An illustration of the san luis mountains with a Jewish start overhead. The background is dark blue and the design is white using a stippling effect.

Lost Highways

From Sefarad to the San Luis Valley: Crypto-Judaism in the Southwest

Season 5, Episode 1

Colorado's San Luis Valley is the last place you might expect to find a centuries-old lineage of Sephardic Jews. But a rare form of breast cancer and a host of unusual traditions, artifacts, and rituals led researchers to discover an enclave of Crypto-Jews that fled Europe for the New World in the 16th Century to hide out in one of the most remote areas of the lower 48 states. On this episode, we’ll unveil a secret Jewish faith and identity rooted deep in the American Southwest.

Guests: Dr. Ryan Burge, Sam Bock, Richard De Olivas y Cordova, Rachel Kaufman, Norma Libman, Naomi Minturn and her mother, Gail, Dr. Andrés Prieto, Jared Saltiel, Dr. Seth Ward, Jeff Wheelwright.

Original songs featured in the episode:

Resources and Links:

From Sefarad to the San Luis Valley: Crypto-Judaism in the Southwest (Script)

“Lost Highways” from History Colorado is made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: exploring the human endeavor. And by the Sturm Family Foundation, proud supporters of the humanities and the power of story-telling for more than twenty years. 

NOEL: Hey it's NOEL, and welcome to the first episode in Season 5 of Lost Highways. I want to quickly reintroduce Producer Maria Maddox, my co-host for this episode. She's from Chile and got her Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from CU Boulder. You've heard her before in our episodes last season about Wild Horses and the Buffalo Soldier Cathay Williams. And here she is again to introduce you to an unlikely community in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. 

MARIA: As a Literature major in Chile, I was well aware of Spain’s Siglo de Oro. An era that gave us masterworks like Cervantes and his “Don Quixote.”

I also knew that the Catholic Monarchs expelled Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. And how remnants of Muslim kingdoms survived into modern-day Spain – from the mosaics in the palace of Alhambra in Granada to everyday sayings in Spanish, like “Ojalá,” from the Arabic, ‘hopefully,’ or  ‘God willing.’’   

But it wasn’t until my 20s that I learned about the pivotal role that Sephardic Jews played in Spanish culture. Thanks to a blonde, hippie-looking American kid on campus named Jared, who wore glasses and a brown leather jacket, rain or shine. Some 17 years ago. 

Jared Saltiel: I got to Santiago a little bit before my 20th birthday. 
My name is Jared Saltiel. I'm a musician. Singer-songwriter. I live in New York. 

MARIA: He told me he descended from the Sephardim of Spain. 

Jared Saltiel: My paternal grandfather's family is Sephardic. As far as we can trace it back, they were in Spain, during the period probably from around the eight hundreds, or nine hundreds, maybe later. Unclear. Until the Inquisition. You know, during the years of the Inquisition, they left Spain. They probably went through Italy. Somewhat unclear. But they landed in Salonika, which was then The Ottoman Empire, is now part of Greece. Now that town is called Thessaloniki. And then, my great-grandparents emigrated to New York and New Jersey. 

MARIA: I was curious about Jared’s decision to study abroad in Santiago de Chile.

Jared Saltiel: I wonder if one of the reasons I chose Chile was because it was, it felt so far away. And I'd chosen to go to college in my hometown. So that was like, the furthest place I could possibly go. 

MARIA: I couldn’t help but think of Chile’s nickname, “El último rincón del mundo” - the last corner of the world. And how our geography is isolating: the desert in the North, the Patagonia in the South, then the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.

As I began working on this episode, I thought about Jared when I learned about a place in Colorado that was also home to the Sephardic Jewish Diaspora: The San Luis Valley. Located three and a half hours south of Denver along the New Mexico border, it’s one of the least densely populated areas in the country. And… an ideal hiding place. 


NOEL: From History Colorado, This is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black.

MARIA: And I’m Maria Maddox. On this episode, we’ll talk about the ways family histories and genealogy can both complicate and help us make sense of our shared past. 

NOEL: We’ll also explore the counterintuitive notion of moving as far away as possible from our mother culture or our places of origin to survive and thrive, and how this relates to the history of Sephardic Jews. 

MARIA: We’ll investigate the legacy of Jewish faith and culture in Hispanic communities that was largely hidden for so many centuries. We’ll also explore the history of the Spanish settlers who colonized what is now New Mexico and Colorado and the reasons many may have had to leave Spain.

NOEL: Along the way, we’ll learn about the Spanish Inquisition and the consequences of the fateful year, 1492.

MARIA: And we’ll examine the ramifications of these historical events and how they shape our present.

NOEL: Finally, we’ll discuss how all of this affects our understanding of communal identity and belonging. 

[Music transition]

NAOMI MINTURN: You know, I was aware of that somewhere, way back, I had Spanish ancestry, 

NOEL: This is Naomi Minturn. 

NAOMI MINTURN: So I grew up in New Mexico. I was born in Albuquerque and my mother's family had been there for many generations. 

MARIA: But it wasn’t just Spanish ancestry. 

NAOMI MINTURN: On her father's side, her grandfather emigrated during World War One from Germany as a Jew, and married a woman from the Laguna Pueblo. 

NOEL: Having mixed ancestry can often be difficult for those wrestling with identity in any form, says Gail, Naomi’s mother. 

GAIL: It's hard to be part Native American and part Jewish and part Hispanic, but identify as Anglo and not have a little bit of cognitive dissonance about all of that. 

