This Easter Sunday, March 31, marks the 521st anniversary of the issuance of the Alhambra Decree. To some, that name means nothing. Perhaps it is better known by its other name: The Edict of Expulsion. It was in the city of Granada, in the spring of 1492 that the Catholic Monarchs, Isabelle of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, decided to banish the Jews from Spain.
According to the decree, Jews were to be banished from all the realms under the joint crowns of Isabelle and Ferdinand. To get a better sense of Isabelle and Ferdinand’s dominion, the titles which they held in their own right as well as those they held as consorts to one another were, according to Edward Peters’s translation, the following:
King and Queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Seville, Sardinia, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, of the Algarve, Algeciras, Gibraltar, and of the Canary Islands, count and countess of Barcelona and lords of Biscay and Molina [de Aragón], dukes of Athens and Neopatria, counts of Roussillon and Cerdanya, marquises of Oristano and of Goceano
The Spain they ruled was expansive, containing territory and laying claim to land well beyond the borders of the Spain of today. Ferdinand and Isabelle’s realm included petty kingdoms located in modern-day Italy and Portugal and lesser claims to modern-day Greece and France.
One might think that the Edict of Expulsion is only a dark chapter out of a distant past. However, as with many laws that record humanity’s past inhumanity to man, the decree was not revoked until much later. How much later? It was revoked 476 years later on Monday, December 16, 1968, when the Spanish government finally rendered the statute without effect.
This formal act is often attributed to the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). An instrument entitled Nostra Aetate, promulgated on October 28, 1965 during the papacy of Pope Paul VI, served as the vehicle for the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. One of the most compelling passages in the instrument relates to the crime of deicide, or the charge that all Jews, past and present, are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ:
what happened … cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.
There are other admonishments against anti-Semitism and citations of scripture stating that the “Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.” Even still, three years lapsed before Spain finally revoked the decree.
At present, Spain has sought to make further amends with the Jews of Spanish (also known as Sephardic) ancestry for the transgression committed against them in 1492. I am referring to a statute that was issued in 2012. The “instruction,” issued by the General Directorate for Registries and the College of Civil-Law Notaries of Spain, unlike previous Spanish citizenship laws, provides special provisions for people of Sephardic ancestry. To see the requirements that must be met, see the section titled “Sefarditas.”
Initially, it seemed that the law was granting anyone of Sephardic ancestry instant citizenship; at least, that is how some newspapers interpreted it. However, the statute is very clear about the particulars that shall be met in order to obtain citizenship by this means.
One of the provisions calls for documented proof of a connection between the surname of a contemporary claimant and the recorded use of that surname among the Jews of Spain before 1492. Alternatively, it demands proof of a family’s use of a spoken language that substantiates a historical connection to fifteenth century Spain. As far as names go, many people may be familiar with the Germanic and Slavic surnames of Ashkenazic Jews; however, you may also have come across many Hispanic surnames without realizing that these too may be Jewish surnames–the Sephardic sort. As far as language is concerned, the name for the Spanish spoken by descendents of the Jews of Spain is Ladino; it is also known as Djudeo-Espanyol to name its principal appellations.
For those who are curious to see a sample of Ladino as transcribed in the Roman script, you may read this essay titled El Sefardizmo by Dr. Albert de Vidas. Those who speak Spanish will find it very easy to read and understand as it is phonetic; and it is Spanish. People from remote places in Texas, the Southwest, and Mexico may even find some forms very familiar; but in modern Spanish, these have become archaisms. (For film aficionados: a foreign film, Every Time We Say Goodbye, features a Sephardic family in Jerusalem during the Second World War.)
The Spanish Inquisition and the subsequent Mexican Inquisition, which remained in force between the 15th and 19th centuries, were particularly harsh. (There were earlier periods of inquisition, of course; but these are not germane to our post.) The case of Don Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, a sixteenth century Mexican whose family had converted from Judaism to Catholicism to escape expulsion or death, is a striking one. The inquisition got word that his family may be practicing crypto-Judaism. His daughter was tortured until she implicated the whole family. Don Luis died in prison, while his family was tortured and killed; at least one of them committed suicide to end the torture.
Fear of a similar fate might explain why many families, particularly in Mexico, deliberately chose to suppress and in effect to forget their ancestry. But culture has an interesting way of preserving the past and thrusting it into the future. Whether as unconscious syncretism or as an especially enduring form of crypto-Judaism, cultural practices have served as the perfect vessel, accidental or intentional, for transmitting ancestral tradition.
Don Luis was one of the forefathers and the governor of the modern-day Mexican state of Nuevo León. I find Luis de Carvajal’s story particularly interesting because it includes fascinating vignettes of some of the regions where I grew up and visited, namely, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas (which included the modern-day state of Aguascalientes), Padre Island, Nuevo León, and Coahuila (de Zaragoza), among others. According to this article on Carabajal (Carvajal), “It is safe to assume that a number of these early colonists were Spanish Jews, who, under the guise of Maranos, had hoped to escape persecution and find prosperity in the New World.”
For those of you of crypto-Sephardic ancestry, enjoy the capirotada during these holidays.