My Jewish ancestors fled Spain, will returning feel like home — or just another diaspora?

When the government of Spain passed a law that offered citizenship to the descendants of Jewish people expelled 500 years ago by the Inquisition, half the people I knew sent me copies of news reports about it, or wrote and asked if I planned to pursue Spanish citizenship.

No, I always said. It sounded like a ploy for tourist dollars. And besides, I wasn’t even sure I could prove my connection.

My parents were born in Mexico and fled north to California in the U.S. in 1914 and 1930, respectively, during the Mexican Revolution. Like many Mexican Protestants, they suspected they had originally descended from Spain’s banished Jews—a vast Sephardic diaspora that extended from China to India to the American West that began with the Edict of Expulsion, the 1492 charter that told hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the Spanish Kingdom to convert, leave, or be killed.

No one spoke of this history, really. I first learned of it at the age of 9, after I read all of the Old Testament and told my mother I wanted to be Jewish. We were, once, she told me—or rather, our ancestors were. But now we were Protestant. It was years before I patched it all together and connected my family’s story with the Inquisition’s legacy. Eventually I began writing about my family and the hidden Jews of Mexico, as families like mine are sometimes known—a group who often practiced Catholicism, but never quite belonged.

The citizenship offer was announced in 2015, and set to expire after three years. As the window began to close, my son, then 28, said, “We should do this.”

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“It’s EU citizenship.”

I thought about this. I had visited Spain but had never really considered a move there. At the same time, since 2016 we had been living in a United States where, every morning, we’d been greeted with a new atrocity committed by our own government against immigrants and the children of immigrants, including those from Mexico, part of a population recently portrayed as murderers and rapists. The atmosphere was threatening to get worse. Spain and the European Union looked progressive, in comparison. My son, a software engineer, was already a citizen of the world, having traveled all over, working with colleagues from Silicon Valley to Poland, and backpacking through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and all over South America. “It will be fun,” he promised. “We will do it together.”

So I agreed to apply.

It seemed, at first, like a manageable process. Get a few documents together, brush up on my Spanish, and study for a citizenship test—the same things required of people seeking citizenship in the United States, plus proving my Jewish background. The amount of paperwork turned out to be massive. Everything had to be translated into Spanish by a translator certified by the Spanish Government. Everything had to not only be notarized, but recognized by the equivalent of notaries in Europe.

We needed our birth certificates and our driver’s licenses. We needed the state of Washington to attest that we had clean criminal records for the last two years—no easy feat, I was to learn, as numerous copies of my fingerprints were rejected for review by the FBI, time and again, because they were considered illegible. I needed copies of my marriage certificate from Colorado. I needed to learn grown-up Spanish, as opposed to my vestigial childhood Spanish, and pass a rigorous, three-part test. Everything cost money. Everything took time.

I also had to establish my direct descent from specific individuals who left Spain under duress during the Inquisition—proof that needed to be documented with papers recognized by both the Jewish Council of Spain, a group of rabbis who represent the present-day Jewish communities in Spain, and the Spanish government. I would need to list names of people in my family—father to son or daughter, mother to son or daughter, a direct, unbroken line—all the way back to someone who had fled Spain. Many people who escaped the Inquisition took on new identities to board ships to the Americas, and kept those new identities in the New World. How, I wondered, did they expect us to have legal proof of descent after hundreds of years of clandestine existence?

Most of what I know of my family’s distant past I’ve learned since 1992, the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition. For the milestone, I wrote a piece for the literary journal the Raven Chronicles, where I had the opportunity to interview an elder in Seattle who I hoped would be able to tell me more about the Sephardic community there. When I arrived at my interviewee’s home, the dining room table was covered in old photos. Isaac Maimon, a retired greengrocer, told me about his years teaching Ladino, a Jewish dialect of Spanish, at his synagogue. His father had been the first Sephardic rabbi in Seattle. Mr. Maimon had immigrated with his family from Turkey as a 13-year-old at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and grown up in a vibrant community of Jews from Turkey, Greece and the Isle of Rhodes. He had strong feelings about Spain; he might forgive the country for what it did to its Jewish citizens, he said, but he would never forget. As we spoke, his wife was kneading and rolling dough in the kitchen, which had a Dutch door into the room where we talked. This allowed her to join us as she baked, and kept Mr. Maimon, an Orthodox Jew, from being alone with a woman who was not a relative.

As my ancestors fled for their lives or were driven off their land, I should be prepared to pull up roots and relocate if I have to. At the same time, I should also be prepared to defend my place, and that of others, in the world.

