Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
From HaLapid, Summer 2001
“Are you a Gentile or are you Jewish?” In elementary school I was asked this question in the hallway by Ed Lerner. He was a small, blonde boy and I shared a desk with him. When Ed asked me this question, everyone from our class gathered around to hear my answer.
I wasn't raised as a Jew, but I didn't consider myself a Gentile, so I didn't say anything. Again, he pressed me: “Are you a Gentile?” There was a long pause.
“No!” I answered and that seemed to satisfy him and everyone else. Our friends had by now filed out to the playground.
And so it was in our neighborhood and I was living in a nether world. I was a part of the community, I was “one of the boys” but I lived in-between the Jewish and larger world which comprised our community. We lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood though we did not practice any religion, save a nominal Protestantism. My mother taught us “God makes everything work out for the best.” This is a teaching that comes from Rabbi Akiva. Centuries after the Inquisition that is pretty much all that remained of our Judaism: my mother's statement in the face of adversity.
There was a kind of unspoken knowledge that our family had come from somewhere before Mexico. My father was raised by his mother's family: The Delgados. His grandfather was Benjamin Delgado. Dad would tell us that he thought we were ‘Moros' who had emigrated to Mexico. It was pretty much left at that. I think it's odd that he still says grace after meals, as his mother taught him. “Gracias Señor para todo me dio que no lo merezco…”
Discovering Marrano ancestry is like going up into an attic and sifting through an old family trunk and finding out that you were adopted. It is something that changes how you see yourself, your self-image. Your identity. There is a joke college students ask each other, “Who am I?” Then they laugh. I did my share of laughing but my senior thesis in college was on Malamud and Saul Bellow.
In that metaphorical trunk, I learned that the names of both my parents' families were common Marrano names: Delgado and Ayala. My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Nieto, a name linked to an illustrious rabbi. Even my own surname Lazo, I often thought was a corruption or shortening of Lazarus or Lazar. My grandfather on my mother's side, Cecilio Gutierrez claimed to be Apache from Sonora, Mexico, but even his surname has been linked to Anousim.
I talked with a few rabbis about my interest in Judaism, and it was as though I had to pay through the gehunkus. However, after a time, a rabbi I had written to answered me. His reply was that if I believed I was descended from Marrano Jews, then I should immediately immerse myself in study of Torah, and that is where I would find my answers. So, that is when I felt the pull from inside of me to embrace Torah and let the chips fall where they may. To my surprise, my father and brothers and sisters accepted my decision. I have an older sister who recently confided to me that some of our “people” were Jews. Is that a pattern among Latinos who find Jewish ancestry? It is not spoken of. It is avoided but then when the hints and the stories, and the evidence mounts up, then it is accepted; sometimes grudgingly, but eventually accepted.
I was referred to a rabbi in Denver. I called him and we talked for a few minutes then he asked me to hold. When he came back on the phone, he agreed to meet with me. What I didn't know was this: At the precise moment I called, he was in consultation with a young woman, named Cindy. He took down my name and said to Cindy, “I've got this guy on the line who wants to convert to Judaism. Why do they always call me?” Cindy asked him to repeat the name. He said, “Guillermo Lazo.” Cindy said, “Well you have to see him because I went to high school with him in Chicago and he has Sephardic background.” This was a random occurrence 1,000 miles away and over twenty years later! Coincidence?
In my family, we didn't consider ourselves Jews but I often heard my family referred to as Mexican or “Spanish” Jews. And it wasn't usually said in a nice way. One evening, a friend and I were walking around the neighborhood and we were near the temple. Suddenly, some young toughs cornered us in an alley. “Are you a Jew?” He demanded. I didn't know him. They were older than us. Bigger, stronger. “No,” I said. Then he smiled and stuck out his hand for me to shake it, and he said, “Good, neither am I.” I thought it was strange that he would offer me his hand to shake, but I didn't have to think about it too long, because he sucker-punched me and knocked me out. They were out to beat up Jews and I got caught. In my high school graduation photo, there is a trace of the black eye.
I was fortunate to be exposed to Judaism at an early age, so there was and still is a very strong feeling of homecoming. Also, there is a strange pattern that is very personal to me. Throughout my life, people have approached me and invited me to attend synagogue, whether for b'nai mitzvah or for services. I remember when I was 12 years old and I went to my friend Mark's bar mitzvah. There was a discussion at the Temple on whether I had to wear tallit or just a yarmulke. Finally the rabbi decided I didn't have to wear a tallit, but I should wear a yarmulke. Afterwards, I walked back home. Mrs. Fischer, from across the street, walked back the same route with her two children. She was very friendly and said she thought it was nice that I “went to Shul”.