MARIA: Like Gail and Naomi, the people of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado know a lot about mixed ancestry.  Here’s Richard de Olivas y Cordova, whose family has lived in the Valley for generations: 

RICHARD DE OLIVAS Y CORDOVA: People will talk about our Native roots. And those are very real. We have those. But we also consider ourselves very, very Spanish. We're probably one of the most Protestant of the Hispanic populations, although we're still very, very, very Catholic. We can identify with our Jewish roots as well as our Arabic, our Muslim roots. We can identify with our Portuguese ancestors or our Greek ancestors. 

NOEL: Up until the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, there was no clear-cut boundary between southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. It was all part of New Spain, then Mexico. Culturally speaking, the San Luis Valley has had more in common with other Hispanic communities than with the rest of Colorado. They considered Santa Fe rather than Denver, their capital, says Richard.

RICHARD DE OLIVAS Y CORDOVA: San Luis, or the Valley, has always been very different than the rest of Colorado. We're not really part of Colorado. We're not necessarily part of New Mexico because we're too far away from our capital. But we're, but we're certainly, we're very different from the rest of the state.

NOEL: However, after the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, some Hispanos living in the Valley lost their lands, and all had to confront a new reality, in which they became “Americans” virtually overnight. 

MARIA: This gave rise to the famous saying: “I didn’t cross the border. The border crossed me.” 
New lines were drawn on the map, but that didn’t necessarily change how people living in these communities saw themselves.

RICHARD DE OLIVAS Y CORDOVA:  I identify first as Hispanic before I identify as American. 

NOEL: Before the arrival of the Spanish, this was an area of the country dominated by powerful Indigenous peoples like the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute, Comanche, Apache, and Diné. One of the groups that came to this place of ethnic, religious, and economic convergence under the guise of Catholics were the Sephardic Jews of Spain. 

MARIA: The Hebrew word for Spain is “Sefarad.” It was first mentioned in the Bible, in the book of Obadiah. 

SETH WARD: The word was used in medieval time to talk about people who came from Spain, They were called HaS'faradi, which means the person originally from Spain. Today, the term is used to refer to the Jews of Spain and their descendants.

MARIA: This is Seth Ward. He taught Judaism, Hebrew, and Arabic at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming until his recent retirement.

NOEL: Starting in the early 8th century and until 1492, Sepharad was home to vibrant and multicultural communities of Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

MARIA: At the height of its power, the Muslim state of Granada, or Al-Andalus, in what is now southern Spain, controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula and parts of modern-day France. 

NOEL: This period of Muslim rule and coexistence was known as ‘Convivencia.’

MARIA: And it’s often referred to as the “Golden Age” of the Sephardim. 

SETH WARD: The productivity of Jews in Spain was amazing, and the contributions to Jewish history was enormous. The ancient Greek philosophic tradition was translated into Hebrew and then into Latin, and that there was a kind of translation school which clearly indicated a degree of intellectual cooperation between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. 

NOEL:  Though Seth Ward acknowledges the cultural richness of “Convivencia,” he also cautions against overly romanticizing this period.

MARIA: Here, he recalls the words of his former colleague, Gerson Cohen: 

SETH WARD: "The Golden Age of the Jews in Spain was a Golden Age for about a hundred golden men.” But it's good to remember that the “Convivencia” that people talk about might have been limited to men more than women, or that women's “Convivencia” worked differently than men's “Convivencia,” which is probably obvious, and may also have been limited to a very small cadre of Jews. 

MARIA: It’s also important to note that ‘Convivencia’ was by no means free of violence. 

NOEL: There was a semi-constant state of warfare between Christian and Muslim kingdoms. 

MARIA: And Jews were often targeted. Among other things, they were blamed for the Black Death that struck Spain in 1348.

NOEL: And fanatical Catholic priests like Vicente Ferrer further inflamed anti-Jewish sentiments. Incensed by his speeches, pogroms broke out in 1391, and an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed, synagogues were destroyed, and thousands were forced to convert to Christianity. After the pogroms of the late 14th century, roughly half of Spain’s Jewish population began to convert to Catholicism as a matter of survival.  

MARIA: But intolerance and policing of Jewish faith didn’t stop, giving rise to what’s known as “crypto-Judaism.”

NOEL: ‘Crypto’ means secret, and here, it refers to the many Jews who converted but continued to observe Jewish rituals and to identify as Jewish in the relative safety of their homes.  

MARIA: Those who converted, either willingly or under threat, were known as “conversos.” Or, in Hebrew, “Anusim.” 

NOEL: Here’s Norma Libman, a prolific journalist and an educator who’s been studying crypto-Jewish stories since 1994. 

NORMA LIBMAN:  "Converso" is the Spanish word for convert, and it applies to anyone who converted from Judaism to Christianity, or, and this is important, the descendant of such a person. Now, a crypto-Jew is a converso who knows that he or she is Jewish, has always known it, the family has always known it, practices Judaism in secret. And so, every crypto-Jew is also a converso. Most conversos are not crypto-Jews. 

NOEL: Becoming a “Converso” could protect you from imminent danger. But “New Christians” did not have the same social standing or even the same rights as Castilian Catholics. 

MARIA: They were barred from certain positions and offices; they couldn’t marry “Old Christians,” and, in the eyes of Spanish authorities, they were suspect.

NOEL: Partly in response to crypto-Judaism, and men and women accused of “Judaizing”, or teaching “The Law of Moses,” The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. 

