17 July 2009

New Mexico: Secret ancestry, hidden health risk

Hispanics in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado are more frequently uncovering a secret Jewish ancestry, as well as a hidden health risk.

The story mentions FamilyTreeDNA.com's Santa Fe DNA Project, Father Bill Sanchez (with a moving 30-minute video interview - see below) and others.

The story was at KRQE (Albuquerque, NM).

"Nothing survives but a name, a blood line, and curiously enough a tendency to contract certain auto-immune diseases," said University of New Mexico adjunct professor Stanley Hordes - author of the book "To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico".

"It's absolutely fascinating to see the intersection between the historical and the cultural and the genetic and the genealogical," Hordes said.

Research shows Sephardic Jews held on to their religion in secret after leaving Spain and Portugal during the Spanish inquisition in the late 15th century, which eventually followed them into the New World.

The people are finding out more about their history now than ever before. Quoted in the story is Albuquerque resident Bernadette Martinez:

"Our family had been in the Pojoaque Valley forever and ever and ever," said Albuquerque resident Bernadette Martinez. "We thought that we were just thedescendants of Spaniards that came into New Mexico."

Martinez confirmed she has Jewish blood, through DNA testing three years ago.

Other Hispanics are learning about their ancestry through genetic testing that is also revealing the health threat.

In Denver, Swedish Medical Center geneticist Kelly Topf says:

"We do bring up the fact that this is a mutation that is relatively common in Jewish ancestry."
While many refer to this as the Eastern European breast cancer gene, it is not confined to those individuals. The mutation - 185delAG - affects a gene designed to protect the body from cancer cells, and dates back some 2,000 years to Jews of the Holy Land , long before the community split into Ashkenazi and Sephardic branches.

Women with the mutation are at increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, and men who have it have increased risk of male breast cancer. Both men and women are at risk of colon and pancreatic cancer.

Rosie Trujillo, now of Washington state, whose family settled near Taos, learned in 2000 that she carried the mutation. It confirmed her family was really Sephardic. There's a long history of relatives who have died of breast cancer. Her daughter died of ovarian cancer in 2006.

"We try to spread the word out," Trujillo said. "I try to educate my family members by giving them brochures and by advising them to please, get tested. Don't be afraid."
The story also quotes some who are taking extreme actions when they learned they have the mutation, such as Melissa Martin who learned the testing results in June. She had a double mastectomy and hysterectomy in November, and is seeing the Denver geneticist. Trujillo's cousin also underwent the same procedure.

Very recently the cousin of a friend in New Mexico was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctor asked the Hispanic family if there was any Ashkenazi or Eastern European heritage.They thought it was a strange question, and asked me. I explained to my friend's family about the gene and that it was just Jewish. I also sent them articles on the discovery - in Colorado's San Luis Valley - of a group of Hispanic women who presented with the gene. Historical and genealogical research proved the original settlers were Sephardic Conversos.

The KRQE site also has the complete 6:14-minute edited video segment, including a bit with Stan Hordes. The raw unedited interviews, on which the story was based, are also at the site.

Catholic Priest Bill Sanchez's erudite 30-minute interview is particularly compelling, as he discusses his family's genealogy, photos of his father wearing a kipah, and the testing of some 280 of his family members and parishiners, of his grandmother placing a menorah in the window and much more. He discusses the secret customs of his grandmother which came down to his mother and aunts and sisters; the round-about stories told to young children, who could not be trusted to keep the family secrets; his father's strange college experience and what he told Sanchez before he died, and a special tablecloth. He mentions the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews in the 1800s to Las Vegas, NM, which was heavily Sephardic and the first synagogue founding.

Ruben Duran's 9-minute interview talks about his 12-year journey and a Jerusalem museum docent who also had the name Duran and explained the family history to him. He also underwent DNA testing after anecdotal evidence in his family grew and eventually traced his connection to a 13th century rabbi.

Bernadette Martinez's 10-minute interview starts off with her genealogy search with her brother and reading Stan Hordes' book, which contained a family name. She found they were tied into six families in the book, and followed that with DNA testing. She's traveled to Israel some 20 times, and now understands her connection.

Rosie Trujillo's nearly 16-minute interview focuses on her family's cancer incidence. She mentions Marie Claire King's project at the University of Washington (Seattle) which has tested her family. From 28 cousins, 14 had cancer. Her father's generation, of 20, there were many cases. King did all their genealogy study and provided charts back to Turkey and that they were Sephardic Jews who came to South America, Mexico and New Mexico; 20 came to southern Colorado. She herself is a 30-year cancer survivor. She tries to educate her family and advising them to get tested. She mentioned that they were likely of Sephardic when they were tested, found the BRCA1, which confirmed their genetic and genealogical connection as Sephardim. Out of 334 on her genetic chart, 42 have been tested. Half of her living relatives have been tested including the fourth and fifth generations as they reach 18 years of age. "Genealogy mixed with genetics confirms everything."

There's a link to the Santa Fe DNA Project at FamilyTreeDna.com, as well as a link to the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

Read the complete article at the KRQE link above and view the videos for much more detail.


  1. This is a most interesting discovery. As the Founder and Director of the Breast Health & Healing Foundation, whose mission is to discover the CAUSES of breast cancer and use that knowledge to PREVENT the disease, I think that the hidden genetic link uncovered in these women has the potential to widen the network of activists who are working collaboratively for the PURE CURE - prevention.

    Dr. Kathleen T. Ruddy

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    It means that so much more education is needed among genetics counselors and medical professionals. Asking a Hispanic family if they have Ashkenazi ancestry is simple ignorance of Jewish history. Many more activists are necessary such communities. Rosie Trujillo's interview provides a lot of food for thought.


  3. David9:52 PM

    Fascinating interview. Especially interesting and is how he justifies remaining Catholic in spite of their historic persecution of the Jews. Stockholm syndrome at it's best.

  4. Interesting. I believe blood lines can also play a big role in our health. The reason why doctors ask for a medical history along with ancestry nowadays.

  5. Anonymous9:13 PM

    New Mexico is the ONLY state that went through the Spanish and Mexican inquisition and that's because Sephardic Jews came to New Mexico in the early 1500's. I trace my ancestral Jewish lineage back to the early Conquistadors of New Mexico on my Mothers and Father side. I trace my lineage through DNA, foods, language and hidden traditions. Today I live as a proud and active Jew celebrating my ancestral faith.