DNA Clears the Fog Over Latino Links to Judaism in New Mexico
Tests confirm what tradition and whispers have alluded to — a Sephardic community often unbeknownst to many of its members. As a boy, Father William Sanchez sensed he was different. His Catholic family spun tops on Christmas, shunned pork and whispered of a past in medieval Spain. If anyone knew the secret, they weren’t telling, and Sanchez stopped asking. Then three years ago, after watching a program on genealogy, Sanchez sent for a DNA kit that could help track a person’s background through genetic footprinting. He soon got a call from Bennett Greenspan, owner of the Houston-based testing company. “He said, ‘Did you know you were Jewish?’ ” Sanchez, 53, recalled. “He told me I was a Cohanim, a member of the priestly class descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses.” With the revelation that Sanchez was almost certainly one of New Mexico’s hidden or crypto-Jews, his family traditions made sense to him.
He launched a DNA project to test his relatives, along with some of the parishioners at Albuquerque’s St. Edwin’s Church, where he works. As word got out, others in the community began contacting him. So Sanchez expanded the effort to include Latinos throughout the state. Of the 78 people tested, 30 are positive for the marker of the Cohanim, whose genetic line remains strong because they rarely married non-Jews throughout a history spanning up to 4,000 years.
Michael Hammer, a research professor at the University of Arizona and an expert on Jewish genetics, said that fewer than 1% of non-Jews possessed this marker. That fact – along with the traditions in many of these families – makes it likely that they are Jewish, he said. “It makes their stories more consistent and believable,” Hammer said.
It also explained practices that had baffled many folks here for years: the special knives used to butcher sheep in line with Jewish kosher tradition, the refusal to work on Saturdays to honor the Sabbath, the menorahs that had been hidden away. In some families, isolated rituals are all that remain of a once-vibrant religious tradition diluted by time and fears of persecution. Norbert Sanchez, 66, recalled the “service of lights” on Friday nights in his hometown of Jareles, N.M., where some families would dine by candlelight. “We always thought there was a Jewish background in our family, but we didn’t know for sure,” he said. “When I found out, it was like coming home for me.”
In 1492, Jews in Spain where given the choice of conversion to Catholicism or expulsion. Many fled, but others faked conversions while practicing their faith in secret. These crypto-Jews were hounded throughout the Spanish Inquisition. “In the 1530s and 1540s, you began to see converted Jews coming to Mexico City, where some converted back to Judaism,” said Moshe Lazar, a professor of comparative literature at USC and an expert on Sephardic Jews, or those from Spain and Portugal. “The women preserved their tradition. They taught their daughters the religion. People began rediscovering their Jewishness, but remained Catholics.”
But in 1571, the Inquisition came to Mexico. Authorities were given lists to help identify crypto-Jews, Lazar said. People who didn’t eat pork, knelt imperfectly in church, rubbed water quickly off newly baptized babies or didn’t work on Saturday were suspect. If arrested, they were sometimes burned at the stake. Many fled to what is now northern New Mexico, and remained secretive even after the U.S. gained control of the area in 1848. “Still, no one would come out and say: ‘I am a Jew.’ That didn’t happen until the 1970s,” said Stanley Hordes, a professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute of the University of New Mexico who is writing a book on crypto-Jews. “The first few generations kept the secret because of danger of physical harm, and later they kept it because that was just what they did. The $64,000 question is: Why the secrecy today? Why are people keeping this information from their kids and grandkids?” Some haven’t.
“I found out when I was 13,” said Keith Chaves, 47, an engineer in Albuquerque. “My great-grandmother told me that we were Sepharditos.” The family matriarch was a repository of knowledge – and the keeper of secrets. “She kept a kosher knife rolled up in a piece of leather that she would only use for killing,” Chaves said. “And she would kill the animal by cutting its throat in one motion. She abhorred the ways others killed animals.” Born a Catholic, Chaves now attends an Orthodox synagogue in Albuquerque. He has made four documentaries on crypto-Jews and is working on a movie about his family history. “When I found out about my roots, I went to the library and my world opened up. I started peeling what turned out to be a 500-year-old onion,” he said. “I have reclaimed my life. I live a Jewish life now. I think my great-grandmother told me because she expected me to do something fruitful with the information.” Others have sought the truth on their own.
Elisea Garcia was raised by a strong-willed grandmother with strange habits. “We would have a big dinner on Friday night with candles,” said Garcia, 66, who is awaiting the results of a DNA test done on her son to see if he has the Cohanim marker, which is found only in the Y chromosome. “She would butcher the animals then examine them inside out for any sign of impurity. On Saturday we weren’t even allowed to wash our hair.” When her grandmother died, Garcia found a silver menorah hidden in her room. “I’m a curious person, but my uncle told me not to dig into things because they weren’t important,” she said. Garcia, a Catholic, attends both synagogue and church. “It makes me aware of the whole concept of God,” she said.
Greenspan, whose Family Tree DNA does the testing for Sanchez’s project, said there had been a surge of interest in genealogy among Latinos looking for Jewish connections. “We believe a fairly high percentage of first families [arriving] in New Mexico were nominally Catholic, but their secret religion was Judaism,” he said. “We are finding between 10% and 15% of men living in New Mexico or south Texas or northern Mexico have a Y chromosome that tracks back to the Middle East.” They are not all Cohanim, and there’s a slight chance some could be of African Muslim descent. But Greenspan said the DNA of the men is typical of Jews from the eastern Mediterranean.
Test participants scrape cells from the inside of their cheeks and mail samples to Greenspan, who has them analyzed by researchers at the University of Arizona. The process takes about a month, with costs ranging from $100 to $350 depending on the detail requested. Women, who do not possess the Y chromosome, must have a male relative take the test in order to participate. Since discovering his past, Father Sanchez – who wears a Star of David around his neck – has traveled throughout the state giving talks on the history and genealogy of New Mexico. He also runs the Nuevo Mexico DNA Project and website that tells how people can take part. Sanchez describes his Jewish history as “a beautiful thing” complementing, not conflicting with, his priestly life. “I have always known I was Jewish; I can’t explain it, but it was woven into who I was,” he said. After Mass one recent morning, a group of parishioners filed out of St. Edwin’s. None had a problem with their priest’s dueling religious traditions. “He has taken us back to our roots,” Robert Montoya said. And Theresa Villagas smiled. “We are all children of God,” she said. “I think this just adds richness to our lives.”