Mestizaje: Castas, La Raza Cosmica y Indigenismo, and Racism in Mexico

Estimadas lectoras y estimados lectores,

Nuevomexicanos (and Mexican Americans in general) are quite aware of racism in the United States. However, we do not sufficently appreciate that Mexico is also plagued by racism. In these unpublished sections from my book Lenguaje, A Cultural History of the Spanish Language in New Mexico, I explore the conflicted history of racial relations in Mexico. Contemporary relations among the differing kinds of mexicanos are still greatly affected by this history. We explore these issues in this posting.


      Two worlds meet. Each knew nothing about the existence of the other. An exchange begins, which entails animals, foods, plants, technology, and language. Not the least of this exchange is the human genetic mixture that is initiated. Races mix, giving rise to the concept of mestizaje, or miscegenation. Mestizaje begins as the interbreeding of races but eventually grows to embrace cultural mixing also, as discussed in the Columbian Exchange phenomenon. The process of mestizaje in the New World started in the Caribbean with the sexual encounters between Spanish male colonizers and indigenes, largely Taíno women. Such sexual unions were at the beginning forced (rape) or the result of the concessions of war (women being given by the vanquished to the conquerors), and later due to consensual arrangements. As the native populations greatly diminished in number, African slaves were brought in and this resulted in more racial mixing on the islands.

      In Mexico, Malintzin is considered the symbolic mother of mestizaje and her son Martín Cortés is often referred to as the first mestizo (Indian-Spanish male). Gonzalo Guerrero, the Spaniard who rejected his own countrymen in favor of the Maya, had three children with his native wife and these offspring preceded Martín by years; so, the Guerrero children could actually have been the very first Mexican mestizos. Symbolically, however, Martín Cortés is granted to be the first mestizo, the first hijo de la chingada, and his mother Malintzin is the symbolic first chingada.

      Mexico in many ways has not yet resolved the contradictions and tensions that have resulted from mestizaje. Race consciousness is still deeply embedded in the Mexican psyche and continues to shape social and political interactions and discourse. In the first two centuries of the Spanish colony in Mexico, racial mixing was tolerated by the Spanish Crown as a pragmatic necessity because most Spanish colonizers were single men. Church authorities urged Spanish men to take indias in marriage, because of the very small number of Spanish or Spanish-descended women. After all, racial mixing had been experienced in Spain with the presence of various Caucasian varieties (Celts, Greeks, Romans, and Visigoths, for example), and Semites (Arabs, Jews, and Phoenicians, and Carthaginians). In general, Spanish men looked upon Indian women favorably. As a result, mestizaje proceeded rapidly in Mexico, both within the sacrament of Christian marriage, or outside of it, via rapes, concubinage, liaisons with servants and slaves, and cohabitation.

  • Castas

      However, by the 1700s racial attitudes hardened among the Spanish elite. The numbers of children of mestizaje were greatly increasing and threatening to overtake the Spanish population. This demographic threat was coupled by an economic one due to the Bourbon Reforms enacted by King Carlos III in 1707. The Reforms eliminated the monopoly of the part of Cádiz over trade with the colonies, lowered trade barriers, and welcomed independent merchants. These liberalizations stimulated the economy (especially in the mining and mercantile sectors), spurred upward mobility on the part of criollos (persons born in the New World of Spanish parentage), and even improved the condition of marginalized groups, like mestizos. However, the Spanish-born elite (peninsulares) felt economically and socially threatened. As a result, a system for categorizing people according to their racial caste (casta) was developed and implemented in the mid-1700s in Mexico. The Spanish sought to protect their blood-line heritage, which was called limpieza de sangre (cleanliness of blood) or pureza de sangre (blood purity) in the same way that had been done in medieval Spain to certify that Spaniards did not have any taint of Jewish or Moorish blood. In this manner, the elite thought they could reinforce their power and prestige. The criollos went along with this because they were included at the top of the social pyramid along with the peninsulares. This gave rise to a social mathematical system to keep track of castas. Thus, at the zero level of unmixed blood, the castas were:

      Zero level: español (Spaniard or European), indio (Indian), and negro (African)

At the first level, names were given to the mixtures of these three foundational castes:67

      First level:

                                                                                                                         Other names

                            español + india = mestizo(a)              ½ E, ½ I

                            español + negra = mulato (a)             ½ E, ½ N

                            indio + negra = zambo(a)                   ½ I, ½ N                lobo(a), jarocho(a)

Then we have the second level:                                                                                 

                            español + mestiza = castizo(a)           ¾ E, ¼ I

                            español + mulata = morisco(a)           ¾ E, ¼ N

                            español + zamba = moreno(a)            ½ E, ¼ I, ¼ N

                            indio + mestiza = coyote(a)                ¼ E, ¾ I             tresalvo(a), mestindio(a)

                             indio + mulata = lobo(a)                      ¼ E, ½ I, ¼ N

                             indio + zamba = zambaigo(a)               ¾ I, ¼ N                     cambujo(a)

                             negro + mestiza = prieto(a)                  ¼ E, ¼ I, ½ N

                             negro + mulata = galfarro(a)               ¼ E, ¾ N

                             negro + zamba = zambo(a) prieto(a)   ¼ I, ¾ N

At the third level, examples are:

                             español + castiza = español(a)             7/8 E, 1/8 I                     españolo

                             español + mulata = tercerón(a)            ¾ E, ¼ N          cuarterón cuatralvo

                             español + morisca = salta atrás            7/8 E, ¼ N         saltatrás, torna atrás

                             indio + loba = tente en el aire                5/8 E, ¼ I, 1/8 N               grifo(a)

                            indio + mulata = mulato(a) obscuro(a)  ¼ E, ½ I, ¼ N

                             zambo + mulata = calpán mulato(a)       ¼ E, ¼ I, ½ N

                             lobo + negra = chino(a)                          1/8 E, ¼ I, 5/8 N

                             mestizo + india = cholo(a)                       ¾ E, ¼ I

      This is getting to be quite complicated and ludicrous. Some of the terms from here on become quite humorous. A torna atrás (tornatrás) – turn back, throwback, or salta atrás (saltatrás) – jump back, is the offspring of an español parent and a morisco parent, or a lobo parent and an indio parent, or a mestizo parent and a mulato parent. The meaning of the term is that the presence of African blood causes one to go back or descend in the racial hierarchy from that of the ultimate Spanish parent. A tente en el aire (the child of a torna atrás parent and a chino or lobo parent) translates to “hold yourself in midair” or more colloquially, it could imply that the child is left twisting in the wind. Moving along, a tente en el aire coupled with a mulata(o) produces a no te entiendo (I don’t understand you). Finally, the child of a no te entiendo and an india(o) is an ahí te estás, or “there you be”, i.e., “stay where you are”.  The terminologies that are used to described the different combinations vary from source to source, so trying to make sense of the casta system can be bewildering. The classification system was bound to collapse from its complexity, so cruder judgment came to be made based on appearance or phenotypical characteristics. One’s skin and eye color, type of hair, and facial features were used as a guide as to how much, European, American Indian or African blood mixture one possessed. Finally, with Mexican Independence from Spain in 1821, recording race in official documents became illegal and the official casta system came to an end.

      In the eighteenth century, a number of Mexican artists like Manuel de Arellano, Juan Rodríguez Juárez, Morlette Ruiz, and most notably, Miguel Cabrera, produced paintings, called pinturas de castas, that illustrate some of the combinations inherent in the differing castas. These paintings are idealized and reflect reality only broadly. Human divisions and amalgamations are not so neatly categorized as in the casta paintings. Many of the casta artists were of mixed parentage themselves, so they were attuned to the processes of mestizaje and understood the social meanings of their works. Here is an example of a painting by Miguel Cabrera:

De Español y de India, Mestiza by Miguel Cabrera, 18th Century

The sistema de castas (caste classification system) was outdated by the early nineteenth century and of no practical use. This is not to say by any means that racism has disappeared from Mexican society. While the United States has hardly been affected by the indigenous presence (since American Indians were either killed or put on reservations out of sight), Mexico is saturated, some may say haunted, by Indian influence. Also, the amount of apparent African admixture in the Mexican population is very small due to the absorption of these genes into the larger pool, but a resurgent African consciousness is also being expressed in recent years, as we shall see.

      It is very difficult to get a handle on the scope of mestizaje in Mexico because of governmental restrictions and societal attitudes. In 1930 the Mexican government stopped collecting data on its population by racial category of white, indigenous, and mestizo, opting only to count indigenes by their use of an indigenous language. Only recently have official censuses and surveys been conducted to try to determine the extent of Mexicans with African and European ancestry, as well as indigenes by both language use and genetic makeup. What is certain is that the designation mestizo has lost almost all its meaning as a racial classification. In contemporary Mexico, the term mestizo can refer to genetic profile or cultural mixture and can include African contributions. Moreover, the term is no longer prevalent in modern Mexican vocabulary and is considered somewhat pejorative. This further complicates mestizo self-classification. Using a biologically-based classification, the Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that between half to two-thirds of the Mexican population is mestizo (here meaning European-Amerindian mixture), while about 20% is indigenous (Amerindian), and Euro-Mexicans constitute one-tenth to one-fifth of the population.68 Estimates that are based on cultural mestizaje are as high as 90%.69 Generally speaking, the percentage of Indian blood in mestizos in Central and Eastern Mexico is higher than that in Northern Mexico. For example, one genetic study in Mexico City showed mestizos to have an average of 69% indigenous blood, 26% European and 5% African.70 A study of Sonora indicated a mixture of 36% indigenous, 62% European, and 2% African.71

  • La Raza Cósmica and Indigenismo

      As a result of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, an intellectual movement developed in Mexico centered on the concept of mestizaje and its application to the building of national identity. Mexican philosopher and Secretary of Public Education José Vasconcelos published his influential book La Raza Cósmica in 1925 in which he lauds the creation of a new race of people in Mexico and Latin America, which is the mixture of all the races of the world. He posits that this will lead to the creation of a new color-blind society upon which Mexico will build a modern nation based on a unified national identity, and which will lead to social progress. As a teenager, Vasconcelos lived in Piedras Negras on the U.S./Mexico border and went to school in Eagle Pass, Texas, just across the Rio Grande. As a result, he was bilingual in Spanish and English, but he grew to reject the culture of Anglo Americans. Vasconcelos viewed them as arrogant, materialistic, shallow, and aggressive, as well as racist. He had a vision of a modern Mexico based on the celebration of mestizaje and he promotes Spanish culture and Catholicism as foundational elements to the new society, but these elements would be applied to the context furnished by the New World. While he glorifies the mixture of Spanish and indigenous cultures, he at the same time denigrates Indian and African cultures as barriers to the construction of a modern and progressive Mexico. There is a conflict at the heart of Vasconcelos’ ideas. On the one hand, he supports the mixture of cultures, but he accepts the Indigenous and the African only when they are blended with the European blood and culture, and he places European culture in a superior position. Vasconcelos engages in the reckless and harmful stereotyping of races and cultures. His theories are in essence racist. A quote from La Raza Cósmica illustrates this point, “It is in this fusion of ethnic stocks that we should look for the fundamental characteristic of Ibero-American idiosyncrasy. …. In Latin America, a thousand bridges are available for the sincere and cordial fusion of all races. The ethnic barricading of those to the north in contrast to the much more open sympathy of those to the south is the most important factor, and at the same time, the most favorable to us, if one reflects even superficially upon the future, because it will be seen immediately that we belong to tomorrow, while the Anglo-Saxons are gradually becoming more a part of yesterday. … (The Ibero-American) soul resembles the old Mayan cenote [natural well] of green waters, laying deep and still, in the middle of the forest, for so many centuries since, that not even its legend remains anymore. This infinite quietude is stirred with the drop put in our blood by the Black, eager for sensual joy, intoxicated with dances and unbridled lust. There also appears the Mongol, with the mystery of his slanted eyes that see everything according to a strange angle, and discover I know not what folds and newer dimensions. The clear mind of the White, that resembles his skin and his dreams, also intervenes. Judaic striae, hidden within the Castilian blood since the days of the cruel expulsion, now reveal themselves, along with Arabian melancholy, as a remainder of the sickly Muslim sensuality. …We in America shall arrive, before any other part of the world, at the creation of a new race fashioned out of the treasures of all the previous ones: The final race, the cosmic race.”72 Vasconcelos’ ideas about la raza would be resurrected in altered form in the Chicano Movement of the 1970s, as we will see later. On the other hand, the United States continues to absorb differing peoples from within and without its borders. Time magazine published a special issue in November 1993 of the effect of immigration on the United States and featured the computer-generated morphed face of a woman with the title “The New Face of America”. The physical appearance of the hypothetical woman is what Vasconcelos seemed to be envisioning, but the nation in which this hybridity is being manifested is the United States of (North) America, not Latin (South) America. There is an irony here someplace.

