The first civilian settlers of the city of San Antonio, where I was born and raised, came to the area in 1731 from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. Legend has it that some of these families were actually crypto-Jews, that is Spanish Catholics whose ancestors had converted to Christianity but who secretly continued to practice Jewish traditions.
It’s intriguing to think that some of the early history of my hometown is connected to Jewish culture. Many people of Hispanic descent in the Southwest believe that they descend from the conversos. Some have even returned to Judaism either by exploring their roots or actually converting back to their ancestors’ original religion.
Many of these people report odd customs that they never understood, such as family members lighting candles in the basement or in closed rooms on Friday nights. They never understood these practices or the need for secrecy until they learned that these are typical traditions for cryto-Jewish families.
There are some misconceptions about the conversos and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. While anti-Semitism played a major role in the edict that exiled the Jews, the story is somewhat complicated. Spanish authorities were less concerned with the Jews than they were with conversos.
In the century before the expulsion, many Jews had converted to Christianity, but they were a suspect class. Were these new Christians truly loyal to their new faith? Were their intentions pure or did they just convert in order to succeed in society?
The result of this suspicion was the Inquisition, which tried to find out who was a “real” Christian and who was a cryto-Jew. The actual Jewish community was considered a threat as a negative influence on the new Christians. As long as authentic Judaism existed in Spain, it could serve as a temptation for families to maintain ties to their old faith.
As Spain unified with the ouster of the final Muslim stronghold at the end of the long Reconquista, there was a need for social cohesion. The solution for Spanish authorities was to kick out the Jews, ending a thousand year old community.
Modern Spain has tried to rectify the historic injustice of the expulsion by offering Spanish citizenship to anyone who can prove descent from an ancestor forced to flee the country in the 15th century. Some have taken up the offer in order to explore their roots or obtain a European passport.
Now some Hispanic Americans are exploring the possibility of obtaining Spanish citizenship in case the environment in this country becomes so hostile that they are forced to leave. How ironic that “[s]ome whose families have been here for centuries now feel so vulnerable about their place in society that they are finding refuge in the country that expelled their ancestors five centuries ago.”
History often presents us with these odd twists of fate, but really these are themes that repeat over time. Just as in Spain in the 1400s, radical nationalists look for a minority community to persecute and vilify in order to unite the favored ethnic group. Then as now, it is the Jews who lose in such a scenario.