: “We’re Jewish Catholic Indians!” he says proudly.

Identifying Jewish aspects of the family’s history isn’t easy. Which memories are relevant and should be checked out? What about the things which you don’t remember but may be important? What do you do when someone else’s memories contradict yours?

“It’s hard to know what’s Jewish,” admits Celina. She remembers her grandfather and other men wearing little pouches under their clothing, and grandmother pinning an “almohadita” (little pillow) onto the front of her dress. Could the little pouches be phylacteries? wondered Celina. Could the men have worn them under their clothing because, in origin, they had to keep them hidden? Maybe, thought Celina. But then her brother reported that the Indians wear pouches to ward off evil spirits.

Anna says that all the boys in her family were circumcised eight days after birth. Celina said this only began after Jewish doctors moved to Santa Fe. Who is right and what does it mean? Who requested the circumcision and for what reason?

Anna also reports that gifts of coral rings and bracelets were given to newborn babies to protect them from evil spirits. She thinks this is a Jewish custom, but doesn’t know why. She just knows that her family and others on the street did it and that she wore a coral bracelet and ring as a child.

Celina remembers that during Holy Week, families on Agua Fria Street brought food to each other’s houses, like the Purim custom of shlach manot. Later she learned that Catholic communities outside of northern New Mexico didn’t do this. Does that make it a Jewish or converso custom?

Anna is sometimes vague and unable to remember certain facts, such as what she thought when someone made a statement about her being Jewish, or what books she had read. Celina sometimes contradicts herself. To this writer, these lacunae and inconsistencies were frustrating, until Hordes said confirmingly that these behaviors are typical. The sisters are just beginning to examine things that once seemed ordinary. The real becomes unreal, the unreal real. One’s own life becomes a giant perceptual puzzle.

The only way to know which customs are truly Jewish, or converso, says Hordes, is to collect as much information as possible from as many conversos as possible and compare the facts. If the majority received coral jewelry when they were born, and Catholics didn’t, then it’s probably a converso custom.

In the meantime, Anna, newly living in Dallas, lights Shabbat candles, plans to join a Sephardic synagogue and to learn Hebrew, and she reports feeling centered and happy.

Her sister, Celina, roaming her childhood neighborhood, seeks out those who may be able to answer her troubling questions. Recently a woman told Celina that men in her converso husband’s family wore large black hats indoors. Click!: Celina remembers her Grandfather Pino wearing a large, black hat indoors (similar to the one’s Hasidim wear)! He also drank Mogen David wine.

The sisters’ mother, Juanita Pino Rael — the third woman in this portrait — remains steadfast in her Catholicism. Despite certain facts — her mother’s maiden name was Silva, a common converso name, and her father, she said, spoke Portuguese, which was the everyday language of Mexican conversos — Mrs. Rael denies having Jewish roots. Says Anna, “My mother, no matter what, says ‘We’re not Jewish.’ That’s her prerogative,” “It’s denial” corrects Celina, matter-of-factly.

When asked why her parents and she observed certain customs, Mrs. Rael responds, “There were Jewish people who were sheepherders and my father was a sheepherder. He learned customs from the Jews!’

Maria Stieglitz is a freelance writer based in Sea Cliff, NY.