Our Secret Heritage
Crypto-Jews of South Texas ©2001
by Alberto Omero Lopez y Cadena
From HaLapid Summer 2002
Descendants of Spanish Jews in South Texas? Yes, we’re there and we still use some Spanish Jewish words (Ladino) all the time! First, I’ll discuss research on the Cadena Jewish genealogy, then my most recent Sephardic traditions discoveries and hidden Jewish practices among some family members. Next I’ll describe related events in the Post-American Civil War Period, The King Ranch and King Rangers—a tale of racism, murder and loss of our Spanish Land Grants. I’ll conclude with the family oral history as told to me by my elders.
Our family links are numerous and span hundreds of years of Mexican and Spanish history. Dr. Francisco Montalvo Cadena (distant relative—great-great-great grandfathers were brothers), and his uncle have researched the family history for over 40 years. The work shows that the Cadenas are inter-related and linked to the royal houses of Europe. The five Jewish genealogical lines leading to the de la Cadenas in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries are:
1. Ha Levis from Castile,
2. Truchas from Zaragoza and Calatayud, Aragon (they assumed the surname Maluenda after the town where they lived),
3. Ha Levis from Aragon (aka ibn Labi de la Cavalleria),
4. Fernandez de Guadalupe family from Granada, royal physicians to the Catholic Kings; their origins were in Burgos and
5. Our royal line linked to Estrada, Ferdinand II (V) (The Catholic King and his association with the beautiful Jewess) Paloma de Toledo.
In the seventeenth century, Antonio de la Cadena Vasquez de Bullon (b. 1552) testified before the Audencia in Mexico and said he lost his inheritance after financing three companies in the failed Oñate expedition to New Mexico. He sought refuge in Havana in 1598 and gathered people wanting to sail to the Philippines in 1600 and 1601. Antonio married Leonor de Alvarado, mestizo daughter of celebrity silver baron Bartolome de Medina and granddaughter of Pedro de Alvarado, aide to Hernan Cortes.
Most of our relations are from Nuevo Leon, Mexico or South Texas. In The Course of Mexican History, Michael C. Meyer and William L. Sherman claim that Spain and the conquistadores were lusting for gold and glory. Escaping the Spanish Inquisition must have been another motivating factor.
Among the first colonizers of Zacatecas and Monterrey, the Cadenas ultimately moved further north, where they established large ranches in Mier and Agualeguas, Mexico. The Church of Nuestra Señora de Concepción de Agualeguas in Agualeguas, Nuevo Leon has Star of David dome windows beneath the Christian cross. In Texas, Cadenas live in Alice, Austin, Ben Bolt, Concepcion, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Falfurrias, Harlingen, Houston, Palito Blanco, San Diego and other places.
My Most Recent Discoveries
In researching family foods, I found a sketch for how to construct a proper sukkot hut in Michael Strassfeld’s The Jewish Holidays—A Guide and Commentary. It’s just like my dad’s grape arbor! I recently asked mom why they don’t eat the grapes. She said “because it’s a sacred structure!” I replied, “Mom, Catholics don’t have sacred grape arbors!” She added that the grapes were used to make wine. She thought it had something to do with the blood of Jesus Christ.
Many foods we eat are not found in Mexican or Spanish cookbooks. I found a few Tejano recipes for fideo, pan de semita and bumuelos de Hanuka in Sephardic cookbooks.
A world traveler, I’ve often been told that I speak an unusual Spanish. “Thank you,” as you know, is “muchas gracias” in most Hispanic countries. However, my people in South Texas say “munchas gracias,” the Ladino form. I made this discovery while reading ancient Sephardic verses in The Encyclopedia Judaica at the Library of Congress.
My Crypto-Jewish Self
I published My Crypto-Jewish Self in 1997 through Kulanu, an international Jewish Organization. The paper details additional cryptic Jewish practices and appears in the web site in the section titled “Articles by Subject” [www.ubalt.edu/kulanu/lopez.html].
Marginally Catholic, I left the Catholic religion in 1982 because it wasn’t meeting my needs and I never felt comfortable with it. Religion had always been a topic of discussion in my family and I remember hearing a lot of arguments about Protestantism versus Catholicism. Most of the Cadena family is now Protestant and devout Christians; some are crypto-Jews like myself. I learned of my Jewish ancestry in 1992 from my cousin Olga and uncle Noe (Noah). He was in his mid-sixties and he recalled a family meeting where his mother (my grandmother Maria Esmerijilda) told them of her Jewish ancestry.
