by Dell F. Sanchez, Ph.D.

Sephardic Jews of America’s Southwest have just begun to surface after 500 years of obscurity. This Diaspora, during which these particular Jews were totally stripped of their identity, has been longer than the 240 years of exile in Egypt or the 70 years in Babylon. These are remnants of the Spanish and the Mexican Inquisitions of which so many people are unaware.

Inquisition and Autos de Fe

In Spain, the Inquisition spread all across Europe and parts of North Africa while in the West it spread across Latin America and the entire Republic of Mexico. The Mexican Inquisition forced Sephardic Jews to find refuge across the Rio Grande River and in south central Texas, New Mexico and Southern Colorado. They were fleeing the horrific and dehumanizing acts of forced conversions to the Catholic faith through what is called Autos de Fe and wearing of horrible vests called San Benitos. Barbaric acts perpetrated against them included the confiscation of all wealth, the kidnapping of their little children, forcing the first-born sons into Catholic monasteries, psychological as well as physical tortures, hangings, garroting, decapitations, and most predominantly death by hogueras (burning at the stake).
The fact is that throughout this 500-year period, most Sephardic Jews hid the secret of their identity so well, they forgot the secret! They are finally discovering that the only way to resolve this travesty is by directly confronting the truth about the past. They are discovering that the only way to be healed and to fulfill their God-given destiny is to gain a clear understanding of their historical roots. As expressed in this anonymous quote: “The difference between history and the past is that history was written, the past actually occurred.”

Facing the Past

In order to come to grips with the past, we must recognize that many historians have failed to report that long before the Western cowboys herded their cattle, or the Texas Rangers shot it out with outlaws, Sephardic Jews were already establishing much of Mexico and America’s Southwest. In fact, eighty-eight years after Columbus “discovered” America and forty years before the Mayflower landed, La Santa Catalina and its Sephardic human cargo landed at the port of Tampico in Mexico. Twenty-four years after Columbus’ initial “discovery,” the Franciscan missionaries, who were vested with Spanish Inquisition powers, reported the increasing numbers and the increasing influence in Mexico by Sephardic Jews who were called la gente prohibida (people prohibited from entering the New World). Much of what is known today as New Mexico and Texas belonged to Mexico. It is interesting to note, therefore, that Sephardic Jews were in Texas way before the Alamo was founded in 1718 and the U.S. annexed Texas in 1846.
Consequently, a multiplicity of questions emerge regarding the why and how these Sephardic Jews arrived in the New World. Questions such as who led them here? How did they ever get this far west into the Americas and how they wound up as far north as Texas and New Mexico by the 14th Century? More importantly, why and how did the “Holy Inquisition” in Spain ever wind up with a High Tribunal in Mexico City? And, is there a possibility that the early Catholic Missions were somehow instructed to keep as eye on these Western Jews of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula?

The Jews of Spain

From the time of King Solomon Jews traveled to Tarshish to bring back gold, silver, exotic fruits and wild life. Some Bible scholars agree that Tarshish was Spain. Other historians believe that Jews founded Spain as early as the Babylonian exile when some fled there before or during the siege of Jerusalem. Others agree that it wasn’t until the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple when Jews chose to go west towards Spain. Conversely, secular Spanish historians tend to believe that Jews founded Sepharad, which is Spain, in 70 CE. Interestingly, this is the year the Roman Empire overtook Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple.

The fact is that by the 5th Century CE, Church Councils began to create legislation against Jews. These Church Councils were primarily made up of high-ranking officials of the Church, which was dominated by the Roman Catholic system. Unfortunately for the Jews of Sepharad was the fact that Toledo, Spain became a primary headquarters for approximately 17 Church Councils over a hundred-year period. The legislations issued increased in frequency and intensity, with horrific ramifications for the Jewish communities. The Catholic kings indulged in these Inquisition procedures as early as the 8th Century up until the official expulsion of all Jews from the land of Spain in 1492.

The first major exodus from Spain occurred in 1391, with Sephardic Jews fleeing in every direction by land and by sea. The day after the first expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail upon his voyage into the New World. Interestingly, it is common knowledge that he was of Sephardic Jewish ancestry himself. The question has always been and still is — who were the passengers on each of his four voyages? Is it possible that some of the gente prohibida, those prohibited from entering the New World were actually part of his human cargo? After all, within just twenty years, the Franciscan missionaries who were vested with Spanish Inquisition powers were reporting increasing numbers of Jews in the New World. The Franciscans, however, transferred their powers to the Dominican missionaries in 1527; and, the first Auto de Fe (forced/coerced conversion) took place in Mexico City on October 17, 1527. It featured four Crypto-Jews also known as marranos (“pigs”) and today as anusim (meaning “coerced, forced, abused, raped”). Two of whom were burned at the stake.

Conquistadors and Luis de Carvajal

Within three decades, Hernan Cortez led the procession of Spanish explorers and Conquistadors into the New World. It is documented that some of these explorers, soldiers and early settlers were, in fact, Sephardic Jews. Some of these had faithfully served the Spanish Crown — men such as Captain Alberto del Canto, Diego de Montemayor, Gaspar Castano de Sosa and many others. Among these early explorer-Conquistadors of the 16th Century were two who made very significant advances into Northern Mexico and the Southwest of the United States. They were Juan de Onate and Don Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva.

On May 31, 1579, the Spanish Crown issued a colonization charter to Don Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva. He was appointed the First Governor-Captain General over an enormous piece of land known as El Nuevo Reyno de Leon (New Kingdom of Leon). Because of the unusual set of circumstances that arose in the process of these pioneering efforts, Don Luis’s Reyno eventually encompassed a large section of the Vice Regency of New Spain and the existing kingdoms of Nueva Galicia and Nueva Vizcaya. For all intents and purposes this section of land covered most of Northern Mexico and much of what is today New Mexico and south-central Texas, including the Alamo City of San Antonio.

The irony lies in the identity of the passengers on Don Luis’ ship, La Santa Catalina that landed at Tampico, Mexico in 1580. The fact is that all the passengers, who had been recruited from across Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, were members of his and his wife’s family, and they were all Sephardic Jews. In fact, Don Luis’ successor was his own nephew, Luis de Carvajal el Mozo (“the younger”). He too was a Sephardic Jew who, rather than deny his faith, was burned at the stake, together with his mother and three sisters, in Mexico City in 1589. Don Luis died in prison for the same reason around February 13, 1591.

Sephardic “Ghettoes” — Barrios

This story of the Carvajal extended family has, in different ways, been repeated over and over again throughout the last four centuries in the lives of Sephardic Manitos of New Mexico and Tejanos of Texas. Wherever they have lived, they have somehow been displaced and restricted into oppressed corners of their world. It started in the oppressed barrio communities in Spain, was expanded in the barrios of Mexico, and became entrenched in the barrios of the Southwest. However, after centuries of oblivion, these hidden children of Spain and Mexico’s Inquisitions are being resurrected. God is blowing the breath of His spirit into these “dry bones” in the desert and showing them who they really are. Consequently, Malachi’s prophecy is now coming to pass. The hearts of the children are finally finding their forefathers. Better yet, they have begun to make aliyah, that is, to ascend and return firstly to the LORD their God. For the most part they are tired and hungry and ready for a radical change. Similar to the recent wave of 420 Cuban Jews making aliyah, many of these lost or hidden Jews are ready to make a physical aliyah and return to the land of their forefathers — the land of their inheritance.

— Bikurei Tziyon, January/February 2000