Skip to comments.Jewish settlers left strong imprint in the Rio Grande Valley
Posted on 02/06/2005 6:34:55 AM PST by SJackson
ROMA, February 6, 2005 Stone offerings in cemeteries and candles on Friday nights have been a tradition for some local families for generations.
Some of those traditions bear a lingering memory of the Sefardim Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many settled in northern Mexico, practicing their religion in secret and changing their names to hide their heritage. Some even converted to Catholicism.
Eventually, the Inquisition got all the way up here, said Noel Benavides, a local historian. Some of them didnt relinquish their religion; some were executed if they didnt accept the Catholic religion.
Still, the Jewish customs and culture lived on, as did the bloodline, to become a part of the lifestyle here, he said.
Stuart Klein, owner of S. Klein Galleries in McAllen, said Jewish settlers were not an isolated bunch of peddlers. Klein, a member of Temple Emanuel, the synagogue in McAllen, has done extensive research into the history of Jews in Mexico. The Jewish migration was much larger than many people realize, he said, and began when Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, landing in the Americas three months later. At least one of Columbus crewmembers was Jewish, he said. And when Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs, five of his officers were Jewish.
These people had to get out of Europe, said Klein, 72. A lot of people went with the Spanish expeditions. Some were merchants, some were with the government, some in the military. A lot of these guys were very well-educated.
George Gause, special collections librarian at the University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg, said Jewish settlers played a significant though subtle role in the Rio Grande Valleys culture. The flour tortilla, he said, may have originated from the Jews because of their use of unleavened bread. They also brought with them the practice of draining the blood from slaughtered animals.
But Rabbi Steven Rosenberg, of Temple Emanuel in McAllen, has a different take on the culinary history of the flour tortilla. Many of the Jews who settled in Mexico married into the local population and the Jewish heritage has become entwined in the Hispanic culture, he said, but the flour tortilla and the Jewish matzoh unleavened bread are completely different foods.
We need to be careful about how we draw comparisons, he said. The unleavened bread has been part of Middle Eastern culture for 6,000 years.
IN NUEVO LEON
A presentation in September at the Mission Historical Museum shed some light on the history of the Jewish population that settled in Cerralvo, Monterrey and other Mexican communities, said Sam Ramos, chairman of the Starr County Historical Commission.
Miguel Bedolla and his sister-in-law, Elena Stoupignan, of Austin, gave the presentation. Bedolla, an economics and management professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, also holds a masters degree in history. He uses the study of genealogy to provide a better perspective of historic periods, he said, and he has published articles on the historical topics. Stoupignan has a degree in education, and she also gives cultural presentations and assists Bedolla in much of his research. Bedolla also makes presentations each year at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Rome.
Ramos said the Sefardim went to northern Mexico because it was isolated and they could live in relative peace, but they were not isolated from religious hatred, he said.
In 1579, Luis Carvajal de la Cueva he was a Portuguese Jew he settled in Nuevo Leon, about 200 leagues from Tampico to the Pacific Coast, Ramos said while reviewing his notes from the presentation. Carvajal had settled about 200 leagues of land between Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Coast of Mexico. A league is a measurement of three geographical miles.
Some points of the Carvajal story have become the subject of much debate. Klein attended part of the presentation by Bedolla and Stoupignan and found it interesting. However, he said that Luis Carvajal was one of Cortess officers and was awarded land from Tampico to what is now Eagle Pass and up to the Nueces River near Corpus Christi, Texas.
Klein said Carvajal established the capital of Nuevo Leon at Cerallvo, about 50 miles south of Roma. However, Bedolla said Carvajal founded the town of La Villa de San Luis on the site of present-day Monterrey. Klein could neither confirm nor deny this. Bedolla also said the entire family was taken to Mexico City by the Inquisition, which imprisoned the entire family on the charge of publicly practicing Catholicism while secretly practicing their Jewish faith.
The arrests stemmed from an incident years before, in Spain, Bedolla said. It seems Carvajals entire family had converted to Catholicism while still in Spain. However, Bedolla pointed out that, although this was during the time of the Inquisition, the Carvajals were not forced to become Catholic.
The Inquisition only had authority over Catholics, Bedolla said. The Inquisition could not force anyone to become Catholic. But once you were Catholic you had to stay Catholic.
Klein said regardless of what the Inquisition had the power to do, it was administered by people who went after anybody.
They went after Jews and Indians, he said. They thought they could out there. In every government, when they are out on their own, how do you know what they did?
Luis Carvajal, he said, had converted to Catholicism in Spain of his own accord.
