Monday, December 13, 2004

Sixth candle

Yes, I skipped one day. I decided to stay away from blogging for at least a day. I roamed the stacks at Mount Holyoke looking for books on pre-historic Mesopotamia. Much of the stuff is theoretical (duh! it's prehistoric). However, as I was looking through books on political anthropology I found, without intending to, some interesting things about how contested hidden Jewish/Sephardic histories can be.

Delirio: The buried history of Nuevo León (The Fantastic, the Demonic, and the Réel) by Marie Theresa Hernández deals with the narratives in the northernmost state of Mexico, whose people have the reputation of being distant from the nation. Nuevo León is perceived as being different, separated by distance and influenced by America due to proximity, surrounded by the desert and mountains. The nuevoleneses have their own values, their own perception of being a more industrious people who have prospered in an area without anything in abundance. Hernandez finds that three narratives weave their way around popular history in order to explain exceptionalism: the "primitive" rural people, the "barbaric" natives, and the "first Jews."


The notion that there are strong strains of Judaism come from the fact that one of the men who established the state (Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, the first governor of Nuevo León) was a descendant of forced converts. Moreover, the Inquisition saw it necessary to exterminate his entire family. Carvajal was granted the territory as a concession from the Spanish monarch in 1579. This was a period in which the larger population of Spain turned against the "New Christians": the latter, despite being spiritually deprived, prospered as a group in various affairs when the official barriers to Judaism were removed by their conversion. It was suggested that Carvajal, a "Portuguese" (codeword for Crypto-Jew), along with other founders of the state, intended to set up a Jewish state away from the influence of the Inquisition in the most remote part of the empire. According to the official history, the elimination of Carvajal and his family erased all possible Jewish influences in Nuevo León.

Hernandez is not interested in testing the truth of this claim. What interests her is the power of the narrative: that a strong converso population established itself in Nuevo León and that regional peculiarities (in economics, demographics and culture) are attributable to the influence of Crypto-Judaism. The hidden history of Jewish Nuevo León, regardless of its genuineness, is a subversive critique of tensions between popular and official history, center and periphery, the identities of mixing (mestizo) and blood purity (limpieza de sangre). The official history denies this. In the opinion of local and regional historians, the formula "no documents, no history" means that no Jews established themselves during the region's formation. For the believers, there is no solid proof, but many things that are suspicious: peculiarities of practices that are not attributable to native or Spanish influences; family stories that speak of Jewish ancestors and endogamy; the presence of an Inquisition that had no object; and the vehemence with which the "official" historians deny the claim. The problem is compounded by the fact that the types of documents that might show something are no longer extant. Moreover, such documents themselves would be difficult to read because they would not be able to admit the existence of something that should not. The narrative of Sephardic/Crypto-Jewish influence is a counternarrative to the story of national purity.

An interesting example of the emotion and acrimony that surrounds the issue comes from a seminar that Hernandez attended on colonial history of the region.
The topic was colonial Nuevo León, and the lecturer was Rolando Guerra, a noted academic specializing in regional ecclesiastical history. Having heard the Jewish stories for the two years I have been in Nuevo León and read about them ... in the history of Monterrey, I was completely surprised at what Guerra told us. He said that the constant story about the first Spanish settlers being Jewish is an "ideological myth." although he acknowledged that Luis Carvajal was the son of Jewish conversos, Guerra told his class that there were no other Jewish settlers. Guerra was emphatic. "There is no documentation," he said. He also cited Israel Cavazos Garza's statement that there are no archives to substantiate the presence of the Jews in Nuevo León. ... the students began to stand up, barraging him with questions. "How could this be possible?" they asked. "Isn't it possible that the Jews would leave no documentation because of the continuing influence of the Inquisition?" Guerra was firm in his response: "No Jews, no documentation." When I raised my hand and asked him what the purpose of this ideology was, he listened to my question, but did not respond to me."
Of course, I find this narrative interesting because of what is says about the region as well as about possible Crypto-Judaism. The notion of foreign influences in the development of national territory is enough to make the narrative contentious. Mexico prefers to see itself as a nation that has taken elements of the native and the European and mixed them together, forming something stronger and unique. There is something not completely truthful about these mestizo narratives: mixing was never widespread, and it is still possible to differentiate between populations in Mexico.

But what if there was an unintended elements of cultural hybridization, a foreign influence that was neither native nor introduced by the Spanish? And what if that element did not disappear in the process of creating the nation? Even the presence of Carvajal in regional history is evidence of a history that cannot be contained within the body of national history, not just of the experience of Jews, but of transnational movement in European society that may have sought refuge from the abuses created by the civilization of the era. The memory of the founding of Nuevo León has at its roots a critique of Mexico, a counterexample of coexistence outside of national ideologies.


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