I didn’t know much about the violent history our ancestors experienced in Spain when I first visited there in April 1995 and again in spring of 1997. In Our Secret Heritage—The Amazing History of the De La Cadena Family of Spain, Mexico and South Texas by Francisco Montalvo and me, we present the origins of the Inquisition and how it affected the Cadenas. If the Inquisition existed today, my Mom and I would be in serious trouble. I presume Mom is mostly aware of the significance of these family traditions, although I’m not.
When she visits me, the first thing she asks is if I have any new cooking pans. If I do, she proceeds to curar las vandejas (or purify the pots). She does this by boiling them in brine water for about an hour or so, I don’t know if she says any prayers. To this day, she and I keep one particular small pot, a coquito, for brewing coffee or warming milk and nothing else. We avoid pork, or eating meat and milk or butter at the same meal. Mom places her hands on my head (a Jewish blessing) practically every time we part. She keeps a constantly lit candle (a spiritual essence) in a room without windows. My grandmother prayed before and after every meal every day of her life. Mom once noted. We eat flour tortillas, unleavened flat bread, wash and salt meat to remove any sign of blood and avoid eating eggs that have blood spots. If a calf is slaughtered at the ranch, we remove the nerve or sinew from the legs and cover the blood with earth. We do Jewish things! Are we Jewish, or do we consider ourselves so? I do.
My dad had a triple bypass a few years ago and there was a possibility that he would die. I asked mom for family prayers, prayers passed down through the generations, to help us through the ordeal and she jotted down a few notes that I later researched. I wonder if she knows that the Semah, a family prayer, (Deuteromy chapter 6:4-9), is what reverent Jews say several times daily? Other prayers are Psalms 23, 27, 34:1-22, 37:1-40 and 121. (We also know Christian prayers.) In essence, without consciously knowing, we’ve been judaizing.
The Post American Civil War Period
The post-American civil war period in South Texas was very significant for those of us descended from the original colonists. Dr. Montalvo and I conservatively estimate that 50 percent of the current population in South Texas, are descended from those early Spanish settlers. The 60 years before the Civil War was an era of Anglo-American expansion that included the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845. South Texas was never part of the Republic of Texas and its annexation by the U. S. was illegal and initiated on dubious grounds. The U.S. claimed the Rio Grande River as its border to Mexico and under the pretense that Mexicans crossed the river and killed Americans on their soil, President Polk and Congress declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846. Mexico lost the war and ceded a great deal of the American Southwest. Unfortunately, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo failed to protect Tejanos and their land grants.
This land grabbing and squatting becomes clear as community after community—new towns and counties were given Anglo names, names that had little to do with the region. Jim Hogg County was named after James Stephen Hogg, Governor of Texas in 1891. Hebbronville was named for a Californian of English descent. Duval County was named after John Duval, a veteran for Texas Independence. In fact, of fourteen counties named—over 90% of the land, Webb, Duval, Jim Wells, Live Oaks, Nueces, Kleberg, Kenedy, Willacy, Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Zapata, Brooks, and Jim Hogg—only four have Hispanic names. The reason is two fold: 1. Anglo-Americans named or renamed individual counties and 2. the area needed to be quickly Anglicized and incorporated into the union, this fact isn’t acknowledged by historians. Consequently, animosity grew between Texans and Tejanos and resulted in outright racism. Our ancestors, the original colonizers and pioneers of South Texas, were perceived as aliens in their own land and strangers in Mexico. South Texas remained an enigma to Tejanos and until just recently to historians as well. Scholars and genealogists are now correcting this oversight and recovering our “lost” history. Despite increased immigration by Anglo-Americans, the Hispanic population today is approximately 70 percent.
The King Ranch and The King Rangers
In October of 1997, I received important information from Kulanu, an organization supporting crypto Jews, regarding Hispanic Jews in South Texas and obtained a copy of Dr. Carlos Montalvo Larralde’s doctoral dissertation entitled Chicano Jews in South Texas (Library of Congress, Microfiche 7906177). Published in 1978, it reveals a horrific history, one not taught in public schools.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Richard King and his family did everything in their power to cover up their crimes against Tejano Jewish communities in South Texas. Some say they destroyed the last semblance of Sephardic culture since their expulsion from Spain in 1492. To what extent are they responsible for destroying our culture? It’s difficult to summarize, because they have all the records and have been careful to suppress information on crimes committed by their ancestors. According to Robert W. Stephens and José Canales, a book detailing atrocities and critical of the King family was written in the 1940s or 1950s, but was purchased by the family and destroyed. The author also disappeared.
