ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Their 400-year journey started with expulsion from Spain, continuing through Mexico with persecution by the Spanish Inquisition, finally setting in the American Southwest.
The physical journeys of secret Jews — conversos or crypto-Jews — ended in colonial times, but their internal journeys continue to this day.
Filmmaker Isaac Artenstein has captured some of the powerful stories in his latest project: “A Long Journey: The Hidden Jews of the Southwest." It will premiere Nov. 19 on New Mexico PBS.
“As an ongoing resource for both cultural and historical discovery, NMPBS was pleased to work with the producers on not only presenting a side of history that many may not know, but of also looking at the modern-day people impacted by actions taken centuries ago,” says Franz Joachim, NMPBS general manger and CEO. “The story of the conversos or ‘crypto-Jews’ of the Southwest is a story of relevance and resilience, culture, humanity and faith, of interest beyond the Jewish community and internationally.”
In 1492, the Spanish monarchs decreed that all the Jews in Spain would have to convert to Catholicism or leave the country.
Of the several hundred thousand Jews living in Spain, about half went into exile, where they could continue to practice their faith openly.
The other half remained and converted. Five years later, the king of Portugal also issued an edict forcing the Jews in the country to convert.
Some of these conversos accepted baptism sincerely, but other converted in name only, while practicing their ancestral faith in secret.
Life became very difficult for these crypto-Jews, or secret Jews, as there developed within the Spanish Catholic Church an institution known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Inquisition had no jurisdiction over Jews, but as Catholics, these crypto-Jews were vulnerable to persecution.
According to the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, vestiges of this crypto-Jewish heritage can still be found among the Hispano community.
“Some families retain only suggestive practices, disconnected from any consciousness of a Jewish past, such as the lighting of candles on Friday night, observance of the Sabbath on Saturday, refraining from eating pork products, and male infant circumcision,” the historical society says. “In other cases, knowledge of a Jewish past has been passed down through the generations to the present time.”
The documentary brings to life the fascinating stories of contemporary individuals living an outwardly Catholic life whose secret was their hidden Jewish roots.
“This is the second documentary that I’ve done primarily in New Mexico,” he told the Albuquerque Journal. “I know settlers came to New Mexico very early, and there’s this deep history. You had a viceroy in New Mexico. The history is so rich.”
Artenstein says the documentary recounts stories of forced expulsion, with journeys to Mexico, southern Texas and northern New Mexico; the reawakening of long-obscured Spanish-Jewish traditions, the resilience of faith and culture, and the eventual triumph of acceptance and respect over tyranny and intolerance.
The stories are set against magnificent natural and cultural landscapes, accompanied by an original score by acclaimed composer Mark Adler.
“The film is a story about self-awareness and reaffirmation, and a celebration of the richness and diversity of Jewish and Latino cultures in the American Southwest that I believe all audiences will find engaging,” Artenstein says. “The Western frontier is, after all, one of the most influential myths in American culture.
Producer Paula Amar Schwartz and Artenstein also worked on the documentary “Challah Rising in the Desert: The Jews of New Mexico.”
“During audience discussions following the showings of ‘Challah Rising,’ we were stunned to have individuals open up and share their family stories of hidden Jewish roots; some cried as they told their story; others affectionately spoke of asking their parents, who are we? The responses varied but were usually veiled and imprecise,” Amar Schwartz says. ” ‘We are who we are,’ was one such response. This kept happening, and the more it happened the more we became aware of how much more there was to tell.”
Amar Schwartz had the privilege of getting to know Maria Apodaca, a founder of a group in Albuquerque that was meeting monthly to hold Sephardic Shabbat dinners and discuss the members’ family histories.
“Maria’s story was one of those told in ‘Challah Rising in the Desert.’ That group, with the support of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, has now evolved into Centro Sefarad, New Mexico, with leadership drawn from around the world,” she says. “Another member of that group, Rabbi Jordi Gendra-Molina, also the descendant of hidden Jews, has a role in telling the story in ‘A Long Journey.’ ”
Charlie Carrillo was among those who sat down to talk about his life for the documentary. A month after production ended, he suffered a massive heart attack and stroke.
Today, he’s on the mend at his house in Abiquiú, where’s he’s been social distancing since before March.
“My doctor’s told me that I had to stay away from people,” he says. “We have a nice home up here, and it’s where I can still be creative.”
Carrillo is a nationally recognized santero, specializing in carved Catholic saints and painted wood retablos.
While working on his Ph.D. in anthropology, he discovered his Jewish roots and embarked on a journey of self-discovery.
This led to the incorporation of Jewish themes and iconography in his creative work.
“The point I was trying to make in the film is that many of us have that ancestry,” he says. “We recognize that’s our ancestry. But I claim to my Catholic faith. My message is that I understand it’s part of my ancestry. I embrace it only to the degree that I recognize. I chose to remain Catholic.”
A devout Catholic, he's also a Penitente.
Carrillo says he does incorporate Jewish symbols and images with Old Testament figures.
“It relates to the Jewish faith,” he says. “Since finding out about my ancestry, I’ve been invited to Congregation Nahalat Shalom to do shows there where I was the only artist.”
Unlike Carrillo, upon learning of his Sephardic ancestry, Tim Herrera began a plan to make his way back to Israel.
The La Jara resident is featured in the documentary going on a visit with a cousin who discusses the meaning of the small rocks placed on top of the graves of relatives (an ancient Jewish custom).
There had been moments in his life when he wondered where certain traditions came from.
“It was butchering,” he recalls. “I remember my grandpa and my dad. We were butchering our own beef and he turned around to grab the knife. He wanted to cut the throat before the meat went bad. I always thought you would ruin the meat if you waited too long.”
When Herrera joined the military, he had an opportunity to know people from all over the world.
That’s when he realized that what his grandfather and dad were saying was wrapped up in Jewish tradition.
Herrera says people often ask him why he chose Israel instead of Spain.
“I want to go back home and let it come full circle,” he says. “We’ve put our paperwork in, and it got denied. We’re looking at the next step to continue this journey.”