Secrets Behind Adobe Walls
A Crypto-Jewish Story of Old Santa Fe
Sandra K. Toro
Tesuque, Territory of New Mexico
United States of America
? Tomorrow I will be eighty-five years old. For me, this is a time of reminiscences, dreams, memories of Mother and Father and Aunt Paula and Uncle Diego. Strange as it seems, memories of my childhood years are clearer, more vivid, than what happened yesterday or the day before.
My children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, nieces and nephews and cousins I don’t recall even knowing, began arriving a week ago for the huge celebration they are planning for me, the matriarch of this now huge family. Several of the young ones have come from as far away as Denver and Dallas. Others live right here on the ranch, a few minutes from my home.
I’ve spent the last few weeks rereading the journals my grandfather, Ben Mendes, wrote nearly every day. It’s fascinating to read about Spain, Mexico City, and the earliest days of New Spain. Mother’s, on the other hand, are so voluminous, so filled with information about her plants, herbs, and patients, that I find reading those records tedious. Some scholar someday will mine them for information about medicinal plants, such was her wish as she expressed it in her will.
Father’s will was more to the point: he divided the ranch into three equal properties, one for me, Miriam, which included the big old house I still love, one for sister Cecilia and one for brother Benjamin. It’s been a joy to watch all our grandchildren and their children further divide the properties and build modern homes, at least two-dozen beautiful adobe homes.
For the most part our descendants have been blessed with good health. We’ve had the occasional miscarriage, three of my grandchildren have died before their twenty-first birthday, but most of my family has lived for seven or eight decades. Ben, Cecilia and I are extremely blessed to be in our eighties and none of us suffering more than the usual aches and pains and poor eyesight, natural in such old age. I know nothing of medicine like my mother, but I’d guess that one of the reasons we are healthy is that we work right alongside our hired help in our gardens and on the range. And we eat the food we produce, vegetables, fruits, chicken, fish from the streams, and beef, lamb and turkey. Cecilia and her daughter keep us all in cheeses from her dairy operation. Benjamin’s wife, Chloe, prepares the finest jams, jellies, relishes and is truly the gourmet chef among the women, perhaps because of her French heritage.
When I ponder on what has happened since 1821 when the Inquisition shut their doors in Mexico City and returned to Spain, and now that we’re part of the United States, I’m of mixed emotions. Mother, Father, and Grandfather would be surprised to know that we Jews can openly practice our religion without fear of torture or death, thanks to the United States Constitution which we’ve framed and hung in a place of honor in our library.
On the other hand, they would be saddened to see that our children and grandchildren pay no heed to Judaism, are content to be genuine Catholics like all their friends and business associates. When I’ve tried to discuss it with them, they call me old-fashioned, behind the times, and they have no desire to differentiate themselves from the rest of the families here in the New Mexico Territory. Who can blame them? We have no synagogues, no places of worship like the grand cathedrals of Catholicism.
Benjamin claims that the railroad from St. Louis will bring more and more German Jews who will take advantage of the opportunity to open up new markets here in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. I hope he’s right. Perhaps someday in my children’s lifetime we will have a synagogue in New Mexico. But the old folks, the ones who continued the traditions throughout the horrible years of the Inquisition, have already died out, and their children are reluctant to even remember their fear. Before he died, Grandfather told me of the near catastrophe that almost took place on the day mother and father married, of Governor Velez Cachupín’s threat to arrest them and send them to Mexico City.
Neither he nor mother mourned when Cachupín died an early death in 1769 in Madrid, having succumbed to an unknown disease after traveling on the warship La Castilla. Grandfather always said in Cachupín’s defense that he sincerely believed he was saving souls by insisting conversos give up their Jewish practices, but he seemed to be unaware of the contradiction of simultaneously allowing Indians to continue their traditional religions.
To my great delight, three of my great grandsons are thinking of running for the territorial legislature. Four of them have already become lawyers and two are studying to be doctors. Although most conversos refrained from naming their babies with biblical names—a sure sign they were practicing Jews—my children gave their children names from the Torah: four Benjamins, three Rachels, two Sarahs, three Samuels, three Miriams, two Davids, three Esthers, two Noahs. A pretty fine record, I’d say. And in honor of my handsome father, we have nine Antonios!
To my further delight and surprise, Paula and Diego also named their children for our family. Paula’s oldest son is Antonio and her oldest daughter is Rachel. My mother, using her inheritance from Great-great-grandma Anya Maria, set up trust funds for Paula’s children. She further endowed a special school for Indian children of workers on our ranch.
Now, of course, the biggest initiative of our territorial government is to get all of us to learn English so we can more fully participate in the life of our country, the United States. Thankfully, most of my grandchildren already speak English, and it’s clear to me that they are making their children speak English only. I do hope they retain some Spanish, it can’t hurt to know two languages in this new world.
I hear two babies crying outside my bedroom door, their mothers trying to shush them so as not to disturb me, the old one, the Beloved Abuela! As I sit here, looking out at the gorgeous blue sky, cloudless today, and hear the merry squeals of the children, my only wish is that my parents had lived to see this grand day, to know that we Jews have found a country where we are welcome.
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