Story of Hope

A Short Story Autobiography by Dona Gracia Serrano

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The following is an excerpt from a family historical account as seen through the eyes of a Sephardi Anusim (forced one) who did not discover the true roots of her family until her father, at the age of 87, expressed this long hidden secret.  It is a typical account of many Sephardic Anusim families who are now discovering their true identity as Jews.  This account, a combination of oral history and factual documentational records, in no form is meant to either offend or discredit others perspectives on this subject.  The truth, after all, is often a pain staking revelation that must be unfolded on a personal basis.

The following is neither meant to offend any official religion or persons.  Forgiveness is a cleansing thing that gives the person giving and receiving it a freedom from the bondage of the past.  This again is often a painful process, for one must be willing to go through some pain to receive it.  The truth is often hard to face in its rawest form.  It is the prayer of this writer, that the following will bring some measure of hope and understanding of the past.  This Anusim history and personal account cannot be altered, as it would be as impossible for a holocaust victim to apologize for what they have been subjected to.   However, this writing is meant as the beginning of a healing process—a return of lost identity and freedom from past secrets done in the name of often mistaken religious fervor.

This account, as painful as it is to share, is done in the spirit of hope and love.  “Love”, in this writer’s opinion, as stated in the Torah, “covers all sins”(Prov. 10:12b).  It is the highest hope that this story, as thousands of other’s similar to it, will continue to bring hope to those who have felt the same wandering spirit and loss of identity as this author has experienced.  It is that hope that truth will reveal and heal, what 500 years of hidden history have tried to erase.

“May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy”  Psalm 12a:5

Uncovering the Lost Root

It was a rainy day on Masada and we had just walked among the ruins in February of 1999.  We had just walked in to a little restaurant stop for refreshment.  As I neared the counter a middle-aged woman greeted me warmly with a knowing look.  “Why you look just like my mother!” she said as she reached out and caressed my cheek.  “My family went to Italy from Spain, where did your family go?”  Not to appear too shocked I said, “Well, Mexico…”

It was that experience of feeling like I had “come home” in Israel and many other questions that led me to visit my father, Jose Muro Serrano in Texas the spring of February 2001.
It was something that I had already suspected for many years, the biblical names given to us, the way we were brought up, loving God and the Bible, yet not Catholic.  We never understood that this was the result of being hidden “Anusim”, meaning that we are descendants of the victims that were  “coerced, forced or raped” from knowing who they really were—-hidden Jews to becoming “conversos”(converted Catholic ones) in Spain, Mexico and other places.

From Spain to Mexico

During the beginning of the war between Spain and France, in the late 1800’s, many of the Spanish Sephardim families fled to Mexico and to the other South American countries to find shelter from the arising persecution in Spain.  My father’s story was part of these families fleeing persecution. His  parents, Pantaleon (view of the Lion) Serrano, (jornalero) laborer, carpenter and lumberjack  and his wife, Felicitas Muro had come with about 200, a group of Sephardim from Andalucia, Spain into Mexico in the late 1800’s with six of their 10 children.

Our great grandparents were Miguel and Filomena Cortes and Nazario  and Isidra Llamas from the Andalucia area of Spain.  Our family is related to Francisco Serrano y Dominguez and his nephew, Jose Muro Lopez, historical figures of Spain.  Jose Muro Lopez was a minister of state in 1873.

Francisco Serrano, Duque (Duke) de la Torre, was a famous Spanish Captain General of Cuba between 1859-1862.  He also was Prime Minister and President of Spain between monarchs in 1874.  He died in Madrid on the 26th of November, 1885, 24 hours after King Alphonso XII past away.

It was, I believe, his influence with Queen Isabella la Infanta and her mother, Christina, regent, that contributed to the release of our family clan from Spain.  This colloberates my father’s recollection of the “persecution” his family suffered.  According to the Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization Spain held little political freedom to Spanish Jews until after 1919.

Grandfather Pantaleon, had brought his six children, Jacinto, Lola, Fermin, Antonio, Raphael, Guadalupe and landed on the coast of Mexico.  They first settled in Teul (north of Zacatecas).  After this grandfather hired burrows with baskets to carry the six young children to their new home in Tesistan/Zapopan.   Later on came Manuela, Felipe, Jose (my Dad) was the 9th and Carmen.  After him came two little twins who died at birth for a total 13 children.

