The Descendants of the Conversos: A Comparative Discussion of Practices, by Melissa I. Amado


A portion of this paper was presented to the Western Jewish Studies Association Third Annual Conference Held at the Univeristy of Arizona, April 6, 1997.

I have chosen to use the term, "descendants of the conversos," to refer to the descendants of Sephardim who converted to Catholicism because of the Inquisition.

I would like to share with you an eloquent statement from Rabbi Marc Angel's reprinted article in the Western States Jewish History (October 1996 issue), "...No one can completely share another's individuality. Thus, the more a person knows of the cultural forces which produce him, the more he will know himself. The more he will be able to create new history in a meaningful fashion. He will have a finer understanding of his own uniqueness." Although Rabbi Angel's quote was in reference to the maintenance of a Sephardic identity, I found that it could also apply to the unique leagacies of the conversos.

This paper shall discuss the practices, or rather the time honored legacies, of the descendants of the Conversos. We will also address the questions raised by a recent publication pertaining to the factual issues of this research area. The first section provides a brief historical background of events in the Iberian peninsula during the late fifteenth century. The second section is a review of literature pertaining to conversos and their descendants in Mexico and the present day American Southwest. The third area consist of my research methodology for interviewing and verifying information. The fourth section reflects a discussion of practices and to a certain degree identity issues. The final section summarizes the existence of the converso descendants.


We must consider the issues faced in both Spanish and Portuguese societies and attempt to interpret the ethnic cleansing of the Iberian peninsula in the late fifteenth century. The monarchies of the Iberian peninsula deemed it necessary to unite their subjects under one religion, which was Catholicism. In a short period of time, relgious practices would be forever altered in both Spanish and Portugese societies. The impact on Sephardic families in the late fifteenth century would be tremendous. The Sephardim decisions had to be made regarding religious conversion to Catholicism or whether to leave the Iberian peninsula.

There is not an exact number of Sephardi who converted to Catholicism prior to the start of the Spanish Edict of Expulsion 1492 Decree. It is known from various historical accounts that these "new Christians" or in Spanish "nuevo Cristanos" were not readily accepted by other Catholics. The Holy Office of the Inquisition made attepts to monitor these new Christans through tribunals and the active use of informants. The converts were suspected of privately maintaining a Jewish identity and ob serving Jewish laws while outwardly posing as Catholics. As a result, the early creation of religious syncretic practices among conversos would begin during this time period of the 1490s. Eventually, the duality of trying to observe both Jewish and Catholic rituals would be passed to the future generations of converso descendants.


As Spain (and later Portugal) established colonies in the Western Hemisphere, the Holy Office of the Inquisition organized offices in these locations. Perhaps one of the most known and documented cases of religious persecution of a converso family is the case of the Carbajals. (For further information on the Carbajals, view the paper written by Reid Heller). As many of these first generation of converso descendants discovered in their new locales that they were still sus pected of practicing Judaism. The need remained to be hidden from their religious Catholic counterparts. In some cases, individuals would seek refuge in the isolated northwestern lands of New Spain (the area now recognized as Northern Mexico and the American Southwest). Over the centuries, the issue of being of a Sephardic background was forgotten or ignored by some descendants. Yet in some converso descendant families, Jewish practices would continue.

In recent years, a variety of articles, newspaper clippings and a few film documentaries pertaining to the converso descendants have been presented to the public throughout the world. Perhaps one of the most compelling research questions that develope d from this media exposure is: "How could Jewish practices continue to be observed by a non-Jewish Hispanic family in the later part of the twenieth century?" Or as this question was recently raised in an academic discussion, "Are these imaginary practices among Hispanic families?"

The Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review in 1994 (pp. 64-67) published a critique by Judith Neulander questioning the existence of converso descendants in the American Southwest. Neulander (1994) found faults in the research being conducted in New Mexico and Texas. Furthermore, Neulander (1994) specifically noted that two researchers in their studies were outsiders (non-Hispanics) and not trained as academic folklorists which could taint their studies and findings. Neulander (1994:64) critiqued these two researchers for accepting money from speaking engagements where they would discuss their research. As a consequence, Neulander (1994) dismissed the work of these two researchers and lumped all research into this area as being questionable. To quote Neulander (1994:64) the converso descendants are to be viewed as "imagined ethnic boundaries around ordinary Southwestern Hispanics."

My response to Neulander's critique is that she should have focused on more extensive research among converso descendants. Neulander only took into account one single cultural marker of a game using a driedel to devalue the existence of the converso descendants. Serious questions must be raised to Neulander's approach to this field of research. Admittedly, Neulander is trained as a folklorist but she is also viewed by the converso descendants as an outsider. This raises the issue of whether or not Neulander made attempts to establish contact and gain confidence of an isolated Hispanic sub-group. The evidence of conversos in a historical context and the implications of Jewish practices by a Hispanic sub-group should not be considered solely as folklore but should be recognized as a relevant ethnohistoric study.