Before I left, I told him that there was speculation in my family that we, too, were descended from Spanish Jews. Immediately, he began to grill me on family customs. Did we light candles on Friday night, a telltale remnant of Shabbat observances past? Did we play cards, a way to study Torah without having the actual texts? Did we have any documents or objects—a menorah or mezuzah—that might hint at Sephardic ancestry? To acknowledge the 500-year anniversary, Sephardim all over the world, he told me, were sharing antiques or relics that linked them to their Spanish past. Some people even had keys to the homes their ancestors left behind in Spain, as though this would all blow over and they could return in their own lifetimes.

Everyone, it seemed, except the Jews of northern Mexico and New Mexico, who said, “thank you very much, but we are happy the way we are”—in other words, hidden. Catholicism is still strong in Mexico, and even after 500 years people feel that they could hurt their business prospects, or endanger themselves, by openly declaring their Judaism. It has become more than a habit or an affectation. After so much time, a way to stay alive is a way of life.

Unlike some families, ours did not have any old artifacts. My mother’s family had moved constantly while she was growing up. My father’s family walked north with what they could carry. All we had were stories and strings of names.

We were going to have to dig to confirm a Jewish past. At first, an acquaintance of mine who specialized in Mexican Jewish genealogies told me that we could submit a simple report from a genealogist, summarizing the evidence of our ancestry. She referred us to a woman in Spain who did such work; she merely noted a couple of the surnames on my family tree, that there were Alcalás and Gutierrezes in Spain who had also suffered under the Inquisition—gruesomely, I might add—and that it was reasonable to believe we were their descendants. But by the time we received the “report,” the Spanish Government was no longer accepting such documents as valid proof. The connection had to be spelled out generation by generation, name by name.

Over the years various relatives had passed along family trees of sorts, but I felt inadequate to trace the connections between people who all shared the same few names, over and over. An ancestor at the top of the chart had been married four times. We turned next to an American genealogist who specialized in the history of Northern Mexico. He mined the records of the Mormon Church, who collect genealogies for religious reasons, but make them available to everyone.

He also found a privately published book that told the stories of Spanish settlers of Monterrey and Saltillo, Mexico, and provided photos of church records from the Cathedral in Saltillo that provided proof of our descent from one of four particular individuals—people recruited to Mexico by the famous Luis de Carvajál, a governor of the Spanish province of Nuevo León, who was himself later sentenced to death by the Inquisition in Mexico. These four were mysteriously able to board ships without the mandatory background checks attesting that they were of good Catholic backgrounds. It was the first time I had heard the names of the specific people in my family who left Spain for what was, to them, a New World. Even now, I can barely look at their names without feeling a bit shaky.

The citizenship process, for us, culminated in a trip to Málaga, Spain, moments before the pandemic broke out in Europe. There, we visited a notario (a kind of legal officer with more power than notaries in the U.S.) to witness our signatures on piles of official papers, after which he affixed his own signature and seal. Only then could our application, along with those of more than 132,000 other descendants of Spanish Jews, make its way to the Spanish government.

Just over a year later, we are now waiting to hear back. If everything is approved, we will visit the local Spanish Consular in the Seattle area to receive our passports and our citizenship. I have mixed emotions about this subject; because I can afford the time and money to pursue Spanish citizenship, I feel that I am claiming privilege when what I want to claim is justice. I know my feelings will continue to evolve as world events unfold. I also identify as a descendant of Opata Indians from the Sonoran Desert. I have taken an active role in recovering that culture in recent years, another case of land stolen and people who deliberately hid their identity in order to survive. No story takes precedence over any other, of loss and recovery, of conqueror and conquered, or of exile and return.

As my son and I wait to hear if we will be granted citizenship, it is easy for me to ignore the larger questions. We have a new administration, and the existential threat hanging over our heads has abated. My relationship with Judaism has evolved over the decades, and this seems to be one more step in the process. As I talk to others with dual citizenship or multiple ethnic, cultural, or religious identities, I see that they are comfortable in this in-between place, called nepantla in Uto-Aztecan. I am by nature oriented to place as a way of being, but I have come to understand that I should never take it as a given. As my ancestors fled for their lives or were driven off their land, I should be prepared to pull up roots and relocate if I have to. At the same time, I should also be prepared to defend my place, and that of others, in the world.

The question before me remains: After an absence of 530 years, will Spain feel like home? Or just another diaspora?

Kathleen Alcala lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington. She is the author of the newly reissued Spirits of the Ordinary, and is researching a new book set in 10th-century Spain. This essay originally appeared at zocalopublicsquare.org. Reposted with permission.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

A Sephardic Jew seeks citizenship in Spain

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