Perhaps the worst period in our history occurred between the 1870s and the 1920s. Supported by the state government, the Texas Rangers were originally mounted riflemen organized during the fight for Texas independence from Mexico. Assigned to protect Texans from Mexican raiders and Indians, they in time became semi-independent and were the law of the land. Racist politicians gave them the power to enforce the law according to their whims. Our people feared them for their brutality, which at times included flogging, torture and mutilation. The Rangers often arrested people in the middle of the night and condemned them without the benefit of a proper trial. Here is a quote from page 90 of our book:
Actually, to be a Ranger a man was chosen for his overbearing manner and his capacity for cruelty. The consequences of the Rangers’ barbarization [sic] had had a decisive significance for present-day Chicanos....
The Texas Rangers devastated much of the Chicano . . . Jewish culture, especially their records and religious items. Many Rangers were sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. As Captain Frank Hammer once said, ‘We don’t arrest our own kind.’
A New York Times editorial published on November 18, 1922 stated “the killing of Mexicans without provocation is so common as to pass almost unnoticed.”
Richard King supported the Texas Rangers and hired Ranger Sam Pickett and others to brutally force Hispanic ranchers away and get their lands, writes Robert W. Stephens in Texas Rangers Sketches, a privately published work (1972). Pickett, a handsome youth with deceptively sensitive eyes, slaughtered many innocent people.
Rangers Walter Durbin and Ben Lindsey were also King deputies, Stephens continues. By hiring them to wage a continuous war exterminating all Hispanics regardless of on what side of the border they lived, the King family expertly concealed their dirty deeds and kept the appearance of decent law-abiding citizens. They secured all witnesses or documents exposing their wrongdoings and ascertained that none of their accomplices wrote their memoirs.
As the King Ranch grew, so did Richard King’s power and soon he controlled most of South Texas, its politics and economy. Charles Stillman, Sam Belden and Mifflin Kenedy soon joined the land grab, writes O. Douglas Weeks, in “The Texas-Mexican and the Politics of South Texas,” from American Political and Social Science Review, August 1930.
Weeks quotes a February 6, 1975, letter from Robert W. Stephens to Carlos Larralde:
The ranch owners traditionally employed ex-Texas Rangers as protection men, then called ‘King Rangers,’ to cope with the numerous cattle thieves in that area . . . [and those] who dare stand against King’s abuses.
If Hispanics accidentally got lost within King land, they were murdered and buried in unmarked graves or simply tied and buried alive. This is documented in several Ismael Montalvo interviews (Brownsville Herald, May, September and October 1902 and May and November, 1910; Corpus Christi Weekly Caller, from El Porvenir or Brownsville, October, 1912). Many Mexicans fleeing the Revolution of 1910 and in route to Corpus Christi or San Antonio disappeared while in the King Ranch. This was still true during World War II, according to a Stephens letter to Carlos Larralde in 1976.
A fire of mysterious origin destroyed King family records during a federal government investigation of King family abuses in 1863. Another fire occurred in 1912.
When interviewed, King family employees gave favorable interviews about the family. Mexican records kept by the corrupt Porfírio Diaz government also proved favorable. The King family involvement with the Texas Mexican railway and the cattle industry no doubt greatly influenced the outcome of the investigation. In fact Diaz’s rurales patrolled the Mexican side of the border in spring of 1911 and aided tracking Tejano enemies of the Kings.
Racism in South Texas
Walter Prescott Webb, a noted Texas scholar and writer, was an avid racist. He headed the Southwestern Writers’ Conference and the Texas Institute of Letters. Caneles describes how this effectively negated any effort to investigate Tejano Jewish culture and studies in South Texas:
Walter Prescott Webb simply thought that minorities, especially Jews, should be living on another planet. I spoke to him about Latin Americans [Chicanos] of Texas and especially those of Jewish background. What I wanted to see was a study done on Latins in Texas with his approval. You see, his influence could have promoted a research center on Texan Latins. Instead it was like talking to a statue.
Webb ultimately must have had a guilty conscience and realized the harm he had done to the Tejano community. In an article in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January 1971, Llerena B. Friend quotes him:
The unfortunate fact is that the Mexicans were not as good at keeping records as were the people on this side . . . I have often wished that the Mexicans, or some one who had their confidence, [implying Hispanics weren’t able to record their own history], could have gone among them and got their stories of the raids and counter-raids. I am sure that these stories would take on a different color and tone.
In fact, Francisca Reyes Esparza, from a Jewish family, wrote about her people and preserved family relics. The material was housed in a Chicano library known as The Esparza Collection. Professor Américo Paredes also wrote about Hispanic Jews in the 1950s, but was disliked at The University of Texas in Austin because of his criticism of the Texas Rangers and Walter Prescott Webb.
