29 October 2009

New Mexico: More details, resources, traditions

Tracing the Tribe has been reminded by a Converso friend about Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, who was Onate's historian (and who left detailed writings) and also about the Aguilar Expedition.

Our friend also stated that most researchers in the area don't know their own roots.

Remember that, after the 1492 Expulsion, there were supposed to be no Jews left in Spain. And New Christians (the Conversos) were prohibited from leaving Spain for the New World.

This makes sense as the Church realized that those who left would soon take up their Jewish traditions again when they were living in freedom, and this was also the impetus for the Inquisition setting up branches in Mexico and other South American countries. The Inquisition was determined to find the "backsliders" and convict them for Judaizing, which meant burning at the stake in an auto-de-fe, confiscation of their assets or transport to the Philippines, which was a penal colony at that time.

In Mexico, an auto-de-fe was held as late as 1815, and the Inquisition wasn't abolished there until the country's 1821 independence. Not so long ago, was it?

This means that there were confirmed Conversos following Jewish traditions there as late as 1821 - in the official sense - and, of course, until today There was no need for an Inquisition office if there were no Conversos or New Christians to be accused of, or to be informed on, for Judaizing.

For a person to leave Spain, a limpieza de sangre certificate was required. This guaranteed that the passenger was pure of blood (and religion!) and was an Old Christian (or who had acquired some sort of dispensation through "connections." As expected, there was a very busy black market in forged documents based on elaborate false genealogies which enabled people to leave with their assets for the New World.

Many people also are not aware that in the port of Veracruz, Mexico, soldiers were ordered to inspect the goods of arriving passengers and to carefully look for "suspicious" items. Suspicious meant anything having to do with Judaism. Many Conversos brought Jewish artifacts, Hebrew books, even Torah scrolls, Shabbat candlesticks and menorahs, and the "inspectors" were bribed to look the other way.

There are families in Southwest states who still have these "suspicious" possessions hidden away. They are priceless family heirlooms.

The Inquisition in Albuquerque was eventually closed as it received little cooperation from the mostly Converso inhabitants who refused to inform on their neighbors and relatives.

For readers interested in Jewish, Sephardic and Converso history, here are some links to see the names (and details) of participants who traveled with Don Juan Onate, on the expedition's historian Gaspar Perez de Villagra well as information on the Aguilar Expedition.

For additional information, compare the family names of the people on these expeditions with the Sephardim.com and SephardicGen.com name search engines for documented Sephardic names. Another source for comparison is Pere Bonnin's Sangre Judia, (4th expanded edition), which lists thousands of names documented as Jewish from pre-Inquisition records, Inquisition court records and other sources.

There are many sources for New Mexico genealogy research. Sites hold transcriptions of census records; birth, marriage and death; and much more. Google "New Mexico genealogy" and have fun sorting out all the hits.

The Gateway to Mexico page has an amazing amount of information. The complete and very detailed Onate list is here.

The Bernalillo County (New Mexico) page offers excellent information, such as a partial list of the Onate settlers (some are not on this list but do appear on the Gateway to Mexico list above). There is a list of married women who joined Onate's expedition in 1600. For a partial list of settlers who arrived in 1600, click here.

The New Mexico Genealogical Society has been publishing a journal for 40 years (available on CD), offers many articles online and information on archival resources.

The Converso community is not limited to New Mexico - they are found in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California - indeed everywhere Hispanics live today. Some know who they are, some suspect, some are not yet aware of their history, some don't refuse to accept the facts when the evidence is provided.

Family customs and stories are the most important clues to ancestry origins.

Does a family today (or did the grandparents) follow la dieta (kashrut, no pork)? Are there distinctive family customs surrounding birth, marriage, death - that are not followed by everyone - only within a certain group of families? Of grandparents repeating what their own grandparents said: "Be careful whom you marry. Do not break the chain." Do certain families marry only with certain other families? Are children told not to eat in the homes of their friends?

Are there unusual wedding customs, such as stepping on a cup or glass, or of women embroidering cloths used at a wedding? Are special engagement ceremonies held by some families? Is there some sort of bathing ceremony for bride or bride and groom before a wedding? Are animals or chickens killed in a special way, perhaps by the members of one particular family in a community? What is done with the blood? Are the girls in the family told about family secrets by their grandmothers? Do older family members touch a certain place on the doorframe when entering or leaving their house?

Common customs include avoiding pork and lard, lighting candles on Friday nights, observing Saturday as the Sabbath, burying within a day, men in certain families not entering a cemetery even for close relatives' funerals, mirrors covered in a house of mourning, observing unusual holidays with specific foods for those events, circumcision, and sometimes a ceremony on the 30th day after a male infant is born, special customs for 40 days after giving birth, burying or burning nail clippings, sweeping the floor to the center of the room, throwing a small piece of dough into the fire when making bread (accompanied by words or not), or special traditions for washing hands before eating.

Sometimes a family has retained only a few customs. They don't know why they still keep those traditions, but they continue to do so because their ancestors did it and tradition is very strong in those families. Other families know why they observe some traditions but have forgotten much of what their ancestors knew.

Tracing the Tribe has always been fascinated by these communities and awed by those families who have maintained so many traditions and so much knowledge over the centuries since arriving in the New World.

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