The Inquisition in Mexico

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 8.53.41 AMBy Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken

December is the month of wonderful religious traditions throughout Mexico. Beautiful candle- lit posadas, glorious masses, families and friends gathering to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah, and a general sense of peace on earth. But in this darkest month of the year it is time to remember that beginning with the Spanish conquest, atrocities were committed against residents and settlers in Mexico in the name of religion.

Propagation of the Catholic faith was one of the explicit goals that dominated the thinking of the Spanish explorers from their very arrival in the New World. With the example of the Inquisition in Europe in mind, the conquistadores paid meticulous and enthusiastic attention to wiping out religious practices that they considered heretical and pagan. Even after the Aztecs were destroyed as a governing power, there were major pockets of resisting natives in New Spain who clung to their beliefs, especially in the sierra of Oaxaca and among the Maya in Yucatan, with the result that the Spanish subjected them to extensive torture and burning of religious books. Among the non-native population, the most systematic and brutal effort to root out supposed heretics was carried out against New Christians or crypto-Jews.

Crypto-Jews were converts to Catholicism who chose to renounce their Jewish faith rather than being put to death. In the 14th and 15th centuries, forced mass conversions of Jews took place in every Church stronghold in Europe, including Spain. These converts are known in Hebrew as anusim or the forced ones. Crypto-Jews were among the earliest settlers in colonial Mexico. Ironically, most of what is known about these New Christians was methodically recorded by officials of the Mexican Inquisition. These officers of the Church were determined to build firm cases of heresy so the crypto-Jews could be burned alive. And the Inquisitors’ records were preserved for centuries in archives in the Vatican and Mexico City.

In 1997, Pope John Paul II convened two conferences of scholars, one on the topic of antisemitism and one on the topic of the Holy Office (which is the continuing residue of the Inquisition within the church hierarchy). At the conclusion of the conferences in 1998, he opened the previously secret Vatican archives of the Inquisition to scholars, leading to substantial rethinking of the history of the years when Spain governed Latin America. These documents, together with the extensive collection which now resides in the National Archive (AGN) in Mexico City, reveal in striking detail the intensity of the Inquisition and the enormous size of the associated bureaucracy. The documentary evidence is replete with information about goals, procedures, and record-keeping of outcomes of investigations. Every prisoner of the Inquisition was required to write a complete life history, and these are also available to scholars.

According to Israeli scholars who scrutinized the documents, a clear picture emerges about the background and lives of the crypto-Jews who helped colonize New Spain. Although these New Christians were forbidden by the Church to migrate to Catholic controlled American colonies, shortly after the Spanish subjugated the Aztecs in the early 1500s, exceptions were made because the anusim were engaged in professions vital to the establishment of the colony.

Some were medical doctors, others skilled artisans and military strategists, and many were traders with business connections throughout Europe — including the major center of International trade, the Netherlands.


There were especially close ties between the anusim originally from Spain or Portugal and the Jewish traders in the Netherlands since, when the major expulsion or conversion of Jews occurred in Spain in 1492, large families split up and fled to Portugal or the Netherlands. By asking assistance of family contacts, utilizing their familiarity with legal proceedings, and often paying very large fees, numerous crypto-Jews who had fled to Portugal managed to establish themselves in New Spain.

In general, these anusim were better educated than most of the colonists. Men and many of the women could read and were familiar with the Bible – both the Jewish (Old) and Christian (New) testaments. Although they followed Church practice and protocol, many also followed Jewish practice. Candles were lit on Friday nights, Jewish blessings were recited in Spanish mixed with Hebrew, secret synagogues were established, Jewish fast days were observed, and pork dishes were shunned.

Although marriage between relatives was forbidden by the Church, even distant relatives, many anusim in New Spain applied for exemptions in an attempt to ensure that their children would marry others who would preserve Jewish tradition. When exemptions were denied and intermarriage took place, it was understood that the anusim mothers would secretly pass on the traditions to her children.

