Should the Jews Return to Spain?
By Norma Libman
In 1492, following hundreds of years of escalating anti-Jewish violence on the
Iberian Peninsula, Spain formally expelled its Jews. Along with the Muslim
population and anyone else who was not Christian (i.e. witches, gypsies),
Jews were given the choice of converting to Christianity, leaving the land they
loved, or risking death if they stayed.
In the year 1000 there had been approximately a million Jews, a million
Muslims and a million Christians in the area. By 1492, seventy-five percent of
the Jews were already gone, either by death, conversion or actually leaving
for other places. Of the remaining quarter of a million or so, probably about
half went to Portugal as a result of the Edict of Expulsion. They were invited to
Portugal by King Manuel, but four years later all those who accepted that
invitation were forcibly converted to Christianity by the king. He committed
this act in exchange for the hand of the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of
Spain. And so, ultimately, the Inquisition found its way to Portugal.
Most of the rest of the Jews in Spain chose conversion, either sincerely or,
more likely in many cases, professing a conversion to Christianity while
clinging to Judaism in secret. For the Muslims it was considerably easier. Islam
had spread quite widely in the world by then and they had many places,
ranging from Northern Africa to Indonesia, where they could safely make new
But for the Crypto-Jews, those who converted but decided to remain Jewish in
secret, choices were more limited. Still, within fifty years new possibilities
were opening up in the New World and many found their way to North and
South America. For those who wound up in Mexico and what later became the
United States Southwest, they were merely travelling to New Spain, not even
leaving the mother country officially, but getting far away from the
headquarters of the Inquisition. Which is not to say that they found safety. By
the seventeenth century the Inquisition had moved over to the New World and
trials and autos-de-fe took place in Mexico City, pushing more people farther
north to join their co-religionists who had already made their way up to what
would eventually become New Mexico and other parts of the United States.
Now, suddenly, Spain has offered citizenship to anyone who can prove they
are a descendant of Jews expelled in the fifteenth century. (Portugal has made
the same offer and Germany has made a similar overture to Jews and their
descendants who left that country during World War II to escape the
Holocaust.) Why would Spain do such a thing now? And why would any Jews
take them up on the offer?
First, why are they offering a short-cut to Spanish citizenship? Suddenly, in a
time of growing anti-Semitism in Spain and the rest of the world, the Spanish
government wants to bring more Jews into the country. In an article for the
Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews
(Vol. 6, Summer
2014) Jonatas D. Dasilva points out that there are only 12,000 Jews in Spain,
which has a population of 42 million, and suggests that low number may
reflect the fact that various recent surveys show Spain to be very anti-
Semitic. For example, he says, “a report about European anti-Semitism
published by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League says that 54
percent of Spaniards believe that ‘Jews have too much power in international
Some believe that Spain’s offer of citizenship is more about economics than a
desire to right a wrong or to enrich the culture of their nation. This would be a
great irony since the expulsion, too, was more about money than religion.
While Isabella’s concern for saving souls was apparently sincere, Ferdinand
and the Spanish government were more interested in keeping the coffers filled
in order to support Spain’s operations as a super power. When New Christians
were discovered to be practicing Judaism in secret they were tried for heresy,
generally convicted if they didn’t die in jail first, and their property
confiscated. If they chose to leave Spain to escape forced conversion or death
they had to sell their property or businesses for whatever they could get in a
hurry, generally at a great loss. And when they left Spain if they were owed
money, either privately or by the government, those debts were erased,
leaving the Jewish lender impoverished and the borrower free of debt.
Now Spain is suffering the same economic problems as the rest of Europe and
much of the world. While they speak of the richness these new citizens will
add to their culture, it is also true that offering an easy road to citizenship to
some Jews will not only bring in cash, but will surely result in new start-up
businesses of all sorts throughout the nation. The offer does not require that
the individual give up citizenship in his or her native country. This is a
departure from earlier Spanish law and indicates how important they must
feel it is to acquire these new citizens.
And what is the appeal of this offer to Sephardic Jews, descendants of the
forced converts, the expelled, the murdered? Fernando Peinado writes in
TheSpectrum.com, July 18, 2014, that the Spanish government expects most
of the applications for citizenship to come from Israel, “where crowds have
lined up outside the Spanish Embassy and consulate to request information.”
