Early in my writing career, I attended an event at the University of Washington discussing the presence of Sephardic Jews in Seattle. I was probably the youngest person in the audience. Most were the children or grandchildren of settlers from the 1900s, who had made their way across the ocean, then the continent, at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. They now form the third largest Sephardic community in the United States, after New York and Boston.
I was in an audience of perhaps one hundred and fifty people, restraining myself with all my might from leaning forward and placing my hand on the shoulder of the man seated in front of me. He was probably a nice man, seated next to his wife, and merely curious about the subject that had come up. Maybe I am going to hyperventilate, I thought. Maybe I should leave before I do something I regret. I would probably be breaking all sorts of taboos and cultural norms if I put my hand on that man’s shoulder.
My parents were born in Mexico and carried a cultural burden for many years that was so obscure, I grew up thinking only my family had this secret. In 1992, the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ fateful trip to the Americas was observed. The date also marks the anniversary of the Spanish Inquisition, much more than a Monty Python joke.
I was working with a magazine called The Raven Chronicles, which emphasizes multicultural art, literature, and the spoken word. There was an article in the paper about a man in Seattle who publicly stated that he might forgive Spain for what it did to its Jewish citizens, but he did not plan to forget. I called him up and arranged an interview. When I arrived at his home, the dining room table was covered in old photos. He told me about his father, one of the first Sephardic rabbi in Seattle, and how he, a retired greengrocer, taught Ladino (a Jewish dialect of Spanish) at his synagogue. As we spoke, his wife was kneading and rolling dough in the kitchen, which had a Dutch door into the room where we talked. I was delighted with the information, knowing it would make a great article for the magazine.
With the advent of the 500-year anniversary, Jews all over the world had brought out antiques or relics that linked them to the past. Some people even had keys to the homes their ancestors left behind in Spain.
As we finished, I told him that there was speculation in my family that we were descended from Spanish Jews. Immediately, he began to grill me on family customs. Did we light candles on Friday night? Did we play cards? Did we have any documents or objects that might hint at Sephardic ancestry? He told me that, with the advent of the 500-year anniversary, Jews all over the world had brought out antiques or relics that linked them to the past. Some people even had keys to the homes their ancestors left behind in Spain — as though this would all blow over and they could return in their lifetimes; everyone except the Jews of northern Mexico and New Mexico who preferred to stay hidden. Catholicism is still strongly practiced in that area, and even 500 years later, people felt that they could endanger themselves, or hurt their business prospects, by openly declaring their Judaism. It was more than a habit, an affectation. After 500 years, a way to stay alive had become a way of life.
1992 was the year my first book, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, was published by Calyx Books. The last story in it, “La Esmeralda,” is based on the story of my great-grandparents. When I finished writing it, I realized that I had the beginning of a novel, albeit one in need a lot of research. Isaac Maimon, the man I interviewed, had just confirmed much of what I suspected.
As I stood up to leave, his wife wrapped some of the pastry she had just baked in tinfoil and handed it to me. That taste of Sephardic culture launched several years of following leads all over North America: Seattle, Chihuahua, Mexico City, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. All of which resulted in my next three novels.
Even as I left their home, I knew that it would be difficult to prove our Jewish ancestry. If there had been records they had long since been lost or destroyed. My mother’s father, my grandfather, had been excommunicated and disinherited by his family for becoming a Methodist minister. He had led his wife and children on a nomadic existence, moving every two or three years to build new churches in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. My mother and her siblings were on speaking terms with their cousins in Saltillo, but I couldn’t imagine showing up on their doorsteps and asking, in my terrible Spanish, if we were Jews.
Years later I did exactly that. Yes, they said, our ancestors were Jewish. Shake the family tree in Saltillo, they told me, and the Jews fall out! One cousin gave me a copy of a family tree that showed many of the founders of Monterrey and Saltillo. Still, I did not see a direct connection between these people and me, or any indication of Jewishness.
This search prompted me to constantly question my relationship to the historical record. Was I Jewish just because some of my ancestors had left Spain to settle in the Americas? The details of torture and murder were gruesome. Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand were, after 900 years of Arabic rule in Spain, determined to end the era of Convivencia — a time of “cooperation” when Jews, Christians, and Muslims shared cultural and intellectual endeavors. The Jewish population had been hounded out of Spain for their religious beliefs. Jews who stayed had to convert, and even then, were tagged with the stigma of mala sangre—bad blood, which made it hard to do business, marry off their children, or live a free life. As far as I was concerned, Spain expelled its best and most intelligent citizens, and they scattered to the far corners of the world. The more I learned, the more “they” became “we.”
Even as I left their home, I knew that it would be difficult to prove our Jewish ancestry.
Eventually, I converted to Judaism, but to this day, most of my relatives don’t know that. Other cousins have in turn become Jewish, one as far away as Switzerland. The Sephardic community in Seattle has aged another thirty years, and there are two Sephardic synagogues in Seattle now. I attend a reform congregation, where our rabbi is from Argentina. He carefully picks his way through the linguistic thicket of English, his third language after Spanish and Hebrew. My Spanish has improved, which is a good thing.
The latest twist in this story is that in 2015, the Spanish government announced that it would provide an expedited process for citizenship to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. Half the people I knew sent me copies of the news reports and asked if I planned to pursue this. No, I said. What do I want with Spanish citizenship? It sounds like a ploy for tourist dollars. And I wasn’t sure I could prove my connection.
As the window began to close on this offer, my then thirty-year-old son said, “We should do this.”
“What?” I said. “Why?”
“It’s EU citizenship.”
I thought about this. We were living in a country where every morning we were greeted with the next atrocity committed by our government. It might get worse. My son was already a citizen of the world, having backpacked through many countires and working with colleagues from all over the globe. Who was I to refuse him this? So we applied.
It was a lot of work, consisting of so many papers, so many copies of official documents, culminating in a trip to Spain moments before the pandemic broke out. Hiring a genealogist closed the gap between me and my Jewish ancestors, who were also conquistadores, and not necessarily nice people — that’s another story. Evidently, surviving the Inquisition did not induce niceness.
We are waiting to hear back from the Spanish government. When everything is approved, we will rather anticlimactically meet with the local Spanish Consular to receive our passports. If I were to attend that lecture at the University of Washington today, and sit behind the same man, who had just asked, rather indignantly, “Where are these people, anyway? I’ve never met any of them!” I would place my hand on his shoulder and say, “I’m right here.”
Kathleen Alcalá was born in Compton, California, to Mexican parents, and grew up in San Bernardino. She has a BA in linguistics from Stanford University, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, and an MFA from the University of New Orleans. Both a graduate of and instructor in the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy program, her work embraces both traditional and innovative storytelling techniques. She is the author of six award-winning books that include a collection of stories, three novels, a book of essays, and, most recently, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, from the University of Washington Press.