Detail from Red Pony, Alfre­do Arreguín, 2009; cropped from the cov­er of Spir­its of the Ordi­nary by Kath­leen Alcalá

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.