He also says that many Sephardic Jews in Miami and New York “have directed
queries to organizations like the American Jewish Committee, which the
Spanish government consulted during the drafting of the bill.” Clearly there is
an interest and some of it is about a cultural attachment to Spain that exists
for some people despite the horrible things that happened to their ancestors
there. Author and lecturer, Daniel Diaz-Huerta says, “My interest in pursuing
Spanish citizenship under the recent legislation that allows dual citizenship to
descendants of Sephardic Jews is really quite simple: I wish to honor my faith
and ancestors . . . my Spanish/Hebrew heritage.”
Chip Espinoza, and educator and consultant, echoes this sentiment. “My
grandfather always told us we came from Spain,” he says. “He instilled a love
of Spain in us. Even my eight-year-old daughter, who never knew her great-
grandfather, has an affinity for Spain.” Getting Spanish citizenship would be “a
closing of the loop,” he says.
But, again, some of it is economic. Spanish citizenship confers membership in
the European Union and all the privileges that go with it, from the ability to
live and work in any member country, to a passport that can sometimes get
one through a European airport more quickly than can an American passport.
It is not necessarily the case that those who acquire Spanish citizenship would
actually live there. Israelis, however, are currently suffering from issues of
extreme high cost of living and some might feel they would benefit from
actually moving to Spain and enjoying a more financially comfortable life.
It is also worth noting that there have been a number of reports of difficulties
in applying for this supposed easy gift of citizenship. In a two-part article in
the January 31 and February 21, 2014 issues of
detailed his attempts to get Spanish citizenship and the many roadblocks he
encountered, possibly because the Spanish government is still working out the
criteria for citizenship. Descendants of Conversos can trace their ancestry
through Inquisition and Church records, which were meticulously kept.
Nathan-Kazis went to Spain with a variety of documents proving his Spanish
heritage and was told by Maria Royo of the Spanish Jewish Federation that
“This is just a piece of paper.” At that point he knew, says Nathan-Kazis, that
“this was going to be harder than I thought.”
Espinoza has also encountered difficulties. “There is a language proficiency
test,” he says. “It is a little ambiguous as to what they want. It is still a
Clearly the dust has not entirely settled on this issue. Sephardic Rabbi Marc D.
Angel, in a June 29, 2014 issue of
The Times of Israel
, calls his reaction to the
new Spanish policy as mixed. “On the one hand,” he says, “reconciliation is a
good thing, even after five or more centuries. On the other hand, is this
particular policy a real act of reconciliation or is it rather only a gesture that
will appeal to few Sephardim in an attempt to soothe the Spanish
His answer to this question is that if atonement is what Spain wants “it needs
to correspond directly with the nature of the sin.” This, he says, is hatred of
the Jews and Judaism. And the atonement must be a commitment to fight
anti-Semitism and eliminate religious and ethnic fanaticism.
“Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism
wherever it manifests itself,” he says. “. . . how wonderful it would be if Spain
would be a world leader in helping Sephardim – and all the Jewish people – to
live in a world free of anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. That
would be Spain’s great gift to humanity for our generation and the generations
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republished without the express written permission of the author
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Conversos & Crypto Jews
Simon J. Ortiz - Storyteller
Why Write the Story of Your Life?
Should Jews Return to Spain
©2020 Norma Libman
Website design and maintenance
Simon J. Ortiz
— Acoma Storyteller and Poet
By Norma Libman
Simon J. Ortiz, a member of the Acoma
Pueblo, is an American poet, fiction writer,
essayist, storyteller, and university
professor, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico,
on May 27, 1941. He grew up on the pueblo
in the town of McCartys ("Deetseyamah"),
and worked in the uranium mines, served in
the military, attended college, and then took
up what was considered an unlikely career
for a native person: writing. His work has
won numerous awards, including National
Endowment for the Arts, New Mexico
Humanities Award, Lila Wallace Reader's
Digest Writers Award, Lifetime Achievement
Award: Returning the Gift-Native American
Writers, Headlands Center for the Arts:
Artist-in-Residence, Lifetime Achievement
Award: Western States Arts Federation,
Lannan Foundation: Artist-in-Residence
Award, and New Mexico Achievement in the
Arts Award. He is the father of a son and
two daughters and grandfather to their
In his writing, Ortiz has consistently
heralded the spirit of the people of the
world, and their relationship to family,
community and the land. In his own words,
his work is directed at "that great mass of
people who I think need to be reaffirmed of
their humanity. Kind of a tall order, but
what's a poet for?"
