Historical Challenges in Research

by Stanley M. Hordes, University of New Mexico

From HaLapid, Summer 2007


The process of researching and writing the history of isolated areas in Latin America is a most difficult process, even under the best of circumstances.  New Mexico, due to its isolation, both geographic and administrative, suffered (some might say benefited) from inattention on the part of Spanish colonial officials in the Vice regal capital of Mexico City, as well as in Madrid and Sevilla.  As a consequence, very little documentation was generated during the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries that would have shed light on daily life in this far northern outpost.  Moreover, the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680, which sent the Spanish colonists into a thirteen-year period of exile southward in El Paso,  resulted in the destruction of virtually all locally generated paperwork in New Mexico, resulting in  even greater diminution of the early documentary record. 

The Spanish Caribbean Islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico, while administratively distant from colonial authorities (especially the Inquisition Tribunals of Mexico, City, Lima and Cartagena), did not suffer from the same geographic isolation as New Mexico, but rather found themselves on the major shipping and naval lanes linking Spain with Mexico and South America.  But in terms of documentary resources, this region, too, suffered from other challenges, including destruction of records by attacks by foreign naval forces, as well as environmental degradation caused by humidity, insects and hurricanes.

As if these challenges were not daunting enough, scholars attempting to research the history of crypto Jewish settlement in these regions face the additional problem of trying to unearth documentation relating to a people who were trying desperately to not leave behind any traces of their existence.   Given the fact that at several points during the colonial period it was illegal for any descendant of Jews to board ships bound for the Spanish American colonies, it was not unusual for conversos and their descendants to change their names, offer false information to immigration officials regarding their parentage and places of origin, or otherwise throw off track any potential investigating authority.   Moreover, due partially to their efforts to avoid detection, and partially to their mercantile career patterns, they tended to be more mobile than other settlers, making it more difficult for later historians to track their existence.

Thus, today’s researchers need to identify, locate, secure access to, research and analyze a wide variety of records that offer demographic information about the lives of crypto Jews throughout the Spanish colonies.  These documents trace migration patterns from Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe, to their initial points of entry in the Americas, and from there to subsequent destinations – a difficult and time-consuming effort.

The task of researching the history of crypto Jewish settlement in New Mexico and the Spanish Caribbean utilizes a two-phase approach: (1) the identification of conversos and their descendants who participated in the early exploration and settlement enterprises, tracing their activities over time down to the present; and (2) the determination of people in the region who today either demonstrate consciousness of a Jewish family history, or observe customs indicative of a Jewish past.  Once the latter are confirmed (through collaboration with anthropologists), investigators begin the long and tedious process of conducting genealogical research to ascertain the extent to which these individuals can be traced back to crypto Jewish or openly-practicing Jewish families in Latin America, Spain, Portugal, or other parts of Europe.

Phase I: Identification of Early Crypto Jewish Settlement:

This phase of the research consists of an exhaustive and comprehensive analysis of the primary sources in the archives of Spain, Portugal, Mexico, New Mexico, Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico, to ascertain the identity of those crypto Jews who migrated from the Iberian Peninsula to the far northern frontier of New Mexico, or to the islands of the Spanish Caribbean.  The most important of those records to be examined are the procesos, or trial records, maintained by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, from the establishment of the institution in 1483, through the early nineteenth century.  These documents are replete with demographic, biographical and ethnographic information, and serve as a valuable source to help identify and analyze the practices of those conversos who ultimately settled in the areas under consideration.

The process established by the Holy Office for the trial of judaizantes (judaizers, the most common term used by the Inquisition to refer to crypto Jews), developed over the previous century and a half, was long and tedious, encompassing a multitude of interrogations, admonitions, reports, inspections and accusations.  Officials forced prisoners to bide their time during the long intervals between audiences with inquisitors, resulting in years of incarceration between the time of their arrest and their appearance in the auto de fe.  In order to better understand the inquisitorial procedure it might be helpful to examine in detail the structure of the trials conducted by the three New World Inquisition tribunals, Lima, Mexico City, and Cartagena, against the judaizantes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The first audience that the inquisitors held with the defendants generally did not occur until several weeks after their arrest.  In certain instances they languished in jail over a year before meeting with the authorities.  During this first audience the accused were required to provide information regarding their places of birth and residence, ages and occupations, and to give an account of their relatives extending back two generations.  In addition, they attested to the purity of their lineage, their status as good, baptized Catholics, and their ability to read and write.  At this point the inquisitors asked the defendants to offer a discurso de la vida, or life history, a discussion that often continued for many pages, rich with details concerning their experiences in Spain or Portugal, their education, travels, family and religious life, and mobility within New Spain.  Finally they were asked if they knew the reason for their arrest, and received the first of three formal admonitions to bare their consciences and confess to their crimes.  Over the course of the succeeding months (and sometimes years) the inquisitors held periodic audiences with the prisoners, in most instances according to their own schedule, but sometimes at the request of the defendants who desired to confess.