I later moved to Colorado. On a sales call in a Denver book store a long time ago, the owner and I got involved in conversation, and after awhile he gave me a copy of Tikkun magazine. He didn't say that it was a Jewish magazine, but later, as I read it, I couldn't understand why he gave me such a magazine. I was Mexican, a Chicano, why was he giving me that magazine? Although I had been raised around Jews, I'd made a break and pretty much was nothing. I thought I'd never be accepted as a Jew and so after my childhood involvement, I was distanced.
During that time I sat in a café with a good friend, who'd originally come out to Colorado from New York. He began telling me of the ‘crypto' Jews of New Mexico. He talked for a while about the gravestones and other evidence that had been found. I didn't think much of it at the time. But he ended it with, “Just think, the Latinos are the only people who want to be Jews.” Then he laughed.
It's ironic that all of those hints and suggestions fell on deaf ears. My genealogical search on my family names led to dead ends. I couldn't go any farther into the past than 1746 in Guanajuato, Mexico. So either we were Indians (which we are) or what? We must be Gypsies I concluded. We must be Mexican Gypsies who intermarried with Indians. So that is how I left it.
I had posted to a number of Internet bulletin boards asking for any information on my surname. Nothing really came back, until a few years later; I received an email in a funky kind of Spanish. As I read it I thought to myself, “This guy's Spanish is jacked.” As it turned out, it was from a researcher who was writing to me in Ladino. He had evidence that there were people with the surnames Lazo/Laso who were exiled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition for Judaizing. Also there were Delgado and Ayala families who suffered the same fate. Those are the names from my father's side. Then more information came about the name on my mother's side: the Nieto family. That is the reason for the photo of David Nieto, which accompanies this article. So you see, all my life I have been on this path, and I was deaf and blind to it. However, after I saw some evidence as to the history of my people, it dawned on me that I was a Jew. Why else couldn't I believe in the divinity of Jesus? Why could I never believe in the divinity of a man? Why don't I believe in original sin? I thought that these ideas must be from my Aztec past. Now I know where they come from. I came to investigate my spirituality once and for all. There was something nagging me. Christians, Muslims and Buddhists were approaching me. First I dove into Buddhism. I studied Buddhist writings and tried to become content in my life and work. Buddha taught that all life is suffering. I didn't believe that. My life has had suffering, but it was not all suffering. There was also great joy. Then I found a parallel between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Jesus, the parables. It is there, in the parables that I was pointed back to Judaism, for reference is made to the law i.e. the Torah. It was an intense period for me. I attended a Quaker church for a couple of years and when we moved, I couldn't find a Quaker congregation, but I found a Mennonite congregation. It was there during a Sunday school session, when the teacher who was trained at the seminary could not adequately explain why the Hebrews always spoke of Israel, while they were in captivity in Egypt. He addressed the question but I was not satisfied with his answer. He didn't have yiddishkeit. It was something that seemed so obvious to me. This happened about the same time that I'd found a link to my Jewish ancestry. When the pastor spoke glowingly of the crusades, and the “people who killed Jesus” I knew my days as a Christian were numbered. I also felt silly singing songs like, Make Me as White as the Snow.
The first Delgados began appearing in Mexico around 1746. Ten years earlier, in Spain, an Antonio Delgado was imprisoned for practicing Judaism, and his mother-in-law was burned at the stake. That was the reason I'd been unable to get beyond 1746. The preceding ten years must have been years of flight and secrecy, escaping the Inquisition even as they traveled to the Americas. The Office of the Inquisition followed them to Mexico City. The Delgado and Lazo family (historically linked) fled to Guanajuato. The Nieto family fled first to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon (the “New” Lion of Judah), then West Texas and finally New Mexico.
In my twenties, a tennis partner back in Chicago asked me to convert to Judaism. I told him that I didn't think I would be accepted. He replied, “We'll take you.” At that time there wasn't much diversity among Jews. However, I was raised among Ashkenazi Jews and discovered my own Sephardic/Marrano roots rather late in life. There were hints but no conclusive proof e.g. Why weren't we Catholic if we were Mexican? Why were we more "international"? Why did we travel more? Why did we consider our family "cleaner" than others? Why were better off economically than other Mexican families, our parents engaged in business? Why was there such a premium put on education? Why did my sister and I marry Jews? Even after I divorced why was I still drawn to Judaism? Why were there many unanswered questions about my Jewish ancestry? It's a very deep and personal discovery. It's core feelings kind of stuff. When a Marrano starts reaching, he is letting his guard down. Fortunately, in my case, many people reached back.