Ortiz' first language is Keres, the language
of the Acoma people. His first knowledge of
the world came from his parents and his
siblings, through oral storytelling and
singing. He calls the Acoma language the
language through which he first knew
himself. He says, "The infant's early life is
usually his family. So my first awareness of
language, whether it was to eat or whether
it was to be comforted, was the language
my family spoke to me as an infant, before I
had any real rhetorical understanding of
how certain sounds come to you. It's very
basic: you don't understand semantically,
don't understand the meaning of the words,
but you know that something is there,
someone is singing you a sweet song,
rubbing your back. You associate those early
sounds with something soothing."
Then Ortiz was introduced to English when
he began to attend St. Catherine's School
and, later, the Albuquerque Indian School,
run by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs).
None of the teachers spoke Keres so the
children were forced to learn English in
order to communicate with them. He says
indigenous children were made to feel
hesitant or intimidated if they didn't speak
English and in some cases were punished if
they were discovered speaking Keres. Also,
children from different pueblos spoke
various languages, all different from each
other, so English became the common
language with which they could interact with
their peers at school.
Ortiz acknowledges the presence of both
languages in his education process, and also
the two histories that they represent.
Stories are information and knowledge, he
says, and literature in school was presented
to him via the Dick and Jane books and the
Weekly Reader magazines. All instruction
was in English, non-Acoma, non indigenous.
But at home he was getting another form of
knowledge: more stylized, more
imaginative. Not that it wasn't true, but an
oral history, exaggerated, imagined, from a
long time ago. Not always factual, but in a
more poetic form.
And since oral
tradition is a link with the past, "most Native
Americans will insist it is at the core of who
they truly are."
His parents told him that he should always
learn, and they were open to knowledge in
any language. Now, when he writes, Ortiz
includes words from the Acoma language in
his stories and poems. Languages are equal
to each other, he says, but we have different
ways of understanding each other. "The
primary knowledge of the Americas is
indigenous," Ortiz says. "That is where all
things of knowledge, of awareness, of
consciousness come from. That is a thing
that is not taught in school or in churches.
When Western Europeans came here
knowledge already was here. There was
extensive civilization in the Americas,
millions of people. You can't build
civilizations in the Andes, or Peru, or the
rainforests, or Yucatan or Mexico or here in
the Pueblos without knowledge. Indigenous
knowledge is foundational and it's basic and
Walt Whitman was a big influence on Ortiz,
one of the earliest, going back to his high
school days. Later, he says, he had some
reservations about him, would have
preferred that he incorporate more native
language into his work, as Ortiz himself
does. But he feels Whitman's sense of
strength comes from the land and that
resonates with Ortiz and his love of the
land. Some later influences were Carl
Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel
Lindsey. "Later, in the same kind of spirit,"
Ortiz says, "I began to read more serious
American literature, John Steinbeck, Ernest
Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor Carson
McCullers, James Baldwin, Richard Wright,
Malcom X to some extent. And then in the
50's the Beat Generation, which I have to
admit I was sort of on the outside, Gary
Snider, Allen Ginsberg, people like that. I
identified with them; I felt very much that
they were part of my formation in my
development as a writer. I began to think
about and experiment with Buddhism, which
I felt was a kind of correlation to the
indigenous belief system, somewhat of an
expression of what our lives were culturally."
Ortiz's writings, both poetry and prose,
champion the land and the relationship of
people to the land. "Land, to me, is so basic
to our survival," he says. "Not just mine, but
our. Our survival and continuance, which is
the word I prefer. The land is where we
come from. In an abstract philosophical way
we credit our existence to some higher
power, or higher force, that came about,
that was able to initiate our lives as human
beings. But it's still the land, the landscape
of rivers, mountains, deserts, prairies."
It's also part of how we conceptualize
ourselves as beings, as existence, he says.
Ortiz says he honors the land because it is
who and what we are. "It is how we are able
to fare in the world. 'We' means all, not just
And although he is frequently
away from Acoma, he says almost every
day, "This land is still me, this land is still
who I am . . . . it is like a prayer."
Ortiz frequently uses poetry and prose
together. He says he does not know,
technically, where that comes from, but
explains how they work together as follows:
"Storytelling is very basic to our people. One
recognizes himself as a person and also he
is recognizing himself in relation to others.