The New Face of America, Time Magazine, November 18, 1993

The different, but related, idea of indigenismo started circulating around the same time and it was promulgated by such thinkers as Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio. The presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas gave a great push to the indigenismo movement. Conferences were held on the theme, but indigenous voices were not present, only those of non-indigenous “experts”. The proclamations of these gatherings called for the integration and acculturation of the Indigenous into Mexican society, rather than indigenizing Mexico. Gamio was instrumental in renovating the archeological site at Teotihuacan. It became a tourist attraction, while live Mexican Indians continued to exist in conditions of dire poverty. Gamio served as director of the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano in Mexico City from its founding in 1940 until his death in 1960. His administration of this official organ of the Organization of American States continued its paternalistic policies toward the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The assimilationist attitudes of indigenismo have been increasingly challenged since the 1970s. In this regard, a leader in the movement for indigenous rights was anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla. He proposed a national state in which indigenous groups could exercise self-determination to improve their economic and social development. In his book México Profundo, he claims that many indigenous groups are culturally connected to their Mesoamerican civilizations and they form the “deep Mexico”, el México profundo. He claims that the problems of the indigenous will only get worse under the mestizo nation-building policies with their emphasis on assimilation and disappearance of intrinsically indigenous communities. More currently, in 1994, an armed populace of poverty- stricken Zapotec and Tzotzil Indians, calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army, revolted in the state of Chiapas and called for reforms such as the return of privatized lands to indigenous communities, improved medical services, fair prices for farm products (which have been depressed due to NAFTA and other governmental policies), and social improvements such as the building of housing and educational facilities. The Zapatistas established several self-proclaimed autonomous communities, which have established cooperative business enterprises to improve their economic status. The Mexican government continues to keep an armed presence in Chiapas to keep an eye on the Zapatistas. In the meanwhile, the Zapatista movement has spread to other regions of Mexico and it is still a revolution in progress. However, Mexico’s elite and its government continue on the path of neo-liberal economic development tied into globalization and, while some have benefitted, there are still severe problems in the country. Mexico has the world’s 11th largest economy in 2018, but it ranks 68th in the world with respect to GDP per capita. Mexico is being held back by high levels of corruption, the fragile rule of law, crime (especially, drug cartels), uneven taxation and collection, impunity, and high levels of poverty. Problems of inequality are enormous. According to a study of the 35 countries composing the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Mexico had the second highest level of inequality after Chile in 2014. The United States was third in inequality. Seven in ten Mexicans are living in poverty or vulnerability. Just one percent of the population owns about half of the country’s wealth.73 We can see that Mexico has a long way to go economically.

  • Racism in Mexico

      We thus see that Mexico is still suffering from the aftereffects of the Spanish conquest in many ways. Subsequent cultural, social, economic, and psychological problems have affected Mexican society to this day. Not the least of these problems is that of racism. Many Mexicans deny that racism is a reality in Mexico given its widespread political and cultural support of integration and mestizaje. However, the reality of racism in Mexico in everyday life is apparent to anyone who is paying attention. Mexican media such as television, movies, popular magazines, and advertising abound with white Mexicans, but to the exclusion of Indians, Blacks, and even mestizos.

      The popular television image of la India María, a comical interpretation of an indigenous woman and portrayed by a non-Indian, is an example that is now being examined critically in Mexico. María is a rural Indian who goes to Mexico City and encounters racism, corruption, and class discrimination with good humor, spunky determination, and a simple sense of what is right or wrong. She was much beloved by the Mexican public in her film and television appearances. However, her portrayal feeds into the prejudices of Mexicans about Indians in the stereotypical way she dresses (braided hair with colorful traditional blouses and skirts), how she speaks (a fractured rural Spanish), about the social roles she fills (mostly as a servant) and regarding her character (naïve, dim, and innocent). An indigenous Mexican would find la India María adhering to the harmful and degrading views Mexicans have of indios. A Mexican blogger writes, “The cultural appropriation and exploitation, in this case, is an abomination.”74 Mexican telenovelas (soap operas) are very popular in Mexico and in the United States among the Spanish-speaking, and the vast majority of the actors in them consists of whites (either Mexicans, Europeans or other Latin Americans). This discrepancy is being noted and commented upon in increasing numbers. One researcher analyzed three Mexican telenovelas (Rebelde, Carrusel, and Amigas y Rivales) with adolescent and primary school characters, and found negative stereotyping of the principals with respect to social position and power, depictions of beauty, and phenotypes.75 Upper-class characters are White and good looking; the newly well-off are shown as crass, vulgar and darker colored; an Indian maid is played by a mestiza actress, and so on. The telenovelas sometimes deal sympathetically with the social conflict engendered by the differences in backgrounds of the characters.

      More recently, the Mexican indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio, who is of Mixteca and Triqui descent was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress in 2019 for her portrayal as a servant in the movie Roma. She was attacked by Mexican actor Sergio Goyri in a video that went viral that her nomination was for “una pinche india que dice, ‘sí señora, no señora’ …” (a damned Indian who says, “Yes, madam, no, madam …”)76

      The contestants in beauty pageants in Mexico are almost exclusively European looking. Of course, beauty pageants are notorious for their racial exclusion, also in the United States. The Mexicana Universal 2018 pageant selected the following winner from the state of Colima, who goes on to the Miss Universe competition:

Winner of Mexican Universal Pageant 2018

For a look at the (almost-all-White) top sixteen contestants in the Mexicana Universal 2018 pageant, follow this link (Miss Universe México 2018 Eliminatoria):

      Middle-class (and above) households in Mexico City universally hire maids, who are overwhelmingly indigenous women. When the garbage truck comes around, the calls of “basura” (trash) resound, and the Indian maids dutifully go out to toss the refuse. It is a remarkable sight to someone from the United States, where only the upper classes have servants. An army of maids descends from the surrounding apartment buildings to see to it that the garbage is thrown. Our family inherited a maid when I went to Mexico City to teach mathematics in 1969. We consented to take the maid from an American mathematician who was returning to the United States. We had a two-year-old in diapers and my wife needed help. There were no washing machine facilities for residents in our apartment building in the Polanco district of Mexico City and laundromats were non-existent. The maids would take the family clothes to the rooftop, where they lived, and there they washed the clothes by hand. This arrangement made it necessary for us to hire a maid, who was an indigenous young woman from Puebla. We treated our maid quite differently from the others in the building. My wife prepared our food and our maid ate with us. Often, maids prepared food for the family, but they would usually eat their own food, alone, away from the family. We also paid her twice as much as the other maids. When Christmas came around, we had our maid go to Puebla to spend the holiday with her family. Our Mexican friends were very surprised at this since it was during the holidays when they would utilize maids the most to help in throwing parties. The other residents of our building were not amused at our violating their social conventions. These are just personal anecdotes, but they are indicative of how Indians are treated. Perhaps things have changed since 1969, but I suspect that improvements since then have been minimal. A 1995 article in the New York Times describes an incident where a U.S. businessman living in Mexico invited his Mexican Indian maid to join them for dinner at a posh Polanco restaurant. He was told, in English, by the restaurant manager that servants were not allowed to be served in the restaurant. The manager said, “We’re not racists. We’re just trying to protect the image of the restaurant.”77 Racism and classism against indigenous peoples are alive and well in modern Mexican society.

      Mexicans with sub-Saharan African ancestry make up a very small proportion of the Mexican population. African genes have been largely absorbed in the genetic pool of Mexico so that there are relatively few places where their presence is pronounced. Recognizably Afro-Mexicans are concentrated in the coastal states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. They are the descendants of slaves and are very poor. Academics have called Afro-Mexicans the “third race” and they certainly are a forgotten group of people. Article 2 of the Mexican federal constitution recognizes the multicultural composition of the country and gives mentions of the indigenous groups, but it does not mention Afro-Mexicans. This exclusion has motivated Black Mexicans to lobby for official recognition. In response to this pressure, in 2015 the Intercensus Estimate allowed Afro-Mexicans to self-identify themselves for the first time and it is hoped that the official 2020 national census will include this identity. The census found that 1.38 million people (1.2% of the total Mexican population) identified themselves as being of African descent. Interestingly, 65% of Afro-Mexicans in the 2015 count also self-identified as Indian and 9.3% also speak an indigenous language.78 México Negro, a civil rights organization for Afro-Mexicans, is working to include material on Africans and Afro-Mexicans in elementary and high school curricula.

      Mexican attitudes toward black people vary from hostility to patronization. In 2015, Univision television host Rodner Figueroa said of a picture of Michelle Obama, “You know Michelle Obama looks like she’s from the cast of Planet of the Apes, the movie.” When his cohosts pushed back at him, Figueroa concluded, “But it is true.” The clueless Figueroa was fired by Univision for his remarks. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox addressed a binational business audience regarding his concerns about the G.W. Bush administration policies to reduce illegal immigration of Mexicans to the United States. Fox spoke positively about the many roles that Mexican immigrants fill in the U.S. economy and he went on to say, “There is no doubt that Mexicans, filled with dignity, willingness and ability to work, are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do there in the United States.” Mexican officials and commentators were quick to defend Fox and insisted that his statement was not racist. President Fox issued a vague apology after meeting with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, U.S. African American leaders, who accused the president of racial insensitivity. What Fox said was in accord with the common Mexican saying. “Trabajo como negro para vivir como blanco.” (I work like a Black in order to live like a White). Shortly after this incident, Mexico issued a set of five postage stamps as part of a celebration of Mexican comic books. The stamps featured the much-beloved young Black character named Memín Pinguín, whose exaggerated depiction includes thick lips and saucer-like eyes, a la Little Black Sambo. Again, voices in the United States cried out racism, without knowing anything about the historical or social context of the comic strip. For example, when Memín and a group of friends are invited to play soccer in Texas, the Black youngster is subject to Jim Crow laws (this was in the 1950s) and insults. Memín is defended by his friends and for good measure, the team goes on to win its soccer match. U.S. observers saw only the cartoonish figure and reacted accordingly. In defense, the otherwise progressive Mexican writer, Elena Poniatowska argued, “During the years of the (comic’s) existence no one in Mexico felt offended; in all, he is a very beloved character. In our country, the image of Blacks awakens an enormous fondness, which is reflected not only in personages like Memín Pinguín but also in popular songs. In Mexico, unlike what occurs in the United States, our treatment toward Blacks has been more affectionate.”79 Nevertheless, her patronizing reaction is reflective of the failure of Mexico’s intelligentsia to take the bull of racism by the horns.

      The official ideology of Mexico is to celebrate its mestizaje and most Mexicans deny that racism is a major problem. However, the political, social and economic realities of indigenous and African-descended Mexican citizens speak to the vast racial and class discrimination against them in modern-day Mexico.

References for Mestizaje: Castas, La Raza Cosmica y Idigenismo, and Racism in Mexico

67. Nicolás León, Las castas del México Colonial o Nueva España, Talleres gráficos del
Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía, México D.F., 1924. Quoted in
La Pintura de Castas, Artes de México, No. 8, verano de 1990, México, D.F., p. 79.
68. Ethnic groups, Mexico, Encyclopedia Britannica, August 31, 2018.
69. Federico Navarrete, El Mestizaje y las Culturas Regionales, excerpted from Las
Relaciones Interétnicas en México,  México Nación Multicultural, Universidad Nacional
Autónoma de México, México D.F., 2004.
70. Juárez-Cedillo T, Zuñiga J, Acuña-Alonso V, Pérez-Hernández N, Rodríguez-Pérez JM,
Berquera R, Gallardo J, Jr, Sánchez-Arena R, García-Peña MC, Granados J, et al.,
Genetic admixture and diversity estimations in the Mexican Mestizo population from
Mexico City using 15 STR polymorphic markers, Forensic Science International.
Genetics, 2008;2: e37–e39.
71. Silva-Zolezzi I, Hidalgo-Miranda A, Estrada-Gil J, Fernandez-Lopez JC, Uribe-
Figueroa L, Contreras A, Balam-Ortiz E, Bosque-Plata L, Velazquez-Fernandez D,
Lara C, et al. Analysis of genomic diversity in Mexican
      Mestizo populations to develop genomic medicine in Mexico.
Proceedings of the
National Academy of Science, USA. 2009; 106: pp. 8611–8616.
72. José Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race, The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics,
Editors Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson, Duke University Press,
Durham, 2002, pp. 16–19.
73. Ángel Gurría, Global and Mexico Economic Outlook 2018, Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development, January 13, 2018.
See also: 2016 Data for Mexico, The World Bank.
74. Roi López, La india pendeja (María): una manifestación del racismo en la cultura
mexicana, November 20, 2014.
75. Rochel Caballero Ávila, Las telenovelas mexicanas y el racismo, Difusor Ibero,
November 27, 2013.
76. Los lamentables comentarios racistas y clasistas que ha recibido Yalitza, nación 321
magazine, June 1, 2019.
77. Anthony DePalma, Racism? Mexico’s in Denial, New York Times, June 11, 1995.
78. ¿Cuánta población se autorreconoce afrodescendiente? Etnicidad, Principales resultados,
Encuesta Intercensal 2015,  Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, México,
79. Fabiola Palapa, Ericka Montano, and Mónica Mateos, Memín Pinguín no es el icono
popular del racismo en México, La Jornada, Mexico City, Julio, 2005.

Sephardic Jews, Spanish Inquisition, and Expulsion of Jews and Moriscos

Dear Gente,

There are some Nuevomexicanos (Hispanic New Mexicans) who claim Jewish DNA. They often say that their families observed certain Jewish rituals and behavior. Some have even gone to the extent of adopting Judaism. I myself have 7% Sephardic (Spanish Jew) DNA, as well as 7% Middle Eastern (Arabic) DNA. However, I have not heard about Nuevomexicanos who have Arabic or Berber DNA as coverting to Islam.

Given this interest in Jewish heritage among Nuevomexicanos, I wrote an extensive section for my book Lenguaje, A Cultural History of the Spanish Language in New Mexico on Sephardic Jews. I also feature a discussion of the Spanish Inquisition and the resulting expulsion of both Jews and Moriscos (Moors who supposedly had coverted to Christianity) from Spain. I was unable to include these discussions in the book because of space limitations. Hence, I am presenting them here, complete with pictures. The Inquisition had a major role in determining Spanish history and its effects are felt to this day.

