Mallorca's Jews Get Their Due

Spanish Island's Community Alive and Thriving

Jewish Lineage: Joan Punyet Miró
sarah wildman
Jewish Lineage: Joan Punyet Miró

By Sarah Wildman

Published April 13, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.

‘We descend from Jews, I am sure of it,” said Joan Punyet Miró, the youngest grandson of the eponymous painter. We were sitting in his offices in the heart of Palma de Mallorca, blocks from the imposing sandstone cathedral within which his grandfather once sought refuge and around the corner from the glorious and airy new modern art museum Es Baluard. “You see,” he continued, “Miró is known as a chueto name.”

“Chueto” is the pejorative, Mallorcan form of the Spanish words marrano, a hidden Jew, and converso, a Jew forced to convert during the Inquisition. It means “pig” in the local dialect, a riff off the pork that Jews were forced to eat to “prove” their Catholicism. So well known are chueto names in Mallorca that they continued to carry great weight for centuries after the Inquisition; in 1978, posters Miró designed for a play were defaced, painted and written over with the word chueto in all capital letters. It was not a friendly gesture.

Waves of Violence: The Jews of Palma de Mallorca were forced to live in ‘ghettos,’ like the one above, beginning around the Roman era.
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Waves of Violence: The Jews of Palma de Mallorca were forced to live in ‘ghettos,’ like the one above, beginning around the Roman era.

Those chueto names are identifiable, in part, because on this idyllic Balearic Island about 120 miles off the east coast of Spain, crypto-Jews remained connected to their heritage and distinct from the rest of the Mallorcan population. Marriages to chuetos were frowned upon, so the chuetos continued to marry within the community, wiping out most family names. Though today these crypto-Jews number about 20,000, there remain only some 15 family names, like Miró, that are considered “chueto.”

But the aggression and suspicion experienced by Miró and other Jews very recently gave way to something else entirely: recognition. Last July, a few weeks after I met the Miró family, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, chairman of the Beit Din Tzedek, in Bnei Brak, announced that members of the chueto population of Mallorca could reclaim their identity, should they choose, some 600 years after the Spanish Inquisition. Their unique separation from the rest of Spanish and Mallorcan society had preserved their Jewishness, he reasoned. At the moment when Mallorca’s chuetos might have finally blended into the rest of society, they no longer had to.

The ancient Jewish presence lives here like a ghost in the alleyways around the cathedral, and in the blood of the chueto families that hung on to their identities for several hundred years.

Jews began living on Mallorca in the Roman era, if not before. They nestled in the twisting streets of the island’s main city, Palma, in two calls, or ghettos: “major” and “menor.” Jews thrived under North African occupation, and then became comfortable and wealthy in the 13th and early 14th centuries, when the Spanish kings took over. They were cartographers and astronomers, merchants and traders. Though the Jews were forced to live in distinct areas of the city, those areas were, and remain, marvelous quarters, well ventilated by winds from the sea.



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