Monday, October 15, 2012

The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition by Doreen Carvajal

A mesmerizing journey through time, across cultures and into one woman's rich personal history. from Kirkus' Review 6/15/2012

Doreen Carvajal, a journalist, had been approached in the past by scholars and strangers who asked her if she knew that people with her last name were frequently conversos: Jews living in Spain and Portugal in the 14th century forced to convert to Catholicism. Labeled the derogatory “marranos,” meaning “pigs,” and also “New Christians” by the Spaniards, many of those converted were only nominal Catholics and held on secretly to their Jewish faith.

Brought up as a practicing Catholic, the possibility that she might have Jewish ancestors intrigued her, and she says that despite having little to go on, the idea made sense. Her family seemed to have no history; she knew her father had been born in Costa Rica, and that his family had originally come from Spain, but she had trouble getting him to talk about his family’s past. She felt like his stance as well as that of others in generations of his family was an act of willful forgetting, so she decided to use her skills as a journalist to see what she could learn.

What unfolds, based on the author’s research, is fascinating, especially to readers who only know the broad outline of the impact of the Inquisition on the Jewish population in Spain, Portugal and Mexico. Carvajal spent a number of summers in the town of Arcos de la Frontera, about 100 miles from Seville in the heart of Andalusia which had had a thriving Jewish community. In learning about the specifics of the Inquisition and conversos, it was clear to her that an atmosphere of fear and distrust still hung in the air. The legacy of Franco’s reign of repression also added to the difficulty of getting people to think and talk about the past.
Carvajal employs a global approach to researching her family. Her training as a journalist pulls her in many different directions and occasionally she pauses to digress from her original quest to examine, more fully, the life of a converso. The thoroughness of her research yields lots of information. She learns about the importance of the saeta, a song/chant sung during holy week that dates back to the Middle Ages whose origins scholars see in the medieval chant of the Jewish Kol Nidre prayer. She learns to look at church decoration in a new way, having learned that some artists were conversos who included details that reveal their status if you know to look carefully. And she learns that food, what people ate and how they prepared it, often raised suspicion. She points out that to this day Spain is one of the leaders of countries in the world in pork consumption. During the years of the Inquisition, if you didn’t eat pork, you were obviously a Jew.

Carvajal employed many of the tools that are available to genealogists. She looked for old records, both in their original form and via the internet. She found that the Catholic church kept meticulous records during the time of the Inquisition (there were actually a number of Inquisitions) and is able to access a specific document that listed the name of every Jew in specific communities. She was also aided by being able to study a number of family trees that go back many, many generations. And she consulted researchers, both in their writings and in person. Through them she learned to look for clues for detecting conversos in historical records: some had Biblical first names, they were often merchants and traders, and they frequently practiced endogamy – the practice of marrying within the extended family group.

She discusses the potential and efficacy of tracing her roots through DNA and asks her father to submit swabs for analysis. She reads about immigration patterns and passes along interesting information about the early settlement of Sephardic Jews in Costa Rica. She writes about Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers who had conversos on board their ships. And she writes to and interviews relatives who still live in Costa Rica, pushing them to remember details. Part of what she was trying to get them to remember was what scholars say are tell-tale signs in the lives of conversos and their descendants. Often families hold on to an old ritual that would reveal, to those in the know, that they are doing something “Jewish”: the ritual slaughtering of chickens according to Jewish law, abstaining from eating pork, covering the mirrors when there is a death in the family, and/or reciting psalms at a funeral without the usual Christian prayers.

At one point she travelled to attend a ceremony commemorating an act of the Inquisition on the island of Mallorca. The ceremony was conducted by descendant of a former converso, now a rabbi who works with an organization called Shavei Israel whose mission is to reach out to “Crypto-Jews” all over the world who are interested in embracing Judaism.  It was in Mallorca where she heard most forcefully about the impact of being a Chueta and descendents of Chuetas, the Mallorcan term for converso –  which like “marrano” means pig, and which signified a pariah group. Cheuta families were shunned, and the stigma of being from a Chueta family held on well into the 20th century.

Carvajal’s memoir is ultimately about the act of forgetting and the importance of remembering. It pains her that Spanish Jews suffered so much and that in the act of expulsion, conversion, and execution they were pretty much obliterated. The Jewish corner in the old town of Arcos - made up of houses, shops and a remaining synagogue building - is not marked. Although DNA research reveals that almost 20% of Spanish men have Jewish markers, the level of latent anti-Semitism is high, a legacy of the Inquisition when people went out of their way to “prove” they were not Jews. She notes that the 1492 edict to expel the Jews was not officially revoked until 1968. From her research on trauma and its trickle-down effect she understands why Spaniards in general and conversos in particular chose to forget.  She wants to bear witness to the lives of the conversos of which she is convinced that her ancestors were members.