Several months after the initial audience with the inquisitors, the defendants were presented with a formal accusation, itemizing in a point-by-point fashion the crimes with which they had been charged.  After consultation with their defense lawyer, appointed by the Inquisition, they responded to these charges, acknowledging their accuracy, branding them as complete fabrications, or some combination of both.  Following the accusations, male crypto Jews submitted to the auto de inspección, or act of inspection, by which they were examined by a team of surgeons seeking evidence of circumcision.  Positive determination was taken as proof of their guilt.  Next, the inquisitors confronted the defendants with a copy of the testimony that had been accumulated over the years since their arrest.  Again, they were offered the opportunity to respond to the allegations contained in these anonymous declarations.

The genealogical, demographic and ethnographic data contained in these trial records serve as an enormously helpful source of information to identify and contextualize those crypto Jews who became tangled in the inquisitorial web.   This documentation tells us the names, places of birth and ethnicity of hundreds of families, extending backwards in certain instances as far back as the pre-conversion era.  It contains information relative to their Jewish consciousness and observance, migration and settlement patterns, commercial contacts, and educational patterns.  In addition to containing information pertaining to the individual arrested and charged with the crime of judaizante, the procesos also include lists of family members and persons implicated by the defendant.  These lists often contain the names of dozens of potential suspects.  Often those named in the testimony were able to escape the long arm of the Inquisition, and succeeded in fleeing to more remote parts of the Americas.

In addition, correspondence among the Inquisition tribunals of Lima, Mexico and Cartagena, and between these bodies and the Supreme Council of the Inquisition in Madrid, yields important demographic information concerning the presence of conversos in the region.  At various times throughout the colonial period, Inquisition officials on both sides of the Atlantic expressed grave concerns over the surge in heretical activity in one region or another.  Sometimes this concern was followed by a campaign of persecution, while at other times their interest soon waned.  When reports of crypto Jewish activity in Havana in the early 1600s reached the ears of the Mexican inquisitors, for example, the latter immediately appointed agents to represent their interests in Cuba.   They conducted investigations into the limpieza de sangre of these prominent habaneros to make certain that they had no trace of Jewish or Muslim blood in their family background.  Interestingly, it turned out that several of the designees descended from converted Jews.  But rather than dismiss these officials, the Mexican inquisitors chose to look the other way, and they were allowed to serve their terms.  As the research proceeds, it will be interesting to see how these New Christian families fit into the context of Cuban society.  To what extent did they interact with other conversos?  Did they marry within the group?  Were they ultimately implicated by other Inquisition officials?

So, too, do the fiscal records of the Holy Office hold data of immense value to historical researchers.  When the Inquisition arrested people suspected of practicing Judaism, they confiscated their goods.  In the case of the more active merchants, this sequestration included volumes of account books, correspondence, and lists of debts owed to and by these individuals.  Such material not only provides information about the scope of crypto Jewish merchants, but more importantly tell us the names of family members and close commercial contacts in areas left relatively untouched by inquisitorial authorities.

In addition to documenting the persecution of judaizantes in a given region, Inquisition records may also serve to reflect the absence of such persecution, and thus tacitly reveal an atmosphere of relative toleration of crypto Jewish activity.  Seventeenth-century New Mexico, for example, was characterized by a struggle between civil and religious officials, the latter represented by the Franciscan Order.   The governors controlled the military, while the friars maintained the power of excommunication and, more importantly for our purposes, the authority of the  Inquisition.  The Franciscans, however, did not show any interest in using this tool against crypto Jews until the 1660s, six decades after the establishment of the colony.  During this brief, but intense campaign, directed largely toward the governor, his wife, and a tight network of supporters, witnesses repeatedly offered accounts of the presence of Jews, and the practice of Judaism in New Mexico.   These records tell us not only that crypto Judaism was being observed on the far northern frontier of Mexico, but more importantly, that from the earliest days of the settlement all the way through the mid-seventeenth century, this practice was known and tolerated by the authorities, both civil and religious alike. 