He was really Catholic in good faith, Bedolla said. One evening, they were sitting down to dinner and he said the blessing. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. One of his nieces said, Do not say that prayer, because the Messiah hasnt come. He did not correct her for saying that.
Luis Carvajal did not correct the niece, and that was the reason many years later the family was taken from La Villa de San Luis to Mexico City and imprisoned by the Inquisition. There they were to be tried by the Tribunal de la Santa Inquisición, Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition.
Klein said its hard to know for sure what was said or what really happened at the dinner table that night so long ago, but most Jews who converted to Catholicism were forced to do so under threat of their lives.
Bedolla said every member of Carvajals family was tried independently by the Inquisition. Luis Carvajal died in prison, apparently of natural causes, before the Inquisition made a final decision on his case. Bedolla does not know what became of the rest of his family, except for a nephew, who was also named Luis Carvajal.
As soon as the younger Luis Carvajal found out the family was really Jewish, he circumcised himself and began practicing the faith. He was executed by the Inquisition for being Catholic and practicing the Jewish faith.
He was the only one (Carvajal) burnt at the stake, Bedolla said.
After the Carvajals were forced to leave La Villa de San Luis and were taken to Mexico City to be tried, the town of La Villa de San Luis was abandoned, Bedolla said.
Only a few short years later, in 1596, the city of Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo Leon, was established on the same spot.
The Jewish settlers who spread into Coahuila established new settlements, one of which was Santa Rosa, Ramos said. Some of the founders of this new settlement, now called Muzquiz, were descendants of a 13th-century rabbi named Salomon Halavi, of Burgos, Spain, Bedolla said.
Halavi, Bedolla said, had been a faithful student of the teachings of a 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician named Maimonides. However, he converted to Catholicism after reading the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century philosopher and doctor of the church, Bedolla said.
After Halavis conversion, he changed his name to Pablo de Santa Maria. Bedolla said that after his descendents settled in northern Mexico, they changed their surname to Rodriguez de Maluenda. Many of his descendants eventually spread into the Rio Grande Valley and bear the names Saenz, Falcon, Gonzalez, Galan and Castro. Bedolla said he is a descendent of Salomon Halavi.
Rosenberg said he had heard of Halavi, but he has never heard about a conversion, or of Halavis descendents founding Santa Rosa.
Theres no way you could even verify that, Rosenberg said. That is probably more of a story than anything else.
When Spanish explorer Jose de Escandon established Reynosa, Camargo, and other settlements along the Rio Grande in the late 1700s, the Spanish official who inventoried the area and its settlers found they had plenty of horses, cattle and goats, but no pigs, Benavides said. The Jewish faith forbids the consumption of pork.
Stoupignan, of Austin, was born and raised in Monterrey and claims descendance from the Jewish settlers of northern Mexico. She grew up with many of the customs without knowing where they came from, she said.
Every Friday night we got together for dinner and lit candles, she recalls. We usually closed the curtains because we didnt want anybody to see what we were eating.
Stoupignan believes the original motive for the secrecy, going back several generations, would have been to keep people from discovering they were Jewish, but long after the family forgot the initial reason, the practice continued. She also grew up believing that pork was bad for her, not knowing that abstinence from pork had come from her Jewish ancestry.
She and Bedolla agree that the custom of lighting candles on Friday nights came from their Jewish ancestors.
A lot of people, when they heard that (at the presentation), we all shook our heads, Ramos said. A lot of our ancestors did that. Some of the foods, when you kill a chicken by cutting off the head, you bleed it out. Thats very Jewish.
Rosenberg said that, in the Jewish faith, animals must be killed as humanely as possible. The blood must be drained from the animal because Judaism forbids the consumption of blood. He said the consumption of pork is forbidden because an animal used for food must have a cloven hoof and chew its cud. Chickens are considered kosher.
The Jews in Spain and Mexico who converted to Catholicism became known as Conversos, Rosenburg said. They often continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret, always fearful of being discovered. Through the generations, Anusim descendents of Conversos maintained some of their Jewish identity.
One of their customs was the lighting of the shabbat, or Sabbath candles, each Friday at sunset. While the origin of this custom became lost to memory in the Hispanic community, certain material possessions were a closely guarded secret, Rosenberg said. A number of Hispanics have come to him trying to identify garments the family had kept for generations. Some of them have turned out to be tallits (prayer shawls) and kippahs (head coverings). Some families even had old Hebrew bibles.
They were told never to talk to anybody about this, he said.
Benavides, too, believes he may have some Jewish ancestry.
The story goes that when my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary here in Roma, my aunts came up with two beautiful candelabra at the end of the table, he said. I asked where it came from, and they said it had been in the family for many years. The candelabra had seven candles and little Stars of David on the base.
