Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
Becoming a Part of the Society
Roger Louis Martínez, Board Member-at-Large and Vice President of Conferences
From HaLapid, Winter 2009
Recently, the editor asked me to pen my own member profile for this issue of HaLapid . It is an odd task – to write about myself – and one certain to bring disaster upon me. Pride and false humility seem inescapable. Instead of providing you a list of carefully selected accomplishments, I want to speak about how I became a member of the society. I personally find other persons' life travels fascinating, so in that spirit, thank you for indulging me as I share my own.
Although the first society conference I attended was in El Paso (summer 2005), it was five years earlier with the unexpected death of my father, Eugene Martinez Carvajal, that I began my own journey to the society. Raised a devote Roman Catholic, his passing on Good Friday of 2000 was both auspicious and instrumental to a reawakening of a long hidden passion of mine first fostered as an undergraduate at the University of Texas – the study of interreligious cooperation and conflict.
It seemed little happiness could come from my father's death—it left a gaping cavern in my family's heart that only could be filled by piercing honesty about how we all wanted to live our lives from that moment forward. As fortune would have it, in 2002 I was living in Austin, which created the opportunity for me to re-engage with one of my former undergraduate professors, Dr. Denise Spellberg, who had years earlier exposed me to history of Iberia and its eight centuries of mixed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim ancestry. I now find it both amazing and fateful that I found my path back to the university to pursue my Ph.D. in History because it was Denise who ten years earlier, in 1992, expressed an intense interest in my father's stories about our family.
As long as I can remember, my father constantly told family tales about the origins of his maternal line, the Carvajals of San Antonio. Some of his stories were based on historical evidence like our clan's minor role in the revolution for Texas Independence. However, other less precise thoughts about the Carvajals and secret Jews, which thoroughly lacked any documentable basis, lingered in his mind and my extended family's collective imagination.
It is a persistent question in my family, “Are we related to Luis de Carvajal ‘El Mozo'?” He is perhaps the best-known secret Jew executed by the Inquisition in Mexico City in 1596. I do not think we will ever be able find a satisfying answer to this question, yet I know the first day that I shared with Dr. Spellberg, herself the daughter of a mixed Jewish-Catholic marriage, that I was of the Carvajal lineage she envisioned me as the progeny of the Sephardim that came to the Americas . With that tap on the shoulder, I knew that some day in the future it would become my responsibility to locate and retrace the Sephardim's path through history, knowing that the task would be frustrating and often fruitless because conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) and crypto-Jews intentional obscured their identities and the historical record so that they might hide in plain sight in the Spanish world.
What I do know about my family is that our ancestor, Mateo de Carvajal, a soldier from the provincial hotbed of crypto-Jewish activities, Nuevo Leon , was among the first to form the settlement of San Antonio de Bejar in the first decades of the 1700s. Certainly, the prospect of acquiring land and economic opportunity served as strong incentives for Mateo, his brother, and their families to relocate from Nuevo Leon to what would become San Antonio . However, why did the two brothers pursue this hazardous endeavor – one where a small number of Spanish families co-existed with some Native Americans, while aggressively engaging the Comanche?
Many scholars, such as Stanley Hordes, argue that geographic frontiers like New Mexico and Texas were common destinations for crypto-Jews, as well as others that the Catholic Church considered to be heretics. My initial forays into the historical records in the Archivo General de la Naci ó n in Mexico City and the Bexar County Archives seem to suggest that San Antonio may have had a crypto-Jewish presence. In fact, in 1750, Diego Martin Garcia, a local friar in the Mission of San Antonio de Valero, wrote to his superiors in Mexico City to complain that he was completely ignorant of how he should investigate religiously questionable families in San Antonio . Although I could not find a formal reply from the Mexican Inquisition to Friar Martin Diego, his initial inquiry begs the question: Why else would a friar need to know how to investigate religious heresies, such as crypto-Judaism, unless he had reason to believe there were heretics in his midst? It is a question I am still trying to answer and one that pulled me into the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies.
Again, while my ancestors may never have been crypto-Jews, repeatedly throughout my scholarly career and travels I have encountered mixed religious messages and tantalizing clues left by the Carvajal family. While the Carvajal surname encompasses a prodigious number of branches, my research has uncovered that one branch in particular, from the Spanish province of Extremadura, was particularly critical in the establishment of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present day Mexico) and the early Viceroyalty of Peru (South America). Further, what made the Carvajals so successful as participants in Spanish military, state, and church institutions in the Americas was their occupational diversification that transpired during the early 15 th century. Specifically, the Extremaduran Carvajals transformed and bifurcated itself into two distinctive professional lineages—those that continued the tradition of the mounted warrior ( caballeros and conquistadores ) and a new brand of men—churchmen and royal administrators ( obispos, arcedianos, frailes, and letrados). Together, these two arms of the same family collaborated to achieve common social and economic advancement goals in Spain , as well as abroad.
Understanding the historical trajectory of the Extremaduran Carvajals and their relatives that travelled to the New World has brought me to some provocative conclusions about this family—my family. Knowing that the Inquisition executed Luis de Carvajal in the late 16 th century for his persistent adherence to the Jewish faith, I was surprised in the summer of 2003 to stumble—literally—across my father's long abated search for the Carvajals in a small church in Trujillo , Spain . While participating in the University of Texas' Tracking Cultures Program, which blends domestic and international travel with the academic study of Spain and the Americas, I was found myself in Trujillo's Iglesia de Santa Maria La Mayor . There, interred into the church's 16 th century floor were countless graves for the Pizarros, Cervantes, Bejaranos, Vargas, and yes, the Carvajals—all of who had participated in the conquest of the New World. (Later I would learn that these Catholic families, all of who were intermarried with one another, shared ancestral connections to Jewish and converso families.) At the moment I found their gravestones, with my two most formative mentors by my side (Professor Spellberg and Professor Cory Reed), I resumed my father's pursuit of the Carvajals' obscured history as my dissertation project.
