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For some people in the region (Chapel of All Saints, San Luis, Colorado), the DNA results have been a revelation. (Scott S. Warren)

The 'Secret Jews' of San Luis Valley

In Colorado, the gene linked to a virulent form of breast cancer found mainly in Jewish women is discovered in Hispanic Catholics

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For the first time Wright connected this history to memories of conceivably Jewish customs, such as sweeping dust into the center of a room and covering mirrors while mourning a loved one's death. She read up on the Spanish "crypto-Jews" in the library and on the Internet. In 2001, she and her husband made an extended visit to the valley and northern New Mexico. Tracking down as many of her paternal relatives as she could find, she alerted them to their dangerous genetic legacy and their ethno-religious heritage. "I have 60 first cousins, some I never knew I had," she says. "So I went fact-finding. I made the trek because I needed to know where I was from. 'Did you know about our Jewish heritage?' I said. It wasn't a big deal to some of them, but others kind of raised an eyebrow like I didn't know what I was talking about."

Part of New Mexico Territory until the U.S. government delineated the Colorado Territory in 1861, the San Luis Valley lies between two chains of mountains, the San Juans to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the east. The Rio Grande begins here. The town of San Luis—the oldest in Colorado—is the Spanish heart of the valley. With an old church on the central plaza and a modern shrine on a mesa overlooking the town, San Luis bristles with Catholic symbols. It seems a short step back in time to the founding of the New Mexico colony, when picaresque gold-hungry conquistadors, Franciscan friars and Pueblo Indians came together, often violently, in a spare and sunburnt land. As Willa Cather put it in Death Comes for the Archbishop, perhaps the best novel about the region, the sunsets reflected on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are "not the colour of living blood" but "the colour of the dried blood of saints and martyrs."

The discovery of the 185delAG mutation in the valley and subsequently in New Mexico hints at a different story, with its own trail of blood and persecution. The significance of the genetic work was immediately recognized by Stanley M. Hordes, a professor at the University of New Mexico. During the early 1980s, Hordes had been New Mexico's official state historian, and part of his job was assisting people with their genealogies. Hordes, who is 59, recalls that he received "some very unusual visits in my office. People would drop by and tell me, in whispers, that so-and-so doesn't eat pork, or that so-and-so circumcises his children." Informants took him to backcountry cemeteries and showed him gravestones that he says bore six-pointed stars; they brought out devotional objects from their closets that looked vaguely Jewish. As Hordes began speaking and writing about his findings, other New Mexicans came forward with memories of rituals and practices followed by their ostensibly Christian parents or grandparents having to do with the lighting of candles on Friday evenings or the slaughtering of animals.

Hordes laid out his research in a 2005 book, To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Following the Jews' expulsion from Spain, crypto-Jews were among the early settlers of Mexico. The Spanish in Mexico periodically tried to root out the "Judaizers," but it is clear from the records of trials that Jewish practices endured, even in the face of executions. According to Hordes' research, settlers who were crypto-Jews or descended from Jews ventured up the Rio Grande to frontier outposts in New Mexico. For 300 years, as the territory passed from Spanish to Mexican to United States hands, there was almost nothing in the historical record about crypto-Jews. Then, because of probing by younger relatives, the stories trickled out. "It was only when their suspicions were aroused decades later," Hordes writes, "that they asked their elders, who reluctantly answered, 'Eramos judíos' ('We were Jews')."*

But were they? Judith Neulander, an ethnographer and co-director of the Judaic Studies Program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, was at first a believer of Hordes' theory that crypto-Judaism had survived in New Mexico. But after interviewing people in the region herself, she concluded it was an "imagined community." Among other things, Neulander has accused Hordes of asking leading questions and planting suggestions of Jewish identity. She says there are better explanations for the "memories" of unusual rites—vestiges of Seventh-Day Adventism, for example, which missionaries brought to the region in the early 20th century. She also suggested that perhaps some dark-skinned Hispanics were trying to elevate their ethnic status by associating themselves with lighter-skinned Jews, writing that "claims of Judaeo-Spanish ancestry are used to assert an overvalued line of white ancestral descent in the American Southwest."

Hordes disagrees. "Just because there are some people who are wannabes doesn't mean everybody is a wannabe," he says. But he acknowledges that Neulander's criticisms have made him and other researchers more cautious.

Hordes, pursuing another line of evidence, also pointed out that some of the New Mexicans he was studying were afflicted by a rare skin condition, pemphigus vulgaris, that is more common among Jews than other ethnic groups. Neulander countered that the same type of pemphigus vulgaris occurs in other peoples of European and Mediterranean background.

Then the 185delAG mutation surfaced. It was just the sort of objective data Hordes had been looking for. The findings didn't prove the carriers' Jewish ancestry, but the evidence smoothly fit his historical theme. Or, as he put it with a certain clinical detachment, it's a "significant development in the identification of a Jewish origin for certain Hispano families."

"Why do I do it?" Hordes was addressing the 2007 meeting, in Albuquerque, of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, a scholarly group he co-founded. "Because the fabric of Jewish heritage is richer in New Mexico than we thought." His research and that of others, he said at the gathering, "rip the veneer off" the accounts of Spanish-Indian settlement and culture by adding a new element to the conventional mix.

One conference attendee was a Catholic New Mexican who heartily embraces his crypto-Jewish heritage, the Rev. Bill Sanchez, a local priest. He says he has upset some local Catholics by saying openly that he is "genetically Jewish." Sanchez bases his claim on another genetic test, Y chromosome analysis. The Y chromosome, handed down from father to son, provides a narrow glimpse of a male's paternal lineage. The test, which is promoted on the Internet and requires only a cheek swab, is one of the more popular genealogy probes. Sanchez noted that the test suggested he was descended from the esteemed Cohanim lineage of Jews. Still, a "Semitic" finding on this test isn't definitive; it could also apply to non-Jews.

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