1596: Francisca Nunez de Carvajal, her children, and four other crypto-Jews of her family

On this date in 1596, the Inquisition sent nine Jewish converts to Christianity to the stake in Mexico City for Judaizing — a cruel fate offering a window into a secret history of New World settlement.

When Spain expelled its Jews (and subsequently its Muslims), those who did not flee had to convert. Conversions at swordpoint being of suspect sincerity, the Inquisition spent much of the following centuries hunting Conversos — so-called “New Christians” — who secretly preserved their outlawed faiths.

For some crypto-Jews, the New World held an appeal akin to that which would draw later generations of northern Europe’s religious minorities.

Latin America in particular attracted considerable numbers of New Christians. The advantage of these territories was that they offered the New Christians a familiar culture and the possiblity of direct — even if infrequent — contact with the mother countries … These factors also helped permit [crypto-Jews] to practice Judaism.

The Carvajals (or Carabajals) were just such a family, settling in Monterrey under the aegis of their kinsman, Spanish governor Luis de Carvajal y Cueva.

But in 1590, the governor’s sister Francisa was tortured by the Inquisition into implicating her entire family in Judaism.

They got off with a humiliating public recantation, but evidence of a relapse a few years later resulted in Francisca being burned at the stake at an auto de fe — along with her children Isabel, Catalina, Leonor and Luis, and four of their in-laws. The 30-year-old Luis left a testimonial to his faith and his tortures.

A headstone in New Mexico, USA, suggests crypto-Jewish descent. Image used with permission.

Despite the grisly doings of this day, however, the Inquisition never could extirpate Jews from its American territory.

These hidden communities filtered into Mexico and north to the present-day United States, keeping adapted versions of Jewish traditions secretly alive.

Still, crypto-Jews produced scant potentially self-incriminating documentary evidence. Although DNA testing has latterly entered the scene, the true extent and nature of these populations has been the subject of lively scholarly controversy.

But the Carvajals and others like them, seemingly lost to the Inquisition’s depredations, are coming alive again. This day’s executions are the subject of a modern opera and a spring 2008 Texas A&M symposium.

And the wider community of crypto-Jews have their own umbrella organization and a burgeoning body of historical literature.

Books about crypto-Jews

3 thoughts on “1596: Francisca Nunez de Carvajal, her children, and four other crypto-Jews of her family”

  1. Henry Louis Gates’ program “American Roots” recently researched the family background of conservative commentator Linda Chavez. She had (via her DNA evidence) such a Converso background, in Texas.

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