My name is Frank Longoria and I was born into a family, descendants of Sephardic anusim who converted to Christianity in the remote past in the Iberian Peninsula.
As a young boy,
I learned from my father’s family that I was a descendant of Jews. But it was just a piece of family history that they wanted to share with me, not that they expected to return to Judaism which was not practical or possible to do it. To the best of my knowledge, there were no synagogues in San Luis Potosí where I was born and lived until I was 13 years old, and the entire Jewish community consisted of a Polish Jew who was my father’s friend. They were other families who we knew were also descendants of Conversos. They like my family were also marginal Catholics. However, we knew no Conversos who were practicing Jews.
My parents had a loose interpretation of Christianity, which gave me a weak religious background. Although I was baptized Catholic, I seldom was taken to church. My father and mother were not married in any church. A Justice of Peace who came to my parent’s house for the ceremony married them. My father never set foot in any Christian church except when I was baptized. My mother told me later that she really had to persuade my father to take me to the Cathedral in México City to be baptized. Baptismal in the 400-year-old Cathedral was a sign of social prominence in the México of the 3rd decade of the 20th century. My mother kept church attendance to a minimum, mainly for us to be seen at the right place at the right time. There were no saints or figures of Jesus in our home. Although my family never became practicing Catholics in the traditional Mexican fashion, which required regular church attendance and knowledge of the Catholic liturgy, we did not know any Jewish rituals. On the other hand, we had retained some Jewish customs, but we did not know at that time that they were Jewish customs. We just knew that they were traditions and customs, such as exercising extra care to ensure that there was no blood in the meat or eggs before we eat them. If my mother saw blood in an egg, she would throw it away. We eat meet on Friday rather than fish. We covered the mirrors when a family member died. My mother always insisted that we wash our hands, dirty or not, before each meal or when we returned from a visit to the cemetery. Both of my parents died of natural causes without receiving confessions.
As a marginal Christian,
I did not believe that a Messiah had come. One of the reasons why I did not believe was that I saw suffering and affliction when his coming was supposed to free us from sickness, hatred, and war. What was the purpose of the Messiah if humanity still has so much affliction and suffering? However, I kept my beliefs to myself and never tried to persuade anybody not to believe in the cardinal points of Christianity. As I said before, I was brought up as a poor Christian at best and as a heretic at worse. I always believed and still believe in one and only G-d, and the coming of the Messiah.
My father’s ancestors had come to New Spain now México at different times during the Spanish colonial times. Of course, they came as a Catholics. As we all know, the Spanish Crown law was that no one other than Catholics could migrate to the New World. The Spanish and Portuguese who came to the New World were either old Christians or new Christians or Conversos. The old Christians were people who could demonstrate that they had no Jewish or Moorish blood for at least four generations. The new Christians were the descendants of Sephardim or Muslims (I will use the term Converso). In New Spain, for the most part, the term Converso applied to the descendants of Jews. Once the Conversos arrived in the New World, some intermarried with old Christians or with other people of Converso background.
In the New World of the 1600s,
my ancestor, Lorenzo Suares de Longoria, an old Christian, who lived in Nuevo León, established a relationship with a woman from Nuevo León who was a descendant of Conversos. The Conversos ancestors on my father side were associated with Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, a Converso who had received authority from King Phillip II to settle the northern frontier of New Spain in 1574. Carvajal’s claim was called the New Kingdom of Nuevo León, which included the modern state of Nuevo León and a large track of land extending west from the Gulf of México to Chihuahua and north to New México and Texas. Carvajal brought many Conversos and recruited more people from Mazapil, Zacatecas and Coahuila*. As to how many were old Christians or Conversos, no body knows for sure. Carvajal fell in disgraced with the Viceroy and the México City Audiencia who investigated Carvajal’s genealogy and found that indeed he was a Converso. The next step was to bring charges against Carvajal, his family, and many of his associates of practicing Judaism. Although Carvajal was a Converso, the Inquisition never proved that he himself had practiced Judaism. Still the Inquisition refused to exonerate him and he died in prison. The case of his family and associates was a different story. Some of them admitted relapsing into Judaism and were burned at the stake.