That's true of the oral tradition of
storytelling. So story, as a concept, is one of
connection. And the poetry is really part of a
story because it is the underlying meaning,
it is how we understand. Poetry is that key
to comprehension. In the way we put down
words. We look at each other's eyes, at the
hands, it's poetic osmosis. We understand
what is meant by the wave of a hand or a
blink of the eye or a kiss or a touch. A
wordless gesture. A wordlessness, and yet
there is so much communicated. And it's a
poetic power that is evoked, that makes
sense and gives sense to life, to the story. I
think in terms of form, the verse form, or
the lack of structure, communicates in
ways, where prose is more formal, more
structural, rhetorically. It just communicates
differently. So I use them together in order
to give a much more complete or holistic
grasp. I use them together in order to
enhance my means of communication. And
that is holistic: in order to make a good talk
you go back to the beginning to make it
Ortiz speaks of wholeness, not only in
literature, but in all of life: "We are whole
when the world is whole. In other words, I
am o.k. if the world is o.k. I think there is a
lot of individual dysfunction these days
because the whole is dysfunctional. And we
can only get well, be whole, if the external
is also whole. And the world does tell us
that we are notdoing the right thing. My
children are more whole if I am doing the
right thing. And how I regard my mother
and father is how I regard myself. How they
live their lives in accordance to traditional
belief, respecting of those before you,
respecting their own elders, is a guidance
system that is traditionally and culturally
available and possible."
life today, Ortiz says, "Sometimes we get
the feeling the indigenous way of life is
disap-pearing. It's true to some extent.
Colonization has resulted in the
disengagement of those oral traditions and
the cultural dynamics and connection to the
land. But being battered or being diminished
does not mean the entire abandonment of
Zuni Lucero wrote of Ortiz, following an
early interview with him, "His native
language, the stories of his people, his
traditional upbringing permeate his thought,
his writing, his voice, his presence. He
speaks forth the Indian experience in a way
people, white and Indian, urban and
reservation, recognize and embrace. . . . No
matter where he is, he always comes home
to reconnect, to contribute, to participate.
His writing, his life, truly is for the land, the
community, the next generation."
Ortiz says literature was knowledge to him
because his father and grandfather and
other elders spoke of the old stories as
knowledge. That which is ours, which comes
from our own, this is how you are going to
know yourself, they told him. So for him
literature was a natural attraction. "It is part
of the way we bring knowledge to people.
Look into me in order that you may see
yourself. That is what a poet or any writer
Dunaway, David King. Writing the Southwest. Plume Book,
1995, p. 150.
Interview with Simon J. Ortiz, Albuquerque, NM, August
Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry and Lucero, Evelina Zuni
(eds.). Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous
Continuance. University of New Mexico Press, 2009, p. 94.
Brill de Ramirez and Lucero, op.cit. p. 121.
Lucero, Evelina Zuni. "Writer Ortiz Tells Indian Joys,
Struggles, Victories and Sorrows." Pueblo News Aug. 1978.
Quoted on website of New Mexico Office of the State
Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry and Lucero, Evelina Zuni. Simon
A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance.
New Mexico Press, 2009.
Dunaway, David King.
Writing the Southwest.
Lucero, Evelina Zuni. "Writer Ortiz Tells Indian Joys, Struggles,
Victories and Sorrows."
, August 1978. Quoted on
website of New Mexico Office of the State Historian.
Ortiz, Simon (ed.).
Speaking for the Generations: Native
Writers on Writing.
University of Arizona Press, 1998.
Ortiz, Simon. from Sand Creek. University of Arizona Press,
_____. Woven Stone. University of Arizona Press, 1992.
_____. After and Before the Lightning. University of Arizona
_____. Men from the Moon. University of Arizona Press, 1999.
_____.Out There Somewhere. University of Arizona Press, 2002.
PUBLISHED WORKS BY SIMON J. ORTIZ:
Beyond the Reach of Time and Change
The Good Rainbow Road
Out There Somewhere
From Sand Creek
Men on the Moon
Speaking for the Generation
After and Before the Lightning
A Good Journey
Earth Power Coming
Fightin': New and Collected Stories
Blue and Red
The Importance of Childhood
Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the
Welcome Howbah Indians
The People Shall Continue
Going for the Rain
Naked in the Wind
©Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article
may be republished without the express written permission of
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