REMEMBRANCES OF A MONTERREY FAMILY
by David Ramirez
from HaLapid, Summer 1999
I was born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, México in 1970 (10 Adar I, 5730). My grandparents were from different parts of the Republic: Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosí and Puebla. Since I was a kid, I remember my maternal grandfather, today 98 years old, saying that we had Jewish blood, and he always reiterated his mother was Jewish. Her mother died when he was still an infant due to child labor complications, so more stories were not passed down. Since, I always wondered where we got our Jewish blood from. I knew nothing about the expulsion or conversos at the time, and most Jews I had met had names like Zimmerman, Berkman, and the like which did not have any resemblance to our family names.
My grandfather was born a Catholic, but later in his life he converted to an evangelical branch called “Church of God, 7th Day, “ which follows, or used to follow, many pseudo-Jewish customs. As a Catholic, he was never religious, but he grew up having a good moral standing. This new church provided him with similarities to what were his customs, one of which was the avoidance of pork. I grew up observing Shabbat and keeping some form of Kashrut, but I always thought they came from church teachings. Little did I know they had been kept for generations immemorial.
I never could identify with Christians, because we, since my father’s conversion and hence my family's, never kept Christmas or Easter. My mother always instructed us to identify as Jews, although it was done in a very subtle way and not out in the open. She has never allowed my father to bring a pork chop into our house, and she is very strict in cleanliness.
When I turned thirteen, I wanted to be Bar Mitzvah, and had no recourse but to be content with what I had. I remember looking at a picture of a Bar Mitzvah from an encyclopedia, and wishing that boy was me. I knew I was missing all the learning and all the preparation that it entailed, but to no avail. Curiously enough, this was the same year when I received my first Magen David. Although I know my parents did it with no clear conscious intentions, but this meant a lot to me. Many of my relatives wore a Magen David, and I wanted to also.
Today, I live and work in Atlanta, GA. One year ago, I decided to approach a “traditional” Rabbi, and see if he could convert me. I started to attend synagogue. One Shabbat, a tall gentleman approached me and started to ask me questions. I told him my story. And then he said, “you must be a Marrano.” I was startled. I have never heard that term applied to me. It would be the beginning of new discoveries.
As I started to research my past, and study academic papers and books written on Anusim, I found many surprising things about my family. Through interviews with women of my family, I have been able to identify the following customs, learned from my maternal grandmother, who in turn learned them from her mother, my great grandmother, and thus for generations. Some these customs have been lost recently through contact with the modern world or because they were thought to be Catholic customs by the Church of God (7th Day), but now I am practicing them again.
1. Pork was avoided.
2. No family recipes were used which involved the cooking meat and milk together.
3. Eggs were inspected to see if they had a blood spot; if they did, they would be thrown away.
4. When my mother was a child, my grandfather raised chickens which he slaughtered as a shochet, out of respect for the animal. To kill it in other manners would be cruel.
5. Meat was soaked in warm water, for “cleaning” purposes.
6. Every leafy vegetable was washed by the piece, under running water or by rubbing each leaf with your fingers submerged in a pot of water.
7. Lard was never used for cooking
8. When eating in places outside maternal family circles, my mother made sure that we had food that was not prepared with “unclean “ animals.
9. The diet was mainly vegetarian.
10.Although not particularly a Jewish custom, dried meat was salted, covered with olive oil, and cooked under the sun.
1. Each room was swept from the corners towards the center. This is a Rabbinical dispensation out of respect for the mezuzah from the time of Sefarad.
2. Nail clippings were carefully collected in a piece of cloth or paper, then burned. Back in the days of my grandfather all domestic trash was burned, today he deposits the little package in the regular trash deposit. This is also a medieval Sefaradim rabbinical dispensation.
1. Every Friday, a complete house cleaning was done. Bed sheets and table clothes changed, and a meat dish called Cocido prepared to last all Friday night and Saturday. No mundane activities were allowed, and the family wore their best clothes and went to Mass on Saturday.
2. Before every Easter, a spring cleaning was in order. Special foods were prepared for seven days. Curiously enough, a dish prepared with bitter flowers was specially eaten during Easter.
3. Women in the family have always asked to be buried in a simple wooden case, wrapped in a white bed sheet. My grandmother even mentioned that a white bed sheet would be enough.
4. The dead are buried within 24 hours, after which a seven day mourning period was followed, and afternoon prayers were recited.
5. After the mourning period was over, the whole house was cleaned.
6. After the woman gave birth, she was kept in the house for 40 days, and a special diet was provided.
Although on both sides of the maternal family we were Catholics, each presented a different attitude towards the church.