Sephardic Jews

      Durable Jewish presence in Spain probably began since soon after the unsuccessful revolts against Rome in Israel from 66 to 135 AD.  Many Jews, especially those of the ruling classes and priesthood, left Israel after this defeat and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans.  Aside from this, some Jews may have arrived in Spain earlier as slaves of the Romans. The Hebrew name for Spain is Sepharad (Sefarad) after the usage for a place of uncertain location mentioned once in the Bible (Obadiah 1:20).  Jews in Spain then began to refer to themselves as Sephardim (sefardíes, sefarditas). Sephardim is a plural noun; Sephardi is the singular form.  Sephardic is also an English term to refer to the Spanish Jews.

Interior of Synagogue in Cordoba

Interior of Synagogue in Córdoba

      Jews lived a precarious life ever since their arrival in Sepharad.  Sephardim were ostracized to varying extents by Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians, but they quite often rose to positions of importance under all these regimes due to their learning and financial acumen.  Consequently, they played pivotal roles in many episodes of Spain’s evolution.  For example, sefardíes were vital to the translation projects by which the knowledge of India, Persia, Greece, Rome and Arabia were transmitted to non-Muslim Spain and on to the rest of Europe.  A variety of emirs and kings had Jewish advisors, physicians and scribes. Jews themselves generally welcomed the arrival of the Moors in Spain since the Christian Visigoths had treated Jews with hostility, while Moors considered Jews to be People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab) and tolerated them to a greater extent than the Visigoths.  Moors allowed Jews to practice their religion freely, but they were prohibited from proselytizing.  What is popularly known as the Jewish Golden Age in Spain took place from about the mid-10th century to approximately the mid-12th century under Muslim rule. This period featured Jews attaining positions of importance in Muslim courts and society.  This era has been celebrated for its reputed convivencia (living together), referring to the relative peace among the adherents of the three Abrahamic religions in al-Andalus.  Many Christians and Jews spoke Arabic as well as their native tongues. An example of this Sephardic flowering was Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-970), who was born in Jaén into a wealthy Jewish family. He ultimately became the court physician and de facto foreign minister of Abd al-Rahman III.  In 949 a diplomatic mission to Spain from the Byzantine Empire brought a gift of a copy of Dioscorides’ classical Greek manuscript on botany.  Ibn Shaprut helped in translating this work into Arabic and it became a useful reference for physicians and scientists in al-Andalus and Europe.

         The most celebrated Sephardic Jew of the medieval period was physician, rabbi and philosopher Mosheh ben Maimon, known more commonly as Moses Maimonides. He is also known more informally as Rambam, an acronym from the Hebrew Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon. He was born in Córdoba in 1135 during the reign of the Almoravids.  When Maimonides was but 13 years old the Almohads conquered Córdoba.  While Jews had been left relatively unmolested by the Almoravids, the more fanatical Almohads abolished whatever protections Jews (and Christians) had enjoyed previously.  Judaism and Christianity were prohibited, and Jews were made to dress in ways that could identify them.  Christians and Jews were pressured to convert to Islam.  Due to this change in status for religious minorities, Maimonides’ family fled to Morocco and then went on to the city of Cairo in Egypt.  Maimonides ended up taking the position of physician to the family of Sultan Saladin, the famous warrior who retook the Holy Land from the Christian Crusaders. Maimonides was greatly burdened by this role.  He complained, “My duties to the Sultan are very arduous. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning, and when he or any of his household are indisposed … (I) must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace.”17 Even when he repaired to his own quarters, Maimonides writes, “I find the antechambers filled with people, both Jews and Gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes – a mixed multitude, who await the time of my return. I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, and go forth to my patients. I entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshments, the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours. Then I go forth to attend to my patients, write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even until two hours and more in the night. I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.”18 Maimonides did not contribute any seminal ideas to medical theory or practice, “but there was something original in his medical work: a holistic vision that a healthy life paid equal attention to body, environment, and spirit alike. Maimonides was not the first to advocate a ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’, an idea already promoted by his classical sources.  But he articulated a further reaching, more integrated notion of human health than either his ancient sources, or even most moderns.”19 In spite of his taxing schedule, Maimonides somehow found time to write numerous books on medicine, but especially on religion, philosophy and Jewish law. It was his writing on religion and philosophy that laid the foundations for the formidable legacy of Moses Maimonides. The high regard that Maimonides achieved among Jews led to his being called “the second Moses”. 

Statue of Maimonides in Córdoba

            The Jewish Torah (Law) is said to be the revelation from God to Moses as recorded in the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch).  In addition, there is also a body of supplementary Oral Law passed on by rabbis and other religious leaders.  This oral tradition was compiled by 200 A.D. in written form as the Mishnah or Mishneh (Repeated Study).  This was followed by the Gemara (Completion), which is a collection of commentaries and elaborations on the Mishnah.  The Mishnah and Gemara combine to form the Talmud (Study or Learning), which is the basis for Rabbinic Judaism.  The Talmud thus comprises the teachings, views and opinions of thousands of rabbis and others.  It is not a surprise that the Talmud contains contradictions and inconsistencies, as does the Torah itself.   Maimonides set himself the task of presenting what in his view was the correct interpretation of Jewish law. The fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law) is his attempt at this monumental task and constitutes Maimonides’ magnus opus. Once his treatise was finished, Maimonides claimed that a follower of Judaism would have no need to study anything else than the Torah and his Mishneh Torah in order to have a full and correct understanding of Jewish law and tradition.  Maimonides brought his keen intellect and incisive rationality to the massive job.  Maimonides was self-assured in his analyses.  Author Chris Lowney writes, “Accordingly, the Mishneh Torah did not merely elaborate what the Law taught but why one interpretation was demonstrably superior to another, or why a certain Genesis passage should be understood metaphorically, not literally. Maimonides believed that revelation was reasonable and would not contradict what logic or science could discover independently.”20 Not everyone was pleased by Maimonides’ codification and interpretations.  Maimonides did not supply specific cited references in the Mishneh Torah, except that he did cite generally the works he had used in his investigations and the names attached to these works. The lack of citations disturbed some readers of the Mishneh Torah since scholars could then not check up on Maimonides to see if he was being true to his sources. Some also believed that Maimonides was seeking to supersede the study of the Talmud as is exemplified by his attitude that one needed to study only the Torah itself and his Mishneh Torah to understand the entire Jewish tradition.  Maimonides also had organized his work into fourteen categories and devoted a volume to each category.  This categorization also provoked opposition for his presumption to make such a division of subjects. In spite of these kinds of objections and criticisms, the Mishneh Torah has proved to be a major point of reference over the centuries and is considered as an authoritative codification of Jewish law and practices.

      In terms of philosophy, Maimonides brought a rationalist point of view to Judaism, much in the same way that Averroes did for Islam; in fact, Maimonides was influenced by Averroes.  Maimonides was himself a great influence on Thomas Aquinas, who also utilized a rationalist approach to Christianity. All three men’s philosophical works were influenced by the comprehensive philosophy of Aristotle, although they did not agree with all aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy.  Maimonides’ great philosophical work was The Guide of the Perplexed.  The Guide was written in Arabic and was meant for educated readers of the Jewish Torah, who were troubled by perceived inconsistencies between traditional biblical beliefs and scientific ideas or hypotheses.  Maimonides writes in The Guide of the Perplexed, “It is not the purpose of this Treatise to make its totality understandable to the vulgar or to beginners in speculation, nor to teach those who have not engaged in … the legalistic study of the Law (Torah).”21  Maimonides is instead addressing that educated religious man who “must have felt distressed by the externals of the Law … (and who) would remain in a state of perplexity and confusion as to whether he should follow his intellect.”22 This astute person could turn away from the questioning that intellect entails and simply adhere to the beliefs as enunciated in the Law, however this also would not satisfy his hunger for truth and “He would be left with those imaginary beliefs to which he owes his fear and difficulty and would not cease to suffer from heartache and great perplexity.”23 Maimonides held that the writings in the Torah presented a rational law (properly interpreted) and that God also gave human beings the capacity to understand the orderly and rational basis of Nature.  According to Maimonides, there are no irreconcilable fundamental conflicts between the two approaches of revelation and science to knowledge.  This analysis by Maimonides mirrors that of the musings of his Muslim predecessors Avicenna and Averroes.  Just as in the case of his Muslim predecessors, Maimonides encountered immediate praise and also condemnation for his rationalist approach to religious matters.  In particular, Maimonides attacks the human-like or anthropomorphic depictions of God, since the Deity, in Maimonides’ way of thinking, is incorporeal.  This view provoked immediate negative reaction on the part of biblical realists, who asserted that the many wise men who had gone before Maimonides found nothing wrong in conceiving of God in human terms.  Certainly, some Jewish philosophers before Maimonides believed in the incorporeality of God and that the Law uses the language of man to communicate with him.  However, Maimonides goes beyond this explanation by defining each term as it applies to the Divine Being and sometimes strays into territory that leaves a reader mystified and Maimonides simply remarks that a term “is employed homonymously”, meaning that a term can be subject to differing interpretations and Maimonides invites the reader to select a view that is most agreeable to the reader.  In Book III, Chapter 28, Maimonides distinguishes between what he calls “true beliefs” and “necessary beliefs”. True beliefs are those that illustrate some truth about God and can lead one to attain intellectual perfection.  Whereas, necessary beliefs are rooted in tradition and fulfill a political function in that, by instilling obedience to the Torah, they regulate the social relations of human beings. In addition, they enable people to acquireserve a social function by inspiring believers to adhere to the Law, thereby improving society as a whole.  Human qualities assigned to God can form the basis for necessary beliefs. For example, “Scripture teaches that God is angry with those who disobey Him.  Although in truth God does not have the characteristic of anger.  Scripture found it advantageous to use this term for the effect it would have.  It is ‘necessary’ for the masses to believe God is angry if the disobey Him in order for them to keep their behavior in line.”24 

The Guide of the Perplexed has proved to be a fundamental reference for those interested in delving into the philosophical aspects of Jewish tradition and learning.  Moreover, non-Jewish philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were influenced by Maimonides.


      Even with the final success of La Reconquista in 1492, Fernando and Isabel faced a serious pre-existing problem. While they had taken measures to strengthen the unity of Castilla and Aragón under their reigns, the Catholic Monarchs still faced a fractionated domain in terms of religion, language and culture with large numbers of Jews and Muslims residing in their realms.

      There had been previous persecutions of Spanish Jews at the hands of both Christians and Muslims. Notably, in 1066, under Muslim rule, a mob assaulted the royal palace of the Berber emir of the taifa of Granada and killed his Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela allegedly for conspiring with a rival taifa against Granada. The Muslim mob continued a murderous rampage against the Jews of Granada resulting in the deaths of upwards of 4,000 persons in just one day. However, it was the anti-Jewish riots by Spanish Christians in the late 14th century that motivated massive numbers of Spanish Jewsto convert to Christianity.  Spurred on by inflammatory anti-Semitic oratory in Sevilla by Ferrán Martínez, the archdeacon of Écija, Christians carried out a pogrom on in 1391 against the city’s Jews that resulted in the death of thousands of Jews. Others were forced into Christian baptism on the pain of death. The butchery spread to Écija, Córdoba, Jaén, Toledo, Valencia, Barcelona and other towns.

      These horrific massacres compelled more than half of Spain’s 200,000 Jews to convert to Christianity between the years 1391 and 1415 lest they be in danger of execution or expulsion. These conversions gave rise to a new group called conversos or converted ones, and this term refers to Jewish converts, while Moors who converted to Christianity were called moriscos (little Moors).   Other terms for conversos are judeoconversos and marranos, while the term in Hebrew is anousim or anusim (forced ones).We need to note that anti-Jewish sentiment was not unique to Spain. For example, England banned Jews from its land in 1290 and they were not legally allowed back in until 1656. Similarly, Jews were expelled from France (1306), Poland (1483), Sicily (1492), Portugal (1496), Naples (1541), and the Papal States (1596).

      One’s religious identification in medieval times was no small matter. Being a follower of Judaism, Christianity or Islam formed a person’s world view, ethics, morality, practices, and what was going to happen to the person after death. Moreover, the medieval emphasis was on community, not the individual. Thus, a religious community was exactly that – a community of persons who believed in the same things, spiritual and, often, secular. One does not trifle with these serious matters. Thus, the suspicion that one’s conversion to Christianity was a sham was of grave concern, especially to the official Church, and conversos were increasingly suspected of such a deception.

      Because of the massive conversions to Christianity, no more than 100,000 Jews remained faithful to their traditional religion of Judaism. These events spelled the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. Given the forced nature of their conversion, some (most?) judeoconversos continued their Jewish worship in secret, as well as maintaining Jewish customs such as the observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, burying the dead according to Jewish custom, and other laws of Moses. It is true that many conversos were ignorant of the rituals and methods of their newly found Christian faith and this ignorance made them vulnerable to criticism from Old Christians. Cardinal Mendoza of Sevilla even formulated a catechism to instruct the New Christians in the faith. This effort was too late, and it produced uneven results. The conversos of Sevilla did not realize the jeopardy of their position and did not take the instruction seriously enough.25 This was a fatal mistake.  Conversos were subject to a double jeopardy: first, they converted to escape death and persecution; secondly, once they had converted they were under suspicion that their conversions were not genuine.  Furthermore, conversos, as well as Muslim converts, had been embedded in their own subcultures and their ways of life as Jews and Muslims were not so easily discarded. Culinary preferences, modes of dress and one hundred and one other daily habits had been imprinted on conversos. The tiger does not change his stripes so readily.  The proportion of conversos who practiced their Judaism in secret (Crypto-Jews) is still a subject that is debated among historians. Even Jewish historians cannot agree. For example, Howard Fast writes, “The nut of the matter is that most of the converted Jews remained Jews.”26 and Cecil Roth states, “In race, in belief, and largely in practice (the conversos) remained as they had been before the conversion.”27 By way of contrast, Benzion Netanyahu, an Israeli historian and the father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, feels that conversos were by and large sincere in their conversions and wished to be accepted into Catholic society and that the Inquisition was motivated by pure anti-Semitism. Netanyahu is also critical of Spanish Jews for not being more faithful to Judaism as were, for example, Jews in medieval Germany, who “far surpassed the Jews of Spain in religious devotion and readiness for martyrdom.”28

      Conversos were disparagingly referred to by Old Christians as marranos, which derives from the Arabic muharram meaning “forbidden”. Muharram is also the first of the twelve months of the Muslim lunar calendar; it is unlawful or forbidden to fight during this month, so we can see the association of marrano with something forbidden in the sight of Christians. The disparaging term marrano was also used against Muslims, who like Jews forbade the eating of pork. However, the term marrano eventually came to be used for converso Jews alone.  This association with pork led to establishment of the word marrano to refer to a pig or hog, and was incorporated into the Spanish language, but subsequently lost its religious connotations.  A commonly held belief is that Jews, who were forced or voluntarily became Christians, were made to eat pork to prove that they had indeed renounced their religion and that is why they were called marranos.  However, this allegation is certainly apocryphal. The association with pork and pigs came later, after the prior establishment of marrano to refer to a converso.