SETH WARD: Their confessor Torquemada may have convinced them that an inquisition was needed because they were Catholics, persons who had been baptized as Catholics who were not sufficiently orthodox in his mind.

NORMA LIBMAN:  What the Inquisition was looking for on the books, record, was heretics. Heretics were Christians who were not properly practicing Christianity. 

NOEL: The Inquisition was not supposed to go after those who had never converted. However, there were myriad ways to impose Christianity on entire swaths of people:

NORMA LIBMAN: Including bringing out a whole town, and pouring water on their heads and declaring them baptized. But the trick was then the next day, the inquisitor comes to the door and says: "Recite your catechism." Well, obviously the next day, they can't recite their catechism. Well, they've been baptized. That makes them a heretic. They can pull them in, and they did, to jail, and then try to get them to turn in other people. And, you know, torture was pretty much perfected in that time by the Spanish Inquisition. 

NOEL: The evidence used against someone accused of heresy or Judaizing was usually weak, to say the least. People were often sent to trial based on hearsay or reputation alone. Neighbors could betray neighbors. 

MARIA: Then, in 1492, the Catholic Monarchs defeated the Emirate of Granada, which was the last standing Muslim state. 

NOEL: That same year, they passed the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of all non-Catholics from Spain. 

NORMA LIBMAN: If you look at the Edict of Expulsion, it says everybody, you know, Jews, Muslims, gypsies, witches, you know, they had all these different categories, but especially, it essentially was anyone who wasn't Christian. There were no Protestants yet at that time. 

MARIA: Here’s Dr. Andrés Prieto, a professor of Colonial American Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a fellow Chilean:

ANDRÉS PRIETO: One of the main problems for colonial and imperial administrators was how to manage religious difference in areas where Christians were a minority or white Christians were a minority. In Spain, the way they did that was completely redoing the demographics of entire areas, expelling all the Jewish people, expelling all the Muslim people from southern Spain.

NORMA LIBMAN:  They had a choice, you know, leave, convert, or prepare to die. But if they left, they could only take very little with them, more or less what they could carry. 

ANDRÉS PRIETO: If you decided to leave, all your property was seized by the Crown, so you were destitute. So, there was a mass of conversions in that moment. 

NOEL: Even faced with the loss of property, there was a mass exodus of Sephardic Jews who fled from Spain to Portugal. 

MARIA: However, the refuge they found there was short-lived. Portugal’s king at the time was Manuel the First, and…

SETH WARD: The King Manuel wanted to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel, and the Catholic Monarchs demanded that he make Judaism illegal in Portugal, and basically had all of the Jews of Portugal forcibly converted to Christianity.

ANDRÉS PRIETO: Cultural resistance, as happens everywhere, when the pressure is too big, it goes underground. So, people keep speaking their language at home, but only at home, and teach it to the kids, but only at home. And that's how they speak Spanish because they are forced to write, they dress in a certain way, but they avoid eating certain things because they are impure, and so forth. So, just like there were crypto-Jewish communities and families, there were crypto-Muslim communities and families as well in Spain.

NOEL: Muslims who refused conversion found new homes in, among other places, Morocco and the Middle East. The Jewish Diaspora settled in the Netherlands, Eastern Europe, and what was then the Ottoman Empire. They also migrated to the Americas. But there were problems there, too. 

SETH WARD: Many of the people who came to the New World should have been prohibited from coming because there was a doctrine of "Limpieza de sangre," Purity of Blood. 

NOEL: Blood purity meant having an “unblemished” family tree devoid of Jewish or Muslim ancestors. To have a non-Christian forebear was to carry a “mancha” – from the Spanish word “stain” –  a blemish that got passed down through several generations. 

MARIA: It was a liability to send quote “impure” Christians to the Americas because they could “contaminate” the Indigenous population with their “devious ways.”

NOEL: And so, Conversos and their descendants were not allowed to travel to the Spanish colonies. However, with connections and the right price, an arrangement could be made with a “linajudo,” a professional genealogist of sorts, to provide papers for their safe passage. 

[Music: “Scalerica de Oro” - Aman Aman ]

NOEL: When Jewish conversos and their families arrived in the New World in the 16th century, they might’ve felt a sense of safety or freedom just from the sheer distance from Spain. 

MARIA: Most of them settled in urban areas like Mexico City and Lima.  

NOEL: Others went to modern Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador. 

NORMA LIBMAN: And so, that was a good place to go to because they weren't going to another country. They were still in Spain, but they felt very protected by the ocean and that they were far from Madrid and the Office of the Inquisition for quite a while.

NOEL: But in 1570, the Holy Office of the Inquisition established Tribunals in Mexico City and Lima. A third one was later created in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1610. However, says Seth Ward:

SETH WARD: The Archbishop of New Spain had inquisitorial powers before that. Not clear that it was a major problem, but it's not like you could be openly practicing Judaism, and it was mostly something that was done privately on the road or among families.

NOEL: Only ‘Old Christians’ could freely practice their faith.  And so many Jewish conversos fled the ‘Old Country’ in search of religious tolerance. But for others, economic opportunity was no less enticing. 

MARIA: There was wealth to be made in the booming mining and sugar cane economies and in the mercantile business. 

SETH WARD:  Part of the American narrative is, our ancestors came on the Mayflower, escaping religious prejudice. So I think that we have to keep in mind that part of this is an American narrative. It's not to say it's false, but it's a way of telling history. I think that many people came to New Mexico and San Luis Valley also because of opportunity.