Once historians identify likely crypto Jews and their descendants through their examination of the records generated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the investigatory process turns to other, non-Inquisition documentation that can shed new light on the lives of these individuals.   Particularly helpful in this regard are notarial, judicial, administrative, and military records.  Conversos generated thousands of notarial records relating to their personal and commercial activities, including powers of attorney, dowery agreements, and wills, all of which are replete with significant demographic information.  Criminal and civil trail records provide rich demographic material not found in other records. Such documentation offers invaluable information relating to the social and economic life of these colonists.  Archival holdings in Mexico and Spain also include administrative and military documentation relevant to the early exploration and settlement efforts by the Spanish crown into the Mexican northern frontier and the Caribbean, especially in the sixteenth century.  Among these records can be found expressions by colonial authorities relative to the participation by suspected crypto Jews in these endeavors. 

At this stage in the research into the crypto Jews in the Spanish Caribbean, it is becoming clear that several crypto Jewish merchants maintained dual identities, traveling to and from the non-Spanish colonies, living as secret Jews on the Spanish islands, while openly identifying as open Jews on the other islands.   Thus, records from the non-Spanish Caribbean Islands, including the Dutch, British, French, and Danish colonies of Curaçao, Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti, and St. Thomas, also are likely to yield significant information. 

At some point in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, the Inquisition tribunals of Lima, Mexico City and Cartagena appeared to have lost interest in prosecuting judaizante cases, concentrating instead on more routine, mundane breaches of Catholic orthodoxy such as blasphemy, bigamy, witchcraft, solicitation of women in the confessional, and later, censorship of Enlightenment literature.  Gone were the massive campaigns against the conversos that characterized the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.  But gone, too, were the rich trial records of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which, in the earlier centuries, had provided such a treasure trove of demographic information concerning the background and practices of New Mexican and Caribbean conversos.

As a consequence, it is considerably more difficult to determine the extent to which those later settlers demonstrated a crypto Jewish heritage.  In order to resolve this question it will be necessary to identify the ethnic background of some of the new colonists who migrated northward to New Mexico with Diego de Vargas in the 1690s, and to examine the patterns of marriage within this group, as well as between them and those seventeenth-century converso families who returned after the Reconquest, in order to ascertain possible indications of endogamy.  The types of careers that these colonists pursued might also serve as an indicator of ethnicity.  Did they occupy positions typical of New Christians in other parts of the Hispanic world?  The same investigatory process will need to be done in the case of new migrants to the Spanish Caribbean Islands.

In order to begin the process of identifying which of the eighteenth and early nineteenth- century families held the highest potential to demonstrate these traits, one must take a two-pronged approach, examining both the lives of those descendants of crypto Jews who settled in New Mexico and the Spanish Caribbean Islands, and the ancestors of the sample individuals discussed immediately below, who, in the late twentieth century either asserted a crypto Jewish past, or demonstrated ethnographic traits or a medical/genetic profile suggestive of such a heritage.  To be certain, in the case of New Mexico there was overlap between these two groups, as evidenced by their family histories, i.e. that among the latter group were found ancestors who could be traced to New Mexico converso families from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  It also appears that marriages and other close associations took place between the pre-Revolt New Christians and the post-Revolt ancestors, from the 1680s until the end of the Mexican period.


Phase II: Identification of People who Self-Identify

as Descendants of Crypto Jews and Genealogical Research into their Backgrounds:

Phase Two,comprises the identification of individuals in New Mexico, Cuba, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico who either express an awareness of a crypto Jewish family background, or have contracted one of the several autoimmune diseases found commonly among Jewish populations.   The selection of these individuals is performed by Project Anthropologist Seth Kunin.  The research utilizes the primary tools of social anthropology: questionnaires, structured and unstructured interviews, and participant observation. The primary challenge in the fieldwork is locating individuals with crypto-Judaic identity. This is overcome using a form of network analysis, building on individuals who have publically identified themselves as crypto Jews and moving outward to individuals who have kept the identity private or secret.  Application of this methodology in New Mexico suggests that it is a successful means of locating individuals who have a wide range of affiliations with crypto-Judaic identity and practice.

Once the identification process is complete, the project historians begin the long process of researching the family histories of the selected individuals to ascertain the extent to which they can be traced back to converso or Jewish origins.  While the principal documentary resources comprise Catholic Church baptismal, marriage, burial , and Inquisition records, such civil documentation as notarial, administrative and military records also prove useful in this endeavor.