The Marranos by Moshe Maimon, 1893  Secret Seder in Spain During the Inquisition. Notice Soldiers Entering the Door at Right

Queen Isabel and her husband Fernando did not personally harbor any ethnic anti-Jewish sentiments. Both the King and Queen had Jewish confidants, especially doctors and financiers. Isabel pronounced in 1477 that “Todos los judíos de mis reinos son míos e están so mi protección e amparo, e a mí pertenece de los defender e amparar e mantener en justicia”29 (All Jews of my kingdoms are mine and under my protection and care, and it falls to me to defend and aid them and keep justice.) Nevertheless, anti-Semitism remained strong among the populace. In July 1477 the sovereigns visited Sevilla for a stay of fifteen months to assess the situation. Dominican prior Alonso de Hojeda of Sevilla warned the royal couple of the dangers he saw in Jews and conversos. The conversions of conversos were alleged to be, in the main, insincere, and that their ethnic compatriots, the Jews, supposedly applied constant pressure on conversos to revert to Judaism.  Hojeda and others concluded that only an inquisition could root out Crypto-Jews and other heretics.  The first-hand evidence that Isabel and Fernando were told about in Sevilla and elsewhere convinced the sovereigns that action needed to be taken. Fernando was much harder in his attitude than was Isabel. Historically, Isabel has been branded a fanatic for her subsequent actions; however, it was her husband who was the more zealous by far. Fernando was willing to use violence to make conversos conform to Catholic doctrine, while Isabel and her close advisors were more reticent.30 The monarchs did ultimately agree that an inquisition could be a tool that would force conversos to assimilate into Spanish Catholic society. Finally, then, responding to a petition from Isabel and Fernando, Pope Sixtus IV agreed by means of a papal bull in November 1478 to institute El Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición (The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition) for ensuring orthodoxy among conversos or cristianos nuevos New Christians), be they converts from Judaism or Islam.

In the following illustration of the seal of the Spanish Inquisition, the cross symbolizes the Church; the sword is the fate of heretics; the olive branch is for reconciliation of those who repent, the crown represents the authority of the Spanish Royalty over the Inquisition.

Seal of the Spanish Inquisition

      The first two inquisitors were appointed only later in September 1480 and based in Sevilla. However, it was not until the appointment of the Dominican friar Tomás Torquemada in 1483 that the Inquisition became fully organized and its procedures established. He was also Queen Isabel’s confessor since she was a child and, as a consequence, he was well-known to the monarchs. Torquemada was appointed as the first Grand Inquisitor and he initially had control of the Inquisition in Castilla, but his authority was extended to Aragón, Cataluña, and Valencia in the first year of his appointment. Torquemada has historically been identified as the face of the cruelty and violence of the Inquisition. We should note that his paternal grandmother herself was a Jewish convert to Christianity. Some observers have claimed that Torquemada’s vociferous attitude toward conversos was overcompensation and that he wanted to show his bona fides as a Christian in spite of having a Jewess in his closet. Indeed, he was a ruthless and zealous opponent of conversos, and the Inquisition fell heaviest on them. Since Muslim numbers were much higher than those of Jewish conversos, persecution of Muslim converts or moriscos would have precipitated serious economic disruption, and thus the Inquisition did not focus on them. Jewish conversos were an easier target and the feelings against them were deep and bitter and they were fueled by Torquemada.

      Although the rationale for an inquisition was opposition to heresy in all its forms, in practice suspects were to be almost exclusively conversos. According to Henry Kamen, renowned Inquisition scholar, “99.3 percent of those accused by the Barcelona tribunal between 1488 and 1505, and 91.6 percent of those accused by that of Valencia between 1484 and 1530 were conversos of Jewish origin. The tribunal, in other words, was not concerned with heresy in general. It was concerned with only one form of religious deviance: the apparently secret practice of Jewish rites. What appeared to be concern for religion was unmistakably racial in impact.”31                                                                    

      Many conversos did quite well in converting, which supposedly freed them of the overt hostility against Judaism among Old (non-converso) Christians. Conversos used their Jewish tradition of learning and financial/commercial skills to obtain positions of influence and power as royal counselors and physicians, as well as appointees to public office and conversos also became leaders in the Church. Many conversos became business entrepreneurs and their families attained considerable wealth.  Although the Catholic Monarchs were primarily motivated by the desire for religious unity in establishing the Inquisition, others in the Spanish public resented converso influence and were jealous of their wealth, although the rich class among Jews constituted a small minority. Thereby, we see religious anti-Jewish feeling transforming into an ethnic anti-Semitism. A reaction among Old Christians was to emphasize their Visigothic Christian ancestry (although such ethnic descent was usually cloudy) and the notion of pureza de sangre or limpieza de sangre (blood purity or cleanliness) took hold among the populace.  In this manner, even persons of humble origin could claim the honor of having descended from Germanic ancestors without any taint of Jewish or Moorish blood.  In some cities tests of such ethnic purity were performed to keep conversos out of official positions. Not surprisingly, instances of bribery or falsification of documents attesting to good Christian ancestry were common among conversos. The concept of pureza de sangre would raise its ugly head again in the New World colonies of Spain and Portugal to discriminate against those who had American Indian, African or Asian ancestry.                     

      When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, archives containing numerous documents dealing with the Inquisition were opened for inspection and study for the first time. Scholars jumped at the opportunity and a new understanding of the institution has developed as a result. The new research has featured statistical study of meticulous records kept by the Inquisition during its operations from 1480-1834. Jean-Pierre Dedieu, one of these revisionist historians, has categorized four main periods of the Inquisition during which the institution assumed different characteristics32. 1) 1480-1525: the first period was the most active and brutal with an emphasis on persecuting conversos; 2) 1525-1630: this was a time of relative quiet, although the Church found itself challenged by the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe. Protestantism never posed a major threat in Spain; nevertheless, scrutiny of Protestants began in earnest, as well as activity against moriscos, Muslim converts. Minor instances of blasphemy, bigamy, sodomy, superstitions, and moral laxity were brought before the Inquisition in the latter half of this one-hundred-year period; 3) 1630-1725: this third period featured renewed actions against conversos, only this time they were imports from Portugal. Many Jews had left Spain in 1492 and went to Portugal with hopes of better treatment. Once there, some Jews became conversos. In the latter part of the 1500’s the Portuguese version of the Spanish Inquisition turned against the conversos and over 200 were sentenced to death in a twenty-year period. This persecution provoked large numbers of conversos to return to Spain and they used their knowledge of commerce and finance to buy themselves some tolerance. However, soon old hatred against the new immigrants was stoked because the Portuguese-converso financiers supplied the nearly bankrupt Spanish Crown with badly need loans. This was a familiar pattern from earlier years and latent anti-Semitism emerged among Spanish Christians once again. In 1640 inquisitorial trials of Crypto-Jews began again and by the end of the century Judaizing among conversos was greatly reduced. 4) 1725-1834: The liberal ideas of the French Enlightenment swept Europe in the 18th century with an emphasis on human reason undergirding notions of liberty, tolerance, constitutional government and a questioning of religious orthodoxy.  The Holy Office of the Inquisition adamantly opposed the new currents of thought. King Felipe V of Spain (1683-1746) was of the House of Bourbon, a French-derived royal lineage, and he sought to limit the role of the Inquisition as various proposals for political, religious and social reform began to be discussed in Spain. During this final period, the Inquisition busied itself almost exclusively with matters of morality rather than heresy. Concerns regarding conversos and moriscos had long disappeared. Its original role as a safeguard against heresy by false converts had been fulfilled. In 1830 Papal action revoked Inquisition powers regarding heresy, and finally in 1834 the Inquisition was disbanded by royal pronouncement. The once-feared Tribunal of Holy Office of the Inquisition vanished from the pages of history in quiet desperation.

      Spain has been demonized over the centuries for its Inquisition. One book that had a particularly wide distribution and popularity in Europe was the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispanicae Artes (Exposition of the Arts of the Spanish Holy Inquisition) published in 1567 in Germany. The author of this work used the Latin pseudonym Reginaldus Gonzalvius Montanus (Spanish: Reinaldo González de Montes) and recent research indicates that his real name was Antonio del Corro, a native Spaniard who had been a monk, but became a Protestant convert. Montanus self-exiled himself to Holland and ended up in England as a lecturer at the University of Oxford.  His work was translated into several languages and was a major force that defined the Inquisition in the Protestant mind and in public perceptions in general up to the 19th century.  Montanus had an insider’s knowledge of inquisitorial practices and he described them in detail, although he exaggerated the Inquisition’s hurtful actions and ignored aspects that were more humane. According to Edward Peters, one of the scholars who have revised the history of the Inquisition, “Montanus portrays every victim of the Inquisition as innocent, every Inquisition official as venal and deceitful, every step in its procedure as a violation of natural and rational law.”33 This work by Montanus and other anti-Spanish propaganda published in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands, developed in Europe an image of Spain as being intolerant, tyrannical, backward, degenerate, and brutal.

      How violent was the Inquisition in reality?  During the first years of its existence, the Holy Office was characterized by a furious frenzy.  Revisionist research shows that from 1480 to 1530 some 2,000 persons were executed, almost all being conversos. Another 15,000 detainees were punished, but not sent to their deaths.34 While these may seem to us as high numbers, they are much lower than what had been reported by earlier writers. For example, early 19th century Spanish historian Juan Antonio Llorente states that (in round figures) 340,600 individuals were judged by the Inquisition, of which 31,900 were actually executed, 17,700 were burnt in effigy, and 291,000 were reconciled during the period 1480-1815.35 Llorente’s statistics are now considered to be significantly inflated due to the fact that there were periods in which his data were sketchy or non-existent and he took the figures for the first period of the Inquisition and extrapolated these figures over the missing periods. The initial era of the Inquisition was extremely active, while the years thereafter were much more quiescent. This led to an inflation of his figures. More recently, Spanish historian and essayist Ricardo García Cárcel has estimated that around 150,000 trials were conducted over the history of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.36 The number of persons that were executed is now generally accepted to be in the range of 3000 to 5000, or roughly 2 to 3 percent.  The import of revisionist scholarship in the past thirty to forty years has been to claim as false the popular image of the Spanish Inquisition as a bloodthirsty kangaroo court. One claim by Inquisition naysayers is that the Holy Office prosecuted especially the rich among suspects and grew rich in the process. While it is true that the Inquisition used the resources of the detainees themselves to sustain them while they were imprisoned and that fines were also imposed on them, research by José Martínez Millán37 has shown that the Inquisition never prospered financially itself, but rather it often could barely cover the costs of detainee support and the funding of its own infrastructure.  An important survey of the records of almost 50,000 trials from 1540 to 1700 by Danish historian and Spanish scholar Jaime Contrerashas shown that prosecution of major instances of heresy by conversos, moriscos, Protestants and others accounted for but 40% of the Inquisitions activities, while the other 60% of minor heresies (derogatory language against the Catholic faith, blasphemy, superstitions, sexual deviation, and acts against the Holy Office).38 The rate of actual executions was 1.8%, while 1.7% of executions were those burnt in effigy. This presents a different picture than what anti-Inquisition propagandists have painted. 

      Overall, one can say that the time of the height of the Inquisition’s activities was one of political and religious intolerance throughout mainland Europe and England.  Spanish supporters of the Inquisition point out that because of the Holy Office, Spain did not experience the bloody religious wars in Europe (1524 – 1648) that accounted for hundreds of thousands of deaths. The Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) that began as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but that evolved into a general war for political power, featured a death toll of three million to eight million, mostly in Germany. Furthermore, 40,000 to 60,000 persons were executed in Europe for witchcraft during the 15th to 18th centuries, while in Spain during this period (some say thanks to the Inquisition), witchcraft was not pursued to any great extent, unless it involved heresy. Witchcraft was largely considered a delusion by the Church, and hence, those persons who were accused of being witches could not be tried or burnt for such an accusation. In all, revisionist scholarship depicts an Inquisition with a lot less power than previously portrayed, and the institution was not draconian in its actions over the period of its existence. Aside from the softened image of the Holy Office of the Inquisition that we now have, it cannot be denied that the Inquisition struck an enormous terror in the hearts of its targets and in the population in general. Tens of thousands of Spanish citizens had their livelihoods destroyed or greatly diminished and their families were devastated in the process.

