After learning her family's history of being crypto-Jews, Guadalupe Ramos made the decision to formally convert to Judaism in 2001.
"It was important to me to do so to regain my Jewish roots," Ramos said. "When my husband finished conversion, I felt very complete. With
Crypto-Jews, originally called Marranos, are the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity and ultimately expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago. Many were tortured or killed.
Ramos found out she was a crypto-Jew when she talked to a woman who knew her grandfather and great-grandmother who told her of some of the Jewish practices they performed.
Ramos realized the connection she had to Judaism because she would make matzah - Jewish unleavened bread - just as her great-grandmother had done.
"I didn't meet my great-grandmother, and I didn't know why, but I was making this bread," Ramos said. "Now I realize it is because we were crypto-Jews."
'Spark of curiosity'
Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B'nai Zion said most of the crypto-Jews have settled in the Southwest, including the El Paso area and New Mexico.
"I would like to put a spark of curiosity in the community because I know many, many people who are curious or suspect that they have Jewish roots," Leon said.
The main responsibility of a Jew is "tikkun olam," or "repairing the world," and crypto-Jews can play a role in that, Leon said.
"Our world is in desperate need of repair," Leon said. "Since September 11, worldwide terrorist attacks and the recent bombings in London, it is clear that something has to be done. Imagine how much more we can do to save our world from destruction with the return of millions of crypto-Jews to Judaism."
Leon became aware of crypto-Judaism 19 years ago when he became rabbi at Congregation B'nai Zion. He said people in El Paso and Juבrez who were following Jewish customs - lighting candles on Friday nights, covering mirrors when a loved one died and observing Jewish dietary customs - despite being Christians began to ask questions.
As these anousim (Hebrew for "the forced ones," a term often used for the crypto-Jews) researched their roots, many discovered they were descendants of Jews whose faith was hidden for centuries.
Many have returned
During the past two decades, Leon has helped more than 30 families formally return, through conversion, to Judaism. He continues to work with dozens of other families in El Paso, Juarez, Ruidoso, Hobbs and Roswell.
"It is my belief that the return of the anousim fulfills God's promise to Abraham that the Jewish people will be as numerous as the 'sands of the sea' and the 'stars in the sky,' " Leon said. "I honestly believe that once the crypto-Jews return in large numbers, that God's declaration will be realized and redemption will be at hand.
"But the descendants of those lost in the Inquisition are alive and well and are found in the fastest-growing ethnic group in the world, the Hispanic population," Leon said. "I am sure that at least 10 percent of the worldwide Hispanic community today have Jewish ancestry from the Spanish Inquisition."
Sonya Loya, herself a crypto-Jew, said it goes beyond the Spanish Inquisition.
New Mexican Inquisition
"Most don't know there was a Mexican Inquisition, let alone a New Mexican Inquisition," Loya said.
Loya is completing her return to Judaism and directs the Bat-Tziyon Hebrew Learning Center in Ruidoso. The center is a source of education, outreach and counsel to many crypto-Jews in New Mexico.
It is the dream of Leon and Loya to establish a Sephardic Anousim Study and Learning Center in El Paso and other cities to inform Jews and the world the history of Sephardic Jews, the Inquisition and the plight of anousim today. The center would teach the importance of religious and ethnic tolerance.
"For many of (the crypto-Jews) it was a hidden secret passed down orally," Loya said. "They were drawn to Judaism and don't know why. It wasn't until after they heard other stories that they realized their history."
Reprinted by permission of El Paso Times, El Paso, Texas