Frequently Asked Questions and Answers on Soc.Culture.Jewish
Section 13. Jews as a Nation
Who are the Crypto-Jews (also known as "marranos")?
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
- 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 <email@example.com>