For Hispanic ‘Crypto-Jews,’ Lawsuits may Follow Religious Discovery

The 2011 wedding of Sonya Loya in the Sephardic Education Center of Jerusalem’s Old City. Loya—a Hispanic-American woman raised as a Catholic in New Mexico—learned from her father at age 44 that his family swore him to secrecy about their Jewish roots.  (Photo credit: Alumah Rivkah Photography)Sonya Loya’s path of rediscovery aligns with the journey potentially millions of other “Crypto-Jews” take back to their Jewish roots. Her story, and the stories of others with similar backgrounds, is also still unfolding—with legal action against the Catholic Church as the possible next chapter.

Loya—a Hispanic-American woman raised as a Catholic in New Mexico—left the Catholic Church at age 18, a mutual parting because she asked too many questions. When she was 44, her father told her that when he was a child, his family members made him swear to secrecy about their Jewish roots. His uncles, who served as American soldiers in World War II and witnessed death camps in Europe, told their mother, “It’s still not safe to be a Jew.”

When her father’s DNA was tested in 2005, it showed several markers common to Levites. She found many other Loyas and learned of an ancient Loya Synagogue in Tiberias in northern Israel, as well as a lineage of rabbis of that name. There are Jewish Loyas today in Portugal, Israel, Morocco, Bulgaria and Turkey. Sonya Loya, a glassblower, eventually converted to Judaism. She was married in 2011 in the Sephardic Education Center in the old city of Jerusalem.

Today there are some 50 million people of Hispanic/Latino origin in the United States. Rabbi Stephen A. Leon of El Paso, Texas, suggests that possibly 10 percent of them have a story like Loya’s—they have Jewish roots and are known as Crypto-Jews or “B’nei Anousim,” translated as children of the coerced or forced. But Leon,a leader of B’nei Anousim,and other experts caution that determining their numbers is problematic. Very few potential B’nei Anousim have had their DNA tested, and the results of such testing may not be conclusive.

Loya, organizer of the Ninth Annual Anousim Conference held in El Paso this past August, told an audience of about a hundred Mexican and American Anousim to organize genealogical and DNA research and consider bringing lawsuits against the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly The Holy Office of The Inquisition) for what was done to their Jewish ancestors as far back as the 15th Century.

The audience reacted with mainly silence but also with a few murmured “wows.”

Leon, a coordinator of the conference with Loya, calls filing claims against the Catholic Church “a justifiable procedure. It is similar to claims made by Holocaust survivors.” He detailed the long-term effects of the Inquisition upon his ancestors and Spanish Jewry and concluded, “It is about time to show remorse as well provide legitimate compensation for what was stolen from my people. I would challenge a knowledgeable attorney to take on this historic case.”

Attempts by JNS to contact the Vatican and other church officials for comment went unanswered.

Bennett Greenspan, who operates a DNA testing company in Houston, says that sometimes as many as three Hispanic persons a day ask to be tested for their possible Jewish roots. The simple and relatively inexpensive test requires just a cotton swab of saliva and can test for male and female family roots. Greenspan reports that approximately one in 10 tested exhibit a possible Jewish lineage. Greenspan also said, “It appears that people who arrived in the New World prior to 1600 were more likely to be Jewish, and more likely to know that they were Jewish, than people who arrived from Spain after Mexico was quite settled, a few hundred years later.”

Leon was one of the first to reach out to descendants of Crypto-Jews, including Loya, who in turn reached out to him for Jewish education. In 1986, during his first week at El Paso’s Conservative B’nai Zion Synagogue, three different people visited him wanting to know more about their possible Crypto-Jewish roots. He eventually gathered a group of Hispanics who sought to learn about Judaism and/or wishing to convert or “return.”

Anousim came to the El Paso conference from Washington, Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York. At the summer conference, Leon presided at a group wedding of six couples, most of whom had “returned.” The conference began with a traditional Jewish Friday night service and festive meal. Prof. Dr. Rogelio Louis Davila Martinez, PhD, lectured on the comingling of Jews, Conversos and Catholics in the Church and in Medieval Spain.

Following Shabbat lunch, Rabbi Stephen Landau spoke on B’nei Anousim returning to normative Judaism. Landau, of Albuquerque, NM, believes it is important that the broader Jewish community recognize the presence and contributions of Sephardic Jews and Jews of different skin color.

On Saturday evening Miriam Hererra, author of Kaddish for Columbus, read her poems “Childhood Dreams in Chalk,” “Blessing the Animals,” “Valle Grande” and “Letter from Jerusalem.” Her brother, Ephraim Herrera, a cantor and musician, entertained with Ladino roman music of voice and piano. Conference numbers swelled on Sunday when the Moshav Band performed their music.

That same day, Alia Ureste-Garcia, a returnee and activist, spoke about the Spanish and Mexican land grants that were given before the U.S. took over much of the Spanish/Mexican holdings and which were supposed to be, but were not always, honored by the U.S. Some portions of these land grants went to Crypto-Jews. In the centuries that have passed, many hidden Jews did not receive their legacies.

Texas lawyer Eileen McKenzie Fowler has been documenting similar legacies for 18 years, including research and recovery of mineral rights for heirs and family members of Spanish and Mexican land grants who claim that their ancestors’ land was taken from them by outright theft, fraud and/or political deception. Fowler has represented hundreds of South Texas families in Texas courts but is not aware of any claims specifically brought by Anousim or Crypto Jews, or if any of them are among her clients.

Dr. Stanley M. Hordes, author of the 2005 book, To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, writes, “On the basis of the clues provided by the historical record, material culture, genetics, genealogy and ethnography, it appears that crypto Jews and their descendants have been an important component of the multi-ethnic mosaic from the state of New Mexico (as well as other areas in the Southwest) from the initial exploration and colonization enterprise by the Spanish in the late 16th Century to the recent past.”

Leon says, “American Jews have helped Jews from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Syria, and it’s time to help our internal ‘hidden’ Jews.”

Whether or not any lawsuits are brought against the Catholic Church, it is likely that more people with possible Jewish roots in the American Southwest will continue to come forward with questions and seek to determine their own lineage, perhaps through DNA testing.

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