By Randy Baca Hensel
From HaLapid Spring 2001
“Who Are You?”The nun’s habit was a course, black swirl of fabric with a unique scent all the old-time nuns shared, her face framed by the stiffest wimple imaginable. I took a nanosecond to wonder how her Mama starched it so stiff before dutifully answering, “I am a child of God.”
Six words made up the only acceptable answer to that question, should we be unlucky enough to have Father Whatever-His-Name-Was query us on what we’d learned in catechism classes. It was terrifying! One wrong answer–and you’d never get to wear that mini-bridal outfit, complete with veil (the really exciting part of the deal) and El Padre would probably see to it you were confined to Hell for all eternity for being such a dolt.
In the more than half-century since the series of classes where our totally timid, totally uncomprehending group of six-and-seven-year-olds prepared for that “big deal” to every Roman Catholic child, First Holy Communion, I’ve come to realize we’re all defined by words. Man, woman, young, old, tall, short, slim, pudgy, light, dark, father, mother, child, wife, husband, Caucasian, Oriental, brilliant, dimwitted, accountant, doctor, firefighter, Christian, Muslim, Jew: we use these–and other words–to describe ourselves and others, to define who and what we are.
Over the decades, I’ve internalized several words to describe me–to me. Curious. Perplexed, Different. Curious as to why my father and mother never went to church. Curious as to why HIS family were “Protestants” and HER family were “Catholics” but hardly anyone went to church except to baptize, marry or bury. No one made a big deal over my First Communion preparations–in fact a favorite uncle finally took me to a neighborhood store and purchased the while dress and veil that were mandated for the event. But the only person who actually attended was my beloved mama and after a few quick photos in the front yard, the rest of that Sunday was like any other.
Perplexed as to how my mom, Beatriz, and her younger sister both married Chavez men–when Mama and mi Tía Carolina, as maidens, were named Chavez, too. And my Dad and my Tio weren’t related–just had the same last name. How in the world did all these Chavez’ find each other in California –when they were all from New Mexico and Arizona ? And it certainly seemed strange that my father hated priests and nuns with such a passion! It was equally mystifying to me that no one had statues of saints with candles burning, or a crucifix in every room, as did most of my friends’ families. Dad would say, “The Bible (and that was the Old Testament to him) does not allow us to worship idols.” And he’d show me the passages that certainly seemed to reinforce his position.
Mama just quietly went about her work, cooking, cleaning, always sweeping the dirt from the corners toward the center of the room. Her only mention of religion of any sort was always “Dios es muy grande.”
I was perplexed that, while most Hispanic families were staunchly Roman Catholic, my mother’s was so nominally “R.C.” they didn’t even go to Mass. Ever! They didn’t believe in confessing sins to the priest. Nobody even owned a rosary–never mind used one for prayer. I’m not sure my mamacita could even recite the Hail Mary. And Dad’s family was so anti-Catholic, my paternal Grandmother thought any priest–and especially the Pope–was the devil incarnate. I was curious as to why so many of my relatives had Old Testament names–Abel, Abram, Jacob, Sarah, Elias, Solomon, Rebecca, Ephriam, Philemon, Milka, Reuben, Elizabeth, Eloy, David. When the clan gathered it sounded like a convention of the Prophets and the Patriarchs.
Spiritually, I was definitely left to my own devices. Dad’s Old Testament passages got to me until it was “goodbye, Catholic Church”–and I went searching through various Protestant Christian denominations, looking for a theology that made sense. I even looked outside Christianity–the Bahais sounded pretty good for about three months. I finally settled on the Episcopal Church–the “higher” the better. And there I stayed–and prayed–for most of my adult life. But Judaism was so fascinating! After all, Jesus was a Jew, albeit one who made a whole lot of waves, and so I learned everything I could about the very real Jewish underpinnings of Christianity in an attempt to really understand the life and times of this Jesus person.