Dad, Jose Muro Serrano, was born and bred on the Los Laureles Ranch in Tesistan (Guadarajara, Jalisco), Mexico, March  26, 1914 to Pantaleon (vista of the lion) and Felicitas Muro.   Tesistan, next to in Sapopan, is just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.   Although dad would tell endless stories about his youthful experiences— the land and his ranch (“La Pinita”), the horses, the cattle, even about grandfather’s gold, the provincial life—-he had kept a hidden secret for eighty-seven years.

I had heard the story of my father being ex-communicated from the predominant church in Mexico for having a Bible and reading scriptures when it was not allowed.  All masses were held in Latin at that time and up until the 60’s no one was encouraged to have or read the Bible.  Dad had been called in by the parish Priest because the priest had heard of him leaving “his faith”.    Dad had explained his desire for reading the scriptures, as his family had been doing this for generations with their Bible brought from Spain.  The oldest would recite the “prayers” and later the girls in the family would read from the Old Testament for their nightly “devotions”. 

Grandfather had never become a Catholic and our father, no longer wanting to worship with icons and sculptures of saints, had tried to leave the church.   The priest was very understanding.  However, another person in the parish, having heard the conversation, his aunt or sister, approached my father, slapped him on the face and pronounced in no uncertain terms what a “disgrace he was to his family…” .

We had heard the story of how that evening a posse was sent, upon this person’s influence, with torches and horses to seek out my parents with their young baby, Rahab. We were told how God had miraculously protected them through grandmother hiding them and about the “baby who never cried” all night giving away their place of safety.  My grandmother had then put them on the milk truck at 3am in the morning so they could escape to the larger city of Guadalajara.  We had been told these stories, but never had known the “whole truth” about who we really were or what would have led my father to such actions.

Growing up, the family was  strictly forbidden  to have a cross in our home, let alone around our neck, or even a picture that would resemble any “saint” or idol…

Dad’s family were secret Jews that had lost much of their knowledge of who they were, but they still believed in “one God” and dad hated the “idols” or  statues of “saints”.  This was very painful for him and consequently, our father left his family. He lost his inheritance of land, horses, cattle and money.  The family was torn apart and he no longer used the Serrano name for many years.  We were named “Muro”, after his mother until I was almost 18 years old.  It was a promise he had made to continue her name before her death.

Mother, Francisca Garcia Marquez, on the other hand, was raised in the Tampico/Madero area.  Her family had come from Vera Cruz. At the early age of two years, mom’ mother, Rosalie Garcia, had given mom to her aunt, Guadalupe Marquez to raise in Tampico/Madero.  The port city of Tampico was an area to which we would return many summers from Brownsville, Texas (on the tip of Texas and another important port city of entry both to Mexico and the US).

The port of Tampico became a very important port of entry to the Sephardim fleeing Spain.  The entry at Vera Cruz had become too dangerous and housed the prison, San Juan De Ulua, to stop and imprison many of the “prohibited people” during the resurrection of the inquisition in the 1550’s in Mexico.  This prison still stands as a monument of horror to this day.

A Change in the Destiny

It was in the early 1940’s, and World War II had left a shortage of men in the United States and the Bracero Act was passed in Texas.  This law allowed immigrant workers to travel for work purposes into the country to fill this need.  Dad had come with many other men seeking a better life and ended up working in New York on the Railroad as a cook.  He remained there for several years until after the war.

When the war ended, he sent for my mother, Francisca and three children who were with her in Mexico, Rahab, Nathanael, and Joshua (Josue).  Mom, 10 years younger than dad, had married him by an arranged marriage.  Dad was a widower who needed help with his two daughters, Ofelia and Elodia, from his deceased wife.  These girls were partially raised with us.

By the time I came along, the six children were complete – Rahab, the eldest, so named because it was pronounced upon her birth, “one day she would save her people” (prophetic significance of Rahab who had saved the Hebrew spies in Jericho*).  Her name significance was never completely understood until many years later.  (*Joshua 2:1-21)

After Rahab, the eldest, had come Nathanael (now deceased through a tragic murder), Joshua, and later, in the United States, Elohim (who prefers to call himself “Joe”), Rachel and myself.

On August 29, 1953 I was born in Brownsville, the youngest of 6 at Brownsville’s Mercy Hospital.  Although all the other children had more biblical names, I was named, Graciela —the Grace of God.  I was being brought up in a Christian home and yet my father’s brokenness and shame kept him from revealing much of our true past.