1. My grandfather's side of the family had high ranking church officials, Mother Superiors and Bishops. They were very religious. After the expulsion decree, the descendants of Anusim quickly ascended to high posts of church clergy, which could be obtained by considerable sums of money afforded only by relatively wealthy converso families (Examples: Torquemada, Fray de León, Sta. Teresa)
2. My grandmother was not raised religious, and always had disdain for Catholic rituals, which she thought to be evil. She confessed to me that she never felt comfortable in a Catholic environment. “With the Protestants I feel more at ease.” she told me last spring.
3. No great displays of saints or crosses were to be found in the house. Everything was done in a small scale.
4. Although not particularly a Jewish custom, my great grandmother used to visit the sick every afternoon.
5. Only on Sundays, when they resumed their weekly activities, would my great grandmother prepare a pork dish. She used to prepare it with chile peppers to tame the flavor and smell. This I found to be a converso custom from the time Marranos were forced to eat pork at church after Mass on Sundays, under the strict vigilance of church officials.
1. Both my grandfather and grandmother remember with disdain the Inquisition. “Ha!” my grandfather would say “The Holy Inquisition. . . there was nothing holy about them!” I grew up hearing those words. When I asked why, they said that a lot of people suffered during the Inquisition, especially those not “very” Christian. No personal memoirs were ever told. Such issues were never discussed at school or in public. Where did my grandparents get that attitude?
2. There exists a hermitic attitude towards letting people know about what goes on within the immediate family. Nothing is let out. This seems to be symptomatic behavior from the time Marranos had to go in hiding, even hiding things from close relatives, so as not to be discovered practicing Judaism, and later denounced to the Inquisition.
3. Against prevailing Catholic custom, family members were never instructed to hate the Jews. While friends of my mother and aunts had an anti-Semitic attitude, my grandparents never fostered such attitude, neither did my surviving great grandmother.
As far as I can tell, all my relatives, maternal and paternal, come from typically Marrano settlement areas in Mexico, specially from the Reyno de Nuevo León, and Puebla.
Nuevo Leon is described in Santiago Roel’s Nuevo Leon, Apuntes Históricos as:
The 200 leagues for the original land grant provided to Nuevo Reyno de Léon comprised the present Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, most of Chihuahua, Durango and Zacatecas, north of San Luis Potosí, a small portion of Aguascalientes and Jalisco, half of Nayarit, a chunk of Sinaloa, and a good extension of Texas all the way to what is today Austin. It would have had ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.
Puebla was a focus of Anusim settlement. My paternal grandfather is from a town called Acajete, Puebla. Only Ramírez are found here, obviously resulting from marriage among close relatives, an Anusim practice.
Although most of my surnames are to be found in Inquisition records, these are the Sephardim links I have found with some of them:
1. Olvera: from Olivera or Oliveira. Prominent Converso name among Portuguese Marranos
2. Rodriguez: Spanish surname said to be descendants from the Gradis family in Israel who migrated to Spain after the destruction of Second Bet Hamikdash
3. García: From Garza or Garces. Said Converso name prominent in the northeast Mexico
4. Valencia: from the Jews of Valencia
5. Flores: typical Converso name from southern Spain
6. Gutiérrez: typical Converso name from Spain
7. Neri: rare Jewish surname from Neriah only recognized from medieval French and Italian pogrom/ inquisition records. This surname can be traced back to the times of the Prophet Baruch. Surviving examples today: Ha’av Moshe Tzvi Neria (Israel), Rabino Najum Neria (Uruguay).
It is also said that surnames related to animals or plants are typically Jewish names, like Perez, son of peras (pears), Ramirez, son of ramos (branches), etc.
Right now, I am attending a Sephardi/ Mizrahi Orthodox Kahal, observing Mitzvoth and preserving my Converso culinary heritage. I am planning to go to Israel next year to complete my Return. For the sake of my ancestors who lived and died keeping Torah in their hearts, this is truly an exciting time to live, a time of re-discovery of customs, for which much suffering we went through. Four hundred years of Inquisition, four hundred years of the attempt to kill our Jewish Neshamá. Thanks to HaShem we rise victorious against the evils perpetrated against us Sefaradim, the Jews of Spain.
There is much that remains to be discovered. This is just the tip of the iceberg. May our efforts to uncover the sad destiny of our lost Sephardim brethren bring us strength and peace for the Jewish nation, and the speedily recovery of their souls and the coming of Mashiach.
David Ramirez was born and grew up in Monterrey, Nuevo Léon, Mexico. He now lives in Atlanta.
Society For Crypto Judaic Studies