To watch a short video of the author introducing her memoir that includes photos, click here
To watch a video of family photos, click here.

To watch two YouTube videos of saetas, click here and here. The first is part of an actual procession during Holy Week. The second seems to be a "performance" in a church. Notice in the second video the six-pointed star in the grill work to the left behind the altar.

To watch two YouTube videos of performances of Kol Nidre, click here and here. No traditional synagogue where it is actually chanted  as part of the service would allow it to be recorded during the service.

Author’s paternal grandfather’s family
Hermengildo Alvarado – married Juana Solis
            Petronilla Alvardo – daughter of Hermengildo and Juana; married Jose Carvajal (Rodrigues)
Jose Francisco Carvajal – son of Petronilla and Jose; married Angela Chacon
                        Eugenia Carvajal– daughter of Angela and Jose
                        Arnoldo Carvajal – son of Angela and Jose; married Carol Ann Roach
                                    Doreen Carvajal – daughter of Arnoldo and Carol;  married to Omer; author
                                                Claire – daughter of Doreen and Omer
                                    Arnold Carvajal – son of Arnold and Carol
                                    Patricia Carvajal – daughter of Anoldo and Carol; married to Dennis
                        Lyjia Carvajal – daughter of Jose and his 3rd wife
                        Roy Carvajal – son of Jose
Luz Carvajal de Llubere– daughter of Petronilla and Jose
                        Cecelia Valverde – daughter of Luz
Albertina Perez Mora Carvajal – author’s paternal great grandmother; mother of Jose

Author’s paternal grandmother’s family
Don Berndardo Sarmiento de Sotomayor y Ponce de Leon – early ancester
            Santiago  Moya - author’s great-great grandfather
            Anais Moya – daughter of Santiago; married Julio Chacon
                        Angela Chacon – daughter of Julio and Anais; married Jose Francisco Carvajal (see above)
Melchor Xiquez – married to Carmen Jimenez; Angela’s maternal great grandmother
            Angela Xiquez – daughter of Melchor and Carmen; married Santiago

Other family names in author’s grandmother’s family: Alcazar, Sarmiento, Policar, Umana.          
Rafael Mogeizmes Farjado – relative in Costa Rica
Alonso Farjado – ancestor of Angela Chacon
Antonio de Carvajal – married to Ana (likely converso and relative)
Luis de Carvajal – Mexico
Francisca de Carvajal
            Gaspar and Luis Rodriguez Carvajal – sons of Francisca and nephews of Luis
            Isabel,  Leonor, Catalina and Anica Carvajal – daughters of Francisca and nieces of Luis

Jews and Conversos and descendants of Conversos and Jews:
D. Anton Lopez
Isaac Cardozo – Arcos, then Verona, Italy
Andres Valasquez – Arcos (likely converso)
Isahak Actosta - Arcos
            Pedro Acosta – son of Isahak - Arcos
Catalina Acosta – Arcos (likely converso)
Luis Alberto Monge – Costa Rica
            Gisell Monge-Urpi – his daughter
Dona Beatriz Pacheco – granddaughter or rabbi – Arcos
Antonia Josefa Montanez (likely converso) - Arcos
Diego Alvarez (likely converso) – Arcos
Diego Nunez de Castilla - Arcos
Maria Munoz Huerto (likely descendent of converso)
                        Francisco Saboridido – grandson of Maria
Ferand Martinez – Seville
Aguilo, Bonnin, Cortes, Forteza, Fuster, Marti, Miro, Pico, Pina, Pomar, Segura, Tarongi, Valenti, Valleriola, Valls – converso family names on Mallorca
Jafuda Cresques
Miguel de Cervantes (likely converso)
Abraham de Salinas – Zaragoza
Juan de Levi – Zaragoza
Miguel Jimenez - Zaragoza
Martin Bernat – Zaragoza
Juan Sanchez de Toledo
            St. Teresa de Avila – granddaughter of Juan Sanchez
Ferdinand de Aguilar – Barcelona
Ralph Benito Tarongo  – Mallorca
Catalina Tarongo – Mallorca; sister of Ralph
            Nicolau Aguilo (Nissan Ben Avraham) – Mallorca; descendent of Catalina
Raphael Valls – Mallorca
            Joseph Wallis – descendent of Raphael
Aina Aguilo Bennassar – Mallorca
Catalina Pomar - Mallorca
Raphael Agustin Pomar - Mallorca
Bernat Pomar – Mallorca
Bernat Aguilo Siquier – Mallorca

Andalusia, Spain
Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
Majorca, Spain
Costa Rica
Lafayette, California

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