ALBUQUERQUE—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.”
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.
“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.”