US Hispanics descended from Sephardic Jews seek Spanish citizenship

Rob Martínez is a proud New Mexican, proud of his culture and proud of a genealogy that mingles indigenous ancestry and descent from the Spanish soldiers and settlers who arrived in the area in the late 15th century.

Martínez is also profoundly disturbed by Donald Trump’s tirades against Latin American immigrants and the social tensions they have stirred up.

“When President Trump speaks so badly of Mexican and of Hispanic people, it obviously makes me really sick,” says Martínez, who is New Mexico’s deputy state historian.

“Round here, they say he’s only talking about criminals and illegal immigrants. But I say, ‘No. He’s talking about all of us. He’s got something against Mexico … and against all Latin American people.’”

Martínez is one of a growing number of US Hispanic people looking towards their family’s European past as a possible means of safeguarding their future.

He recently began the process of trying to obtain Spanish citizenship under a law that offers it to the descendants of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the country in 1492, forced to convert to Catholicism or burned at the stake.

“I’m very proud of my past and my culture,” says Martínez. “And that’s why I want to see whether I can become a Spanish citizen. I have Catholic, Jewish and Moorish roots there.”

A poll last month found that 49% of US Latinos believe their situation has worsened over the past year – up from 32% in the weeks following Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016.

Applications received by the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, which has been certifying applicants’ Sephardic heritage, suggest Martínez is not alone in seeking an insurance policy in the form of Spanish citizenship.

The “bam!” moment, according to Sara Koplik, the federation’s director of community outreach, came two years ago. And its timing was more than a coincidence.

Although the Spanish citizenship law had come into force the previous October, the gesture of redress was, initially at least, scarcely taken up in New Mexico, whose original Spanish settlers included a large number of conversos – forced converts – who had fled the inquisitions in both Spain and Mexico. The first two or three dozen requests came from Hispanic Catholic families with extensive genealogies, or people with professional connections to Spain.

Application numbers remained low throughout summer and early autumn 2016, but all that changed with Trump’s triumph.

“With the election in November 2016 it was ‘bam!’ and our numbers started to go up significantly,” says Koplik. “Before the election, we issued maybe 20 or 30 certificates. But we have now issued 1,500 – from multiple countries.”

Koplik, a historian, is careful to point out that her team has received applications from more than 50 countries. Most however, come from just three: the US, Mexico and Venezuela.

“It’s a big jump and of course some of it had nothing to do with the United States – it has to do with Venezuela and violence in Mexico – but for Americans, they see this as an insurance policy just in case, against hatred,” she says.

“We know Jewish history, and unfortunately Latinos who have Jewish heritage also have that history of putting things in hiding, being secretive, protecting yourself to survive. In both of these cultures, there’s this instinct to just have a plan B, just something a little extra just in case. And this fits very well into those ideas of, ‘Oh well, if things don’t go well in the US … If racism increases, OK, then there might be another way forward.’”

Not all the US applicants, however, are motivated by fear.

For Ricardo Villarreal, a business professor who grew up in Texas, it is a matter of making sense of the Jewish customs that suffused his mother’s ostensibly Catholic upbringing, and honouring his ancestors.

“The opportunity came up and I just thought, ‘Holy smoke!’ You have to do it for the extent to which my family left Spain and how I’m still descended from them,” he says. “I almost think you have to do it for them.”

The citizenship offer stirred something similarly atavistic in Georgina Garza and her siblings, who are descended from conversos, and whose family has lived around the Rio Grande valley for 500 years.

“Spain is calling us; I really believe there is a connection with our ancestors and they want us to go back,” says Georgina, a dyslexia therapist, bilingual teacher and rehabilitation therapist.

Her brother Juan says: “We’re not like the Sephardic Jews who were expelled and went to north Africa or the Middle East or Europe, because they could carry on practising their religion. It was different for us. But this new law is helping us connect with our past and we’re discovering – or rediscovering – things that have been lost for 500 years.”

Rob Martínez, who has studied and worked in Spain, also feels a deep affinity with the country.

“I’d be delighted to have that identity because we still have a very strong Hispanic culture even if our Spanish isn’t quite as refined as the Spanish in Mexico or Spain,” he says. “We’ve been Americans for almost two centuries, but we’re still speaking Spanish.”

But for Martínez, whose father was a celebrated New Mexican mariachi, composer of ballads and civil rights campaigner, the social realities of Trump’s America remain a powerful spur.

“I want to stay here and fight against this cabrón. But if things go bad, I’ll be able to go to Spain.”