NOEL: The Spanish Crown offered land grants to some colonizers in exchange for working the land and assisting in the conversion of Indigenous peoples. And, it's estimated that between 20 and 40 percent of the Spanish who arrived were descendants of conversos. 

NORMA LIBMAN: What I always find, just catches my breath is when I read the history, they came and started conquering the native population and forcing conversions. Now you figure 40% of those people who were forcing the native people to convert to Christianity, and they were there because the same thing had been done to them and they can't say anything. They can't rebel against it because then they'd have to admit that they weren't Christian in their hearts, you know? 

RACHEL KAUFMAN: Conversos in their new colonial context in New Spain were both fleeing an inquisition, being followed by an inquisition and being oppressed by the Spanish Empire, and also reached the New World, often as part of conquistador enclaves and were part of the violent colonizing missions in Nuevo León and northern Mexico and what is now New Mexico.

MARIA: This is Rachel Kaufman, a poet and historian pursuing a Ph.D. in Latin American and Jewish history at UCLA. 

NOEL: After studying Inquisition Records from Mexico City, she found that History or prose alone couldn’t convey the complexity and set of emotions she felt as she tried to decipher the archaic handwriting. And so, she began writing poems. 

MARIA: In the resulting book, Many to Remember, Rachel tried to imagine the lives of crypto-Jews and to confront this history of violence.

RACHEL KAUFMAN: To confront the ways, the violent ways that some of these stories reach us and our impossible desire or aspiration to give humanity and fullness to, in my instance, the conversa and mestiza women whose stories I'm telling, whose kitchens I'm only reaching through violent, bureaucratic Inquisition records. 

MARIA: Rachel Kaufman’s grandparents were Asheknazi Jews. Her grandfather, Zede, came to the U.S. after “Kristallnacht,” or ‘The Night of Broken Glass,’ a series of pogroms in Nazi-controlled territories.

NOEL: As a translator of the past and the recipient of the oral histories in her family, the history of crypto-Jews resonated deeply with her. As a historian, she was technically not supposed to insert herself or her disquieting thoughts as she absorbed their history. But, as a poet, she had all the freedom to do so. 

RACHEL KAUFMAN:  That's one of the reasons I think, that these Inquisition records turned into poems for me, because the sensory and the affective, but also my process as I was attempting to decode the past and reanimate the past, I could capture that process, not just the final seamless result in the form of the poem, in the rhythms of the poem, in hesitations, and line breaks, in moments where the poem falters or where the poet falters. 

NOEL: In her poem “Inquisition Letters,” she wrote about Luis de Carvajal el Mozo, a famous crypto-Jew who became a martyr of his faith. 

MARIA: His words are some of the oldest documents we have of the crypto-Jewish experience in the Americas. 

NOEL: Here’s Rachel Kaufman, reading an excerpt from the poem “Inquisition Letters”: 

the ancient frail man is very / virtuous and helps / the farmers calling bendita 
as they bend over their fields / the woman opens up / as if land / accepting water 
the letters brought news like this / words scratched on
peach and avocado pits / wrapped in taffeta / and hidden in melons, or 
wrapped in ribbons and pocketed 
inside banana’s skin.

the sweetest were meant/ for the jailed man's favorite, / Doña Ana, or really 
his favorite of those close by / his best sister remained / in a cell far away 
with a darker woman / unable to send pits or pears / her hands traveled the wall 
each day feigning engraving 

a lute is playing / softly and its breeze / is mixing with the light 
beneath her door / everyone is wearing hats / in the dark and counting
their days with ticks/ on the palms of their hands 
peaches all gone. 


RACHEL KAUFMAN: This was one of those instances in the archive in which I didn't feel that historical prose or prose itself could hold the richness of the materiality I was encountering, and also the emotional confusion of finding a detail like letter-engraved fruits and vegetables sent across Inquisition cells, a detail which is teeming with sensory pleasure and some sort of whimsicalness amidst a history and a context of violence. 

MARIA: Luis de Carvajal el Mozo was arrested alongside his mother and several of his sisters, all of whom were executed in 1596. 

NOEL: According to estimates by Ron Duncan Hart from the Institute for Tolerance Studies in New Mexico, the Inquisition in colonial Spain arrested only a few hundred people for Judaizing in the course of 250 years. 

MARIA: Nonetheless, the fact that the Holy Office was still active was enough to reaffirm the notion that it was never safe to be unapologetically Jewish. 

NOEL: No one was entirely immune to the grip of the Inquisition, as individuals could be hauled from all corners of the Spanish Empire into Inquisition jails. However, the further you could get from the central authorities, the better your chances of survival. Richard de Olivas y Cordova:

RICHARD DE OLIVAS Y CORDOVA:  Everybody who came from Spain in the 1500s, identified with the church because I think the church expected them to be that. And the further away they could get from “home,” the safer they felt to be able to express themselves. 

MARIA: For some, this meant going as far south as Chile and Argentina. Or as far north as New Mexico, along the “Camino Real” (Royal Highway). In Chile, there’s the case of the renowned physician Francisco Maldonado da Silva.

NOEL: After taking a medical post there, he publicly embraced his Jewish identity. He then allegedly tried to convert his Catholic sisters back into Judaism, which led to his abduction and arrest. He was taken to a jail in Lima. Unrepentant, he was burned at the stake along with 11 other Jews in 1639. 

MARIA: In light of tragedies like these, crypto-Jews might’ve felt the need to uproot once again and seek refuge in even more isolated areas. 

