Graphic Novel Sheds Light on Crypto-Jews
Our sense of self shifts with the unveiling of family secrets.
Sometimes, the shift can crack families apart, creating unbridgeable divisions between those who embrace and reject the unforeseen.
For Crypto-Jews, the mystery may surface in habits and unspoken traditions confirmed by a hexagram-shaped star carved into a headstone.
Literary critic and author Ilan Stavans will sign and discuss his graphic novel “El Iluminado,” a mystery set amid the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, on Sunday at the New Mexico History Museum. The book reflects Stavans’ personal and professional interest in the subject, as well as his desire to marry history with imagination. Illustrator Steve Sheinkin depicts Stavans’ fictional namesake on a journey into taco joints, desert ranches, soaring cathedrals and Santa Fe’s deep past.
The book opens as the young Rolando Pérez falls to his death from a New Mexico cliff. Did he jump or was he pushed? What documents was he willing to sacrifice himself for to protect his family, the police and the church? The fictional Professor Stavans arrives in Santa Fe to give a lecture about the area’s long-buried Jewish history. His presentation attracts unexpected attention, drawing him into a desperate race to find long-lost documents that might hold the key to Rolando’s death.
The real Stavans has researched and lectured about the history of Crypto-Jews for many years. A humanities professor at Amherst College, he teaches both Hispanic and Jewish literature. He’s drawn to the conundrum of Crypto-Jews throughout history — many of whom were forced to flee Spain under a 1492 edict from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during the Inquisition.
Those who converted to Catholicism were deemed “new Christians” or “conversos.” Some decided to outwardly live Christian lives, while maintaining their Judaism at home. Many traveled to Mexico and into the American Southwest, where they remain today. Luis de Carvajal the Younger, also known as El Iluminado, was a Crypto-Jew who lived in Mexico in the 16th century and was ultimately killed for not relinquishing his Jewish roots.
Stavan’s book combines history, spirituality and a murder mystery sprinkled with a touch of Spanglish. Born and raised in Mexico, Stavans is of Eastern European descent; Yiddish was his first language. He came from a family of poor peddlers and rabbis whose ethnicity was open.
“In my childhood, I came across many people who thought they had a Crypto-Jewish past,” he said in a telephone interview from Amherst, Mass. “I became very close to one of them. Her mother would clean the room by sweeping all the dust and the garbage and pushing it out a window. It was key to her family history; it was the custom not to mix profane dirt with other parts of the family home.
“They isolated themselves from Friday night through Saturday night; they wouldn’t go out,” he added. “In some of these families, there was a key that had passed from generation to generation that would open a door in Spain when the family was in Spain. It was one of those elements of folklore tradition.”
He started researching Crypto-Jews in the Santa Fe area 20 years ago. “I wanted to see some of the tombstones and visit the Basilica,” Cathedral of St. Francis, he said. “I found an incredible mix, juxtaposition of Catholicism and Judaism.
In the cemeteries, “sometimes there’s a cross inside the Star of David.” Other headstones featured a hand with the four fingers divided into two pairs. “That is a mystical symbol meant to protect the tombstones,” he explained.
Stavans turned to the novel form because it allowed him to teach a little history, while letting his imagination fly.
“The novel gives you a kind of freedom I don’t have as a scholar,” he said.
The graphic novel matches his words with cartoon-like imagery, just like the old comic books he read as a child, he added.
The story started to germinate when Stavans gave a talk on Crypto-Jews at the Museum of New Mexico in 2009.
“It was very crowded, and I found myself in a very strange position,’ he said. “Probably the people in the audience knew more about Crypto-Jews than I did. I wanted them to talk to me.”
A young woman told him the discovery of her family’s Crypto-Jewish past had produced inconsolable divisions she feared carried violent undertones.
Stavans based the Perez characters on a young Santa Fe man who spoke to him about his own divided Crypto-Jewish past –– his family disowned him when he embraced his Judaism.
“We’re all Crypto-Jews in one way or another,” Stavans said. “All families have secrets. I wanted to build a mystery, and the idea is that the past is up for grabs. We all shift it to fit our needs.”