Long-time Member, Conference Presenter,
Tells Her Story of Discovery and Identity
Interviewed by Arthur Benveniste
from HaLapid, Winter 2006
Tell us a little about your formative years.
My parents, both born in Colorado, moved to California soon after they were married. They are still living and will be celebrating their sixtieth anniversary in March 2006. I am the youngest of three children, raised in East Los Angeles among mostly Hispanic Catholics. Residing in such a neighborhood, we were expected to attend Sunday mass every week and did so with our mother, but as soon as we reached our teen years, we stopped attending mass. We were taught to respect diversity in others, encouraged to be ourselves, and to learn as much as we could beyond high school, whether it was in college or on our own. Currently, I am studying accounting, working toward ean Associate in Arts degree; I have always enjoyed school. I love writing and spending time with my family and friends.
How did you first become aware of your crypto-Jewish background?
By accident. In August of 1987, my sister and I were visiting New Mexico and researching our mother’s family at the State Archives Center in Santa Fe, when our paths crossed with Stanley Hordes, New Mexico’s former state historian, who has researched the crypto-Jewish element found among the ancestors of New Mexico’s Hispanos. He told us an incredible story of “Hidden Jews.” My initial response to his story was “that’s impossible.” Later, as I thought about it, I realized it made sense. When I was in my teens I always felt my family was different from other Catholics; I always said “my family’s Catholic, but we’re different.”
Was there any suspicion that your family might have Jewish roots before that?
No. Except that my maternal grandmother’s family were Penitentes (Penitents, a form of extreme Catholicism, origin unknown, and in the past not recognized by the Catholic Church). I always thought it was odd that my grandmother’s family practiced Catholicism in such an extreme manner. Their observances were not what I had been taught about Catholicism which had always been a mystery to me anyway. I never understood the holy Trinity—three distinct persons in one; this philosophy has never made any sense to me.
I’ve done some research on the Penitentes and believe that its origin may be found in Judaism, especially Jewish mysticism (the Kabbalah) and with the victims of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. I have found many parallels. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to explain where the Penitentes came from, much less explain the exact relationship with Catholicism.
What was the religious orientation of your family? Did they have any peculiar practices?
The Penitentes, as stated above, but no one in my family observes these unusual practices anymore. We are not religious Catholics, but we do observe some of the usual rituals, baptisms and funerals.
Have you done genealogical research? Tell about how you did it and what you discovered.
Yes, for many years. It began a few years before I discovered my crypto-Jewish past. Upon returning from a trip to Denver, my mother brought with her a copy of an obituary of my great-grandfather, printed with a photograph of him. Obviously, this sparked our curiosity to research my mother’s family—who they were and where they came from. As it turned out, my great-grandfather was the key to the search (his oldest brother was the great-grandfather of a cousin who has always known about the family’s Jewish past). A cousin in Sacramento, CA had displayed two menorahs in his home, yet he had nothing representing Catholicism. When asked why he had the menorahs, he gave a reply that didn’t answer the question. Another cousin recalled his great-grandmother always reading the Old Testament and abstaining from pork. During a visit with another cousin in Sacramento, I saw a photograph of my great-grandfather hanging on the wall in her home. It was the same photograph that was used in his obituary.
How did you react to your discovery of a Jewish background?
At first, disbelief. A few years before 1987, I had been researching my mother’s family and some of what I knew and discovered about her family made no sense. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what made no sense; I just knew something wasn’t right.
Was there an identity crisis?
After I discovered my past, I was afraid to think about it. My grandparents and everyone who came before them had practiced two religions (opposites) at the same time. I had been baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. Suddenly, I found myself in an awkward position asking myself, “Who am I?” I was afraid to answer that question, fearful that if I thought about it, I would literally be struck by lightning. As time passed, I realized it was okay to think about it, because I knew God understood how I felt and he wanted me to confront my feelings about it. The fear did go away, but it was replaced by guilt. Fortunately, the guilt passed. Hanukkah was approaching and I needed to talk to someone about my family’s past, so I went to my neighborhood synagogue and spoke with the rabbi. As I told him my “story,” he raised his eyebrow every now and then, he didn’t say much, but he knew I wasn’t telling him some ridiculous story. I found out later he had heard stories in the early 1960’s about Hispano crypto Jews when he was at a synagogue in southern Texas. Without realizing it at the time, I had apparently visited a rabbi who had already met me, not me personally, but someone like me.
Later, at a conference I attended with Sephardic Jews present, I discovered something interesting, I looked like them and they looked like me, and we didn’t look any different. At this conference, I didn’t feel out of place and went away from it feeling extremely happy. But that feeling didn’t last because the next day, I found myself crying and wondering why I was so upset, then suddenly I realized what I had been denied, and what my ancestors had been denied. The Sephardic Jews at the conference are what my ancestors were 500 years ago before the Catholic Church made them convert. It was then that I knew which direction to take. I wanted to learn more about Judaism. The rabbi I had spoken with about my past taught Jewish instruction in his home and this is where I found myself. What really surprised me was the fact that everything I learned in the classes was easy to understand and made sense. At last, I had found my home, but it took four years to come to terms with my feelings.
How about the rest of your family?
Upon discovering my crypto-Jewish past, it remained a “secret” for more than a year before telling my mother about it. Her reaction was that of surprise, not shock. But, she, too, had had her suspicions about certain traditions in her family that now made sense to her. My aunt (her oldest sister) died without acknowledging our discovery, but her expression when I showed her a photograph of the two menorahs in our cousin’s home, showed she was upset. On another occasion, when talking about our New Mexico cousin who has always known about his family’s Jewish past, she left the room. I’m certain she knew, but because of the secrecy she may have been sworn to keep, she never had a reason to talk about it, especially now, with so many years and miles between the past and the present.
My immediate family knows of the family’s Jewish past. They don’t think about it one way or another. I guess they have accepted it, because they know it’s something that happened in the past. They have remained Catholic.
How did you become aware of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies?
I attended its first official conference in Taos, New Mexico in 1991 and have been a member since.
Have you interacted with other crypto-Jews? In what ways do your experiences parallel or differ from theirs?
Yes, and discovered we share common ancestors and compare stories. Having been born and raised in southern California has put me at somewhat of a disadvantage. New Mexico is where the “action” took place and when my great-grandparents moved away to Colorado, they were somewhat cut off from the source, but not really, because they took with them to their new home all their beliefs and traditions. Unfortunately, when my grandparents died, many (but not all) of the traditions died with them; however, some of the fragments did pass on to my mother. Her moving with her siblings to California made me an outsider and not really a member of New Mexico’s familia of crypto-Jews.
I also believe some researchers and reporters forget that the Diaspora continues even today, as we continue to move away from the past.
Society For Crypto Judaic Studies