Monday, March 17, 2008

Travels to New Mexico

Since the dollar is tanking in world markets, it is a good thing that the United States is so diverse that traveling to another part of it can almost feel like a foreign country. So it was with our journey to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, for an Elderhostel (or hostel elders, as our friends' children call it) trip. It was a wonderful week--full of great learnings and photo opportunities.

New Mexico was originally part of the Spanish empire in North America, and did not officially become a state until 1912--the last territory on the mainland to join the union. The Spanish and Indian heritage are both very rich. We were there to participate in what turned out to be a fascinating study of conversos and crypto-Jews, with classroom study and discussion in Albuquerque and several field trips. I can't say enough good things about Elderhostel--everything was so well organized and the group we were with was very congenial and curious--lots of interesting discussion and dialogue.

I had never thought much about a Jewish presence in this area, other than the warm and dry climate attracting retirees from other parts of the country. But the history goes all the way back to the Spanish Inquisition, when many were forcibly converted to Christianity by the Catholic authorities in Spain and expelled from the country in 1492, the same year that Columbus discovered the West Indies (of course, he was looking for India itself--from which has come all the confusion about the name "Indians.") . Some of these forced converts found their way to the New World, first to Mexico and then to small and remote towns in the north, far from the prying eyes of the Inquisitors--they literally had to convert in order to be able to board the ships.

Although a significant number intermarried and forgot their former faith in the new world (this was more difficult in Spain and Portugal, where they were constantly reminded and discriminated against), others continued to practice Judaism in secret---while also outwardly adhering to the Catholic faith, which was the recognized religion in the Spanish New World. A town could not be formed, in fact, until 30 families got together and a church was built--so the church was an imposing and constant presence in any small town. Until recently, it was assumed that these "crypto Jews" no longer existed, but this is not the case---it is clear that the tradition of crypto Judaism has been passed down for hundreds of years. And it was this clearly curious phenomena--why people would practice two religions, one in secret--that we were there to learn about.

In addition to Albuquerque, we visited Santa Fe and Chimayo, where we traveled to a Pueblo Indian village. Many of the Indians in this area also practice a dual religion--their own native customs and beliefs, and the Catholic religion that they, too, were forcibly converted to.

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