      In summarizing the Spanish Inquisition, Joseph Pérez writes, “But the problem posed by the Inquisition cannot be reduced to statistics and the macabre score of its horrors. In the sixteenth century, liberty of thought existed nowhere, every State practised intolerance. … In Spain, one finds an intolerance admittedly less deadly, but institutionalized, organized and bureaucratized. …With its mixed jurisdiction, designed for religious purposes but placed under the authority of the State, it in some ways constituted an anticipation of modern totalitarianism.”39

Expulsion of Sephardic Jews

      An important result of the Inquisition was the forceful expulsion from Spain of all practicing Jews in 1492, who were suspected of giving support and sustenance to their ethnic kin and former co-religionists and urging them to revert to their former religions. However, relations between Sephardic Jews and conversos were not cordial.In fact, Jews in substantial numbers testified against conversos in tribunals of the Inquisition. Often, their testimony was tainted with hostility against those who were considered to be apostates by practicing Jews and who had abandoned their people because of fear and opportunism. Conversos on their part played a role in devising anti-Jewish polemics, which made the Sephardic Jewish community vulnerable. Thus, the charge against Jews as being in league with conversos was greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, on March 31, 1492, Isabel and Fernando issued the Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion). The monarchs give reasons for this Edict; for example: “we are informed by the inquisitors and by other devout persons, ecclesiastical and secular, that great injury has resulted and still results, since the Christians have engaged in and continue to engage in social interaction and communication they have had means and ways they can to subvert and to steal faithful Christians from our holy Catholic faith and to separate them from it, and to draw them to themselves and subvert them to their own wicked belief and conviction … to hold and observe the law of Moses.”40

     A legend arose whereby Isaac Abarbanel, a wealthy Jewish financier, offered the Spanish monarchs a large sum of money if only they would rescind the Alhambra Decree. While Fernando was seriously pondering this offer, Tomás de Torquemada burst into the room and threw a crucifix on the floor and reprimanded the king that he would betray Jesus for money as Judas had done for thirty pieces of silver. Thus, properly chastised, the monarchs decided against accepting Abarbanel’s money, and the expulsion order was kept in place. This account is very likely a distortion of what really happened.

      Spain’s Jews had three choices: 1) convert to Christianity, 2) be put to death and have all their possessions confiscated by the State, or 3) leave Spain by August 1, 1492.

      Those who chose to leave their beloved Spain would be protected up until the scheduled date of expulsion so that, “they may enter, sell, trade, and alienate all their movable and rooted possessions and dispose of them freely and at their will, and that during the said time, no one shall harm them, nor injure them, no wrong shall be done to them against justice, in their persons or in their possessions, under the penalty which falls on and is incurred by those who violate the royal safeguard.” Furthermore, the monarchs declared that, “we likewise give license and faculty to those said Jews and Jewesses that they be able to export their goods and estates out of these our said kingdoms and lordships by sea or land as long as they do not export gold or silver or coined money or other things prohibited by the laws of our kingdoms, excepting merchandise and things that are not prohibited.”41 Those Jews who opted to leave were under the pressure of a severe deadline and they were forced to sell their possessions at ridiculously low prices for items they could take with them, which could not include gold, silver, monetary coinage, arms or horses, which could not be exported by law. Jews also had difficulties in recuperating money that they had loaned to Christians and Muslims because often the due dates for the loan repayment were after August 1, the time at which Jews were to be gone. Sometimes, these plaintiffs would claim that they were victims of Jewish usury, knowing full well that the holders of the loan would not have time to plead their cases in court. These unfair circumstances under which Jews allegedly labored during the time between the Decree and the deadline for expulsion. However, there are contemporary historians who dispute this traditional take on the facts of the matter. For example, Norman Roth, emeritus professor of Jewish history of the University of Wisconsin, writes, “Despite the myths concerning the fanaticism of the Catholic monarch, Jews were not banned from taking money and personal property with them, nor was their property seized as was the case in the expulsion of Jews from England and in their repeated expulsions from France. Spanish Jews were also permitted to sell all personal real property. These sales were legitimate, with the payment of just prices. … There was continued concern on the part of the monarchs that all outstanding debts to Jews be paid. On 30 May orders went throughout the kingdom that special officials should immediately arrange these repayments by Christians and Muslims.”42 Roth makes these claims even though the Decree itself clearly states that those who were expelled could “not export gold or silver or coined money”. Perhaps the monarchs put this language in the Decree so as to deflect criticism and that the actual practice differed from what the letter of the Decree of Alhambra said. It is difficult to ascertain the truth in this matter.

Fernando and Isabel hearing a petition for mercy.

      Scholars disagree about how many Jews left Spain as a result of the decree. Modern scholars estimate the number at 40,000 to 50,000, rather than the number of more than 150,000 as declared by traditional historians.43 There were only about 80,000 practicing Jews before the expulsion, since the majority of Jews had already converted to Catholicism.  Large numbers went to Portugal and Turkey, some to Algeria and Egypt, and there were settlements of exiled Spanish Jews in any port city around the Mediterranean that would accept them.

      Some Spanish Jews (estimates range between 50,000 and 70,000) chose to avoid expulsion by conversion to Christianity. However, their conversion did not protect them from ecclesiastical hostility after the Spanish Inquisition came into full effect; persecution and expulsion were common. The expulsion of so many Jews was a long-term loss for Spain since Sephardic Jews composed a good deal of the merchant class of Spain and were prosperous. Also, many Jews were educated people, and the royalty and nobility had many Jewish advisors.  This loss of intellectual, cultural and economic leadership hampered Spain to some extent, but the harm done to Spain’s reputation across Europe was more substantial. 

      Many expelled Spanish Jews, likely more than half, went to Portugal, where they eluded persecution for only a few years. King Manuel of Portugal wanted to marry the daughter of Fernando and Isabel and the Spanish monarchs demanded that Portugal expel its Jews before they would agree to the marriage. Manuel reluctantly agreed and he issued a decree giving Portugal’s Jews eleven months to leave the country. In October 1497 thousands of Jews in Portugal were forcibly converted. In the face of these forced baptisms, thousands of Jews decided to leave the country. Some of those went on to Holland, England and Scandinavia. Others eventually came to the Americas.

      On the whole, the Jewish expulsion proved to be quite negative for Spain, and it was compounded by the expulsion of Moriscos a century later.  The immediate economic effect was not catastrophic, contrary to some popular conceptions. Jews constituted only around 2% of Spain’s population. Spain was not bankrupted by the Jewish expulsion, and the economic consequences were slight. However, cultural, intellectual and social effects were and have been much more serious. The loss of such urbane, educated and affluent citizens was a cultural loss of great proportions.

Map of Migrations by Expelled Spanish Jews

LadinoThe Language of Expelled Jews

      Back in the 1970s, I was in a grocery store in a posh area of Los Angeles, California, when I heard Spanish being spoken that contained several words that are used in New Mexico, and not so much in the larger Southwestern Spanish-speaking society.  I saw that the several speakers were men in their 30s and 40s with beards and wearing black clothes. They were Sephardic Jews, and they were speaking ladino (Ladino)or Judeo-Spanish, a variety of Spanish that some sefardíesor Spanish Jews speak to this day.  It is also known as judezmo, dzhudezmo, or spaniolit. To my regret, I did not engage them in conversation because I did not wish to invade their space and appear impolite. I should add that it turns out that my DNA analysis shows that I have 7% Sephardic Jewish inheritance (another test claimd 15%). . Indeed, a number of New Mexico Hispanic families have Sephardic blood and there has been a recent movement among nuevomexicanos to affirm their Jewish roots.

      There is nothing particularly Jewish per se about ladino. The approximately 60% of ladino that is Spanish vocabulary is essentially the Spanish that sefardíes spoke when they were expelled from Spain in 1492. Ladino continues (barely) in some form, with mixtures from other languages, depending on where the sefardíes happened to settle along the Mediterranean. There are roughly two forms of ladino spoken today: Western ladino or haquitía,as spoken in Morocco and other areas in northwestern Africa (although this variety is almost extinct),and Eastern ladino, which is about to disappear in Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, but which is also spoken in Israel, and it is more robust than haquitía. Ladino spelling tends to be more phonetic than standard Spanish, as will see below.  The fact that nuevomexicano Spanish has words in common with ladino has to do with the retentions or archaisms that we have from the Spanish of the 16th and 17th centuries.

      One of the very few contemporary written sources of Ladino is found in El Amaneser (The Dawn), a Turkish newspaper that publishes in ladino. El Amaneser was founded in 2005.

El Amaneser Ladino Newspaper in Turkey

      The masthead of El Amaneser contains the phrase: Kuando muncho eskurese es para amanecer. (Ladino) = Cuando mucho oscurece es para amanecer. (Spanish) = When it is darkest, the dawn is about to break. (English) The word muncho is an archaismandis common in New Mexico. This is one of the words that I recognized from the ladino speakers in Los Angeles.  Note how the k in the ladino word kuando takes the place of the hard c in the Spanish cuando and how s in ladino is used instead of the soft c in oscurece andamanecer. This is what is meant when we say that ladino spelling tends to be more phonetic than Spanish spelling. Ladino newspapers and other publications were initially written in the Rashi Hebrew character alphabet, but in the 1920s publications began to use the Latin alphabet.

      Here is an example of Ladino written by Marcel Cohen, a Paris-based Sephardic Jew, who wrote a letter addressed to his Spanish artist friend Antonio Saura:44

Ladino: La muerte avla por mi boka… A verda dezir, Antonio, ya sto muerto yo. Ay muncha dgente oy ke se interessa al ladino y al djudyo en las universitas. Eskriven esta dgente livros y livros sobre los djudyos. Es komo si fuera yo tapado en un muzeo.

Spanish: La muerte habla por mi boca… A verdad decir, Antonio, ya estoy muerto yo. Hay mucha gente hoy que se interesa al ladino y al judío en las universidades. Escribe esta gente libros y libros sobre los judíos. Es como si fuera yo tapado en un museo.

English: Death speaks through my mouth…. In fact, Antonio, I’m already dead. In universities today, many people are interested in Ladino and the Jew. They write book upon book on the history of the Sephardim. It is as if I were put on display in a museum.

      It is estimated that about 150,000 to 200,000 people around the world speak Ladino. The vast majority of Ladino speakers reside in Israel with a population of about 100,000. However, since the speakers of Ladino are spread around in countries where languages other than Ladino are the national languages, the Ladino language is not being passed on to children. In addition, World War II and the Holocaust exterminated large numbers of Ladino-speaking Jews. The result is that Ladino is a dying language. According to Karen Gerson Sarhon, editor of El Amaneser, the average age of native Ladino speakers in Turkey is about 70 years. Ladino she says, has “lost its function in the home,”45 Nevertheless, with the quincentenary in 1992 of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a new awareness of Ladino was manifested in some countries. Scholars descended on Turkey and Israel to study Sephardic communities and a new prestige was bestowed on the language of Ladino. Since then there have been attempts to preserve the language and it is experiencing somewhat of a revival. Sadly, most linguists agree that Ladino is on its last legs. Nevertheless, a new generation views Ladino and the culture that comes with it as a way of self-identifying as Sephardim and making a distinction between themselves and Jews of other origins. A study of standard Spanish is the best way to reenter the linguistic heritage of Ladino at this point.

Mudejars and Expulsion of Moriscos

      Many Muslims remained in place as subjects of the infidel Christians during La Reconquista. They came to be known as mudéjares (English: Mudejars) from the Arabic word mudajjan meaning “domesticated”, an allusion to the submission by these Muslims to Christian rule. The Christian kings of newly conquered Muslim lands had difficulties populating the lands with Christians, so they allowed Muslims to stay. 

      Those Muslims who engaged in war against Christians were usually expelled, sometimes to a place like Granada, when it was still under Muslim rule, or to North Africa. Those who did not violently resist Christian rule reached accords called capitulaciones under which they would live as Mudejars. The capitulaciones allowed Mudejars to practice their religion, as long as they did not proselytize.  They could keep their customs and personal possessions and were allowed to maintain an internal judicial system, as long as this did not run into conflict with the laws of the Christian communities. The rural Mudejar community was composed of agricultural workers, while those in urban contexts were commercial merchants and artisans.  In either case Mudejars were not, by and large, a wealthy group.  In the cities, Mudejars were restricted to living in Muslim ethnic zones called morerías. Nevertheless, Mudejars eventually became a vital part of the economic life of their host Christian domains and it was through economic activities by which Christians and Muslims interacted most intensely, especially in agricultural pursuits. Also, some educated Mudejars served Christian patrons as specialized workers, for example, as physicians and Arabic language translators. 

      Mudéjares were not a homogenous community.  Given the slow pace of La Reconquista, Mudejars in Aragón had lived under Christian rule since the late 11th century; those in Valencia from the 13th century; and the Mudejars in Granada first lived under Christian hegemony in 1492.  Thus, there is a four-century difference between the time of the earliest Mudejars in Aragón and the latest ones in Granada. There are naturally large differences in comparing Muslim communities under Christian domination. For example, the Muslim communities in Aragón and Castilla had lost their Arabic language from at least the 14th century, while the Muslims of Granada and Valencia continued speaking Arabic until what was to be their future expulsion in the early 17th century.  While some Mudejars had lost contact with the Arabic language, they had not lost contact with the religion of Islam and continued being followers. 

      Urban Mudejars lived within Christian territories as architectural designers and builders, and as tradesmen in tiling, roofing, carpentry, brickwork, and stucco, according to their traditions as artisans.  They also excelled in art, music, and crafts such as ornamental metalwork, pottery and woodcarving.  In fact, the term “Mudejar style” refers to the application of Islamic motifs in non-Muslim contexts as practiced by these Muslims. Mudejar style became incorporated in the building of Christian Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance structures.  Mudejar interprets Christian themes and values via a Muslim aesthetic and is thus neither purely Christian nor purely Muslim.