NOEL: While they were both imprisoned in Mexico City in May, 1642, Blanca Méndez de Rivera said to her daughter, Maria de Rivera, “We’re lost, and we’ll have to flee to the ends of the Earth.”

MARIA: The anguished expression was documented by Dr. Stanley Hordes, who borrowed part of the quote for the title of his book, To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, published in 2005.

NOEL: In some ways, Dr. Hordes’ book was the first to provide a comprehensive historical analysis of crypto-Judaism in New Mexico. Through anthropological work, he was able to find evidence of Jewish or seemingly-Jewish practices in the region. For some, these rituals were passed down as “family traditions,” not necessarily attached to religious meaning. For others, however, it was explicitly connected to the Jewish consciousness that Seth Ward explains:

SETH WARD:  Sometimes there was a tradition that was passed down from parents to children or within families or by siblings, "We are Jews." Sometimes people talk about a mezuzah, about a little parchment in the wall that had Hebrew lettering on it. People talk about lighting candles on Friday night. They talk about putting on fresh clothes on Friday night. 

MARIA: Another common phenomenon among descendants of crypto-Jews and conversos is the tradition of having children play cards on certain days or on special occasions. 

SETH WARD: And the reason they played cards, they didn't know this, but some of the adults were going out and having what the children called when they learned about the Jewish connections of their family, they called a Rosh Hashanah service or a Yom Kippur, especially, service. 

NOEL: Naomi Minturn and her mother, Gail, were among those who recall the custom of playing cards in the family. They traced their Sephardic lineage back to the 13th century in Spain, arriving in New Mexico with the Oñate expedition in the 1600s. 


GAIL: My sister had done a lot of research into our mom's heritage and had concluded that A) we did come with Oñate, and that B) that we clearly had strong Jewish or crypto Jewish Sephardic links. 

NAOMI MINTURN: My aunt was coming out for Passover and wanted to gather the family together and also to share what she discovered And she wanted to invite our cousin Caroline who was a pretty devout Catholic. And so my mom called to invite her and felt like she wanted to give her a heads up. And so, you know, she said” “Well, I want to let you know that Robbie’s been doing some research and she thinks that we're related to Jews or crypto-Jews.” And Caroline said… 

GAIL: “Well, I knew that, didn't you?” And I was like, "What? No, I didn't know that. How did you know that?" And she said, "Didn't you ever wonder what was wrong with us? How we weren't like anybody else? And all those cousins marrying cousins and how we were always closed off to ourselves. And after she said it, I knew it was true. 

NOEL: In one of our conversations with Norma Libman, she mentioned “cousins” as a code word in New Mexican families. 

NORMA LIBMAN:  Well, in these little towns, they're all cousins, you know, could be distant, but they're all cousins because they always try to marry in what they call the good families. 
This thing of “Primo” is sort of like a code, means ‘cousin.’ And I've seen this happen twice when sitting in a small restaurant, you know, in a typical New Mexico restaurant, there'll be a man sitting at a table somewhere. Another guy will come in and look at them and say “Primo?” And the other one says, “Sí, sí, primo, primo.” And then they start talking about the town they come from. But they know they're conversos. They never talk about anything Jewish. It's all about the town. 

NOEL: Here’s Gail recalling other practices that might be proof of Jewish continuity:

GAIL: Robbie said that some people in our mother's family had the tradition of placing a stone on a headstone when they visited. That's a very Jewish tradition. My great-grandfather would not allow any of the children to be baptized. So those those are the clues that we have. 

NOEL: Traditions that would have been harder to conceal were things like not eating pork. Especially in areas of the country like New Mexico and southern Colorado, where it’s a big dietary staple. 

MARIA: Norma Libman came across some who said they never ate pork in their families because they were quote “allergic.” 

NORMA LIBMAN: So this is what they've been told. You know, “You're allergic. Don't ever touch. It's going to make you sick.” And they never did. And they don't know anything about it not being kosher or anything like that.

NOEL: Another practical excuse, she says, was to have pigs as pets. 

NORMA LIBMAN: The idea of having the pet pig is that you couldn't possibly think people were Jewish if they had a pet pig. So and then, because the town is so Jewish, everybody really knows. 

NOEL: Some scholars, however, remain skeptical about crypto-Judaism having survived centuries of persecution, forced conversions, intermarriage, and assimilation. 

MARIA: Others have noted that for scholars like Dr. Stanley Hordes and others, the desire to discover evidence of Jewish survival may have largely inspired their research. 

[Music out] 

NOEL: Some anthropologists and historians who went into Mexican and New Mexican communities looking for signs of Sephardic Jewish practices, were intent on finding continuity in crypto-Jewish traditions as a means of thinking about Jewish survival.  Here’s Rachel Kaufman again talking at UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies: 

RACHEL KAUFMAN: If we have, this is in the 1940s and the 1950s, when news of the Holocaust is coming to some of these New York Jews or the scholars who I'm I work with sometimes, and so if they have found this community in Mexico who have preserved Judaism for hundreds of years with sort of no change with this sort of powerful stagnancy, what an emblem of Jewish survival that can become. And so I think in history, the impulse when you have an archive that has so many gaps in it, is to try to draw threads of continuity. 

NOEL: While the survival of Jewish rituals in the American Southwest is debatable to some, there’s another line of “evidence” that may add weight to the theory. 

SETH WARD:  In the San Luis Valley, for example, the evidence of a breast cancer mutation, which is usually connected with Jews, has often been cited. Dr. Hordes has a number of other examples that he's looked into of genetic diseases or other genetic quirks that are related to Jews.  

