Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Crypto Jews of New Mexico

By Nancy J. Farrier

Crypto Jews? What are crypto Jews? I remember being puzzled when my Aunt Mary Jean asked me if I’d ever heard of the Crypto Jews of New Mexico. She has a friend who did some research and while we didn’t have time to go into any detail, she told me I should read up on them because the story is so very interesting. I agree with her and this blog post is what I found in my research.

Spanish Inquisition, Wikimedia Image
by welcomeimages.org
The story begins in Spain and Portugal in the late 15thcentury. The King of Spain declared that all Jews needed to convert to Christianity. Many of the Jews left Spain. Some of them went to Portugal. Five years later Portugal also decided the Jews must convert to Christianity. 

The punishment for those who didn’t leave or convert was severe. The government started the Inquisition to look for Jews who were hiding among the Christians. Many of the Jews became Crypto Jews or hidden Jews to keep themselves safe. However, staying in Spain or Portugal still meant a huge risk to their lives and the lives of their families. 

After Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, many of the Crypto Jews decided to become colonists where they could practice their faith in secret. A large group of them made their way to New Mexico, although traces can be found throughout the Southwest. 

The Inquisition followed them to the Americas and Mexico. This is why so many moved to the far northern point of Mexico at the time, northern New Mexico. They wanted to escape the persecution and to live a peaceful life.

Jewish Star, photo by Alex Proimos
Wikimedia Commons

The Crypto Jews were well hidden in the Catholic church. They attended services and to most appeared to be practicing Catholics. However, if you were observant you would note they did not eat pork. They lit candles on Friday night. They attended services on Saturday. They did not pray to the saints. They practiced infant circumcision. These were small clues that mostly went unnoticed but meant the Jews were keeping their faith alive underneath the pretense.

Wikimedia Commons
In the 1980’s, New Mexico hired a new State historian, Stanley Hordes. Hordes had written a doctoral dissertation about the Crypto Jews and New Mexico. After he took office, he saw an influx of people visiting him with questions about their ancestry. They talked about grandfathers who wore hats to church on Saturday. They wondered about their unusual skin coloring, which didn’t match that of the Hispanic community. They asked about the unusual artifacts left to them, including driedels. The practice of slitting an animals throat and preparing it in a kosher method. Finding gravestones with the six-pointed Jewish star. 

There were those who opposed Hordes findings and disavowed the idea of Crypto Jews. But, there are many who support these people. In fact, there is a Society for Crypto Jews, started in 1991. Here is a link to their website. They are there to gather information on this hidden segment of society. They have a conference where they share information and meet together. The 2019 Conference is the end of this month in Denver.

I think it would be fascinating to attend this conference and learn more about
Dreidel: Photo by
Roland Scheicher
Wikimedia Commons
the history of these people who avoided execution by fitting in with their surroundings. At the same time, they kept their faith alive, handing down practices through generations.

Have you ever heard of the Crypto Jews of New Mexico? What would you do if you were forced to leave home, leaving behind all your belongings, or die for your faith? What a difficult question. I don’t know if I would truly see the enormity of the decision until faced with that choice. 

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.


  1. Very interesting! I especially find it interesting how they kept small pieces of their faith intact yet didn't stand out in the Catholic congregation. To me, that would be a hard spot to be in. Thanks for the post, Nancy!

    1. Thank you, Connie. I agree this was a hard place to be.

  2. Great post, Nancy. I am fascinating by the Jewish people, and find this history particularly intriguing. I wonder if some of the Catholic clergy were aware they were hiding and safeguarding these people, like many convents and parishes did during WWII? My mother was a lifelong student of history, of the Jews and Catholics in particular. I wonder if she ever read about this. Thanks for your research.

    1. Kathleen, that is a great question. I did not see that anyone was aware they were hiding. Their lives were at risk. From research, I believe the secret was buried deep and often even their family born later wasn’t aware.

  3. That was really interesting! I've heard the term but had never known what it was. Fascinating people.

    1. Debbie, I had never heard the term and found this very interesting to research.

  4. Nancy, this is a fascinating post! I had not heard of the Crypto-Jews
    of New Mexico. However, while I don't remember the details,
    a few years ago I saw a TV show that addressed the situation of
    "Crypto-Jews" around the world. Their ancestors had escaped the
    Inquisition to different countries, and quietly practiced Judaism,
    while still attending church. They also had many questions of
    their ancestry. Did you know that the Jewish star is also called
    the Star of David? Thanks for sharing such an interesting post.