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 CNS Story:

HISPANICS-CRYPTOJEWS Aug-11-2004 (930 words) With photo. xxxn

Many Hispanics discovering their Jewish roots from colonial Spain

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- History taught Father William Sanchez and Rabbi Yosef Garcia a lesson that spanned centuries, generations and the Atlantic Ocean.

Both grew up as Catholics in the Americas only to discover as adults that their ancestors were Jewish, part of the hundreds of thousands who left Spain at the end of the 15th century when the choice was to convert to Catholicism or be expelled.

As the expulsion decree took effect shortly before the explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing for the Spanish crown, opened up the Western Hemisphere to Spanish colonization, many Jews who converted, at least nominally, to Catholicism crossed the Atlantic to seek their future in the New World where they also hoped for a greater tolerance toward their Jewish past.

The legacy today is that numerous inhabitants of Latin America and many Hispanics in the United States are descendents of "crypto-Jews," colonists who secretly practiced their Judaism at home while publicly professing Catholicism to avoid persecution.

Father Sanchez, 51, was already a priest in Albuquerque, N.M., when he learned he was Jewish through DNA testing in 2002. He told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview that he decided on the testing after a long period of sensing the truth about his ancestry. The priest said the discovery strengthened his Catholicism, which he described as a continuation of his Judaic roots.

"I practice Christianity and have a strong sense of Judaism," he said.

Rabbi Garcia, who was an altar boy in his native Panama, learned at age 35 from a great-uncle that his family was Jewish.

He told CNS that he turned to Judaism to continue the search for God which he started as a Catholic.

"This study of Judaism seemed to come very naturally to me," he said.

Now the 47-year-old rabbi heads Avdey Torah Hayah Synagogue in Portland, Ore., which has a predominantly Hispanic crypto-Jewish congregation worshiping in Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew.

But not all crypto-Jews are drawn to Judaism, he added.

Hispanics learning of their Jewish ancestry "are coming, tasting, feeling" the Judaism of their ancestors, said Rabbi Garcia. "Some say: 'This is not for me.' Others say: 'This is what I'm looking for.'"

Since the late1970s -- with the growth of "ethnic pride" in the United States -- there has been a growing interest in rediscovering Jewish roots among Hispanics, according to an article in the June issue of Moment magazine, a Jewish publication based in Washington.

The priest and the rabbi said that although the discovery of Jewish roots deepened their faith commitments this is not necessarily the case for others. Many people say their faith is not affected while those who had little or no faith before do not become religious, they said.

In the case of Father Sanchez, DNA testing showed that he was also a Cohanim, a descendent of the Jewish priestly class tracing ancestry to Aaron, the brother of Moses.

"This is a strong affirmation of my priesthood. God has called me through the centuries through my family," said Father Sanchez, pastor of St. Edwin Church in Albuquerque.

The priest said he turned to DNA testing to check out his Jewish ancestry after seeing a Public Broadcasting Service program on genealogy which cited several reputable DNA testing organizations.

Stanley Hordes, a historian specializing in the presence of crypto-Jews in colonial Mexico, said New Mexico has many Hispanics of Jewish ancestry although it is impossible to determine the number.

A key factor is that in the colonial period there was a pattern of intermarriage among certain families in the region as a way to preserve traditions, said Hordes, adjunct research professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute of the University of New Mexico.

Hordes is author of the book, "To the End of the Earth: The History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico," to be published in early 2005 by Columbia University Press.

"I'm interested in patterns of retaining culture by marrying within a group. This tendency appears to be evident in New Mexico," he told CNS.

Father Sanchez said his research shows that the first five generations of the Sanchez family in New Mexico intermarried with their cousins in the Chavez family.

Many crypto-Jews are believed to have moved to what is now New Mexico during the Spanish colonial era to escape sporadic waves of persecution by the Spanish Inquisition in the more populated urban centers to the south.

Hordes said that, although there were some trials and executions, the Inquisition based in Mexico City was generally tolerant of crypto-Jews -- relative to inquisitorial policy in Spain -- and was more interested in exercising social control over Catholics.

Father Sanchez said his grandparents never spoke specifically of their Jewish ancestry but did things which reflected traces of Jewish rituals.

His suspicion about a significant crypto-Jewish presence in New Mexico was heightened by his travels through small towns.

"There are legends here of crypto-Jews," said Father Sanchez. "I would hear stories. A man remembered a house where men would go in on Friday nights wearing hats and lighting candles."

Hordes said his interest was also piqued by stories.

After he became the New Mexico state historian in 1981, Hispanics would enter his office with tales of people whose customs, such as lighting candles on Friday night and not eating pork, were indicative of a Jewish past, said Hordes.

So he began asking questions to see if a Jewish consciousness had survived among Hispanics in the U.S. Southwest.

"People would tell me: 'Grandpa said we were Jewish,'" said Hordes.


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