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I Am a Marrano

Oct 14, 2021 | Stories

by Anne Cardoza

As I sit in a synagogue service and pray, often I wonder what it means to be a Marrano. I know my grandmother told me she was a Marrano. Pauline, my grandmother, would sew Catholic medals and crucifixes in the hems of skirts and pillows. She would light votive candles on Shabbat and go to Mass but never take communion. She would touch her forehead or face or shoulders in various places so that it would look as if she was making the sign of the cross. What she really was doing was whispering Adonai (Lord) and making rapid movements that had some secret meaning.

In church, she would pray in Spanish in her native accent from Gerona, Spain. She also spoke Portuguese and knew a few Hebrew words. Grandma sold cloth to the nuns from which they made their habits.

My mother was raised never to speak to anyone about being Jewish. From her earliest years, she was told that “she had the map of Jerusalem printed on her face.” Jewish practices had to be performed in total secrecy. There was a connection between the Marranos of Gerona, Spain, and the Marranos of Belmonte, Portugal.

I had been handed down the same practices. On Friday night, the Sabbath candles were little red or blue glass Catholic votive candles—the perfumed kind which I bought in a candle shop. The candles would always be in the bedroom, so as not to embarrass the non-Jewish members of my family. Today, I go to the synagogue alone, and my non-Jewish husband picks me up outside, but I go.

For generations, being a Marrano meant my family absolutely forbade any member to tell an outsider that he or she was Jewish. Even though the Inquisition had been over since the 1820s, the feeling was that it was never really over in most people’s beliefs, and under no circumstances was any Jewish practice or mannerism to be shown to strangers.

Everything Jewish was done in the home. The holidays were celebrated by lighting votive candles. Sabbath meals consisted of a porridge of cooked whole rye, wheat, brown rice, millet, lentils, chickpeas, with celery, carrots and parsley.

Mother would take me to Mass at the church. We would sit while the otherstook communion. Many times I was told to cross myself and kneel in churchwhile saying Jewish prayers in Spanish. Occasionally, a Hebrew word or two was mixed in. The word baruch (blessed) and Adonai were the only Hebrew words I remember.

In my early teens, my mother told me I was Jewish and to keep quiet about it.

Later, I began to search my roots. Why did my mother tell me I was a Marrano, a secret Jew? I was told that ancestors centuries ago had been tried in the Spanish Inquisition and reconciled to the Catholic Church or sent to the stake; that those who watched the auto de fes¹ and who abjure de vehementi² went home and practiced Judaism in secret. For generations, the only way they preserved their religion was by an agreed-upon family code:

Never take communion. Always say Adonai when you cross yourself and touch your closed eyelids. Light the Sabbath lamps in a room where no one can see light escaping. The unsuspected votive candles lit on Friday night were lit in the bedroom, sometimes even in the bathroom, but never on the dining room table, lest someone say you were a Jew.

Wear big crosses, sometimes five inches in diameter. Share the family secret with adult children over age 13, so they could keep a secret. On Passover, outdoor picnics, no indoor Seders or Haggadahs. Eat lentils, honey cakes and greens, no meat, sometimes fish, vegetables and grains.

When Grandma was young, she left Gerona for Buenos Aires. Later, the family came to the U.S. She had two marriages. On both my mother’s and my father’s side, cousin marriages had taken place for generations back, for another rule of the code was to stay genetically Jewish by marrying only relatives such as cousins. My father’s brother was my maternal grandmother’s second husband. My uncle’s youngest brother married my mother.

Outside, no one knew of the Jewishness, the secret religion. Inside the home, we were taught how to conceal our Jewishness and why this had to be done. “If anyone finds out you’re a Jew, they will bash your face in.” I was taught this from early childhood.

People who say there are no more Marranos don’t know the real story. There are 500 to 600 Marrano families in Portugal and many in Spain, also. In the New World, some live in South America and some in Mexico. I’m talking about those people who remained genetically Jewish through cousin marriages for the past 300 years; who knew for sure that their families were Jewish; who kept preserved relics like a 300- year-old kiddish cup (cup used to bless wine), tear vials, candlesticks, etc.

These people are in the U.S. today and are coming out of their secrecy. The one thing that preserved the Marrano way of life was the profound secrecy of their religion. Today, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, people such as Loggie Carrasco are doing linguistic research in archaic Hebrew language found among the local Hispanic population. For 300 years, Loggie Carrasco’s family clung to Marrano practices and secret Jewish rites while outwardly simulating Catholicism in order to keep the family’s rights to Mexican land grants. If the Mexican government had discovered that Loggie’s family was Jewish, they would have lost their huge property holdings. In a recent court trial, Loggie won her rights to her property and the story was brought to light.

Today, Loggie Carrasco, a Marrano, searches the U.S. Southwest looking for clues to the language and customs of the ancient community which existed in this part of the country when it was part of New Spain—in colonial Mexican days during the 17th century. Now she attends the local synagogue.