Neither his aunts nor his grandparents knew anything about any Jewish heritage in the family, Benavides said, but few of the old families in Starr County know for certain of any possible Jewish background. There are only the faint whisperings, speculation, stories, and the enduring culture.
The customs stayed here, Benavides said. Thats why we have some original dishes such as cabrito (baby goat), flour tortillas, albóndigas, which are like meatballs. My grandmother used to make them. They would drop the meatball into the soup and it was very, very tasty. Now we make albóndigas out of anything, tuna, salmon.
Rosenberg was not familiar with albóndigas, but he did say theres a Jewish dish from Eastern Europe in which matzoh balls were boiled and placed into chicken soup. Rosenberg said he could not confirm or deny whether cabrito had its origins in Jewish culture.
I think they might be likening that to ancient Hebrews who were shepherds, he said. Many of these stories are apocryphal (legend). Legends have some basis in fact
A lot of people who find out about their Jewish heritage try to grasp anything they can to give them some kind of connection, he said. A lot of them havent had the benefit of being in a larger Jewish community.
Some genetic testing has been done in Mexico and South America, and results show many Mexican people - and those of Mexican background - have some Jewish ancestry. Rosenberg said many members of the first synagogue in what later became the United States were Sephardic Jews.
Bedolla said one Valley resident pointed out that, while some area Hispanics may indeed have Jewish heritage, that does not necessarily make them Jews. Rather, the Jewish heritage has become part of the Mestizo culture. While a large number of Jews settled in Guerrero Viejo, Tamaulipas, many of them married into the local Indian population and other cultural groups.
But the Jewish influence does linger, even beyond the grave. While strolling through the Roma cemetery recently, Benavides picked up several stones placed on grave markers.
I see so many stones in this place, he said. When it comes to All Saints Day, they have families and loved ones here. People who havent been here in years come back to Roma. They say a prayer and lay a stone. The only other place I have seen that is Jewish cemeteries.
Rosenberg confirmed this as a very strong Jewish influence.
The Jews dont believe in flowers at gravesites because they wither and die, Rosenberg said. A rock is a lasting sign. The tradition of putting rocks on gravesites goes back to Biblical times. When someone died, the body was buried in a cave and covered with rocks. It grew into a symbol of putting a rock on top of the grave, as a sign of respect.
Even today, when a Jewish person dies, people are asked to donate money to charity instead of sending flowers, he said. It helps more people that way.
Rosenberg said he has seen a surprisingly large number of Hispanics rediscovering their Jewish heritage; many have left Christianity to convert to Judaism.
More and more people who have Jewish roots are beginning to find them, he said. I find it fascinating that a part of the Jewish culture and religion that was lost at one time is starting to be reclaimed.
Raul Montemayor is one of those who has returned to his Jewish roots. Montemayor, 55, has lived in McAllen for about 20 years. Originally from Monterrey, he said he is descended from some of the original Jewish settlers of Nuevo Leon.
Its a painful history, he said. My family was not religious. I never thought like a Christian. I was just in limbo.
While the Anusim maintained some characteristics of their Jewish heritage, theres another name for those who come full circle.
The ones that return to full Jewish practice are called Baal Teshuva," he said. One who returns.
I have yet to read one of your posts where I did'nt learn something new! Thanks.
This is very intresting. One branch of my mothers family that settled in Texas in the 1820's was named Issack. They didn't come from Mexico but came the other route across the southern US. I have been asked many times if they were Jewish but I have no knowledge that they were.
Interesting read !
It is interesting. Most every old West Texas ranching family has some Jewish ancestors (myself included). We have prayer shawls, menorahs, the whole bit . . all locked away in the attic, alas.
Also, Galveston was a major Jewish immigration location, further bringing in influence.
Very interesting, indeed, and I must confess that since I love Mexican food, the discussion on that was particularly intriguing.:)
There's a large crypto-Jewish community in New Mexico. There have been lots of article about them recently.
This is a facinating piece of northern Mexican and southwestern American history. Thanks for the posting.
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Recall that not only Columbus and Cortez had Jewish officers, Magellan and others did as well. Finally, is it a coincidence that Columbus set sail in 1492 the same year as the first Spanish Inquisition? Will Durant wrote of this 75 years ago.
I have to wonder how a guy like Ward Churchill would treat this information.
A slight correction: an animal used for food must NOT have a cloven hoof
You had a whoopsie. An animal must have a cloven hoof AND chew its cud- like sheeps, cows but not pigs or rabbits.
And earlier this week I mistook the word African for
American. Man! I either need new glasses or brain pills.
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