Las Salinas Missions: A walk through the historic crypto-Jewish pathI had googled the name of our target destination, the Las Salinas Missions. The Las Salinas Missions feature the ruins of Native Pueblos and three churches, very old, built around 1625. All three sites are accessible from the center hub town of Mountainair, New Mexico.
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Crypto Jews in New MexicoI and my fellow crypto traveler both happen to be descendants of the Hispanic families of New Mexico, families who were Jewish, who on the whole lost all consciousness of their identity as Jewish people. We both descend from those Spanish Jews, who long ago buried their identity in a new and Catholic one. How did this happen to the them? What was the process that reduced the once sophisticated, world traveling, Sephardic/Spanish Jews of Spain into poor, Catholic colonists, who wear someone else's identity? How did these international Spanish Jews become those who rarely leave their own county and end up in a place as far flung as Mountainair, New Mexico? In a word, the Inquisition. In 1492 many of our Hispanic Jewish ancestors were forced to exit Spain. They are the ancestors of MOST of the Hispanic, and traditionally Catholic, families that colonized New Mexico during the era of the great conquistadors, though only a fraction of their descendants today know anything about this. Surprising but true. A trip to the three Missions of Las Salinas partially answers the question of how the Spanish Jews became the recluse, secretive Hispanic Catholics of New Mexico today. The three mission churches are the remains of the power of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the Kingdom of New Mexico during the early era of the Jewish Hispanic colonists of New Mexico. All the now Catholic and Hispanic families were then fully under the power, or potentially under the power, of the Office of the Holy Inquisition should any deviance from the faith appear in the colonial families. Much of New Mexico's ignored history is Hispanic, Inquisitorial and very Jewish, though it is couched in generic Hispanic and Catholic packaging. While many a historian will cover the missions in light of the Native American peoples or in the light of the politics of the struggle between the church and the crown, few will open wide the Jewish factor in this history. This aspect of New Mexico Hispanic history isn't well known, and tends to be a bit sensitive of a subject. Many a scholar is simply outside the silent ring, and are simply ignorant of this side of New Mexico's history on the whole. Las Salinas is a mission church, as are the other two additional sites. The missions were Franciscan run and in general were missions to the native peoples. The missions also had another function for the Hispanic/Catholic families of New Mexico, for the colonists. These people were subject to the southern section of the complex at the large Salinas Mission Church. These people were subject to the inquisition. The little people were brought into submission when even such a big and powerful government official such as the governor of New Mexico himself, who taunted the church's power and authority, fell to the power of the inquisition, to the power seated at this very mission site.
Seat of the InquisitionWhenever officials of the church and state clashed in the 17th-century New Mexico clergymen held the final trump card -- the Inquisition. Hearings to investigate Spanish settlers accused of wrong doctrine or behavior were often held in courtyards like this. Many charges involved superstitions, unfaithfulness, love potions, witchcraft or blasphemy. Mission Indians were not subject to scrutiny by the Inquisition, but they were often called to testify. The accused, like Captain Aguilar or governor Lopez de Mendizibal, were bound and sent to Mexico City for trial.
Lopez, de Mendizibal, Bernardo: the Spanish governor of New Mexico, where he antagonized the Church; m. Teresa de Aguirre y Roche, who belonged to a noble, Spanish family; his maternal Grandmother had been relaxed [burned] as a judio [Jew] denounced in 1663; his wife had also Been denounced for suspicion of judio in 1664, but was acquitted due to her lineage. Judio; died In the cells, where he had been since 1661; acquitted posthumously in 1671.So went the trial of the governor. So went the trial of many a Hispanic Catholic with a secret past. On the surface many an Inquisition trial for many a Hispanic colonist of New Mexico was conducted for unfaithfulness, love potions or blasphemy. When the trials are read in full many, many turn out to be undertaken because many of the accused were Jews, practicing little understood Jewish rites. The Inquisition in New Mexico left a wake of fear and genocide of identity and a glossed over history. This is a history which needs to be told and not forgotten. Some of us form the Hispanic families remember however, some even know who the others of us are, even if they don't. Out of respect for truth in historic recounting, out of respect for the glossed over genocide of identity, I fully encourage every historic-minded person to take the trip to all three sites of the Las Salinas missions of New Mexico. Take the trips to see the places that shaped the people found all around us in New Mexico who we thought we knew. The three monuments stand east, south and north of Moutainair New Mexico. The northern site is Quarai, the east site is Abo, and the main site, and seat of the Inquisition in New Mexico is called Gran Quevira. To get there head south on I-25, then exit at Bernado heading east. This will lead you onto Highway 60, right into Mountainair, the hub of the three Inquisition sites. Make the day trip, see the sites, walk through the almost forgotten history of the living people of the state of New Mexico.
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Perry Pena is a local Albuquerque author and native of New Mexico's Crypto Jewish families, active in the Jewish community. He graduated with his bachelors degreee from the Universtity of New Mexico with a minor in New Mexico history.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author