Ah, the deathless #MontyPython line! Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisitionnnnn! But in Mexico in the 1600-1700s they most certainly did. I had the great honor of addressing the conference The Golden Age of Jewish Spain, sponsored by the Coalition on Ladino Legacy in Los Angeles this past Sunday, February 8. I was in some pretty spectacular company. My topic will be the Conversos and Crypto-Jews in the Shadow of the Inquisition (Mexico, 1690-1711), but will be focused on literature, rather than history.
The conference was sold out! (Maybe because there were tapas and Flamenco dancers…) So here I’ll share some of my talk, for those who didn’t make it to LA on Sunday. Enjoy!
THE SECRET JEWS OF MEXICO 1500-1700
My perspective is that of the writer, who looks to history for inspiration. My books, Josefina’s Sin and The Duel for Consuelo, are historical fiction set in 1690 and 1711 Mexico. I do my research, of course. I study the history of the time, but history is the story mostly of men, of the powerful and famous. Fiction lives in the interstices between the facts as known or believed to be true by historians.
My books are the stories of women, and in The Duel for Consuelo, the story especially of women caught in the web of the Inquisition for being Crypto-Jews.
Being a Jew in Spain in the 1400s was a very risky thing to be. Being a Jew in Spain after 1492 was deadly. And being a Jew openly in Mexico in 1690 was insanity.
Conversos (converted to Christianity at the point of the sword) and their descendants were fiercely persecuted. Any hint of Judaizing, or secretly practicing their old religion, was ruthlessly ferreted out by the Inquisition, which led Conversos to the practice of haciendo sábado, or “doing the Sabbath.” This involved ostentatiously working on Saturday so the neighbors could see them, eating pork in public, and putting on other displays of Christianity. Nonetheless, many continued their Jewish practices in secret.
If they were “lucky” they converted and eventually got out. As we have heard, some went to the New World, including Mexico and Peru. Even there, the Inquisition had full power. In fact for personnel reasons including the lack of supervisory man-power in the hierachy on site, to use the modern language of Human Resources, the original priests who went to the Colonies had full inquisitorial powers.
Mexico was something of a haven for the secret Jews, or Crypto-Jews at first. With so much novelty there was less time to spend ferreting out Jews, and more emphasis on political alignment. In the 1520s, Hernando Alonso was burned at the stake as a Crypto-Jew, but his main fault was being a supporter of Hernan Cortés. As the Inquisition’s order was Dominican, and that order opposed Cortés politically, Alonso was targeted for his vehement support of the wrong side. Diego de Ocaña, on the other hand, also convicted by the Inquisition for Judaizing, was an open supporter of the King (and therefore anti-Cortés) and so only his goods were confiscated and he was exiled back to Spain. He returned to Mexico eventually and became a notary, an honored position in local government.
In the latter part of the 1500s and the early 1600s Portugal became more adamant in its persecution of its own Crypto-Jews, and those fled to the slightly more hospitable Spain, and from there to Mexico. Because Portugal had previously been more tolerant, those Jews had far more knowledge of their traditions and Hebrew prayers than the Spanish-decent Jews, so upon their arrival in Mexico they brought new life and knowledge to those who had long lost their ways.
They also brought the attention of the Inquisition to these new arrivals, along with a flurry of prosecutions of Portuguese-descent possible or actual Jews. However, their arrival coincided with a major expansion of the Mexican economy, and the Inquisition moved on to other concerns: bigamy, witchcraft and blasphemy.
All that changed in 1642. The Portuguese were at war with Spain, and Portuguese Crypto-Jews were suspected of conspiracy. Hundreds were persecuted in Mexico, the estates of those convicted were confiscated and a few were burned at the stake. The Bishop of Puebla declared the Secret Jews of Portuguese origins to be a big risk to Mexico. As he then became the Archbishop of Mexico and subsequently the Viceroy, his edict against the Portuguese Conversos brought an end to the relatively safe lives of the Crypto-Jews.
One of the ways that Crypto-Jews were “caught” was through denunciation by family servants. Clues to Judaizing included reports of special dishes being prepared on Friday before sunset, to be kept warm on banked coals through Saturday, or preparation of meats involving draining all of the blood from the meat before cooking. Even cleaning the house on Friday, or bathing by women on Friday before sunset, all could lead to a denunciation. The meticulous records kept by the Inquisition are a fertile source for recipes and housekeeping customs for Crypto-Jews of the era.
After 1650, the presence of Crypto-Jews essentially withered in Mexico. Where there had once been an extensive system of safe houses and patronage, these broke up and the remaining Judaizers were on their own. Their practices became more and more individualized, morphing into strange offshoots of traditions. They lit candles behind heavy drapery, observed the Sabbath covertly on Saturday, and attended Mass on Sunday. Many acquired a taste for pork.
Some Jews only knew one blessing, many knew no Hebrew at all. Knowledge was passed down in the family, sort of in a telephone game, and with each generation the practices became more idiosyncratic, further and further removed from their origins. Tortillas and chocolate replaced matzo and wine during Passover. Some believed that the Messiah would come in their time, to Mexico. Burial practices, such as adding a pillow of dirt to the coffin replaced a burial in virgin soil. Fasting on particular dates following a death, such as the eighth or thirtieth day, replaced the traditional periods of Jewish mourning. These were examples both of adaptation to the New World and a loss of understanding of the actual rituals and traditions.
Josefina’s Sin is set in Mexico in 1689. Lured by the imagined grandeur and adventure of the viceroyal court, Josefina, a sheltered landowner’s wife, accepts an invitation to the Marquesa’s court, to mingle with the cultural elite. What she finds is an overwhelming and complicated world within a world, with its own rules, etiquette, backbiting and gossip. And its temptations, passions and treacherous passages.
Amidst this drama Josefina finds herself drawn to the nuns who study and write poetry at the risk of persecution by the Spanish inquisition. As I noted, the Inquisition had other fish to fry, if you’ll excuse the pun, besides Jews. Intellectuals, women who exceeded the boundaries set for them, any hint of lack of orthodoxy, was red meat for them. Josefina meets one nun in particular, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who teaches Josefina about poetry, power, and the nature and consequences of love, all in the shadow of the Holy Office.
I’ve been secretly in love with Sor Juana since my undergraduate days. I wrote my senior thesis on The Feminism of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (it was the 70s) and I was fascinated by a nun in the late 1600s who challenged a bishop, asserted women’s rights to study and learn, and who at the end was forced to renounce her beliefs and sign her confession in her own blood.
Near the beginning of the book is a passage that I will read to you, where Josefina first encounters poetry. She encounters a strange man in the market place, and he reads a poem from Joseph, son of Eli, and Moises, son of Habib. These are two Jewish poets from the late 1400s, and are found collected in The Dream of the Poem.
Josefina’s infatuation with poetry is launched by this Jewish poet, and by the poetry of the Songs of Solomon.
I explore the theme of the Crypto Jews of Mexico in the next book. The Duel for Consuelo picks up the thread at this point, with a woman who knows only the Sabbath blessing for the candles, and whose grandmother said it with such a ferocious Mexican accent that she was spared by the Inquisition.
Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews. David M. Gitlitz, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, 2002.
To the End of the Earth: A history of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Stanley M Hordes, Columbia University Press, 2005.
A Taste of Honey. David M. Gitliz and Linda Kay Davidson, St. Martins Griffin