By Corinne Joy Brown
Why should a history conference in El Paso matter to locals—and a Jewish history conference at that? The answer lies in the 16th century Spanish Colonial conquest of Mexico and the greater Southwest in general, a historical event that set the stage for a world in which Texans from El Paso to the Borderlands became descendants of a rich and varied heritage. Many in our city have backgrounds that include Spaniards, Native Americans, African Americans, Mestizos and, even— Jews. If that news surprises you, and you’ve never taken a peek at your ancestry, maybe the time has come.
The conference, scheduled for August 13-15, will be held at the Judson F. Williams El Paso Conference Center. It is sponsored by the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, a secular and academic organization founded in 1990 in New Mexico with membership open to anyone. Through the organization’s annual conferences and biannual journal, SCJS explores the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th century when the monarchs of Spain unified their country and declared Catholicism the official religion.
Jewish communities that had once flourished in Spain for over 900 years had to accept conversion by force or leave. Thousands did leave, creating one of the largest diasporas in the medieval world, taking Iberian Jews and their culture into Portugal, Greece, Turkey, and Rhodes and across the Mediterranean to North Africa, as well as various countries in Europe and around the world. Those who stayed suffered persecution at the hands of the Church which mercilessly sought out and punished heretics for over 300 years, in Spain and wherever the Church was strong. No converted Jew was ever considered faithful enough, forcing an entire culture to hide their origins in secret, until the passage of time eventually buried a family’s truth, leaving nothing but traditions.
This ancestry belongs to more people than many realize. At the same time that the Inquisitor’s reign of terror shaped life in Iberia, a new age of exploration brought the Spanish and Portuguese to Mexico, the Americas and the Caribbean. In Mexico, Spanish conquistadors established a new empire requiring thousands of settlers. What most people do not know, thanks to DNA testing today, is that one out of four Spanish males had (and still have) identifiable Jewish ancestry. That’s one quarter of the population; their descendants numbering in the millions.
This information matters, especially regarding issues like personal identity and health. Further, modern research in the areas of folkways, food, and rituals has proven that many Christians have long been maintaining Jewish customs and practices unknowingly. From farming and ranching to customs regarding birth, marriage and death, many Jewish traditions still prevail.
Why You Should Attend
The SCJS conference is titled “Exploring the Crypto-Jewish History of the Borderlands.” To some, the term Borderlands is merely a geographic area joining two worlds. But to citizens of South Texas, their history is being analyzed with new eyes, focused on the intersection of traditions and culture.
Previous understanding of Borderlands history has relied on the connection between Anglo and Spanish America. Later historians sought to widen the scope, documenting histories and narratives of ethnic Mexican culture and identity in Texas, the Southwest and northern Mexico. But behind the current focus on Mexican identity and diversification is also the untold story of a hidden minority, assimilated, yet at the same time, separate and intact; the descendants of Spanish Colonial settlers who were crypto-Jews. Traditions and folkways do not lie, hinting clearly at Spanish or Portuguese Jewish origins and established ways of living. Through this lens, some believe that the real understanding of the Borderlands may have just begun.
The conference begins officially Sunday afternoon August 13 at 3:00 p.m. with the introductory panel of speakers, followed by a cocktail reception and fiesta, dinner and a distinguished keynote speaker, historian Dr. Silvia Hamui Sutton from Mexico City.
Prior to the opening afternoon are a series of pre-conference events beginning with a film festival Saturday night featuring two films: “Remember My Soul” by Texas graduate student Jillian Glantz about hidden Jewish history in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and “The Long Journey “by Isaac Artenstein, focused on hidden Jews in New Mexico. Sunday morning offers a guided tour by bus of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro with visits to historic sites, concluding at the Los Portales Museum in San Elizario for lunch.
At 1:00 p.m. registrants can attend a two-hour genealogy workshop featuring Arturo Cuellar from Family Search with an emphasis on records from Mexico, and Genie Milgrom, a genealogist from Florida who is an expert on Church archives and digitization. Musical entertainment on Monday night features renowned musician Robyn Helzner presenting “The Key to the Casa”, sights and sounds of Medieval Spain. Over two and a half days, 29 different presenters will be delivering lectures on fascinating topics related to the theme and beyond.
For anyone needing hotel rooms, the historic Paso del Norte Hotel, adjacent to the conference center, offers a greatly discounted room block through July 15. For more details, presenter topics and conference registration through July 25, go to www.cryptojews.com. SCJS thanks many local individuals and organizations in the community for bringing this important event to life. For questions and more information contact Blanca Carrasco at firstname.lastname@example.org.