      An outstanding example of Mudejar style is exemplified by the Alcázar royal palace, which is Sevilla’s answer to the Alhambra in Granada, although parts of the Alcázar predate parts of the Alhambra.  Thus, the Alcázar is not simply a copy of the Alhambra. Various monarchs, both Christian and Moorish, built different parts of the Alcázar in differing styles. In 1248 Fernando III of Castilla conquered Sevilla and he took up residence in the Alcázar. Later in the 14th century El Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens) was built for Pedro I (The Cruel) of Castilla.  Pedro was concerned about increasing French influence in Spain, including its Gothic-style expression in architecture.  Pedro was a native of Andalucía and he identified strongly with its culture.  As such, he embraced Andalucía’s artistic and architectural heritage. As architectural historian D. Fairchild Ruggles writes, “Pedro’s decision to adopt Mudejar was not made by default; rather, it expressed an important aspect of his cultural identity that transcended any religious associations. By the fourteenth century, the Islamicate artistic forms of Mudejar were perceived, not as religious signs, but as cultural expressions that conveyed an emerging sense of ‘national’ identity that, even today, finds its strongest expression in Andalusia.”46 The Alcázar remains in use by today’s Spanish royal family when they are in residence in Sevilla.

Patio de las Doncellas – Alcázar Palace in Sevilla

Arches in the Alcázar Palace

      Mudejar style reached a peak of expression in the Aragón city of Teruel.  For example, various imposing Mudejar towers of reddish brick and glazed tile are scattered around Teruel to the present day. These towers feature Gothic characteristics within an Islamic aesthetic.

Mudejar Towers in Teruel, Aragón

Failure by Christian authorities to live up to their promises as outlined in capitulaciones naturally occasioned discontent among Mudejars and there were sometimes violent rebellions on their part.  Valencia was a kingdom in which tensions were high due to the large Muslim population within its borders.  For example, between 1244 and 1276 the Muslim chieftain known as al-Azraq led three revolts against the Valencian King Jaime I.  In the third of these clashes al-Azraq was killed, but his son continued to express the Mudejar dissatisfaction and tension that simmered beneath the surface.  These rebellions were dealt with harshly.  Another example of an anti-Mudejar legislation was the 1412 Laws of Ayllón that applied to Castilla.  These laws were directed at Jews as well. The laws forbade certain professions to Jews and Mudejars, such as physician, pharmacist, butcher, carpenter, tailor and shoemaker. Judicial autonomy was also rescinded. Most serious was the separation of Jews and Mudejars each into their own walled-off ghettos from which they could not leave except under certain conditions.  Their movements within the kingdom were also restricted.  As time progressed, relations between Christians and Mudejars would deteriorate in all the Christian kingdoms.  Also, pressures on Muslims to convert to Christianity increased with the passing of time.  Finally, in 1502 a royal decree stipulated that all Mudejars would have to be baptized as Catholics or be expelled from Spain. Thus, Mudejars ceased to be and those who became Christians were now dubbed conversos musulmanes (converted Muslims) or, more simply, moriscos (little Moors).

       A Morisco, then, was a Muslim who converted to Christianity, and it was Mudejars who made such a conversion.  While Morisco is a derogatory term, it was commonly used by Christian Spaniards.  The overwhelming numbers of Moriscos were forced converts.  It was said by Christians of Moriscos that “Todos son uno, y el mismo.”47 (They are all one and the same.)   This was a manner of demonizing the Moriscos by saying that they were the same as all other Muslims and that there were no differences between them, while we have already commented that there were significant differences among Mudejars and, later, Moriscos.  In 1480 Isabel and Fernando instituted a new dictum whereby Muslims, as well as Jews, were to dwell in special districts, morerías in the case of Muslims, and juderías for Jews, separate from Christian populations.

      With the fall of Granada, Muslims became a marginalized group in Spain. There was no existing Muslim state to protect them.  Many Muslims expected or hoped that that their fellow co-religionists from Northern Africa would come to rescue them and reestablish Muslim rule.  However, this proved to be a vain hope.  In 1492, there were about 500,000 Muslims in Spain and the Catholic Church made it a priority to convert them.  Initially, the Church offered incentives of money, land and other gifts for converting. The alternative to conversion was expulsion. The approach in Granada of its first Archbishop, Hernando de Talavera, himself of partially converso origin, was a gradual one to Muslim conversion.  Talavera believed that forced conversions would not lead to good Catholics.  He preferred the preaching (in Arabic) to potential converts of the advantages of Christianity and he thought that children should be schooled in the new religion over time. He is quoted as saying that Moors “had to accept our faith, and we their customs”.48 This gradualist approach was rejected in a visit in 1499 to Granada by Archbishop Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros of Toledo, who accompanied the court of the Inquisition on an inspection tour of Granada.  In concert with the Inquisition, Jiménez de Cisneros instituted a policy of forced conversions and the burning of Arabic manuscripts, including religious texts.  Only some works on medicine escaped the flames.  This drastic policy led to riots in 1499 in the Albaicín district of Granada and to a rebellion in the Alpujarra region in 1500 among unconverted Muslims.  Spanish authorities quickly extinguished the revolts and the Catholic Monarchs claimed that the terms of the Treaty of Granada, which gave Muslims certain guarantees and protections, had been violated.  In reality, it was the policies instituted under Archbishop Jiménez that were in breach of the Treaty.  Nevertheless, the Treaty was abrogated and Mudejars were given the choice of conversion or expulsion.  The numbers of Muslim conversions were nominal.  Most observers agree that most Moriscos continued their Islamic rituals in secret, while outwardly professing their allegiance to the Catholic Church and going through the motions of its rituals, at least in the initial stages of anti-Morisco actions. Some Islamic religious leaders had said that Muslims under duress could invoke the principle of taqiyya, a form of dissimulation that permits outward signs of denial of Islam provided the believer is under threat.  This practice was allowed only if the Muslim adherent continued to be a follower of the Prophet Muhammad in her or his heart.  In this manner the practice of crypto-Islam flourished among Moriscos.  An atmosphere of distrust on both Christian and Morisco sides was engendered by the forced conversions.  Church authorities were suspicious of the sincerity of the Morisco conversions and Moriscos harbored resentment for having to be put through what they considered a sham. 

Moorish Proselytes of Archbishop Jiménez, Granada 1500

      Things only worsened for Moriscos from thereon.  The term Morisco became an epithet used against the self-proclaimed ex-Muslims.  Not only did purity of religious heritage become a measure of the trustworthiness of a Christian, Old or New, but also purity of blood (pureza de sangre). Thus, Moriscos also became racialized objects of suspicion.  According to historian Roger Boase, for an ex-Muslim, “Every aspect of his way of life – including his language, dress and social customs – was condemned as uncivilised and pagan. … A person who refused to drink wine or eat pork might be denounced as a Muslim to the Inquisition. In the eyes of the Inquisition and popular opinion, even practices such as eating couscous, using henna, throwing sweets at a wedding and dancing to the sound of Berber music, were un-Christian activities for which a person might be obliged to do penance.”49   In 1526, King Carlos I of Spain, later to become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, pronounced an edict aimed at New Christians, which included prohibitions on the speaking of Arabic and the wearing of traditional Moorish dress.  Moriscos were forbidden to bear arms, to extend hospitality to Muslims, and their children were forced to attend Christian schools.  The Morisco community could allay strict enforcement of the edict for forty years by the payment of the sum of 80,000 ducados.  However, when such a forty-year abatement ended, the Spanish Crown reissued the restrictive edict on Moriscos and added provisions that Moriscos were required to learn the Castilian language within three years, after which time Arabic would be totally prohibited, and Moriscos were required to adopt Christian names.  All toleration of Moorish culture was to be ended.  The severity of the new edict caused a second uprising by Moriscos in Granada and Alpujarra.  This revolt was brutally suppressed and included the razing of the town of Galera, the spreading of salt on its soils so that nothing would grow, and the killing of 2500 Moriscos.  Some 80,000 Moriscos from Granada were dispersed to other portions of Spain and Old Christians were brought in to take over former Morisco land holdings.50 By this time, the Morisco population was suspected of supporting raids on the Valencia coast by Barbary pirates and their Turkish Ottoman allies.  Moriscos were also charged with being in league with Dutch Protestants, who had rebelled against Spanish rule in the Seventeen Provinces, which Felipe II had inherited in 1555.  The Seventeen Provinces included the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, as well as other territories in the region.  The Dutch Revolt was able to secure de facto independence for seven of the Protestant northern provinces in 1581.  These charges against the Morisco community were exaggerated and largely without merit, although some Moriscos did joint the Barbary pirates in their predations.  Thus, the Moriscos were seen by Christian Spain as a political danger, an internal fifth column, as well as a religious threat.  Another factor that concerned the Christian rulers and clergy was that the birth rate among Moriscos was much higher than that for Christians.  “In the minds of many …the fertility of the Morisco population was associated with the myth of Islamic sensuality and licentiousness. The failure of the Church in its missionary efforts was attributed to this alleged aspect of Islam that offered – so they said – carnal delights both here and in the hereafter. … Moriscos came to personify the sins of the flesh, later romanticised in visions of oriental harems.”51 If action was not taken, so the thinking went, Christians would soon be a minority in their own land.

      The Catholic Church was at the forefront in urging the expulsion of all Moriscos from Spain.  One of the principal architects of expulsion was Juan de Ribera, Archbishop of Valencia, who proposed to then King Felipe III that impounded lands and property of expelled Moriscos would furnish a ready source of money for the royal treasury.  The nobility, in places like Aragón and Valencia with large Morisco populations, had hitherto been opposed to the loss of the Moriscos and their valuable source of tax revenue and commercial activity based on agriculture and craftsmanship.  But the plan was to include the nobility in sharing the bounty and this ploy finally brought them on board with expulsion.  Ribera also wanted to enslave and further Christianize the children of Moriscos who were to be expelled. This latter proposal was not accepted by King Felipe, but, he did issue an expulsion order in April 1609. The Church, however, did pursue its own policy of separating Morisco children from their parents, so that the children could be raised as Christians. Ships from the Spanish fleet had already been ordered to be ready to transport Moriscos to Northern African countries in the Maghrib region, which were unprepared or unwilling to accommodate such large numbers of refugees.  Others were escorted to France by Spanish troops and officials, only to be expelled shortly from there to Italy and Turkey. 

Expulsion of Moriscos from Vinaros by Pere Oromig, 1613

      Modern estimates are that the Morisco population in 1600 was from 500,000 to 600,000 out of a total Spanish population of 8 million. In the first year 250,000 Moriscos were driven out, and by the end of 1614 another 50,000 were deported. Thus, a total of about 300,000 souls were expelled from their homes. One author writing in 1612 estimated that in a two-year period from 1609 to 1611 about 50,000 died in resistance to expulsion and another 60,000 died during their travels to their destinations.  Thus, according to these figures, one in three Moriscos perished as a result of the expulsion order. Others were raped, enslaved, starved, and robbed of their children, land, money and possessions during the ordeal of deportation.

      The Morisco expulsion caused a severe economic crisis in some parts of Spain, especially in Valencia, where the province lost almost one fourth of it s total population.  Many landowners depended on Morisco laborers for agricultural work and the loss of rents paid by Moriscos caused economic hardship. In addition, tax revenues suffered greatly: “the Valencian tribunal suffered a 42.7 per cent loss of income from taxes and subsidies payable by the Morisco population. Its counterpart in Zaragoza had its income reduced by over 48 per cent”.52

      The monarchy and church of Spain achieved what they wanted with the banishing of the Moriscos, and the Jews before them – a religiously unified country. Both expulsions ultimately harmed Spain in many ways: culturally, intellectually, and economically. However, this early version of ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the Moriscos of Spain has not received the kind of recognition and attention that the equally horrific expulsion of Spanish Jews has garnered. The Catholic Church has not issued any apology for its actions leading to the expulsion of the Moriscos, while Pope John Paul II did apologize to Jews for the Spanish Inquisition.53 On the contrary, Archbishop Juan de Ribera, Church architect of the Morisco Expulsion, was raised to sainthood by Pope John XXIII in 1960. 

      The period of convivencia (living together), whereby Muslims and the Christian/Jewish “People of the Book” supposedly lived side by side in relative harmony from shortly after the Muslim invasion in 711 up to 1492 with the fall of Granada and the expulsion of Spanish Jews, has been idealized and romanticized in various works such as the 1948 book España en su historia: cristianos, moros, y judíos54 by Spanish philologist and literary historian Américo Castro, who first used the term convivencia. A more recent and popular book is The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal published in 2002 in which she posits a time of positive intercultural exchange and mutual appreciation. She states, “It was there (al-Andalus) that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style – not only while living in Islamic dominions but especially after wresting political control from them; there that men of unshakable faith, like Abelard and Maimonides and Averroes, saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines.”55This point of view is disputed by some as so much wishful thinking and that it is countered by hard historical facts as we have recounted here. Whereas Muslim administrations often allowed Christians and Jews to pursue their own religions as long as they did not try to convert Muslims, Christians and Jews had to pay special taxes and there were certainly barriers to their social advancement.  Also, paroxysms of violence would occur sporadically between Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects, even during the period of convivencia.  In assessing the conflicting claims about convivencia, Mark R. Cohen puts it this way: “The truth lies somewhere in between. The convivencia of Jews and Muslims in Muslim Spain and elsewhere in the medieval Islamic world was real, but its harmony had limits. It was marked by a legally-prescribed regime of discrimination and even witnessed periodic outbursts of violence. Nevertheless, the cultural achievement of Arabic-speaking Jewry, the political influence that some Jews attained in Muslim courts and Muslim intellectual circles, and the substantial security Jews experienced living among Muslims cannot be denied.”56

Aljamiado Manuscripts – Castellano Written in Arabic

      Muslims who had lived under Christian domination for many years eventually began to lose their native Arabic language.  Often there were explicit governmental policies to prohibit the use of Arabic in written or spoken form. Such a ban on Arabic creates a problem for Muslims since the religion of Islam is closely associated with the Arabic language. After all, the Prophet Muhammad received his revelations in Arabic and these were written down in the Quran in that language.  As a consequence of a prohibition on the use of Arabic and in order to maintain their religious knowledge and identity, Moriscos began the fascinating practice of translating Islamic religious works into their newly acquired Hispano-Romance languages, but by using Arabic script. In this manner one obtains the religion of Islam in a Castilian (for example) mold.  A manuscript written in a language other than Arabic, such as Farsi from Persia, Tamazight of the Berbers, or a Romance language, but which is written in Arabic script is called an aljamiado (an adjective) manuscript or an aljamía (a noun) manuscript.  The word aljamía is derived from the Arabic al-ajami, meaning a non-Arab or foreigner.  As Muslims began to lose their facility in Arabic and started to use Hispano-Romance languages on a daily basis, the term ajami was used collectively in the former al-Andalus to refer to these Romance languages as spoken in an Arabic-influenced manner by these Muslims. As we referenced in the above section on Mozarabs, ajami is also used for the Hispano-Romance language mozárabe spoken by Christians under Muslim rule in al-Andalus and later in other parts of Spain to where Mozarabs migrated.