In persuing this area of research, I would like to address Neulander's critique of other researcher's by discussing my own 'qualifications." I have previously discussed my own interests within this field of study (View my article in Southwest Jewish History. As a result, I can be considered an "insider" among converso descendants. My academic graduate studies have been in sociology and anthropology at the University of Arizona. I have spoken to a variety of groups about my research but I have not received any money from a speaking engagement. While Neulander sought fault with other researcher's and dismissed their work (and by implication this field of study). I must ask for Neulander (and anyone else) to reconsider other researchers fieldwork plus research methodology.


Since 1990, I have completed twenty-eight interviews with Hispanics (I use this term because of the interviewee's ancestral ties: one from Cuba; another from Puerto Rico; and the rest are Mexican Americans). I developed a questionaire that consists of religious practices (both Jewish and Christian) that may occur in a household; request for antedotes; and familial religious objects. Extensive notes were drawn during the interview and when agreeable with the interviewee an audio tape was made. I stipulated with each interviewee that their name and/or family names would not be disclosed without their permission.


I asked each of my interviewee's the following question "Has anyone in your family been labeled as Jewish?" The response varied from family stories to the passing of a Jewish identity from one generation to the next generation. The perception of being from a different religious background in a small Hispanic community frequently lead to isolation among some families. A retired university employee recalled a childhood experience while growing up in Texas as: "I first began to hear other kids cal l me a Jew. I asked my mother 'Why do they call me a Jew? Am I Jewish?' Her mother responded "You are not Jewish but it is probably because you have not been christened a Catholic" ... This young child then asked her mother 'Is that bad?' The answer was "...God loves all children." This experience was similar to a Mexican American dentist childhood memory while growing up in Denver, Colorado. His mother told him " are a Jew always remember that ... and never forget." This dentist formally converted to Judaism but his brother prefers to be identified as a Catholic.

Perhaps one of the most interesting interview settings occured on the University of Arizona campus. In 1991, I interviewed a then-university professor. When I arrived, the professor said that he could not speak to me about his family history and lead me to another office where his secretary could not hear his story. Before the professor could discuss his family history, he had to make sure the door was securely closed. The professor's sense of remaining hidden and feeling uncomfortable occurred throughout the interview when in a very low voice he would discuss his family's "...deep dark secret..." of being of a Jewish heritage. The professor shared the following experience of discovery: "...and she (the mother) said it's been a deep dark secret that among the E---, which is my maternal great-grandmother, that the secret of being Jewish was passed down through the women... and since my (the professor's) sister had passed away, she (the mother) thought it was her responsibility to let me (the professor) know..."

These three cases exemplified the difficulty each converso descendant family has faced during this century. The issue for secrecy in a perceived intolerant society made necessary their unique form of identity and survival.

Religious symbols hold special meanings for most peoples throughout the world. During the era of the Spanish Inquisition, conversos (and their desendants) caught with religious Judaic symbols could face severe punishment or death. As a result, conversos became creative in honoring Jewish symbols and were able to pass these objects to future generations. The retired university employee has a cherished silver amulet that was worn by her "Catholic" maternal grandmother. This amulet displays the ten commandments written in Hebrew. In an interview with a California academic professor, he described a treasured family religious object. It is a crucifix with the figure of Jesus on the front and on the back are two wood doors that when opened reveal a menorah inside. An engineer now living in New Mexico recalled a childhood memory of his grandfather making wooden menorahs and witnessing his grandmother destroying these these objects because she didn't want the neighbors to know the family was of Jewish origin.

Dietary avoidances of pork and shellfish among observant Jews is a common practice due to religious views. Yet, among some Christian Hispanic families pork and shellfish foods are not consumed. The following are explanations were given to me:

A news reporter recalled her grandmother's explanation that a pig is: 'un animal muy mugroso'...'y no era bueno para comer' (pigs are dirty animals....and pork is not good to eat). In another case, a chiropractor asked his mother why the family did not consume certain foods and received this response "...(your grandmother) never ate pork or shellfish. As a matter of fact, your father refuses to eat pork...". The Cuban American in my study described in great detail how his father would slaughter chickens for special holiday feasts. As he recalled, his father used special knives and would say a prayer during the slaughter of the chicken. All of the chicken blood would be drained before the mother would prepare the meat. It is difficult to isolate why these dietary practices were being maintained since these families are not Jewish.

We must consider that historeically converso families could not openly observe Jewish practices. Yet, certain practices were maintained in private among these families. As a consequence, the descendants of these conversos may be observing these Jewish practices and do not know why.


As I've briefly discussed, the scope to my research goes beyond the consideration of a single cultural marker as Neulander studied. The existence of the converso descendant legacies in the later part of the 20th century is reflective of efforts to maintain family observances. As more Hispanics conduct genealogical studies, they may discover their ancestor's religious affiliations through the use of Spanish (and/or Portuguese) Church and Inquisition records. For some of these Hispanics, they may discover for the first time their Jewish ancestral backgrounds and want to learn more. For others, they may have maintained their families Jewish identities but only now do they feel comfortable in discussing their stories or joining a synagogue (but only after a Rabbi's approval). For the descendants of the conversos, their search for information has created a new understanding of their unique ancestry and legacies.