It is important to point out that no body knows for sure how many of the settlers of northern México were Conversos or were old Christians who intermarried with Conversos in México. Also, to the best of my knowledge, not all Conversos relapsed into Judaism. All descendants of Jews were Conversos, but not all Conversos were crypto-Jews or Marranos. Some of the Conversos were crypto-Jews as attested by the records of the Mexican Inquisition and the synagogues that existed in México during colonial times. According to Dr. Seymour Liebman, there were synagogues in México City, Veracruz, Campeche, Puebla, Zacatecas, and Guadalajara. Liebman thinks that it is also probable that synagogues existed in Monterrey and Merida. (Liebman, 1972, p. 57) Synagogues existed in the territory where my ancestors lived, but the question is did my ancestors practice Judaism?
Coming back to my Longoria ancestors,
in 1749, they migrated from Nuevo León to Camargo, (Tamaulipas) El Nuevo Santander across from present day Rio Grande City, Texas where they received land grants. Because of the land ownership, my ancestors stayed in present day South Texas and northern Tamaulipas for three centuries. They kept very close family tides, often intermarrying cousins. In 1914, my father moved away with his brother-in-law, who was also his cousin, Ulises Vidal Longoria to central México to work with the then own American railroad. My father’s family was very unique in that they knew a great deal more about their family background than other Mexican families who had been moving around for many generations and marrying other people from different cultural backgrounds.
My mother’s surname was Carrión Navarro, names who are often seen in the records of the Inquisition and Sephardim names in the cemetery records of London and Amsterdam concerning Jews who lived and died as Jews. Interpolating from the names and my mother’s customs and vocabulary, I would say that it is possible and probable that she too was a descendant of Sephardim who had converted to Christianity.
In order to understand as to why the majority of descendants of Conversos did not return to Judaism after the Inquisition was abolished in 1821, we need to remember that México was and still is a strong Catholic country, which was founded in the tradition that the Catholic Church and the State were one of the same. It was not until the later part of the 19th century when President Benito Juarez (1806-1872) enacted legislation in 1859 to separate the church from the state. Even after the reforms established by Juarez, México remained a strong Catholic country. In the 1920s, the Cristeros, right wing Catholics, took arms against the government. This revolt took place mainly in El Bajio, which is located in the central states of Guanajuato and Jalisco, which to this date remain strong right wing Catholic. Christian Protestants did not appear in México until the late 1930 and only in some parts of México. Outside of few urban centers, which included México City, it was right out dangerous to be known anything else other than a Catholic. In the urban areas, for the most part of this century no other religion besides Catholicism was readily acceptable. Jews were supposed to be foreigners not Mexicans. I believe that for a Mexican to declare that he/she was going to become a Jew was not only politically incorrect but also it was right out dangerous.
In the early part of the 20th century
Judaism officially appeared in México with great cautious and keeping a low profile. Jews were well aware that in order to survive they most kept a delicate balance between Judaism and Christianity. And certainly the Jews were not and, I think, they are not in the proselytize mode. The Jews in México are mostly Ashkenazim and Jew from the Middle East who migrated to México during this century. They are a very small religious minority perhaps 40,000 (Johnson, p. 560) in a country approaching 90 million. Because of political reasons, the 20th century Mexican Jews’ philosophy is to live and let live.
Although I was not a practicing Catholic and did not feel that I belonged in Christianity, I doubt that I would have returned to Judaism the religion of my ancestors if I had stayed in México. I left México in 1952 and moved to the USA where I lived as non-practicing Catholic.
In 1990, as a result of researching the genealogy of my ancestors and the history of Nuevo León, I decided to explore Judaism. Of course, I knew nothing about Judaism other than some of my ancestors were Jews. However, I did not believe that because hundred years ago some of my ancestors were Jews that I was a Jew. I knew I had to learn from scratch and build up and then go through an official conversion, which I did. Three years later in 1993, after I was circumcised, and went immersion in the mikveh, my wife and I became Jews by choice. Finally, in June 1995 we had a Benei Mitzvah and were called to read from the Torah. Now in addition to our conversion, we have two Jewish grandsons going to Hebrew school.
my Hebrew name is Joseph Ben Abraham, my son name, Tzur Ben Joseph, and my grandchildren, Ephraim Ben Tzur and Menassheh Ben Tzur. I believe that my conversion to Judaism was a true miracle that built a bridge between the remote past of my Jewish ancestors and their descendants in the centuries to come. And for that I am thankful and at peace with my self.
Frank A. Longoria