26 October 2009

New Mexico: Don Juan Oñate's Jewish roots, Nov. 12

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on the research of genealogist José Antonio Esquibel, whose research into New Mexican ancestry, including the familias viejas (the old families who came with explorers such Don Juan de Oñate) has also provided information on Jewish family history.

Esquibel, who been researching the genealogy of New Mexican families for 25 years, will speak on “The Jewish-Converso Lineage of Don Juan de Oñate,” at 6pm, Thursday, November 12, at the New Mexico History Museum, in Santa Fe. There is no charge for admission. The event is part of Santa Fe's ongoing 400th birthday celebration.

According to Esquibel, people tend to underestimate the contributions Jewish people made to the history of Spain, particularly those folks who converted.

The article demonstrated his evidence that Oñate, - New Mexico's first governor - was a Converso, descended from Spanish Jews who were converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition and as early as 1390.

Oñate was ordered by King Felipe II of Spain to spread Catholicism through the province of Santa Fé de Nuevo México. New Spain's viceroy Luis de Velasco gave permission for the explorer to lead the 1598 colonizing expedition up the Rio Grande to what is today New Mexico. Velasco also had Jewish ancestors, including one who was an accountant for the king and converted.

Oñate founded the first Spanish capital, San Juan de los Caballeros, across the Rio Grande from San Juan Pueblo. His ancestors on his mother's side included a rabbi who converted to Christianity in 1390 along with his siblings.

According to Esquibel's research, María Núñez Ha-Levi converted to Christianity in July 1390 along with her brother, Rabbi Salomon Ha-Levi, who became known as Pedro de Santa María and was later Bishop of Cartagena. She married Juan Garces (Rodríguez) de Maluenda, also from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity.
Tracing the Tribe notes that Salomon Ha-Levi was chief rabbi of Burgos, Spain. David M. Gitlitz ("Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews") and other scholars indicate that his new name was Pablo de Santa Maria - not Pedro - and that he was also known as Paul of Burgos.

Although Esquibel says in the article there is no clear evidence that Oñate knew or acknowledged his Jewish heritage or that his family continued to practice their faith in secret after converting to Christianity, he added that there is a good chance that Oñate (born c1552) was at least aware of his Jewish background.

Tracing the Tribe knows that Northern New Mexico is home to a very large population of Conversos who know who they are and who continue to secretly observe many Jewish traditions today. Indeed, most of the people who accompanied Onate were Conversos themselves and their names are listed in Inquisition Court documents in Spanish archives.Who better to help his fellow co-religionists to find freedom of religion in the isolated region of New Mexico than a leader who identified with them and who had the same background?

Tracing the Tribe maintains that those who know northern New Mexico families understand how secretive they remain even today, centuries after arriving in the area. In general, they still do not talk to researchers and keeping the family secrets is still a very serious concern.

Many Sephardic sources researched by Tracing the Tribe note that Jewish families converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition often had a son enter the church. Having a priest in the family meant he could - without suspicion - study Hebrew and the Old Testament and could visit other Converso families and maintain relationships among them. Indeed, many families continued to marry other Converso families, even after converting in the late 1380s, or following the mass conversions of 1391 when many Spanish Jewish communities were decimated, as well as those who were forcibly converted during the late 1400s. Many families continually married other families with the same background and to secretly observe Jewish traditions, in spite of their fear of the Inquisition.

[NOTE: The DNA genetic genealogy database at FamilyTreeDNA.com has gathered many samples of New Mexican families. Results demonstrate that many of the "old families" belong to haplogroups commonly found in Jewish families, including Kohanim modal signatures, indicating Jewish priestly descent. Tracing the Tribe recommends that those interested in this topic visit FamilyTreeDNA.com. Indeed, there is another FamilyTreeDNA project (IberianAshkenaz) which has genetically matched some 75% of Ashkenazi Jewish participants (with a Sephardic oral history or other criteria) to Hispanic Jews who know or suspect Jewish origins.]

Former New Mexico state historian Dr. Stanley Hordes, now teaching at the University of New Mexico, included some of Esquibel's research in his 2005 book, "To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico." Hordes believes Rabbi Salomon/Pedro (Pablo) de Santa Maria, a prominent Catholic theologian, would have been known to the Oñate family, but adds that none of the family were accused of practicing Judaism.

Esquibel published some of his Jewish-converso ancestry research on Oñate in the Colonial American Historical Review (1998). He has been doing genealogical research on New Mexico families for 25 years. On his father's side, Oñate was Basque, and the Jewish roots are on his maternal side.
At the end of the 14th century, when the Inquisition forced the Jews in Spain and Portugal to convert or leave, Oñate's Jewish ancestors converted to preserve their wealth and political positions in Spanish society, he said.
Don Adams and Teresa Kendrick, in a 2003 article, "Don Juan de Oñate and the First Thanksgiving," reported that Oñate's mother, Catalina de Salazar, was the daughter of Gonzalo de Salazar, the royal treasurer of New Spain and a Converso.

Esquibel said that the Ha-Levi descendants became so interrelated with families of the Castilian nobility that a royal decree was issued by King Felipe III between 1598 and 1691 in recognition of a papal brief written in 1596 by Pope Clement VIII, officially recognizing the Ha-Levi as an honorable and noble family of Christian faith. This was given because of services provided by their descendants to the Roman Catholic Church and because the Ha-Levi were believed to be descendants of the same Hebrew tribe as the Virgin Mary.
Oñate resigned as governor of Nuevo México after committing atrocities on the Acoma tribe and other native peoples. Eventually convicted of cruelty against the Indians and the colonists, he was later cleared.

Read the complete article at the link above. Tracing the Tribe highly recommends two books for those interested in Converso history: David M. Gitlitz (Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews), Stanley Hordes (To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico). Also visit the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies, which offers many articles, a newsletter and an annual conference.


  1. The Spanish administrative site across river from San Juan Pueblo was called "Ayunque", that is NOT the Rio Grande. Archaeology dig in 1960s worked site.

  2. According to the Onate expedition history:

    In mid-June 1598, Oñate, who had gone ahead of the priests, established his first headquarters for the Kingdom of New Mexico at Ohke Pueblo (in Tewa called Okeh Owinge) north of present-day Española, christening the Pueblo San Juan de los Caballeros. Within two years, he moved his colony across the river to the partially abandoned Pueblo of Yuque Yunque, renaming it San Gabriel.

    This and more is found here:

    Best wishes