After six years of intensive study in over twenty-five archives and national libraries in Spain and the Americas , I feel that I have only scratched the surface of their perplexing family history. From Trujillo, Spain, I traveled to the family's ancient home, Leon, Spain, and there found their 13 th century Christian roots as the “Karvillier” family, a minor noble family of caballeros . Like their own horseback ride to the south during the Spanish Reconquista against Islam, in 2005 and 2006 I retraced their ride by rail and bus. As I systematically passed through Leon, Burgos, Zamora, Trujillo, Plasencia, Caceres, and Talavera de la Reina (their 200+ year journey taking me only months to complete), it became more evident to me that the Carvajal family of knights had stagnated socially and economically by the late 14 th century. That in spite of continuous service to the Castilian crown as warriors, they simply could not compete against other more elite families for the most lucrative rewards—namely, seigniorial titles and their accompanying wealth-generating lands.
Then, something quite remarkable occurred in the first decades of the 1400s—the Trujillo and Plasencia line of Carvajals radically redesigned themselves from knights into church archdeacons and royal judges within one single generation. This sort of occupational and social transformation was unheard of in the late medieval world because of relatively rigid cultural norms. In essence, if your father had been a tailor, then you would be a tailor. Thus, what had made this transmutation of the Carvajals possible? What was the impetus? Who was involved and how had it transpired?
In the Kingdom of Castile and Leon during late 14 th century, family mobility most likely could only be achieved by accessing the power and authority embedded in the monarchy and the church. While Rome was the center of the broader Catholic world, the northern city of Burgos was the administrative and ecclesiastical nexus for the Castilian kingdom. In turning my attention to Burgos , I encountered both new answers and an even more thought provoking questions about the Carvajal family, its extended family relations, and its familial network.
From the ashes of the horrendous anti-Jewish riots of the 1390s, one family in particular in Burgos rose to exceptional prominence in the royal administration and the church. It was none other than the Jewish converts to Christianity, the Ha-Levis, who renamed themselves the Santa Marias and Cartagenas. Bishop Pablo de Santa Maria and his sons (especially Gonzalo Garcia de Santa Maria and Alfonso de Cartagena) played key roles in the development and professionalization of the Castilian bureaucracy, as well as the Castilian Catholic Church. Even though the Santa Marias appear to have been sincere converts to Catholicism, it should be noted that they also retained some Jewish cultural and religious values and practices.
The Santa Marias were a key facilitator of the Carvajals' entry into the service of the church and royal administration, especially due to their collaboration with Gonzalo Garcia de Santa Maria , the Bishop of Plasencia from 1423 to 1446. The relationship of the Santa Marias and Carvajals became so intertwined that by the mid-1400s the two families shared extended relations—thus, while I have not been able to prove they were directly intermarried, the two most likely viewed each other as part of a broader family network. Take a moment to contemplate this finding. It suggests that during an age of increasing Christian intolerance of Jewish and formerly Jewish populations, the Catholic Carvajal actively sought out social, economic, and family relationships with well-known Jewish converts to Catholicism.
Perhaps even more damaging to the Carvajals' Christian credentials was an early 15 th century church agreement signed by Bishop Alfonso de Cartagena (again, a Santa Maria clansman) and the Jewish community of Burgos. Serving as a party to the agreement was a Jew by the name of Yucef de Carvajal. While I have never been able establish a relationship between Yucef de Carvajal of Burgos and the Carvajal family of Plasencia, I do find it intriguing that the converso Santa Marias and Carvajals repeatedly appear with one another in both cities.
It was with these findings in hand that my appreciation and understanding of the Plasencia Carvajals' social and religious identity began to broaden. At the most fundamental level of human consciousness, it forced me to ask the question: In 15 th century Spain – who was a Catholic, who was a Jew, and what exactly did it mean to be a converso ? Could one argue that the Carvajals were conversos because they not only shared extended blood relations with the Santa Marias, but also the Carvajals had redesigned themselves into church leaders and bureaucrats like the Santa Marias and even mimicked some of their family religious practices?
If we apply 15 th and 16 th century Spanish Christian religious norms to the Carvajal family, which argued with increasing fervor that any person with any Jewish ancestry was a Jew, then, the Carvajals were not only conversos themselves, but also Jews. Perhaps even more perplexing is the stunning conclusion that the Carvajals, by their own volition, chose to violate Catholic religious norms that highly valued limpieza de sangre (cleanliness of blood)—a defining characteristic of one's Christian purity.
Therefore it appears that the Extremaduran Carvajals, the key lineage to advance into the Americas , came to the New World carrying heavy religious baggage. It leads me to believe that when one branch of the Carvajal family was enduring the Inquisition in 16 th century Mexico City , that another local branch was likely hiding a well-guarded family secret. That is, Dr. Leonel Cervantes de Carvajal, both the city's cathedral school headmaster and an inquisitor, most likely was a descendant of the mixed religious heritage Cervantes-Carvajal family of Extremadura. Thus, according to the beliefs that Catholics held dear at the time, he was a Jew himself. It is because of these discoveries and questions about my family, the Carvajals, that I became a member of the society.