NOEL: Here’s Jeff Wheelwright. He’s the former Science and Medicine editor of “Life” Magazine and the author The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA. Here, he is talking about the work of Stanley Hordes: 

JEFF WHEELWRIGHT: The classic history of the region is conquistadors and the, and Native Americans and how they came together or not. And he wanted to pull out a third strand, to see if the the conversos could they still have been vibrant or at least underground. 

MARIA: Jeff Wheelwright came to the San Luis Valley to study the case of a beautiful young woman named Shonie Medina.

NOEL: Ms. Medina died from breast cancer when she was only 28 years old. Though she and other family members converted to Jehova’s Witnesses, they came from a long line of Hispanic Catholics. The likely culprit was a gene mutation known as 185delAG.

JEFF WHEELWRIGHT: "Del" means delete. So the letters, the biochemical letters A and G are deleted, and that makes the protein that the gene produces defective. The gene itself is called BRCA1. It's expressed mainly in breast and ovarian tissue. 

NOEL: Its job in the body is to repair DNA, to fix breaks in our DNA strands. But, if it gets damaged…

JEFF WHEELWRIGHT: One of the two versions that you carry, the body is less defended against cancers arising. 

MARIA: As a carrier of the BRCA1 gene, the theory went, Shonie Medina would’ve likely descended from the Jewish conversos who established themselves in southern Colorado, whether she knew it or not. 

NOEL: However, this genetic line of evidence has proven inconclusive.  

JEFF WHEELWRIGHT:  So the opinion was that it was strictly a Jewish mutation. But just as my book was coming out, there was an agreement that that a small family pedigree in Yorkshire, England, had also developed this mutation, and try as they might, I believe the scientists had not been able to look for any other markers that might indicate a Jewish heritage. So, it's not exclusively a Jewish one. That's the thought now. 

NOEL: Either through biological markers or oral histories and genealogy, what’s key is to acknowledge that, at one point, the San Luis Valley was home to the crypto-Jewish diaspora. And that Sephardic Jews were one of many cultures that converged in that region.

SAM BOCK: For Spanish Jews, I think the most interesting thing is the commitment to the tenets of their religion to maintaining those, even when the practice of that religion has long since vanished from the family's tradition. And so what you see are recipes and family cookbooks that are kosher. 

NOEL: This is Sam Bock, public historian and the Publications Director at History Colorado. 
Sam is referring to Genie Milgrom’s Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers, a collection of recipes and anecdotes from the times of the Crypto-Jews into the present, published in 2019.

SAM BOCK:  By a woman whose family traditions, whose family recipes really just scream crypto-Jew. I mean, they're, they’re kosher. They're they're ways to get around cooking pork, but make it look like it's still a pork dish. 

MARIA: Food has always been essential to immigrants and refugees as a way to settle into their new homes. 

NOEL: Here’s Pati Jinich, a Mexican-Ashkenazi-Jewish chef talking about her family’s cooking traditions, which traveled from Poland and Austria but are also rooted in Mexican culture. 

Pati_Jinich: Through food, they were able to intermarry or weave the foods that they had grown up with, very Ashkenazi Jew, you know, like the the gefilte fish, the beti, the matzo ball soup, chocolate babka. And they wove them with the rich, colorful, delicious, bountiful Mexican ingredients. So, for my Polish grandmother, she would make her gefilte fish as most Mexican-Ashkenazis do, which is Veracruz style. Veracruz is the state that opens its mouth to the Gulf of Mexico. And it's welcomed most of the immigrant waves from the world. So it's very rich with threads of other cultures and cuisines.

MARIA: In the case of crypto-Jews, it was mostly women, says Norma Libman, who kept their traditions alive through cooking and other home-based rituals. 

NORMA LIBMAN: The women really were, in a way, preserving the culture by keeping the religion alive. In order to have Shabbat or the Sabbath, you'd have to do all the cooking before sundown on Friday night. And the women did that, of course. 

NOEL: The food preparation was important because it needed to be meals that could be warmed up on Saturday or served cold. 

NORMA LIBMAN: For instance, casseroles were considered a Jewish food in Spain because that was a common thing to make. You could make a casserole, especially eggplant was considered a Jewish food. 

MARIA: There are even songs about eggplant casseroles in Sephardic music traditions, like this piece by the contemporary music duo Evoeh. It's titled “Los guisados de la berenjena," which means eggplant stews, and it's their take on a traditional song that talks about seven different ways to make eggplant casserole.

[Music: “Los guisados de la berenjena” -  Evoéh]

NOEL: During the 1500s up until the early 20th Century, religious faith was of utmost importance for Jewish people. It shaped how you viewed yourself and your outlook on life. It was also a source of meaning and belonging. These days, however, religion is not necessarily where many American Jews derive their sense of identity. 

RYAN BURGE: So Judaism is actually a really hard methodological problem because, you know, Judaism is an ethnicity, but it's also a religion. And it's very unique in that in that that it's both at the same time. So when we ask “What's your present religion, if any, some people who are ethnically Jewish will say they're atheist or agnostic or nothing in particular. And then some will say they're Jewish, even though they haven't gone to synagogue in five or ten or fifteen years, They're just sort of Jewish by ethnicity. 

NOEL: This is Ryan Burge. 

RYAN BURGE: I'm an Associate Professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, and I'm a pastor in the American Baptist Church and the author of several books about nonreligious Americans, including "The Nones," and "The Great Dechurching."

