TEXAS MEXICAN SECRET SPANISH JEWS TODAY
by Anne deSola Cardoza
From HaLapid, Summer 1995
Jewish food, oral traditions, culture, and secret religious customs are showing up today in the folklore, habits and practices of the descendants of early settlers in southern Texas and the surrounding areas of Mexico. In northern Mexico and what today is Texas, the Jews of Nuevo Leon and its capital, Monterrey, Mexico, lived without fear of harassment from the Holy Office of the 1640's and beyond. Many of the leading non-Jewish families today of that area are descended from secret Jewish ancestors, according to scholar, Richard G. Santos.
Santos states there are hundreds, if not thousands of descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews living today in San Antonio and throughout South Texas. Not all are aware of their Jewish heritage. Santos is a renowned scholar in ethnic studies of South Texas secret Spanish Jewry. He presented a paper to the Interfaith Institute at the Chapman Graduate Center of Trinity University on secret Sephardic Jewish customs in today's Texas and nearby Mexican areas.
Here’s how we know that many Tex-Mex Hispanics today are of Jewish ancestry. It's a well accepted fact that the founding families of Monterrey and the nearby Mexican border area, "Nuevo Reyno de Leon" are of Sephardic Jewish origin. If we go back to the Diccionario Porrua de Historia Geografia y Biografia, it states that Luis de Carvajal y de a Cucva brought a shipload of Jews to settle his Mexican colony - with some Jews being converts to Catholicism from Judaism and others "openly addicted to their (Jewish) doctrine".
Seymour Liebman, a scholar on Mexican colonial secret Jews, in his book "Jews in New Spain", explained why Jews settled in areas far away from Mexico City in order to escape the long arm of the Inquisition in the sixteenth century.
There's an old, universally known anti-Semitic Mexican joke, a one-liner that says, "la gente de Monterrey son muy judios ... son muy codo". In English it translates, "The people of Monterrey are very Jewish ... very tightwad".
Secret Jews colonized the states of Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Tamualipas and good old Texas, USA in the 1640's-1680s and thereafter. The majority of Texas's Spanish-speaking immigrants came from Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila (the old Neuvo Reyno de Leon) beginning in the 1680s.
Seventeenth century secret Jews who settled in what is today southern Texas, particularly around San Antonio took with them their Jewish foods, particularly what they call "Semitic bread" or pan de semita.
Why do Mexican Americans in Texas and in the Mexican province of nearby Monterrey eat "Semitic bread" on Passover/Lent? According to scholar Richard G. Santos, Tex-Mex pastries such as pan dulce, pan de semita, trenzas, cuernos, pan de hero, and pan de los protestantes (Protestant's bread) are similar to familiar Jewish pastries eaten by Sephardic Jews today in many other parts of the world.
Pan de semita was eaten in pre-inquisition Spain by Jews and Arab Moors. Today, it is popular in Texas and in that part of Mexico bordering Texas. It translates into English as "Semitic bread". It's a Mexican-American custom in the Texas and Tex-Mex border area today to eat pan de semita during Lent which occurs on or around the Jewish Passover.
You bake pan de semita by combining two cups of flour, one half to two-thirds cup of water, a few tablespoons of butter or olive oil, mix and bake unleavened. Even among devout Catholic Mexicans pork lard is never used, that’s why it's called Semitic bread. Pan de semita is really the recipe for secret Jewish Matzoth, and it’s eaten by all Mexicans today in the north Mexican/Texas border area, regardless of religion.
Only in Texas and along, the Texas-Mexican border is a special type of pan de semita baked, according to Dr. Santos, who himself is descended from secret Spanish Jews of the area who’ve lived in that part of Texas and Monterrey since colonial times.
The special pan de semita of the border has special ingredients: only vegetable oil, flour, raisins, pecans and water. The raisins, pecans, and vegetable oil were identified, according to Dr. Santos, as selected ingredients of secret Jews of New Spain.
Take two cups of flour, a cup or less of water, a handful of olive oil and mix with a half cup to two thirds cup each of raisins and pecans. Then you knead and bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned and easy to chew.
Pastry bakers from Mexico claim this type of pan de semita is unknown in central Mexico. Other pan de semitas are found in Guadalahara made from wheat (Semita de trigo) in which milk is substituted for the water. In Texas and Guadalahara one also finds Semita de aniz (anis). However , semita de trigo and semita de aniz never include raisins and pecans and the use of pork lard is forbidden. Only olive oil or butter can be used to make semitic bread.
In Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Coahuila and among Mexican Americans in Texas two ways of butchering chicken are performed. Chickens can only be slaughtered by either wringing the neck by hand or by taking the head off with only one stroke of a sharp knife and immediately all blood must be removed into a container. The fowl is next plunged into hot water to remove any remaining blood.
This method is the same today as the Crypto-Jews performed in 17th century Mexico as described by Seymour Leibman. The secret Jews of Mexico in the 1640s decapitated chickens and hung them on a clothesline so the blood would drain into a container of water. Then the fowl was soaked in hot water and washed long enough to remove all the blood.
In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, there is a ritual today of using this method of butchering chickens with an added gesture of drawing a cross on the ground and placing the chicken at the center of intersecting lines.
Eating cactus and egg omelets during the Passover/Lent has been a custom of secret Jews of the 17th century and of Mexican Americans from Texas and Northern Mexico today. The omelets are called nopalitos lampreados. The custom is to eat this food only during Lent. Is this an old Passover rite of secret Jews as well? Many add bitter herbs to their foods during Lent. Another influence of Passover? Some do not eat pork on Friday and others do not eat pork after 6 P.M. or sundown on Friday.
Another Lenten/Passover food is “capirotada,” a wheat bread (pilon-cillo) to which raw sugar, cinnamon, cheese, butter pecans, peanuts and raisins are added. These are identical ingredients to those used by secret Spanish Jews in the New Spain of 1640. The ingredients and recipes have been recorded by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and saved to this day in the archives.
Mexican Americans from Texas ate meat on Fridays long before the Catholic Church relaxed the rules which forbid such activity. Older women cover their hands while praying in the same manner as Jewish women cover their heads.
The township of San Fernando de Bexar, today’s San Antonio, was established in 1731 by sixteen families who were descendants of Canary Islanders.
These families intermarried with the local population of nearby Nuevo Reyno de Leon, many of whom were Spanish and Portuguese secret Jews. Though all Mexican Americans of the are not of Sephardic descent, a large number still use the oral traditions which are eminently of Sephardic origin. Historical exposure to and intermarriage with Sephardic secret Jews has occurred in the parts of Mexico that were “safer havens” for secret Jewish settlement. The safest haven was Southern Texas and the surrounding Mexican border area. The Holy Office was not active there in the 17th century.
Today Texans in the San Antonio area are celebrating the secret Jewish origins of some of their foods, culture and oral traditions.
Anne deSola is a full-time author specializing in writing psycho-suspense novels involving Sephardic Jewish subjects or characters and is the author of 33 books, both fiction and non fiction, and filmstrips. She also writes a weekly business opportunities career column for a national newspaper.