      An aljamiado manuscript is written from the right to the left, as in regular Arabic.  Aljamiado texts were produced in 15th and 16th centuries as a result of Arabic-speaking populations being dominated by Romance-speaking peoples.  Aljamiado literature is a secret or hidden literature due to the prevailing anti-Muslim attitudes in the Iberian Peninsula at the time.  Romance languages in which aljamiado manuscripts were written include castellano, catalán, aragonés, portugués, ladino and mozárabe (the language of the Mozarabs to be discussed later).  We should also note that aljamiado texts were less frequently written in Hebrew script, instead of Arabic.

      The following is a sample of the Arabic script that was used to write Romance words (the examples are of castellano) 57:

Arabic Script for Writing Castellano

      Anticipating their expulsion from Spain, Moriscos hid aljamiado manuscripts in walls and false floors of homes.  As a result, knowledge of such a literature had been lost until the discovery in the 19th century of some of these texts in places like Aragón. What treasures those hiding places held!  Aljamiado literature was exposed to the general Spanish public in 1888 with the publication in Zaragoza of the book Colección de Textos Aljamiados by Pablo Gil el al.58   Some 200 aljamiado texts are in existence, currently mostly found in Spanish museums and libraries. While most of the manuscripts deal with religious subjects, there are also manuscripts of poetry, legal documents, romances, moral teachings and anti-Christian writings.  Moriscos really had a hybrid culture that was neither fully Arabic nor fully Romance.  Aljamiado literature is symbolic of this dual character.  The task of writing in a Romance language using Arabic script is difficult and some creative innovations were employed in this endeavor.  Some Arabic guttural sounds represented by some Arabic letters are not present in aljamiado writing.  On the other hand, some Romance sounds like the Spanish ñ and the trilled r cannot be written using Arabic script.  To write these sounds, aljamiado uses the closest-sounding Arabic letter and writes the letter two times.  Also, Arabic writing uses three vowel letters: long a (‘alif), long i (ya), and long u (waw).  The short versions of these vowels are written with diacritic symbols, that is, modifying marks or signs to distinguish them from the long vowels.  On the other hand, aljamiado employs the vowels a, e, i, o and u with two extra vowels.  The e is writtenwith the ‘alif symbolin isolated form (this is the first letter in the Arabic alphabet with a long “a” sound like in “care”) plus a fathah diacritic ـٌ above the following letter, which goes in the dashed space beneath the diagonal diacritic mark. Plurals of nouns were written in the manner of Romance languages, for example, the plural of the masculine noun kitab = book (Arabic    كتاب) would be written in the Castilian form kitabes, rather than the Arabic كتب (kutob).   Other challenges were posed by translating Arabic religious terms into Romance without running the risk of Christianizing the text and still being faithful to the original Arabic.  Thus, the world “revelation” was considered to be too connected to the Christian religion, and so, the word kitab for book was used instead.  Rather than using the word ángeles (angels), Moriscos used the term almalakes (almalak is angel in Arabic and malaikah is the plural.), which gave them a usage with which they were more comfortable from Islamic tradition.  The purpose of aljamiado literature was to instruct Iberian Muslims as to how to be a good Muslim and, in general, to maintain a Muslim identity among these various populations.

      While aljamiado literature dealt mostly with religiously based subjects, some writings were devoted to medical potions, poetry and secular literature.  Aljamiado texts furnish a poignant portrait of a Muslim community in crisis.  Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula had recently been defeated by Christian forces and they were in a period where they are trying to maintain their religious and cultural identities.  The use of Arabic script is indicative of a spirit of resistance among Muslims.  

Example of an Aljamiado Manuscript

Return of Sephardic Jews and Moriscos to Spain?

      In an effort to address the historical wrong posed by the 1492 expulsion of Jews, the Government of Spain passed a law in 2012 by means of which Sephardic Jews with a proven connection to Jewish communities that once lived in Spain and who identify themselves as Jewish could obtain Spanish citizenship by naturalization, without the usual residency requirement. Applicants did not need to be religiously observant. However, the law required one to renounce one’s existing citizenship, and thus, there were few applicants. This flaw was addressed in 2014 with a new law that allowed successful applicants to maintain their current citizenship and thereby become dual citizens. They must also pass a test in basic Spanish and one on current events and Spanish culture, as do any other applicants for citizenship. The status of being a Spanish citizen gives one the right to live and work anywhere in the 28-nation European Union. No doubt, some applicants find this as a convenient route to residence in Europe beyond Spain. In Spain, the Federation of Jewish Communities lauded the new law and found that most applicants were from Morocco, Turkey and Venezuela. In the case of the latter two countries, there has been recent hostility against Jews and therefore applicants may want a Spanish passport as a safeguard.

      It is estimated that up to 3.5 million of the world’s 13 million Jews have Sephardic antecedents. There are large Sephardic communities in Belgium, France, Greece, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and the United States. Only about 50,000 Jews currently reside in Spain out of a Spanish population of 47 million. It seems that Spain is not going to be inundated with Sephardim seeking citizenship, since as of February 2017 only about 6000 applications had been received. It takes the Spanish government about ten months to adjudicate each case.

      One seventy-year-old woman, who lives in Portugal, was preparing to apply for Spanish citizenship, even though she had no plans to live in Spain. As a child in Morocco she had learned lullabies in haquitía, the western form of Ladino. She said, “For emotional reasons it is very important. Tradition and memory are very important in Jewish culture.”59 

      Meanwhile, the descendants of Moriscos who were expelled in the early 1600s are provoked to ask, “What about us?” The early version of ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the Moriscos of Spain has not received the kind of recognition and attention that the equally horrific expulsion of Spanish Jews has garnered. For example, Moroccan journalist Ahmed Bensalh Es-salhi in 2012 wrote in the newspaper Correo Diplomático that the “decision to grant Spanish citizenship to the grandchildren of the Hebrews in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while ignoring the Moriscos, the grandson of the Muslims, is without doubt, flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time. The decision could also be considered by the international community to be an historic act of absolute immorality and injustice…This decision is absolutely disgraceful and dishonorable.”60 He went on to indicate that Muslims could decide to move their investments in Spain to other destinations.

      Since the numbers of Moriscos who were expelled from Spain was much greater than the numbers of Sephardim, it is natural that there are many more current descendants of Moriscos than there are of the Jews. It is estimated that five million descendants of Moriscos live in Morocco alone, and there are millions more in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Turkey. Clearly, this presents a much more serious obstacle to granting Spanish citizenship than the case of the Sephardim.  Also, given that the current political winds are blowing against Muslims in all of Europe, including Spain, it is unlikely that any kind of gesture of reconciliation towards the Morisco descendants approaching that directed at Sephardim is in the works. The March 2004 coordinated train bombings in Madrid that killed 192 people and injured around 2,000 were officially blamed on Islamic terrorists from Morocco, Algeria, and Syria. Also, in August 2017 a 22-year-old Moroccan named Younes Abouyaaqoub drove a van into pedestrians in Barcelona, killing 14 persons and injuring 130 others. A few hours later five men of the same terrorist group drove a car into a group of pedestrians. The car rolled over and the occupants got out of the car and attacked nearby persons with knives and a woman was killed. Six other people were injured in the incident. The five attackers were killed by police. All the terrorists had been born in Morocco. Understandably, the attitudes of the Spanish public have hardened against Islamists. Nevertheless, the Junta Islámica (Islamic Council) in Spain continues to call for citizenship rights for descendants of the Moriscos, although some are now asking for only for an official apology from the Spanish government and a recognition that a wrong was done to Moriscos by their expulsion.

      However, there are differences in the two cases of Sephardim and Moriscos. Jewish presence in Spain goes back to before Christianity arrived and their expulsion was the result of official bigotry and racism. In contrast, the Muslims were invaders and colonizers, and they imposed their language and institutions on the inhabitants of the Spanish peninsula. Banishment of Moriscos was motivated by demographic concerns, religious incompatibility, racism, and generally by fear of the Other. Some observers say that their expulsion was a part of a process of decolonization. But, Moors had lived in Spain for almost 900 years. How could one consider them as outsiders, who did not belong in Spain?

      The world is complex, and the nefarious deeds of history continue to redound down through the centuries.

Notes for Sephardic Jews, Inquisition, and Expulsion of
Jews and Moriscos

17. Donald Campbell, Arabian Medicine and its Influence on the Middle Ages, Vol 1,
London, Trubner, 1926, Vol. 1, p 98
18. Ibid., p. 98
19. Chris Lowney, A Vanished World, Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment, Free
Press, New York, 2005, p. 155
20. Ibid, p. 159
21. Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Shlomo Pines,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1963, p. 5
22. Ibid., p. 5
23. Ibid., p. 6
24. Marc B. Shapiro, Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology?
The Torah U-Maddah Journal, Yeshiva University, Vol. 4, 1993, p. 205
25. Joseph Pérez, The Spanish Inquisition. A History, Yale University Press, New Haven,
2005, p. 20
26. Howard Fast, The Jews: Story of a People, Dell, 1968, p. 215
27. Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos, New York, 1960, p. 20
28. Benzion Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteen Century Spain, Random
House, New York, 1995, p. 163
29. Manuel González Jiménez, La Inquisición Moderna, Apuntes para un Debate; article in Juan Gil (ed.), Los Conversos y la Inquisición, Fundación El Monte, Sevilla, 2000, p. 159
30. Joseph Pérez, op. cit., p. 19
31. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, A Historical Revision, Fourth Edition, Yale
University Press, New Haven, 2014, p. 65
32. Jean-Pierre Dedieu, Les quatres temps de l’Inquisition, in L’Inquisition Espagnole,
edited by Bartolomé Bennassar, Hachette, Paris, 1979, pp. 15-41
33. Edward Peters, Inquisition, The Free Press, New York, 1988, p. 134
34. Henry Kamen, op. cit., p. 65
35. Helen Rawlings, The Spanish Inquisition, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2006,
p. 15;
36. Ricardo García Cárcel, Orígenes de la Inquisición Española, El Tribunal de Valencia,
1478-1530, Ediciones Península, Barcelona, 1976
37.  José Martínez Millán, La Hacienda de la Inquisición (1478-1700), Instituto Enrique
Flórez, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid 1984
38. Jaime Contreras and Gustav Henningsen, Forty-four thousand cases of the Spanish
Inquisition (1540-1700: Analysis of a historical databank, in eds. Gustav Henningsen
and John Tedeschi, The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe, Studies in Sources and
Methods, Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, Illinois, 1986, pp. 100-129
39. Joseph Pérez, op. cit., pp. 174-175
40. Edward Peters, Translation of the Expulsion of the Jews, Foundation for the
Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, p. 1,  
41. Ibid. p.1
42. Norman Roth, The Jews of Spain and the Expulsion of 1492, The Historian, 55, 1992,
pp. 29 – 30,
43. Henry Kamen, The Expulsion: Purpose and consequences, in (ed.) Elie Kedourie, Spain
and the Jews: The Sephardic Experience, 1492 and After. London: Thames and Hudson,
1992, p. 85
44. Marcel Cohen, In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura, Ibis Press, ISBN
9659012543, February, 2006
45. Robin Cembalest, Turkey: A Ladino Newspaper, Article in Tracing the Tribe, Oct. 9,
46. D. Fairchild Ruggles, The Alcazar of Seville and Mudejar Architecture, Gesta, V. 43,
No. 2, 2004, p. 97, International Center of Medieval Art,
47. Luis Bernabé Pons, Desheredados de al-Andalus: la cultura de mudéjares y moriscos,
Part 1, Lecture at the University of Wisconsin, July 22, 2013
48. Miguel Angel Ladero Quesada, Isabel and the Moors, article in Isabel la Católica, Queen
of Castile: Critical Essays, edited by David A. Boruchoff, Palgrave Macmillan, New
York, 2003
49. Roger Boase, The Muslim Expulsion from Spain, History Today, Volume: 52, Issue: 4,
2002, p. 3
50. Ibid, p. 4
51. Ibid p. 6
52. Helen Rawlings, op. cit. p. 86
53. Rory Carroll, Pope says sorry for sins of church, The Guardian, March 13, 2003
54. Américo Castro, España en su historia: cristianos, moros y judíos, Critica, Barcelona,
republished in 2013, 680 pages
55. María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians
Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little, Brown and Company, Boston,
2002, p. 11
56. Mark. R. Cohen, The ‘Convivencia’ of Jews and Muslims in the High Middle Ages,, May 2009
57. Omniglot, The Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages, Morisco
58. Pablo Gil, Julián Ribera y Mariano Sánchez, Colección de Textos Aljamiados, Zaragoza,
59. The Guardian newspaper, Spain passes law awarding citizenship to descendants of
expelled Jews, June 11, 2015.
60. Soeren Kern, Muslims Angry Over Citizenship for Jews, Gatestone Institute,
December 21, 2012. 