As in any life, other words came to define my being: wife, mother, businesswoman, author, widow. Then, after remarrying (a totally non-observant Ashkenazi Jew), and having, along with my spouse, to tend to the appropriate burial of my mother-in-law (a Russian Jew who became very observant in her dotage), it became a bit of immediate family lore that the Christian “I” knew to bury my mother-in-law in a white shroud, say Kaddish (my dear husband of blessed memory didn’t even know what Kaddish was, never mind how to say it!), and try not to offend her relatives and friends by serving inappropriate foods after the graveside services. My spouse didn’t get it when I said we couldn’t serve ham or shrimp. Kosher it wasn’t–but it also didn’t offend.
Some months later, one of my many New Mexico cousins and his wife were visiting Scottsdale and we met them for brunch. The subject of my mother-in-law’s very Jewish commitment service being planned by a good Christian duo came up–as did my wisecrack that I’d always figured our family had hightailed it out of Spain just seconds before the Grand Inquisitor fried ‘em for being mixed up with the Huguenots. “Well, you’re sort of right,” said my cousin. “They certainly were fleeing Spain and the Inquisition–but not because they were Protestants. They were on the lam because they were Jews!” Well, I’ll be…..
Seems another cousin (there are lots of us) did an extensive genealogy after my dad’s mother FINALLY told her the family secret just weeks before she died– Somos Judios. (we are Jews.) Our family springs from some of the very earliest settlers (and re-settlers) of what is now Northern New Mexico, Southern Colorado and Northern Arizona . Garcia, Montoya, Peña, Chavez, Baca–some genuine Conversos, some Crypto-Jews (or anusim ). From Spain into Portugal . Then to the Canary Islands . Next to Hispanola. Finally onto the North American Continent and north–always north–away from the Inquisition and into tiny, isolated villages like Ceboyeta, San Mateo , Lemitar, Los Chavez, Pajarito, Valle Redondo, where they intermarried so closely it’s a wonder we’re not all genetically damaged goods.
“Stay away from the priests!” “Never speak of family matters to others.” “We are Spanish!” “We’re Manitos ,” not Chicanos !” And across the years and the miles my grandmother’s quiet “Somos Judios” is the loudest whisper I’ve heard.
Through the most bizarre set of circumstances imaginable, I found myself on the telephone, speaking with Dr. Stanley Hordes. To some of his gentle questions, I could only respond, “Everything my family did was strange to me! I spent my earliest years in Los Angeles –not New Mexico ”. The family customs were, to me, unique at best when we finally returned. I don’t know whether the candles lit on Friday evenings were for Shabbat or because the electric generator on the rancho wasn’t working. There were no power lines in San Mateo and Ceboyeta when I first visited there. I’m not at all sure they knew why they were doing certain things certain ways. And like many–if not most–offspring of families living with five hundred-plus years of secrecy, there is more that has been forgotten than remembered. Except all the male offspring had to be circumcised within a few day after birth. Except the weird, ritualized manner in which animals were slaughtered. Except in some deep, almost cellular level of my being. Except for the research that more and more tends to indicate we were indeed Anusim –the shadowy remnants of the glory days of Sefarad; a sense-memory that will not go away. Except for my grandmother’s secret, “Somos Judios.”
And still, the conflict rages. Some in the family will not even discuss the matter. Others reach out tentatively, grasp a factoid and pull quickly back, as if the fires of the Inquisition are still burning hotly. During stressful times, I am more likely to pray “Sh’ma yisrael” than “Our Father.” In my own nuclear family group, my son states proudly–but rudely, “Thank God, Jesus is my Savior!” while my daughter gives me a dreidel for Christmas. I love them both. I love my dreidel.
My search continues. I am no longer a Christian. I may never be a Jew. But the good nun in her starched white wimple so very long ago pretty much had it right: I am a child of God. Perhaps, in the end, that is what really matters. Perhaps that is who–and what–I really am. Perhaps…..
Published with permission by Randy Baca-Hensel, May 2001. Learn more about The Society fro Crypto-Judiac Studies and read more personal stories at:
In Memory of My Friend and Prima – Randy Baca-Hensel – Love You, Mean It!