It was strange growing up in the culture of south Texas.  The Rio Grande Valley, where Brownsville is located on the southernmost tip of Texas, is filled with many Hispanic “Tejanos” (the Sephardim Anusim who migrated there in the “tragic square”).   Other family members, like my mother’s sister settled as far north as San Antonio.

Brownsville was encumbered with much prejudice and poverty.  We were raised in a “barrio” until I was 11 years old. It was difficult, however, understanding why my family was so different from many of the other immigrants around us.  Most of them were still Catholic with all the cultural trappings   that encompass such, with the rituals of christenings, “quinceaneras”(girls coming out parties at 15 years of age), etc.  We had none of that influence growing up.

Yet it was a heritage, a love for God that was imparted to us in spite of the brokenness.  I have always somehow carried such an insatiable love for God and Israel and it is I’m sure, partially because of my father’s love for God and God’s word as taught first by his Jewish/converso mother.

This journey of my father and the secrecy that followed led the family to a “religiously harsh” life and loss of identity.  We were nobodies without a past!   Years of loving God, coupled with confusion, a legalistic religion and ignorance about our past as a family led me on a search that continues to this day.

This journey has brought insight into what we had suspected all along in my family history.  Why was there so much secrecy?  Why were we not raised Catholic? Why was dad so careful not to share too much about his family?  Why were we called “Marranos”, “pigs” in our neighborhood?  There were many things we did not understand!

 Back to the Land

It was not until November 2000 that I again had the opportunity to visit Israel.  This time I went on my own to explore Jerusalem, on a humanitarian visit to help with the needs of  Jewish immigrants.

Because of our love for Israel I had gathered items to take.   I had taken baby items from my little granddaughter, Audrey, to share with those in need. What a joy to find out the next day the little diaper bag filled with newborn items was given to a young Russian immigrant mom!  She was just going to the hospital to deliver and cried when she received it.  She could not believe that everything she needed for her little newborn was so neatly given to her from America.

It was during this time of learning, exploration and prayer over the city that I came face to face literally, with people who looked so much like me and would continually speak Hebrew to me.  I truly felt like I had returned home for the first time in my life.

I went to bless the land and its people.  There was much my Abba had to show me.   It was during this time that the land seemed so familiar and I truly felt at home.  God was revealing himself to me in the land and healing my past.

One day, as I was standing waiting for a friend outside the tunnel tour, a large family of sephardic Jews visiting the land exited the tunnel.  I was so amazed at how much they looked like me—-I was so embarrassed to even speak to them—as they chatted in Hebrew to each other.  It was strange seeing my nose duplicated by so many people!!  It was like looking in a mirror of long lost relatives!  I felt confirmation in my spirit now about who I was, it would soon be time to talk to my father.

I would hide all these things in my heart but it was not time to confront my father as yet.   There was a change of heart that God was bringing and a burden for the land.

Revealing the Family Roots

That February 2002 I came into my mother and father’s home. Dad was sitting in his wheelchair.  A bad hip replacement surgery has now left him partially immobile.  I went and hugged him but could not hold back my questions any longer. “Dad, I said, you are almost 90 years old.  You must tell me the truth about who we really are…”  Though it was difficult for him he said, “pues, semos Judios” (“well, we are Jewish”).  It was something that he had hid from us until he was 87 years of age and now he had the courage to say it!  I began to tell him how I knew this was so.  This opened the door to begin to ask him many questions about our family history and past.

This is the journey that we as a family have been on.  The prophetic vision of sharing this message, for it is the story of many of the Sephardim in many Latin American countries!  Many have lost their identity!  This has caused many emotional and phychological problems to the point of becoming almost a “curse” on the Spanish anusim. (See the section on this website on the “Repercussions”.)

Dad has now been able to remember many details.  The times of sabbath prayer in his home, (they would call them “devotions”)how the eldest brother recited Hebrew prayers, even the way Sephardic families raised pigs to sell and yet never ate them!   The way his mother trembled when he dared to read the New Testament from their  Spanish bible, the way his father would never accept the Catholic faith in Mexico, the gold that grandfather saved and how he prospered because of his Jewish way of doing business, the list goes on and on…  Even the language that was passed on to us was often criticized, known now as Ladino (the mixture of Hebrew and Spanish spoken by Sephardim in Spain).