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Jewish History Museum explores ‘Fluid Identities’ of Crypto Jews

The “Cruz de los Sepharditos de Nuestra Tierra Sagrada” by artist Charlie Sánchez illustrates the confluence of cultures. (Courtesy Jewish History Museum)

“Fluid Identities:  New Mexican Crypto Jews in the Late 20th Century” is currently on display at Tucson’s Jewish History Museum. On loan from the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, “Fluid Identities” is part of a larger exhibition entitled “Fractured Faiths.” The Tucson exhibit offers an opportunity to delve into the topic of Crypto Jews (hidden Jews, also known as Conversos, or converts) and the intriguing idea that some of our Hispanic neighbors could have Jewish ancestry.

At the core of “Fluid Identities” are photo portraits of 26 northern New Mexico Cripto-Judíos or Crypto-Jews accompanied by short, descriptive narratives. There are also religious articles and art pieces that display a mélange of Christian and Jewish symbols. The iconographic mixture mirrors the lives of these Hispanic people whose families have practiced Christianity for many generations, but who believe that they are descendants of Jews from Spain. They self-identify using the term “Crypto-Jew,” which they have embraced with pride. The adoption of the term attests to the fluidity of identity and language over time, as “Cripto-Judío” or “Crypto-Jew” has historically been a derogatory label.

The Spanish crown, in the 15th century, forced all non-Christians to convert to Catholicism. There soon followed the Inquisition, which employed brutal means to root out and punish what the inquisitors judged to be insincere conversions of Jewish and Muslim “infidels.” Within less than 15 years of the establishment of the Inquisition came the formal expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain in 1492. The subsequent Diaspora brought Jews to the New World, some of whom settled in what is now the American Southwest. They had hoped to escape the persecution related to the Inquisition, yet the Inquisition came to the New World, reinforcing the practice of hiding one’s Judaism.

This need for secrecy and the confinement of Jewish practices to private individual expression (as opposed to reinforcing, celebrating and validating Jewish traditions in a community setting) are hallmarks of the New Mexican Crypto Jewish experience. Audio testimonials in the “Fluid Identities” exhibit include one by Jacobo de la Serna, who recounts asking his abuela (grandmother) over the course of many years about their genealogical background, particularly as to whether they had Jewish ancestors. “’Probablemente que sí’ (probably, yes) was the closest to yes that anyone in the family ever got,” says de la Serna. 

He reports that after repeatedly evading his queries, his grandmother finally did share information about the women in their New Mexico village of Monero going into arroyos in the canyon where they discovered their men standing in an inward-facing circle, swaying and chanting in what sounded like Spanish but with other strange words mixed in. De la Serna attributes the language to prayers uttered in Ladino, the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish. He also relates that his grandmother “went crazy when her half sisters from Albuquerque tried to get into her kitchen,” as she didn’t want anyone to interfere with her system of separating certain pots and pans for dishes that contained milk. “If my grandmother was of Sephardic ancestry,” says de la Serna, “she had a real fear of letting that out.”

Charlie Sánchez
Miguel Gandert
Tomé, New Mexico, 2016
Collection of the artist

A written testimonial displayed next to a photo of Charlie Sánchez reads: “Charlie Sánchez has deep roots in New Mexico. He has memories of family members slaughtering sheep in a kosher fashion, letting the blood run down after cutting its jugular vein. They never ate pork. His grandmother also had a tradition of lighting candles every Friday evening. In recent years Charlie has traced his family lineage back to the town of Llerena in the province of Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain.  It had a significant Jewish population prior to 1492.”

Jewish History Museum Executive Director Bryan Davis says that he hopes “Fluid Identities” will prove to be a template for a similar exhibit of 21st century Crypto Jews of Southern Arizona. Not a month goes by, he says, without someone from the local Latino community coming into the museum with questions regarding Judaism, their interest piqued by family traditions and practices that could perhaps be explained by Jewish ancestry.

“We have a very strong connection to the Mexican consul here in Tucson,” explains Davis. “The Mexican Consulate had been our neighbor here on Stone Avenue since 1937.” (In 2015, the consulate moved to 3915 E. Broadway Blvd.) “We have made public outreach to the Latino community a priority with this exhibit,” says Davis, “because we’re convinced that we may have an opportunity here to explore the Sephardic history and identity of Southern Arizona Crypto Jews.”

The exhibit will be on view through May 31 at the Jewish History Museum, 564 S. Stone Ave. For more information, call 670-9073 or visit jewishhistorymuseum.org.

Renee Claire is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.

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