I first heard of the concept of Crypto-Jews back when I was a college student in Santa Fe during the late 1980s. New Mexico Hispanos had noticed their supposedly Catholic neighbors and relatives engaging in rituals that, it turned out, resembled Jewish religious practices. Some scholars -- most notably Stanley Hordes, who was New Mexico's state historian in the early 1980s -- posited that these Jewish rituals had been handed down through generation after generation. Their origins, he said, were Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition, and ended up in the New World. In other words, the strong Catholicism of northern New Mexico was spiced with people of Jewish descent who continued, to a degree, to practice Jewish customs.
I loved the story.
Northern New Mexico already has such an interesting cultural tapestry: There's the Spanish influence (which, in turn, is enriched by Moorish culture); the Mexican mix; the Puebloan culture; and Anglo culture. And it's all mixed together. So it's a nice bonus to throw that Jewish heritage into the mix. Just as one can see the Middle-Eastern influence in the Matachina dances performed by many Pueblos, I hoped to find the Jewish influence in Northern New Mexico traditions.
Then, in 2000, the whole thing was debunked -- or at least it seemed to be. A big article in the Atlantic Monthly pointed out the errors in the theory, and posited plausible alternative explanations. The legend of New Mexico's Crypto-Jews, much to my dismay, was dead.
Or maybe not. About a year after the Atlantic article was published, some genetic counselors in Denver discovered that several of their patients had breast cancer related to a particular genetic mutation -- a mutation that is found almost exclusively in Ashkenazi Jews. Yet the patients were all Hispanic, with roots in Colorado's San Luis Valley (which is culturally linked to northern New Mexico). The Crypto-Jews of New Mexico may be real, after all.
Smithsonian magazine now has a nice article about this latest chapter in the mysterious tale of the Crypto-Jews. It's a nice reminder that the culture of the West is much richer than it might at first appear, and it's good to know that there are still mysteries in this world full of information.