NOEL: Burge notes that even though people who identify as religious in this country have been declining for some time, we’re still more religious than many other industrialized nations. 

MARIA: And he thinks that’s partly due to the fact that we never had one religion imposed on U.S. citizens. 

RYAN BURGE: Guys like Jefferson and Madison realized that for America, the thing that was going to hold us together was not our religious background. It was the fact we're Americans. And so they were very insistent upon making sure that there was no religious test for public office, that that religion would have freedom to be practiced, but it could not be enforced by the state. 

NOEL: And, says Burge, the secularization of Judaism has been a trend for some time.  

RYAN BURGE: The people who say they're Jewish, if you ask them other questions about religion, for instance, like “How often do you go to religious services?” They score the lowest of any religious group, like 60% go to a synagogue less than once a year, which means that you're getting a lot of secular Jews in that sample.

NOEL: Sam Bock argues that the secularization of Jews in America may be a consequence of the assimilationist project of American culture. 

SAM BOCK: Your Judaism isn't outwardly represented most of the time, especially for Reform Jews in the United States, unlike say, immigration status, different national origin, particularly different racial identity. 

MARIA: But it wasn’t always like that. There was a time in which it wasn’t so easy for Jewish people to blend in with mainstream American culture. 

SAM BOCK:  Even into my father's generation, you kept your Jewishness hidden, if you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or any kind of professional class. Jews have been reviled and hunted and pogromed and victimized for as long as there's been Jews, basically. And yet, the fact that a lot of Judaism, a lot of Jews come from Central Europe, a lot of Jews are white meant that in America, it was easy to, or easier, to make a case that you are part of a higher social class than you would otherwise have been. In a society where skin color matters more than religion, Jews had a much easier time. 

MARIA: For the descendants of Jewish conversos, regardless of skin color, the scars left by the Inquisition and the necessity to conceal their faith - for so long - may make it harder to ‘come out’ as Jewish, even today. 

NOEL: As we were working on this episode, we encountered many instances in which people refused to be interviewed or to go public with their family’s stories. Even with the disguise of AI-generated voices. 

NORMA LIBMAN: The most interesting thing that I've found as I interviewed many families is that most people who were keeping the secret were keeping the secret people out of a loyalty to the family rather than out of a fear of what would happen. I'm talking about in the 20th and the 21st century, they weren't so much. I think now they would be even more afraid than they would have been then because of what's happening worldwide with antisemitism. But they weren't personally afraid for themselves. But that was the family secret. And you don't tell the family secret. 

NOEL: And that’s partly why we’re so thankful for Naomi and Gail, who generously shared their stories with us.

MARIA: When Naomi looked into her vast family tree, someone stood out to her: A woman named Catalina. 

NAOMI MINTURN: Who had been the daughter of the physician to Isabella and Ferdinand, and the father, the physician had converted and received papers of, you know, officially converting to Catholicism, but for some reason, she hadn't converted, and she left, and arrived in Mexico. 

NOEL: As the daughter of a well-positioned doctor, Catalina would’ve enjoyed a comfortable life in Spain. So, her decision to leave left Naomi wondering. 

NAOMI MINTURN:  I believe that even though some people converted, that they didn't necessarily feel that they were safe, that that was enough of a guarantee that they wouldn't be persecuted further. So there must have been some great fear to make the decision to get on a ship not having much ability to conceptualize what life would look like on the other side or if she would survive that journey. But I don't know that it was a choice that was made out of a desire to preserve her faith. I think it probably was more a choice that was made out of survival.

MARIA: When Naomi was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico, she studied abroad in Granada, Spain. 

NAOMI MINTURN: And found an apartment in the Realejo, which is the historically Jewish neighborhood. 

NOEL: While living there, she experienced something strange. 

NAOMI MINTURN: At the time it felt confusing and hard to articulate. But there was kind of a sense, you know, when I describe it now, I often say that I felt haunted when I was living there. I couldn't place it specifically to ancestry, but there was a very strong somatic pull to the area and architecture, to the landscape, to the people that was a little unnerving for me. 

MARIA: Because Catalina had come from a prominent Jewish family, some information about her has been preserved. Among other things, Naomi discovered that Catalina and her family had lived in the Jewish quarters of El Realejo.

NAOMI MINTURN: That was a really powerful moment of kind of seeing the history and some of the questions around identity that I had wrestled with since discovering this was part of my ancestry, all condensed into this one moment. 


NOEL: Though Naomi was raised with an awareness of her Spanish and Jewish heritage, as a young person, she didn’t identify as any one thing in particular. After graduating, she moved to San Francisco and began working at the Holocaust Museum in northern California, where she met and befriended many Jewish colleagues. 

NAOMI MINTURN: They saw me as Jewish and because my social world was secularly Jewish and also somewhat religiously Jewish as well, those practices started to become more familiar to me, and I felt like it was a little bit easier to lean into that as an identity. And then eventually, I met the person who I would marry and have kids with. And so it felt easy for us to raise our kids with some amount of Jewish identity. And they went to Jewish school. And at this point, it feels like a pretty integrated part of who I am. 

MARIA: Despite the fact that Naomi lives in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, she says she sometimes struggles with it, culturally. 

NAOMI MINTURN: There isn't really a lot of diversity, and I can often feel that, you know, there's only sort of one facet of my identity that is understood, not that it can't be expressed, but that it takes a lot of explanation and to have it make sense to other people. And there's really something to be said for being in an environment where other people share the same complex identity questions.

