Frequently Asked Questions and Answers on Soc.Culture.Jewish

Section 13. Jews as a Nation

Who are the Crypto-Jews (also known as "marranos")?

© (c) 1993-1997 Daniel P. Faigin <>

At the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jews were offered conversion or expulsion. Many chose to leave Spain (quite a few found safety in the Muslim Ottoman Empire), but others stayed behind.

"Marranos" actually started appearing with the first riots in the Juderias of Spain. Many were forced to convert to save their lives. These were naturally not faithful Catholics. The laws in 14th and 15th century Spain became increasingly oppressive towards practicing Jews, while providing an easy escape by conversion. Large numbers of middle class Jews outwardly took on Christianity to avoid the laws, while secretly practicing Judaism.

Most of the remaining Marranic practice in Spain and Portugal today is from those religious Jews who escaped from Spain to Portugal in 1492, only to be trapped there later when the expulsion was instituted there as well. The most active Marranism in the Iberian peninsula is in the mountainous border areas between Spain and Portugal, in towns such as Belmonte'. Jewish outreach in these areas is achieving success in bringing them forward and restoring full Judaic practice, but many still fear burning or other persecution if they go public.

Some faithful Catholic converts were won by the efforts of famous apostates like Pablo de Santa Maria who went around disputing the rabbis and ordinary Jews, winning some converts. In the most famous disputation, with Nachmanides, he was soundly defeated, but the Franciscans published false reports of the disputation to win more converts. Nachmanides, who had been protected from heresy laws during the disputations, was forced to publish his refutations in public. He was forced into exile rather than be burned as a heretic. In any case, the faithfulness of these converts is doubtful, since the Order of Expulsion was primarily due to the recidivism of Conversos once they had to live next door to practicing Jews again. It was felt that expelling all open Jews was the only way to keep the Conversos Christian.

Among those who stayed behind were Jews who pretended to convert to Roman Catholicism, but who secretly maintained a practice of Judaism. The term "Marrano" was at one time used to describe them, as the term refers to the swine which they'd publicly eat to demonstrate their outward conversion. It isn't clear if the "Old Christians" or the practicing Jews called them "marrano".

In Majorca the community was converted in the 1430's and are called Chuetas, from "pork lard" since they regularly keep pork lard boiling in cauldrons on their porches. They themselves still call themselves Israelitas in private, and ask forgiveness from el Grande Dio for worshipping in front of statues of a man. They typically sacrified (in a figurative, not literal, sense) their first born sons to the Catholic priesthood as a means of getting protection from Church persecution, so, ironically, many of the priests across the Baleiric Islands are from Marrano families.

Crypto-Jew is the correct term, as it also refers to Jews forced to adopt other religions and political philosophies while maintaining Jewish practices. Crypto-Judaism pre-dates the Inquisition, as Jews were forced by the Al-Mohavid invasions of Spain to become Muslims, creating Crypto-Jews who gradually fled to Christian districts for protection from the Muslims (see Roth's History of the Jews). In modern times outwardly Muslim Crypto-Jews are known to be in Meshed, Iran, and in Turkey.

A number of Crypto-Jewish communities survive today, especially in former Spanish-influenced regions, such as the southwestern U.S.A. They still maintain extensive secrecy after centuries. Other communities were lost to assimilation, but maintained residual Jewish practices such as lighting candles Friday night. Based on information in Cohen's The Marranos and Prinz's The Secret Jews, the following are some examples of these communities:

  • The Antiquen~as of Colombia.
  • Much of Northern Mexico's middle and upper classes (Nuevo Leon is the "New Lion of Judah").
  • The Naucalpan and Vallejo districts of Mexico City. (Technically, Naucalpan is not in the Distrito Federal, but in the greater metropolitan area).
  • The Chuetas of Majorca. A look at Chueta last names shows many surnames which have became quite famous in the Hispanic world. They include Mir, Miro, and Marti. Of course Joan Miro was Mallorcan. Any marranism in Fidel Castro's family would be through his mother, as his father's family was Gallego, and very few Jews ever lived in Galicia (of course plenty lived in the Austrian Galicia, I'm refering to northwestern Spain). Interesting about the mountains on the Spanish-Portuguese border being a hotbed of marranism, particularly those on the Extremadura-Andalucia border. This area is directly inland from some of the areas which contained the earliest Jewish communities on the Iberian peninsula - for example Huelva and Gibraltar. Malaga and Almunecar - which also had early communities - are also in Andalucia. According to Timothy Mitchell's book Flamenco: Deep Song and other sources, the inquisition in western Andalucia was slightly more lenient than elsewhere because of the need for labour related for the new world trade and mining. The connections are quite interesting.

Famous Hispanics who have acknowledged Marrano ancestry include Rita Moreno and Fidel Castro. Jews have played an important role in the history of Monterrey, Mexico. The Garza family, one of Mexico's richest, of Cerveceria Moctezuma fame, are Jews. Frida Kahlo's father, Guillermo Kahlo, a somewhat reknowned photographer in his own right, was a Hungarian Jew. Diego Rivera admitted having marrano ancestry as well.

© (c) 1993-1997 Daniel P. Faigin <>