My grandparents told me that during the 1920’s, a handsome Mexican-American teen and a local Anglo girl fell in love. He was warned to stay away from her, but the two continued to meet secretly until they were caught. He was hung on a mesquite tree not far from the Town Square in Falfurrias, Texas.
As a child, I knew we lived differently. TV showed me we weren’t treated as other Americans. I could get haircuts in Hispanics only barbershops. Restaurants, theaters, grocery stores and whole neighborhood were segregated. Anglos lived north of the railroad tracks in the better section of town. Their streets were lighted, paved and they didn’t have out-houses. We weren’t allowed to speak Spanish on school grounds; I was once spanked for doing so.
Today, I speak Spanish quite well and understand Italian and Portuguese and have studied German, French and recently learned the Hebrew alefbet. Growing up was difficult; North America doesn’t have pyramids, I told myself as a child. Anglos it seemed controlled everything; they were the only viable culture. It was a psychological nightmare, which I survived. I didn’t grow up in dire poverty, we lived in the best Hispanic neighborhood in town, but I empathize with the poor because I’ve witnessed miserable poverty. I now understand that one may be good and honest, yet poor.
We’ve lost most of our land, but many of us lost even more—we lost our cultural traditions and self-esteem. Many of our people turned to gangs, drugs and alcohol. U.S. social services made many virtual slaves to the American handout. Like the American Indian and African-American cultures, many came to believe that Anglo-American culture was supreme. Tejano children were taught an anglo-centric history and made to believe that Anglos tamed the land and brought culture and civilization to South Texas and most of North America.
In fact, some Mexican-Americans fleeing poverty and tyranny did settle in South Texas after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, but many descendants of Spanish settlers have lived in South Texas since the early 1700s.
Cadena Family Oral History
According to oral history in Rosendo Cadena’s family (my maternal grandfather), Cadena relations arrived in Premont, Texas in 1800. However, Rosendo, his wife Maria H. and his brother Polonio II fled the Mexican Revolution from Agualeguas, N.L. and settled in South Texas sometime between 1910-11. They essentially left the little they had behind at Rancho el Tanque. Most of the Mexican haciendas were looted and destroyed; we don’t know what happened to Hacienda de Ventura, mentioned in family records. I visited our ancestral panteón in El Tanque in 1994 and found approximately two hundred gravesites. The marble and glass headstones faced east, toward Jerusalem.
Mexican revolutionaries confiscated the Gonzalez maize crop to feed their armies. Pancho Villa’s men ordered my grandfather Rosendo and his brother Polonio to fill a wagon with corn and take it to Villa’s men fighting the Federales across the hills from their rancho. The two knew they would be killed if they disobeyed the rebels or were caught by the Federales. At dawn amid shootings and bombings, they followed through with the instructions they were given.
Abuela Maria told how soldiers came on mounted horses, and forced their way into their home and pointed at rifle at her belly. A feisty young woman; she stood up to them, but after they left her family feared for their lives. They fled Mexico. Later in route to Texas on a mule driven wagon, my great-grandmother Mama Lola had her first encounter with a steam locomotive. Frightened, she jumped off the wagon and ran in the opposite direction fearing the train would follow!
My grandparents returned to Mexico several times thereafter. My grandmother described how they would cross the Rio Grande in a galvanized washing tub and on one occasion the tub overturned and she saved her husband’s life.
Rosendo, Maria H. and Polonio lived in Falfurrias, Texas for the rest of their lives. They periodically and hesitantly returned to Mexico from time to time. They feared border guards and a possibly difficult re-entry into the U.S., although they were naturalized citizens. Perhaps they remembered the past difficulties our people have endured in both countries?
Rosendo was a quiet and dignified gentleman with an enterprising spirit. He was one of the first men in Falfurrias to own a Model T Ford. He and his sons practically owned a whole town block. He died in Alice on Christmas 1968, soon after I returned from Vietnam. When the mortician indicated he was placing a Catholic cross on his casket, a family member cried “No!” and grabbed it! Rosendo left a modest inheritance for his youngest son, Noe, a U.S. civil engineer. It was to educate his children. Maria Esmerijilda, the driving spirit that had kept the family together, died in January of 1971 of Alzheimer’s disease. She died peacefully in her sleep, as she had wanted. Polonio lived to be almost 101 and died at a rest home in Falfurrias in 1995. My mom and several Mexican relatives attended his funeral. It was a humble end to a heroic struggle.
This article is adapted from a copyrighted presentation given by Alberto Omero Lopez Cadena at the 2001 Conference of the Society. Lopez and Dr. Francisco Montalvo have recently completed The Amazing History of the De La Cadena Family of Spain, Mexico and South Texas.