Some people might call them New Jews, some New Christians, and others call them Marranos. The majority of the world population has no idea who the Marranos are. To begin to explain these secret people, one must first receive a lesson in World History. We will begin in the 1492.
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In school, we are brainwashed to connect the year 1492 with the year that Columbus discovered the New World. Yet, if we look at the year 1492, there are other occurrences which are noteworthy. For instance, in the year 1492, Spain, the country which sent Columbus to America, decided to officially expel the Jews from Spain. The Jews were forced to either leave Spain, convert to Catholicism, or be put to death. This was not a surprise to the Jews of Spain. Since 1931, there had been anti-Jewish riots throughout Spain. For years, the Jews had been converting to Christianity to escape religious persecution. These Jews were called conversos. The twist to this tale is that these conversos actually were only putting on a front. They still considered themselves Jews. They practiced in secret.1 The Spanish made every attempt to search out and punish these conversos. Some Jews chose not to convert and they moved to Portugal. . Unfortunately, Portugal, in 1497, expelled the Jews from its borders as well. Anti-semitism was growing in Western Europe and the Jews needed to escape. The prime choice seemed to be so obvious. The Jews went to the New World.
The immigration of the Marranos to the new world might have begun with none other than Christopher Columbus. This, of course, is not definite, but there has been research which has shown that Columbus was indeed a Marrano. Apparently his parents were Marranos.2 Even though there are some disagreements about this fact, there is strong evidence to support the claim that Columbus was Jewish.
As the Marranos arrived in the New World, they were not able to reveal their secret identities and practice as Jews. This was because the Spanish government established inquisition offices in the New World. These office’s sole responsibility was to hunt down Marranos and bring them to justice. The inquisitors had to visit every town once a year and gather evidence of “non-believers” of the church. They would reward anyone who came forth with information. The information could be days old or forty years old, it made no difference to the Inquisitors. The punishments for being caught were varied, never merciful. The mildest form of punishment was Scourging. This was when the victim was forced to strip to the waist in public and receive hundreds of lashes. The victims could also just be sent to the galleys. Women often had to go work in hospitals or correction facilities without pay. The worst and most common punishment was being burned at the stake. This was the punishment which the Crown decreed applied to all who swayed from the church.3 For example, in 1649, 109 Marranos were rounded up in Mexico’s capital and killed.4 The Marranos were forced to live in hiding and in fear. One can compare this to the Jews in hiding during the Holocaust. They had to always be careful of what they said and what they did.
The fact that the Marranos kept their religion hidden meant that their entire process of religious practice had to be transformed. This encompassed prayers, holidays, scriptures and customs. The Marranos could not keep Jewish books or religious materials and therefore everything had to be memorized and passed down orally. This, of course, lead to a decline in religious knowledge through each generation. Another obstacle was that the Marranos had to profess their loyalty to the Catholic church. They often became involved in the church, as to help conceal their true identities. There is a story of a Rabbi who converted to Catholicism and he eventually became a bishop in the church. This is just an example of the extremes that the conversos would go to in order to conceal their religion.
Holidays took new forms during the Spanish Inquisition. The holiest holiday of the Jews is Yom Kippur. During this holiday, Jews beg G-d for forgiveness and they fast for 24 hours. Instead of praying all day, the Marranos would only pray for a few hours. They did fast, but if they went outside they would place a toothpick in their mouths in order to fool the Christians. The Jewish holiday of Passover was also observed in an abnormal way. Normally the holiday consists of two seders (meals) during which the story of the Jews escaping slavery and leaving Egypt is told. The Marranos could strongly relate to this story as they felt that they were being enslaved by the Inquisitors. The Seders are followed by a week of observance during which no leavened bread is consumed. The Marrano Passover began without the reading of the Passover story. During the week of observance, many Marranos decided to fast because they had become accustomed to fasting during Jewish holidays. As for the unleavened bread, Jewish doctors would prescribe it to Christians with stomach aches. Therefore, during Passover, the Jews would contend that they had stomach aches and had to eat the matzah (unleavened bread).5
The Marranos kept their beliefs alive with a specific saying, which said,”…salvation was possible through the Law of Moses, and not through the Laws of Christ.” Marrano children were raised as devout Catholics. The Jewish tradition of a Bar Mitzvah was replaced to keep their identities hidden. At the age of thirteen, the child was taken aside and told the truth about his religion and the Laws of Moses. The interesting aspect of Marrano life was the role of the women. The women became the “Spiritual Leaders.” Throughout history, it has been shown that the women are the ones who refuse to assimilate. The Marrano women were the, “vast majority of the few who maintained their Judaism.” The women were also known to have a familiarity with the Jewish Prayers. But as for the Hebrew language, this became practically extinct.6
Marranos could not take the chance of being overheard speaking Hebrew. They also refused to write in the language. Because of this fear, Hebrew disappeared from the later generations of Marranos. The removal of Hebrew lead to the removal of all Jewish texts. The only remaining text which the Marranos could use was the Bible. This was learned literally. As for prayers, the majority of them were original. Unfortunately the prayers had been lost in the silence and the Marranos were forced to create their own prayers.