Observations re:  identification of persons with

possible crypto-Jewish background:

1.   It is easier to identify crypto Jews and their descendants in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than in the later periods.

During this era, the Holy Office of the Inquisition engaged in intense periods of activity against crypto Jews, both on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Americas, thus generating significant documentation with regard to crypto Jews.  Inquisition trail records, investigations, and correspondence discuss religious observances, genealogical backgrounds and mobility patterns of judaizantes in Spain and Portugal, as well as in the New World.  They help establish links between families that were persecuted by the Inquisition near the administrative centers of authority and individuals of converso origin who were able to escape to more remote regions.   These records convey the preoccupation of Inquisition officials with what they considered to be an invasion of Portuguese crypto Jews, reinforcing the contemporary perception that portugues was synonymous with judio.

2.   With the shift in priorities on the part of the Inquisition tribunals in the Americas away from prosecuting judaizante cases after the mid-seventeenth century, it becomes more difficult for historians to ascertain crypto-Judaic identity.

As a consequence, one must look to the documentary record for hints of a continued crypto Jewish presence in the areas under consideration, such as patterns of endogamy (the tendency for descendants of crypto Jews to marry within the group); mercantile career patterns; presence of Old Testament-related sources among a colonist’s book collection; contemporary references in government, church, or private records to the practice of Judaism in the community; and assignments of Jewish biblical first names to one’s children.

3.   One has to be very careful about jumping to unwarranted conclusions on the basis of misleading information or unsupportable presumptions.

a.   With reference to “Jewish names,” there are very few surnames that can be considered as such.  To be sure, in the 1490s many conversos assumed  mainstream Spanish names, with certain names being taken with greater frequency than others, e.g. Rodríguez, Núñez, Pérez, and Enríquez.  But it must be remembered that many Old Christians, with no ties to Judaism, also held these names, and one cannot make any kind of definitive connection to a Jewish background solely on the basis of the name.  There are exceptions, but very few, where certain unique names can be traced back to certain towns in Spain and Portugal associated with converso families.  Nor can it be assumed that names that end in “ez” or “es” are uniquely converso names.  In most cases this suffix simply means “son of,” e.g. González  = son of Gonzalo, Hernández = son of Hernando, etc.  Another common legend holds that when Spanish Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism, they took names from nature.  While an intriguing idea, no documentary evidence has yet surfaced to support it.

b.   While many descendants of crypto Jews pursued mercantile careers, not all merchants had a connection to Judaism.  To the contrary, in the Spanish colonies, as in the English colonies, there were many gentiles engaged in importing and exporting activities.  Like all other suggestive phenomena, one should use the presence of a mercantile occupation as a place to begin to ask questions, not to form a conclusion.

c.   With the forced conversion of the 1490s, many of the Jews converted sincerely, and within a few generations they assimilated and acculturated into mainstream Spanish Catholic society.  Many others, of course, accepted their baptism in name only, and continued to practice their ancestral faith in secret.  One cannot assume that just because the conversion took place, that the family chose one path or another.

d.   While several crypto Jews or their descendants could be found among the primeros pobladores of New Mexico in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, no evidence has appeared to indicate that this element comprised a substantial percentage of the population.

e.   With certain notable exceptions, the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the Americas was less concerned with persecuting crypto Judaism than with more routine, mundane breaches of Catholic orthodoxy.  At any given time in Spanish colonial history, the inquisitors responded to whichever heresy represented what they perceived the most dangerous threat. 


Crypto Jews and their descendants have constituted an important component of the multi-ethnic mosaic that comprises key frontier areas of Spanish America, from the initial exploration and colonization enterprises by the Spanish in the late fifteenth century down to the recent past.  The participation of descendants of Iberian crypto Jews in the early settlement endeavors in the Spanish Caribbean Islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico, as well as the far northern Mexican outpost of New Mexico in the colonial period represented the culmination of efforts by conversos to escape persecution by the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal after the expulsions and forced conversions of the 1490s.  The farther that one could migrate from the centers of inquisitorial activity, the more distant from the tribunals of the Inquisition, the greater the opportunity for survival and security.  New Mexico and the Spanish Caribbean Islands represented two of these secure places of refuge, both removed geographically and administratively from the inquisitors’ reach.



Society For Crypto Judaic Studies