Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
Commentary from the Texas-Mexico Border
SOUTH TEXAS HISPANICS WEAR FRAGILE MASKS
Defection is considered treason and the birth of mistrust is born. An exception lives in the remnants of Crypto-Jewish descendants along the Texas border.
by Diana Sotelo Zertuche
from HaLapid, Fall 2007
Families who have discovered that their forefathers were of Jewish blood somehow have survived in managing to hold on to their traditions without the support of their community. This is of significance in the Twenty-first Century. These families passed on their Jewish traditions without realizing that what they were practicing was a secret. A secret that with time became part of the assimilation of cultural practices.
I firmly believe that today the majority of the Hispanic families that have lived along the Texas border have a minimum notion that our cultural practices have their origin from the Sephardic Jewish families that migrated to the northern part of Mexico mainly Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas in 1492 after the Spanish Inquisition. I believe that in many cases the family's masquerade was not noticed because it was intermingled with Christian traditions, cultural events, and practices. Most children along the borderlands were taught to be silent in the company of adults and not ask questions about family backgrounds. Not even the names of ancestors nor their origins were allowed.
It is, therefore, not surprising to me that the Jewish traditions and beliefs have survived in an ethical and authentic manner along the Border of Texas. I am a survivor of how Jewish traditions and practices have persisted through my grandmothers on both sides of my family. About three years ago, my eldest surviving aunt (sister to my dad) Dolores Muraira de Berlanga, (lovingly called Lole) was told that she had a short time to live. She asked her younger sister, Adelfa Muraira de Lozano (YEPA) to tell me the family secret. This privilege was given to me as the eldest surviving granddaughter of Juana Muraira de Sotelo. Tia Yepa explained that the Muraira family came from a Jewish heritage. The majority of the family had remained in Monterrey , Nuevo Leon , but Grandma Juanita came with her sister and uncle to Cuidad Acuña , Mexico where she met my grandfather, Simon Talamantez Sotelo, who also came to Acuna and Del Rio , Texas from Monterrey , as well.
This new information intrigued me especially when Tia Yepa told me that my grandmother on my mom's side was also from the "same family". I felt like a bomb had exploded right in front of me. My mom and dad were possibly related to one another! I could hardly breath, not because of this new information, but from the realization that instantly I was able to synthesize some of the secrecy that had for decades penetrated our family. The secret that I, on many occasions, was told that it was not for the "ears of the young to know." As in a silent movie, I began to visualize the underground room at my maternal Abuela's house and the many times that I was allowed (as in a privilege) to blow out the candles! Abuelita Leonarda Guardado Galindo de Rodriguez was truly my mystery Abuela. She always wore black and always had her head covered. Her songs had Hebrew tunes and I remember that she loved veil-like material. She covered her head when she prayed. I remember that her songs were not in either Spanish or English. They had a humming effect... like a chant. I was always told by my mom not to tell anyone about Abuelita because the people would kill her. People thought she was a witch. I was embarrassed, but I loved her. Abuelita Leonarda ("Naya") was the owner of the local grocery store and her husband Eujenio Galindo Rodriguez had a lumber business. He was tall, had red hair and beard and blue eyes. He died in his late thirties.
There is a story that is told here in Del Rio about my Abuelitos Rodriguez. It is said that their underground room had a connecting door that was connected to a tunnel that led to the underground room under the "Brown Plaza Gazebo." The underground round room exists today at the "Placita Brown" in the Barrio of San Felipe. The door to the underground room has since been sealed, but I, as well as, many other people of the "Barrio" have seen it. It is said that people in the "olden days" would hide from individuals that were hunting people to kill or persecute because they were "dirty." This never made sense to me. Being killed because you were "dirty?" Now things make better sense to me!
The fragility of the secret lives that both of my families lived for decades here in Del Rio, Texas, became a reality for me in forms that I even find difficult to describe. Their lives were like fragile masks that were put on in the daytime and removed during the evening hours. What amazes me is what their conversations must have been like to keep such secrets alive and yet dead to the rest of the world. I imagine that this question must have been foremost on their mind: "How must we preserve our roots while preserving the lives of the persons entrusted in carrying on our heritage?" This must have been a tremendous burden to live with on a daily basis. Jewish traditions and practices have been well preserved and have evolved into the Hispanic culture as if its roots are Mexican, with no Jewish past.
During the hundreds of family interviews that I conducted during the development of the family stories for The Spirit of Val Verde, a commemorative volume I published in 1985, no one ever referred to a Jewish heritage. I plan to research this at a later date.
My journey after the "discovery" has not been filled with any negative thoughts or emotions. Since a child, I have been drawn to the things of God and to the spiritual realm. The Old Testament has always given me comfort and in times of confusion and doubt, it has guided me in the right path. I know this does not define any other person's "Jewishness", or me as Jewish, but it helps me understand why I did not reject the notion that my forefathers on both sides of the family were practicing traditions whose roots were from the Jewish culture.