If I share part of my journey with you, then you will know that my first wife was a non-practicing Jew. My sister married a Jew, and she converted and raised her children as Jews. How proud I was when I carried the Torah around at her daughter's bat mitzvah. I always kind of longingly looked towards the Jewish faith but felt I would never be accepted. When that orthodox rabbi told me that if I considered myself descended from Marrano Jews, then I should immediately immerse myself in the study of Torah, that simple statement has changed my life and opened a whole new world to me.
I decided to go to the mikvah and embrace the Torah. I did that in Baltimore, MD on July 12, under the tutelage of Rabbi Howard Gorin of Tikvat Israel. I like to say in the last century. Some people say that Marranos don't need to formally go through a conversion process and receive a certificate of Ger. But, at the beit din, one of the rabbis asked me how I felt about some people who would never consider me Jewish. That is beyond my control, so it doesn't affect me. I spoke to a friend of mine from high school days, and he said that he doesn't believe people have to even go to a mikvah, any body of water will do. As my friend Henry in Miami says, being a Jew without going to the mikvah is like fishing without a license.
Who have always been my oldest and dearest friends? Who have stood by me through out the twists and turns of my life? Why have I re-connected with friends after so many years and been accepted?
A few years ago, I worked with Arabs for a time, prior to my conversion. One day, Yusef came up to me and said, “Cousin, would you like some coffee?” I asked him, “Why do you call me ‘cousin'?” He said, “Don't worry, your secret is safe with me.”
I asked him, “What secret?” “Why, that you are a Jew, of course.”
“Well, you see, I am from Morocco, and many people in my country have your last name, and they are all Jews. Jews and Arabs are cousins because Ibrahim is our grandfather.”
He said, “Sure, don't worry. Your secret is safe with me. I won't tell anyone.”
Here are excerpts from documentation on my family names:
Delgado: Ruan (Rouen ??) France, Province, Normandy had a large Jewish community which was decimated by the 1394 expulsion of the Jews from France. " Una nueva communidad menor fué establecida en Ruan después de 1659. Después de la expulsión "final" no había judíos en la ciudad, hasta la llegada de algunos marranos al cierre del siglo XVI. Unos 40 judios se asentaron en Ruan alrededor de 1605, y en 1609 se habian dispersado. Pocos años más tarde se produjo la llegada de una nueva ola de marranos. En la nueva comunidad la familia de Gonzalo Pinto Delgado (padre del poeta João Pinto Delgado) desempeño un papel prominente. A demas de comerciantes incluía un buen numero de médicos. A pesar de que practicaban supuestamente las observancias cristianas, poseian su propio cementerio....y eran acusados de judaizantes."
New Orleans ,USA: "Entre de los judios mas prominentes de New Orleans a fines del siglo XIX y principios del XX fiuaron el fiscal Lemann de Louisiana; Isaac Delgado, cuyo nombre fué dado al Museo de Nueva Orleans. Este último -evidentemente sefardi por su nombre - resultó ser alcalde de Nueva Orleans durante cuatro periodos."
Venice: " Particularmente en los siglos XVI yXVII, los estudiosos y rabinos de gran nombre que vivieron en Venecia fueron Modena, Luzzato, el historiador Rodrigo Mendes Da Silva, el erudito Samuel Aboab y muchos más; otros notables....Zacuto Sara Coppio Sulam, poetisa, y el filósofo David Nieto que dejó Venecia para dirigirse a Londres y convertirse en el dirigente espiritual de la comunidad sefardi en formación." (Painting of David Nieto on page 783 " David Nieto o Netto, nació en Venecia en 1654, famoso médico y rabino, tuvo a su cargo la synagoga sefardi de Londres."
Londres: " Si nos atenemos a sus lideres espirituales....de estudiosos extranjeros...la lideraron....David Nieto ( 1701-1728.) La congregación fué reforzada continuamente por nuevos refugiados marranos de España y Portugal." While at the research library I looked up "Judíos de Toledo" inventory of archive documents, edited by Pilar Leon
Tello, Madrid 1979; We find 3 Ayala names listed, with 27 documents from the archives dealing with recorded transactions ( #) of Documents: The index notes the following: Ayala, Ines, (19 docs.) Ayala Mencía, (1) Ayala Teresa, priora. (7). So we know that Ayalas lived in Toledo prior to the expulsion.
Notes by Ben Nachman
Guillermo Lazo lives in Colorado. For more information on his sources email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org