Cross Ways

Hispanics search for the origins of their unique faith that fuses Jewish tradition with the celebration of Christ

The real explanation for the Iglesia de Dios Israelita's origins is probably much simpler than the theories of either Levi or Márquez, though no less intriguing. Details were unearthed a few years ago by Judith Neulander, now an associate at Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. In the early 1990s, Neulander started researching claims by people like Ramón Salas. She wanted to understand why Hispanic Christians like his family practiced Old Testament rituals and recited prayers about the "law of Moses." What she found suggested that instead of being crypto-Jews, a lot of Hispanics in Mexico and the Southwest may actually be crypto-Protestants.

Researching the records of evangelical sects in America, Neulander discovered the Seventh Day Adventists, who celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, avoid pork and observe many other Old Testament practices. Adventists' roots go back before the Civil War. In 1865 the church split into Adventists and a group that came to be known as the Church of God Seventh Day. Both the Adventists and the Church of God were fervently awaiting the Second Coming of Christ. But according to their theology, the Messiah would not return until Jews throughout the world gathered to welcome him.

Parishioners go all out for the Jewish tradition of the sukkah.
Parishioners go all out for the Jewish tradition of the sukkah.
Pastor M´rquez doubles as an auto body shop operator.
Pastor M´rquez doubles as an auto body shop operator.

The problem, of course, was that Jews are about as interested in gathering to welcome Jesus as they are in hunting for the Easter Bunny. So Adventists and Church of God Seventh Day members decided they were the true Jews -- Israelites of the spirit. When Christ came back, they would inherit Zion; meanwhile, Jews who didn't welcome Jesus would go up in flames. Adventist and Church of God leaders also thought it would be wise to proselytize Jews from the Ten Lost Tribes, since it would probably be easy to lead these confused souls back to Christ. Latinos, it was decided, were a Lost Tribe. So missionaries fanned across the Southwest and deep into Mexico. They told dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking, mostly Catholic people that they were "true Jews" who must adhere to the Old Testament so Christ could return to earth.

Some of the missionaries were themselves Hispanics, and Neulander found their names in old records of the Church of God Seventh Day and Adventists. She also found evidence suggesting that the Mexican professor who published newspapers claiming to be a crypto-Jew -- the man the El Paso rabbi wrote about in 1915 -- was actually working with the Adventists in Mexico as early as 1889. Evangelical, "Jews of the spirit"-style Christianity seems to have deep roots in Mexico. As it turns out, the Iglesia de Dios Israelita apparently developed there from a split in the Church of God Seventh Day over the question of circumcision (Seventh Day followers favored it; the Israelitas didn't).

Neulander thinks that from the turn of the century through World War II, a lot of Mexican-Americans in the United States were experimenting with Old Testament-inflected Protestantism. But those who chose the Church of God Seventh Day were abandoned by the church's Anglo leaders, who decided that Hispanics were too dark-skinned to be "true Jews." So the leaders left Mexico to its own devices and abandoned U.S. areas such as Texas and New Mexico altogether. It must have been difficult for the congregations to function without pastors. And as Pastor Márquez noted, it's hard not to celebrate Christmas, especially when you're a Christian and everyone else is going to mass and calling you crazy. Given such ostracism, many people might have kept kosher quietly, and not explained to the kids why their prayers mentioned Moses. Now the old folks are dead, or they don't want to talk (except for a mysterious deathbed declaration here and there). Meanwhile, the younger generation is getting gray hair, and along with it, weird childhood memories.

Fred Garcia has recollections. A 56-year-old telescopic-lens specialist who was raised in Houston, he believes that crypto-Judaism lurks in the family tree. Garcia's mother was born in northern Mexico but raised in La Porte. She was Methodist; her whole family converted in 1918. Garcia remembers that his grandfather used to wear a skullcap, similar to those used by observant Jewish men. In addition, Garcia's grandfather and uncles were circumcised, even though most Mexican men of their generation were not. At six foot one, Garcia is taller than most Mexican-American men. His skin is lighter, too. He has dark curly hair and a big nose. In school in Houston, he says, "The teachers used to think I was Jewish."

Garcia wasn't thinking about any of this until he started researching his genealogy because of a land grant dispute between his family and the government. Trying to show that his kin retained generations-old title to a piece of land in Texas, he became involved in the early 1980s with the Hispanic Genealogy Society, a Houston-based national organization of people investigating their roots in Spain and Portugal. Soon Garcia was comparing notes with other Texans in the group about common ancestors who had lived in Iberia hundreds of years ago.

Many of those ancestors were Jews. That's not surprising -- historians estimate that before the Inquisition, as many as 200,000 Jews lived in Spain. Further, anyone who takes his or her family tree back 20 generations will come up with more than a million direct ancestors. This means that Mexican-Americans, unless they come from an indigenous group that stayed isolated, probably have some Jewish roots.

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