NOEL: Here is Naomi’s mother, Gail, again. 

GAIL: There's things about New Mexico that you just can't describe to other people the, I mean, food, the sky, but also the people, just to be in a population that's like 55- 65% Hispanic. It's just a different feeling. It's a nice feeling. It's a richness you don't have in other places.

NAOMI MINTURN: Being in New Mexico, there's a level of relaxation and comfort that I experience just from the immensity of the sky or the colors of the cliffs in the distance. And it often strikes me as strange that a landscape that can be so arid and barren can feel so nurturing to me. But it really does. It's just a very strong sense of joy that I experience driving through those big open spaces.

NOEL: The landscape and architecture of New Mexico, in Naomi’s opinion, are not dissimilar to those of southern Spain, where her ancestors came from. 

MARIA: So they might’ve felt at home in this area of New Spain. 

NOEL: Alongside their knowledge of crypto-Jews, Gail and Naomi have close ties to memories of Ashkenazi-Jewish survival.

GAIL: When I was a kid, the Holocaust was not something that happened half a century ago. It was something that had happened 15 years ago. It was still very much a fact of present life then.

NAOMI MINTURN: My great-grandfather who emigrated from Germany during World War One and was Jewish. And then during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, he was able to get his brothers and sisters out of Dresden. And so that was a big part of our family's story, is a story that was told a lot was how he had to go to the governor of New Mexico, personally, to petition to be allowed to bring them, because it was very difficult to get immigration papers for Jews out of Germany at that time.

MARIA: Like Gail and Naomi, my friend Jared also has an Ashkenazi-Jewish side of the family:

JARED SALTIEL: I had a lot of extended family that was they were still in Europe in, in the 30s and 40s who were murdered, you know, and I feel a really profound… Between them and the people who escaped the Inquisition, I feel like I do feel a lot of anxiety. There's a lot of like threat assessment that I think comes with Jewish ancestry, Jewish identity, and it's not necessarily always rational. And I don't mean by saying that, I don't mean that it's irrational. I just mean that it's not necessarily coming from, you know, logical assessment. It's coming from instinct. 

MARIA: In his case, alongside the ‘existential’ anxiety, there’s a heightened awareness toward the very real racial and ethnic-based biases that Jewish people experience throughout the world. But, he doesn’t think it’s unique to the Jewish experience. 

JARED SALTIEL: Like a lot of Jewish people, I also feel compelled to universalize that experience beyond just ours, and try to think beyond our story, and be cognizant of that kind of prejudice and potential harm in other, you know, parts of the world or for other communities, wherever it might show up. 

MARIA: Finding the similarities between the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust may seem to over-emphasize intergenerational trauma. But for Gail, and others we spoke with, it also reinforces a deep sense of resilience. 

[Music: “Hija Mía Querida” - Emilio Villalba & Sephardica] 

GAIL: I just think it gives you such a clearer sense of who you are, why the people around you, like your family did the things they did. People in that you won't ever know, like my grandson will never know my grandfather. But to know all the things he accomplished in order to save his family is, in a way, to inherit a little bit of that persistence. And I guess I can't say heroism, but persistence in generosity.

NOEL: For Gail, Naomi, and Jared, knowledge of their family’s history has informed, complicated, and enriched their sense of who they are today. 

MARIA: And for the people of the San Luis Valley, says Richard de Olivas y Cordova, the Jewish roots that coexist among a strong presence of Indigenous, Catholic, Muslim, and Anglo roots, are considered a blessing.  

RICHARD DE OLIVAS Y CORDOVA: We have a belief called “Albricias.” And, and this is like Good news. 

MARIA: “Albricias” is an Arab-Spanish word that refers to someone bringing “enhorabuena,” a gift.  

RICHARD DE OLIVAS Y CORDOVA: It's a blessing that that indicates that you have something that's connected to your ancestors. And I think that that's a kind of a weird concept for most people that. It's like something that may be considered a bad news, but it's considered good news, but it belongs to you.

NOEL: You wouldn’t necessarily think of an inherited disease as good news, for example. But,, he adds, 

RICHARD DE OLIVAS Y CORDOVA: that's all part of the part of our, our make up too. It's kind of like you get that, you get good things that other people may not necessarily see as good things, but it's a part of you and it's part of you and part of your blessing


[Theme and Credits]
NOEL: Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. And by a founding grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm.
If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Also: tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. You can find links to individual episodes at
Many thanks to Tyler Hill, who produced this episode.
Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson, to Publications Director Sam Bock; and to Ann Sneesby-Koch for her newspaper and periodical research; and to history Colorado’s editorial team Lori Bailey and Devin Flores. 
We’re deeply thankful to Sharyn Zimmerman, our volunteer transcriber for this episode.
And a huge shoutout to Professor Andrew Bateman, without whose connections and recommendations this episode wouldn’t have been possible. 
If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at
The Merry Olivers composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal.
You also heard these original Sephardic songs in this episode:
“Scalerica de Oro” by Aman Aman
“Los guisados de la berenjena” by Evoéh
“Hija Mía Querida” by Emilio Villalba & Sephardica 

Many thanks to our editorial team: 
Shaun Boyd
Eric Carpio
Terri Gentry
Chris Juergens
Aaron Marcus
Ann Sneesby-Koch

And to our Advisory Group: 

Susan Schulten 
Thomas Andrews
Tom Romero
And Cara DeGette

NOEL: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thanks for listening. I’m Noel Black.