Marriage was another difficult aspect of the Marrano transformation. The primary concern was that the spouse had to be Jewish.. Intermarriage was never an option. Yet, even more, the spouse had to be a “learned” Jew who was neither ignorant of the religion nor non-practicing. The couples could not be married by a rabbi, so they were married in the church and then blessed by a rabbi at a later date. The marriage process was indispensable to the Jews, as it was their only guarantee of the continuation of their religion.7
Food was another issue with the Marranos. The Marranos tried their hardest to keep the laws of Kosher. They refused to eat pork and they would even tell their children that,” those who ate pork would be turned into pigs.” They attempted to not cook food between Friday night and Saturday night, because this would be breaking the Sabbath. The Marranos also tried to keep the Sabbath. They would light a candle for the Sabbath and not extinguish it. In regards to the Jewish tradition of charity, the Marranos would give charity, paying special attention to the poor marranos.8
Marrano communities have been discovered worldwide. A group called the Karaites has shown up all over Europe and now even in Israel. This tribe is a good example of how the Jewish traditions changed as generations passed on their heritage. For instance, at the entrance to the synagogues of the Karaites, there are shoe horns so that people can remove their shoes before prayer. This is a practice of Moslems, but not Jews. The Karaites also do not separate milk from meat. Instead they interpret the saying “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in it’s mother’s milk,” to mean that they literally do not cook a kid in it’s mother’s milk. These people also do not blow the shofar (ram’s horn) on the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah. Their calendar is different from the Jewish calendar. Another interesting difference is that the Orthodox Rabbis determine the religion of a child by his/her mother’s religion. Yet the Karaites determine the religion by the father’s religion. One can see from the Karaites, how the religion changes when the Marranos were forced into hiding.9
Now with an understanding of the Marrano’s situation, we can begin to discuss their immigration to America. Before this immigration is detailed, there must first be an understanding that the secrecy of the Marranos does lead to some varying interpretations of their immigration. The Marranos , by the 1600’s, had been keeping their religious beliefs secret for over 100 years. At this point, many of their customs had become transformed, and were no longer as fortified as before. Many kept only a few customs, and those customs were a combination of Jewish and Catholic customs. Therefore, tracing the immigration of the Marranos has proven to be a difficult task. The only way of assurance that one was a Marrano was a detailed history of one’s family. This was even more difficult to determine since later generations rarely spoke of their Marrano families or they just plain forgot about their past. We must therefore rely on scattered pieces of historical information and assumptions to trace the progression of immigration of Marranos into America.
It is certain that the first Marranos to enter America, arrived in New Mexico and Texas. This is of course because these were the territories that the Spanish began to colonize. The Marranos saw New Mexico as a type of safe haven, away from the inquisitors of Mexico.10 Many believe that the Marrano’s ability to hide their identity definitely out-weighed the power of the inquisitors to investigate each person entering the new territory.
There are two main types of evidence of Marrano existence in New Mexico. These are genealogical and speculative. The genealogical evidence stems from present day Jews who have traced back their ancestry to Mexicans in the 1600’s. But this type of evidence is wary because most of the Marrano beliefs has been lost through the generations.
The speculative evidence is what has convinced researchers that Marranos did indeed settle in America and still exist today. This speculative evidence stems from random occurrences of practices foreign to a specific religion. This evidence began to arise during the late 1800’s. It was during this time that missionaries in New Mexico were speaking to some young Hispanics. The missionaries noticed that the only stories the youths knew from the bible were stories of the Old Testament. A more recent occurrence was in New Mexico in 1979. A woman was at a Doctor’s appointment and the doctor noticed that she wore a Jewish Star of David around her neck. When he asked her about it, she responded that her mother had given it to her on her deathbed, asking her to “return to the old religion.” There is recorded history that a family in New Mexico today still believes in their Jewish religion and they still light candles for Moses as a saint. This is an excellent example of how Jewish beliefs were combined with Christian beliefs. Moses is from the Jewish bible, yet the act of lighting candles for a saint bares evidence of Christian customs. Even present day Catholics in New Mexico have memories of playing with “dreidels” when they were young. This reveals a memory of celebrating the Jewish holiday of Chanukah.11
Temple Albert in Albuquerque claims to have approximately 15 Marrano members. The only problem is that these members have no traceable past. Along the Rio Grande in Texas other evidence of Marrano existence has surfaced. Some families eat unleavened bread during Lent, which is close the time of Passover. A Russian Orthodox Priest, Rev. Symeon Carmona, knew about his Jewish heritage since he was twelve years old. He remembers in detail his family’s secret observance of Jewish law. His mother’s way of preparing food and the act of lighting candles on the Sabbath are just a few of his vivid memories of his Marrano past. He estimates that there are at least 1500 families in New Mexico who are still keeping their Jewish past hidden.12
The story of the Marranos is a tale of tragedy and a tale of triumph. One could never imagine having their identity stripped from them at the threat of death. One can never imagine having to be someone who you really were not, only to be hiding the truth. The Marranos had to live with the daily threat of annihilation. They were forced to stray away from their G-d, who was the only one left to turn to. The Jews ran from anti-Semitism, from Europe to Mexico and then to America. By the grace of G-d, they were able to come out alive and still holding on to their precious religion. The Marranos are the example of how religion intermingles into American culture. They reveal the dangers of assimilation and triumph to hold on to your past. The Marranos never forgot. They made every attempt to be the Jews those generations before had been. And as long as there is one child in America who knows of their Marrano past and is proud to be Jewish, the Marranos did indeed win their battle.