As I grapple with the meaning of the ritualistic practices, that were so dear and sacred to my maternal and paternal grandparents, I realized that they were fostering a spiritual environment, although, much was done in secret, much was also done in "broad daylight' but clothed very cleverly, thus masking the ritual. The impact of this environment continues to be part of the lives of many families that live along the Border of Texas and who are rediscovering their Jewish ancestry. I believe that the persistency of the Crypto-Jewish practices of yesterday affected the future generations by permanently leaving a trail of authentic behaviors associated with the Sephardic Jew, in spite of the fact that the people along this border do not identify the behaviors as having their origin in the Jewish secret communities.
In my case, this is very real. In my active quest toward the continued discovery of my true heritage, I found that despite the secrecy and bold disfiguration of some of the Jewish rituals and practices, I was able to extract the truth. In 90% of the interviews, the person or persons interviewed disclosed with ease and much detail the family rituals without having any knowledge that what they are sharing and describing is their origin from the Sephardic Jewish traditions.
In 100% of the verbal interactions I had with both Americans of Hispanic heritage and Mexicans, I found that both entities shared with ease and comfort. The moment that I said that what they practiced appeared to be of the Jewish culture, I witnessed a frozen stare followed by, " What do you mean, Jewish?"
One common story deals with the procedure in killing a chicken. In 100% of the cases where I asked people to describe the steps taken to kill a chicken, each family recounted it with little or no variance between the Americans of Hispanic Heritage and the Mexicans. The common denominators were:
1) decapitation with on sharp stroke to the neck;
2) hanging the chicken up-side down;
3) a hole was dug in advance of the slaughter directly beneath where the chicken would be drained of its blood;
4) while the chicken became "clean," water was put in a pot outside in the yard and was put to boil;
5) when the chicken was clean the whole chicken was put in the pot to boil; de-feathering was never an option!
The aftermath was different for every family. Some made calabacita con polio, caldo de polio, tacos de polio, mole con polio etc. Many of these are among Sephardic dishes found in literature.
The sad saga of the Jewish community may have been crushed but not completely destroyed, especially because the various foods and their elements were not written, but passed on orally from one generation to another. Along side the "chicken story"is the "pan dulce story."
"Diana, anda y compra unas piesas de pan dulce en casa de Cleto. Y asegurate de que to den una SEMITA fresca y escoje un "marronito" de pilon! My eyes well up with tears as I recall these sweet words from the lips of a gentle lady, Dona Juanita Muraira de Sotelo, my paternal grandmother. My Abuelita Juanita would send me to the corner store on Friday to get the sweet bread for our Friday afternoon meriendas (really seemed like a party) where her mother (Ursula) and she would celebrate after the evening meal. At that time I did not know what was so great about Friday evenings! It was not until five decades later did I learn what they celebrated every Friday evening under the moon and stars. Yes, my Abuelita Juanita's instructions included the MARANITO (Little Pig). Pilon is a Ladino word for extra (gift for doing business with us). It also signifies gratitude for your business in Ladino.
Marronito is a gingerbread cookie made in the shape of a pig. It is a classic pan dulce item in the northern part of Mexico . It does not exist elsewhere in Mexico according to my investigation. It is indigenous to the northern part, especially in Monterrey , Saltillo and throughout Coahuila , Mexico and along the Texas Borderland town's panaderias .
Aside from "el Maranito" being a gingerbread cookie shaped like a pig, there is a greater meaning associated with the word. Marrano was and is used to describe the descendants of Spain 's medieval Jews who converted to Christianity under pressure and threats of death during the Inquisition in Spain in 1492 and during the Inquisition of Mexico in the early 1500's. "MARRANOS" are the Jews that converted but lived as secret Jews (Crypto-Jews) while passing on many of their rituals, traditions, customs, etc. from one generation to the next.
The word "Marrano" is used infrequently to describe Jewish converts because it is considered an insulting name, meaning "pig or swine." Due to the fact that secrecy has characterized their survival, most of the history of the crypto-Jew has been transmitted verbally. In many instances, the traditional "cuentos" or folk stories along the borderlands of Texas and Mexico have been used to secretly mask Jewish practices. Because the oral transmission, it is virtually impossible to provide conventional proof and documentation of these stories.
In spite of the skeptics, I believe that nothing or no one can deter the people who live along the Texas and Mexico Border from the desire to investigate their genealogical history. I write this commentary in hopes that it will inspire the novice reader to seek out the truth and I pray that every person can unravel a little portion of the fragile mask we have been wearing for centuries along the Texas Borderlands.
Are the stories of the people of the 'TEXAS BORDERLANDS and the stories of the Mexican families that have lived for generations along the Border different from the stories found in New Mexico ? I believe that the stories found in Mexico and theTexas Borderlands may not be as deteriorated or mulched as much. I believe that Texans and Mexicans have for decades worn a fragile mask to help preserve the Reality of their mingled culture. It is a common known fact that the customs, traditions, food, celebrations etc. are not different along either side of the Texas Border. I further believe that this can be substantiated with more credible research along both sides of the Border.
SOURCES THAT INFLUENCED MY COMMENTARY
GITLITZ, DAVID M. Secrecy and Deceit , 1996
HORDES, STANLEY M. To The Ends Of The Earth , 2005
JOHNSON, PAUL. A History Of The Jews, 1987
ON LINE SOURCES: www .crypto-Jews.com; www.Sephardic jews.com