Curanderismo y Querencia

I was unable to include sections on curanderismo and querencia in my book Lenguaje, A Cultural History of the Spanish Language in New Mexico due to space limitations. Hence, I am presenting these two sections here (they would have been included in Chapter 6).

Chapter 6

  • Curanderismo

        Another area in which there has been a great deal of overlap between Nuevo-mexicanos, and indigenous communities is in health care and in particular in the employment of curanderismo or folk medicine. Traditional folk medicine is practiced throughout the world even to the present. Before the advent of the germ theory of disease and other science-based medical practices, folk medicine was almost the only method for addressing human health. Even “recognized” physicians were often nothing more than quacks. Folk medicine utilizes a variety of practices including the use of herbs and other medicinal plants, massage, chiropractic procedures, and the like. I recall going in 1987 to a market in Granada, Spain and seeing a vast array of herbs and roots on sale for purposes of curanderismo. I recognized many of the items as being those in use in New Mexico. There is sometimes a spiritual component to curanderismo and in Spain, this revolves around appeals to Jesus, Mary, and the Catholic saints for aid and intervention. In the Americas, indigenous peoples had health practices of their own and thus curanderismo among Spanish/Mexicans took on Indian medicinal plants, practices, and sometimes beliefs. A male practitioner is called a curandero, although most practitioners have been women (curanderas). There are specialties among curanderas, for example, yerbera (herbalist), sobadora (chiropractor), partera (midwife), and curandera espiritual (spiritual healer).

        In colonial New Mexico, the friars accepted the use of herbs and physical methods such as massages and bone manipulations on the part of both Spanish and indigenous healers to be acceptable because these were common in the Old Country. The spiritual elements of curanderismo posed more of a problem. Spiritual aspects of healing were, of course, present in Spain with prayers for divine intervention often offered for the sick patient. There was even scriptural support such as in James 5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.” Not that the Catholic curandera or curandero would have access to or read the Bible, but the religious knew of passages like this. When the use of herbs was to achieve a goal like getting someone to fall in love or for getting rich, this was considered superstition. Some afflictions border on having spiritual or supernatural content, such as mal de ojo (evil eye) or susto (fright). In our context, mal de ojo is caused when an adult person stares or even looks admiringly at a child, especially an infant, for too long. Then the child can get a fever, headaches, be caused to cry, or worse. The treatment is to rub an egg over the child, while saying a prayer, and then breaking the egg into a glass of water, thereby absorbing the bad energy. The egg can be put under the child’s bed and the next day it is thrown away. Susto is the result of a startling or frightful scare that causes the soul to leave the body. Symptoms of susto include headaches, nausea, shakiness, depression, listlessness, or loss of appetite. The cure can be achieved by sweeping the body with a broom made of dried herbs bound together, while prayers are said for the soul to return. Additionally, a patient’s body could be massaged with an egg in its shell.

        However, sometimes a person was afflicted by an illness supposedly occasioned by a hex or a curse brought on by the Devil, evil spirits, or a witch (brujo or bruja). The friars believed that Indian curanderas and curanderos were involved in witchcraft in addition to their healing practices. The Indian practitioners would engage in native religious rituals to combat all maladies, including spiritual ones that were caused by witchcraft and magic, in which they did believe. The native practitioners who would use herbs to heal people could also be the same persons who could use herbs and other methods to put hexes on others and cause them harm. This overlap would lead the Franciscan friars to punish Indian healers for practicing witchcraft.

      A true case of the pursuit by a priest in confronting the Devil’s works entailed in witchcraft (as he saw it) occurred in Abiquiu as described by historians Malcolm Ebright and Rick Hendricks in their intriguing book The Witches of Abiquiu. Father Juan José Toledo was the Spanish friar assigned to Abiquiu with the task of Christianizing the genízaros. He developed severe pains from a “ball” that moved around his stomach area, and which caused him to cough and choke. As he was lying down in bed, the friar was visited by a woman “dressed in the Spanish style” and she administered a massage that expelled the ball and gave Toledo relief. Since the woman hid her face, it could be that she was a Pueblo Indian or genízara. At any rate, Toledo was cured. However, the same affliction reoccurred and another curandera from outside Abiquiu cured him again employing massage and having him ingest estafiate, an indigenous herb. The curandera said that he had coagulated phlegm in his stomach. The priest, however, later continued to choke and cough as before and he also developed an eye problem.1 The priest attributed these maladies to hechicería (witchcraft) on the part of the genízaro Vicente Trujillo. It was alleged that Vicente wanted to kill Toledo. Perhaps harmful herbs or other substances were added to the priest’s food by Vicente or his wife María. It is certainly true that Trujillo and many others resented the friar’s attempts to stamp out native religious beliefs in Abiquiu and he may indeed have engaged in rituals to harm the friar. Father Toledo also accused others of being hechiceros (sorcerers) since other cases of hexes had occurred in Abiquiu and other pueblos. Notably, Abiquiu was vulnerable to nomadic Indian attacks and there was, as a result, a pervading fear and insecurity among the inhabitants. This led to forbidden ceremonies by the genízaros to allay their fears, thereby aggravating the problem between Father Toledo and the people. The zealous priest performed exorcisms and conducted a trial that went on from 1756 to 1766, during which time several suspected sorcerers and witches were jailed and flogged. The hysteria was ended by the intervention of Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín when he incarcerated the main accused sorcerers and calmed Father Toledo down by referring the case to the Inquisition

        An encounter of my own with herbal healing was occasioned by a severe case of diarrhea my son Ricardo had at age two. The doctor prescribed the liquid medicine Kaopectate, which my wife and I gave him for a couple of days, but diarrhea persisted. His eyes were getting sunken, and he got little sleep. We were getting desperate. Then a Nuevomexicano pharmacist suggested that we give him yerba buena (peppermint) tea, a favorite with curanderas. Upon drinking the hot tea, Ricardo immediately vomited twice, and each time a long stream of Kaopectate was ejected from his little body. He fell asleep almost immediately after that and was soon able to ingest liquids and then food. Ricardito was cured. But our next encounter with curanderismo was not so positive. My great-aunt Teresa Martín de Gurulé, Grandma Adelaida’s sister, was a well-respected curandera and people would come from miles around to be treated by her. My wife Genara had suffered from severe asthma for several years and we went to see Tía Teresa to see what Tía could do for her. Tía prescribed that Genara should smoke some oshá, a root from a kind of wild parsley plant, which is used in curanderismo for respiratory ailments. It provoked a violent spasm of coughing in her. This remedio (cure) did not work for my wife’s asthma. Oshá (porter’s lovage) is an herb that Pueblo Indians introduced to Spanish settlers. Inmortal (antelope horns – of the milkweed family) is another herb adopted from Indians and it is used to ease the final stages of labor in a woman giving birth; it is also used as an expectorant in bronchitis and pleurisy.

  • Querencia

        The early Spanish colonialists came to La Nueva México hoping to find another city like Tenochtitlan, the original Ciudad de México, full of treasures and with plenty of Indians that could be exploited. They instead found a land of hardship and poverty with an indigenous population consisting of but a small fraction of that found in Mesoamerica. The resettlement of New Mexico following Diego de Vargas was by settlers with limited expectations, but who nevertheless dreamt of owning land of their own and becoming hidalgos. Vargas declared that the grants of land (mercedes) that had been given out by Spanish governors before the Pueblo Revolt were null and void. He considered that the slate had been wiped clean by the Revolt and a new conquest had been accomplished by him. This made sense since almost all Spanish documents were destroyed by the Pueblo Indians during and after the Revolt. As such, the boundaries and extent of previously given land grants could not be determined. Mercedes were issued by governors thereafter were of three types: 1) Pueblo Grants: these were lands granted to the Pueblo Indian communities to protect communal lands that the Pueblos had used and held for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. These allotments were but a fraction of the original lands that Pueblo Indians considered their traditional lands. 2) Individual or Private Grants: lands were given to favored and elite individuals or small groups of individuals as a reward for their service; the lands were for the private use of the grantees and their families, and the lands could be sold. 3) Community Grants: these were grants of land made to communities of people. In these grants, the defense of the town required that there be a central plaza, where the town church was also usually located.  The largest portion of the land, the ejido, was held communally by the people. The ejido was used in common by grantees for grazing, cutting timber, gathering firewood, hunting, fishing, and watering. The ejido could not be sold nor divided. Aside from this, plots within the community land grant were also under individual ownership: a plot for a dwelling (solar de casa), a plot for a garden (suerte) and plots for growing crops like wheat or corn (caballerías).  These smaller plots of land became individual property after a specified amount of time (4 years typically) during which the individual lived on the land and cultivated it.

        Pueblo Indians and all the other area indigenous nations have a holistic conception of nature as a spirit world with all things being connected. Thus, mountains, lakes, forests, animals, and plants – indeed, everything – are invested with spirits. Thus, for example, when you are about to shoot a deer, you say a prayer and ask the deer to forgive you for taking its life. Some places are especially sacred. The Navajo (Diné) believe that the four mountains that enclose Dinétah, the land inhabited by the Diné, are imbued with sacredness. The mountains are in the four cardinal directions and are north – Dibé Nitsaa (Mount Hesperus), east – Tsisnaasjini’ (Mount Blanca), south – Tsoodzil (Mount Taylor), west – Doko’oosliid (San Francisco Peaks). Blue Lake (Ba Whyea), near Taos is similarly sacred to the people of Taos Pueblo. By tradition, the Taos people were created out of the sacred waters of Blue Lake. The federal government took control of Blue Lake in 1906, turned it over to the Forest Service, which leased the surrounding forest to logging.  The Forest Service also opened Blue Lake and the surrounding watershed to recreational users, thereby compromising access and privacy on the part of the people of Taos Pueblo. In testimony before Congress in 1969, Paul Bernal explained, “In all of its programs the Forest Service proclaims the supremacy of man over nature; we find this viewpoint contradictory to the realities of the natural world and the nature of conservation. Our tradition and our religion require people to adapt their lives and activities to our natural surroundings so that men and nature mutually support the life common to both. The idea that man must subdue nature and bend its processes to his purposes is repugnant to our people.”1 Finally, after 64 years of protests, appeals, and political pressure, Blue Lake was returned to Taos Pueblo, together with trust title for the surrounding 48,000 acres of watershed and tribal members have exclusive use of 1,640 acres around the lake. The personal support of President Richard Nixon was important in the passage of the bill authorizing the transfer of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, as was that of the liberal Democratic Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma and his wife LaDonna Harris, an important Native American activist and political figure herself. Politics indeed makes for some strange bedfellows.

        Pueblo people could not conceive of land as being in the private ownership of an individual. The land was the common property of the pueblo and could not be divided nor sold. Nuevomexicanos, especially those from community land grants, came to consider land much in the Pueblo conception. The ejido belonged to everyone in the merced as communal property. The community land grants were given to those of social rank lower than those who received private grants and the need to maintain a sense of togetherness was paramount for survival. The communal feeling toward the land gave rise to the mystical notion of querencia or love of place, where one feels at home and secure, that Nuevomexicanos came to hold dear. This metaphysical concept is known in the larger Spanish-speaking world. Ernest Hemingway writes in Death in the Afternoon, “A querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality. … It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place, he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.” However, querencia for the community-land-grant Nuevomexicano was more of a communal feeling that one had for the land because it was the place of nuestra gente (our people), not just your place, but our place.

        El Santuario de Chimayó is a sacred site for Nuevomexicanos, a part of our querencia. It has been described as the “Lourdes of America” because the small chapel is reported to be the site of many healings attributed to the sacred dirt in a pocito (little well or hole) in its floor, which is collected and then rubbed onto the bodies of believers. The chapel was built in 1816 and named El Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in honor of a similar shrine in Guatemala, where there was also miraculous soil for healing, and which contains a crucifix of a dark-complexioned Jesus Christ. The veneration of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas migrated north into Mexico and New Mexico. According to legend, in 1810 some Hermanos Penitentes were performing rites on a hill above Chimayó, and they saw a light emanating from the valley below. When they went to investigate, they found a half-buried wooden crucifix at the place where the light had been seen. The crucifix was taken to a church in Santa Cruz eight miles away, whereupon the icon disappeared the next day. It was found where it had been first been discovered. After two more repetitions of taking the crucifix to Santa Cruz and then having it return to the original site in Chimayó by itself, it was decided that the crucifix needed to be at the place it was found. A small shrine was built for the crucifix followed by the chapel now known as El Santuario de Chimayó. It is significant that the location of the Santuario was said by the neighboring Tewa people to have been sacred to them and other Indians for generations. A spring had been located there and when it dried up, the remaining soil was found to have healing powers. Today, thousands of pilgrims come to El Santuario to worship and to seek healing for their infirmities. People take with them the dirt from the pocito (little well), where the crucifix had originally been found, and it has to be replenished regularly with soil from elsewhere. Crutches and canes left behind by the healed line the walls of the sanctuary. The resident priest is quick to emphasize that it is not the soil of El Santuario that heals people, but their faith in God.

El Pocito at El Santuario
El Pocito at El Santuario


1. Malcolm Ebright and Rick Hendricks, The Witches of Abiquiu: The Governor, the Priest, The Genízaro Indians and the Devil, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006, p. 154.

2. Roz Dzelzitis, Taos Blue Lake, Sacred Lands Film Project. Earth Island Institute, 29 Sept. 2010.