One of the children born in the colony in 1566 was Luis de Carvajal, the nephew of the Governor of New Spain with the same name. A child of privilege, the younger Luis de Carvajal was sent by his uncle to govern the territory in the northeast portion of the colony, today’s state of Nuevo Leon.   Archival documents from the Vatican described Carvajal by age 21 as the spiritual leader of the anusim who was intent on bringing about a return to Judaism among his followers. Unfortunately the Inquisition had by then been formalized in Mexico.

When the Inquisition was established in Mexico in 1571, a nuanced attitude toward the natives had emerged within the Catholic church. Through convening of ecclesiastical councils, the Church had rejected the notion that the native religious practices were heretical (these practices lacked any elements whatsoever of Judaism or Islam) and instead established a goal of peaceably converting natives to Catholicism, partly through the contrivance of re-conceptualizing their existing practices as actually consistent with Catholic belief.   The office of the Inquisition in Mexico declined any jurisdiction over matters involving the native population, and thus was left with focusing on New Christians and other heretics among the Europeans in Mexico.

The Inquisition was above all a judicial enterprise and had a very well-defined structure. Highly esteemed and respected Spaniards were appointed as Inquisitors in Mexico. They performed the function of judges but left the daily activities of the Inquisition to others. In principle, Inquisitors were supposed to be experts on canon law, but in practice they were attorneys and others who had enough influence with the church or the crown to obtain an appointment. They met regularly and voted on the written procedures, the budget and appointment of personnel, and the judgments and punishments in serious cases (which included all cases where the recommended punishment was death). They were supported by hordes of investigators, judges, constables, jailers, and other functionaries such as messengers, secretaries, treasurers, porters, drivers, and cooks.

The Inquisition established procedures whereby the faithful could publicly or anonymously name others who should be investigated. Edicts from the Inquisitors were read in church services, threatening punishments both spiritual and temporal to subjects who did not denounce heretics. However thin the evidence, all accusations were immediately investigated in secret, and the accused were called upon to demonstrate knowledge of and adherence to correct beliefs and practices. According to the established procedures, the accused could be secretly imprisoned and tortured during the investigation, which might drag on for years. Not surprisingly, the system brought forth not only identifications of well-hidden crypto-Jews but also accusations from people who just wanted to settle a personal grudge without being identified. (The accusers did not have to testify during trials.)

In Mexico, the principal types of accusations aside from claiming Jewish or crypto-Jewish practices were membership in Lutheran, Calvinist, or other prohibited religious groups, and practice of sorcery, witchcraft, or magic. Another hot topic of Inquisition trials was the cultivation or use of peyote or other hallucinogenic drugs, as these facilitated revelations.

Hundreds of crypto-Jews were brought before the Inquisition in Mexico. These included Luis de Carvajal who was tried twice and ultimately burned at the stake on December 8, 1596 along with his mother, three sisters, and other followers.

The punishment of convicted offenders was a highly elaborate ceremony, announced months in advance, signaling that anyone who wished to be influential ought to go purchase the latest attire and be in attendance. These ceremonies were ironically called auto-de-fe, which actually means act of faith, because convicted offenders were hounded by the populace on that day to confess at the last minute and save themselves. Those convicted of minor offenses such as bigamy or possession of prohibited books could escape further punishment by repenting publicly. But for those who were condemned to die, it didn’t matter if they succumbed to the crowds and confessed — they were already convicted and would suffer the death penalty.

The largest Inquisition trial and auto-de-fe ever held in Mexico occurred on April 11, 1649. Over 100 men and women were accused. More than half had died previously because of the horrid conditions in their pretrial prison. Their bones were burned that day along with thirteen people who were still alive. In fact, the archival records demonstrate that more than twice as many crypto-Jews died while incarcerated before they were tried than died while being burned alive at the stake. The perspective of Jews around the world is that those who were hanged, garroted, or burned at the stake were highly principled and committed to their beliefs, firmly defiant of the crowds, the Inquisition, and the Church to the end.

The Inquisition succeeded in squelching anusim determination to keep their Jewish tradition alive. By the end of the 17th century, virtually no Jewish practice was observed in Mexico – except deep within family homes in secret rooms and closets. These secret practices were passed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, for hundreds of years. Recently, DNA analysis has confirmed that today’s practicing Catholic families who retain traces of Jewish practices are the descendants of anusim who survived the Inquisition.

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