Another Marrano, Victor Diaz of San Diego, is the owner of the radio station, Radio Latina in Chula Vista, California. He owns many radio stations throughout Mexico and San Diego. For 300 years his family lived in Guadalahara, Mexico, as Marranos. He remained genetically Jewish by constant cousin marriages for generations. He and his wife are both Marranos. He describes himself as a Catholic Jew, who had been a Catholic man all his life and suddenly became Jewish after contact with a rabbi who specializes in converting Marranos back to Judaism.

Marranos should not be confused with Indian Jews or the descendants of Mestizos who converted to Judaism of late. They are not the descendants of Indian slaves of Jews who adopted their religion, either. Although the recently converted Mestizo Jews of Mexico are devout Jews, the term Marranos applies here to specific families which have remained consciously, genetically Jewish through cousin marriages and selected marriages with other secret Jews from European ancestry in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Many of these people have been living in Mexico for more than 300 years and can be seen as totally different from the general Mestizo Latin American population at large.

For example, without exception, all the Marranos I have met so far have similar coloring: fair skin; green, hazel, golden brown, blue or gray eyes; brown hair; Semitic profiles and Armenid-shaped skulls. They differ slightly from the Sephardic Jews of the eastern Mediterranean since they are lighter in coloring with short, very narrow heads. They are extremely in-bred from generations of marrying close neighbors or cousins, but do not have any genetic diseases peculiar to their people, perhaps because there are so few of them.

Marranos came out of the closet during the 1930s Marrano renaissance in Belmonte, Portugal. At that time, the Jewish Board of Guardians set up the Basil H. Henriquies Portuguese Marranos Committee of London on Commercial Road. In Majorca, for example, after 300 years, the Inquisition still taints the Chuetas. (Chueta comes from the Catalonian word for Jew, xueta). All the family names were engraved in a church saying that they were secret Jews. Today, their descendants are still shunned by the local populace.

One Marrano from Majorca, Spain, Nico Aguilo, went to a yeshiva in Israel, formally renewed his conversion to Judaism, returned to Majorca, and proudly wears his skullcap, trying to help other Jews come back.

In the Iberian peninsula, it has become fashionable not to remain secret Jews. In Cordoba, Spain, the Beit Sephardi was established by two local business people who felt that it was time to announce their secret Jewish faith. It is a local center for study and culture of the Jewish history of Cordoba. Since one out of ten Spaniards reputedly were Jewish prior to the Inquisition, the social stigma that formerly was attached to being a Marrano is diminishing.

The important Marrano holidays are Passover and Quippur (Yom Kippur), also called El Gran Dia De Pardon, when all Marranos fast. Among Portuguese Marranos, Quippur is called Dia Grande or Dia Puro (pure day). The pascua, or Passover, was called the day of the lamb. Marranos do not sit down to a seder; they sit down to a Haggadah, accent on the last syllable. However, Portuguese Marranos do not have a Haggadah book. They use the Bible and read from Exodus.

Matzoh was made by mixing water and rye flour or chickpea flour, kneading it, and throwing it into the fire or oven. Matzoh was round, tasteless, undercooked dough. No tasty crackers for Marranos on this day of bitter bread. Portuguese Marranos in Belmonte call their matzoh, pao santo (holy bread). They pray in Portuguese and use the word Adonai, instead of Cristos. Out of 4,000 residents, 600 are Marranos who will tell you that they are Jewish, but they still go to Mass and say their Jewish prayers at home. (See “When Marrano Descendants Met Their Israeli Landsleit,” Jewish Digest, 6/67, pp. 61–67).

Holidays were always scheduled a week before or after the real dates. This is still done today in the largest cities: Braganca, Rebordello, Oporto and Belmonte, where most Portuguese Marranos live. Gerona is the center of Spain, although many, including some of my relatives, moved to Malaga.

In South America today and in Mexico, there are still Marranos with their quaint customs. They are slowly coming forward, but only when searched out by rabbis wishing to take them into the fold. One of the best sources for information about Marranos is Dan Ross, a St. Martin’s Press author, who wrote Acts of Faith, examining Marranos on the fringes of Jewish identity who are starting to come back. Amilcar Paulo of Oporto, Portugal, is the world’s foremost authority on the Portuguese Marranos living in Belmonte today.

Marranos are just beginning to make themselves known as crypto-Judios in Gerona. In Rebordello, Portugal, the 1930s Marrano renaissance caused local Marrano Moses Abraham Gaspar’s father to carve a giant star of David on his doorpost. In Braganca, the local man of wisdom today is Joao Baptista dos Santos. But Belmonte, Portugal, today is the only place where old and new Christians remain a central fact of life. In 1979, the Oporto Synagogue was defaced with swastikas and slogans of “death to the Jews,” and a Portuguese Marrano’s clothing factory was defaced and burned down.

Anti-Jewishness against Marranos who declare themselves is rampant in northeastern Portugal today. In Spain, in Gerona, and in the whole of Catalonia, Marranos and other Jews are treated very fairly, but freedom to worship openly as a Jew in Spain has only been legal since 1968.

Anne Cardoza is a freelance writer and literary agent who lives in California.

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¹ Literally, “act of faith.” It was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates that took place during the Inquisition. The term is usually associated with the act of torturing the condemned or burning at the stake.

² Literally, “vehemently denied under false oath.” The term used for Jews who denied under oath that they still practiced Judaism but did so in secret.