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“Crypto-Jews and the Spanish Inquisition in the New World”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

In 1481, the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, established the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Inquisition was established to create a total Catholic state; that is, all persons living in Spain were required to be Catholics. Those who were not Catholics, particularly Jews, were forced to convert or flee into exile to other countries.

The Inquisition served to destroy Spain's middle class, many of Night Procession of the Penitentes“Night Procession of the Penitentes,” William Penhallow Henderson (Artist) whom were Jewish, that was growing in power. Those Jews who converted to Catholicism and were baptized were called conversos, or New Christians. Some, along with their descendants, faithfully practiced Christianity. Others maintained covert ties to Jewish communities and practiced Judaism in secret. Officials of the Inquisition set out to find these hidden Jews and condemn them for judaizing, or practicing Judaism.

Some Jews concealed their Jewish identity, called themselves Christians, and journeyed to the New World as soldiers and explorers. A group of scholars believe that the very first explorers, including Cristóbal Colon (Christopher Columbus) and some of his crewmembers, came from Jewish family backgrounds. These New Christians, or crypto-Jews, set up ranches, administered the mining towns, ran businesses, and fully entered into the life of the Spanish colonies. Some continued to hide their Jewish backgrounds and practices; others openly practiced Judaism until officials of the Inquisition arrived in New Spain.

Officials of the Inquisition arrested people for judaizing. Some people were questioned and imprisoned, some had their lands and possessions confiscated; others were sent back to Spain for trials. Some were able to prove their innocence or buy their safety. Others, such as Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva who was at one time among the wealthiest and most powerful men in New Spain, were convicted and killed.

Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, who led an expedition into New Mexico, had been a close associate of Luis de Carvajal. De Sosa was also accused of judaizing. It is believed that some of the soldiers who joined expeditions to the north into New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona were crypto-Jews trying to put great distances between themselves and the Inquisition authorities.

Those who were accused of being crypto-Jews throughout New Spain maintained family, trade and business connections during the seventeenth century. Studies in family genealogy, often from archives in Mexico City and Spain, suggest that many of the Spanish colonists were crypto-Jews who migrated to new settlements in the north and continued to practice their faith. Today, some of their descendants living in the American Southwest have affirmed or newly discovered their Jewish roots.