The Converso's Return
Conversion and Sephardi History in Contemporary Literature and Culture
Dalia Kandiyoti




The Afterlives of Conversion

QUESTION: By the end of 2018, what did an incoming Democratic congresswoman from New York, a Republican Hispanic American, and an Evangelical Christian Zionist media figure have in common? The answer: All four claimed Sephardi roots reaching back to Iberian Jews who converted to Christianity in medieval times, settled in the Americas, and kept their forbidden former identities secret.

Although she received much attention for her December 2018 declaration of Jewish converso background, part of Puerto Rico’s amalgam of African, indigenous, and Spanish origins, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not the first mostly Hispanic/Latinx-identified public figure in the Americas who has acknowledged Sephardi origins. Several years earlier, on the other side of the political spectrum, Linda Chavez, the Reagan-Bush era conservative with New Mexican roots who served in Republican administrations, had the results of her genetic ancestry testing revealed on Henry Louis Gates’s popular television show Finding Your Roots. Chavez even traveled to archives in Seville to confirm her converso heritage. And when the Christian Zionist media personality Laurie Cardoza-Moore criticized Ocasio-Cortez’s views on Israel in early 2019, she accused the congresswoman of betraying their common Sephardi roots and ties to “Hispania.” Coincidentally, a scientific study gained international newspaper coverage shortly after Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks for its findings regarding Latin Americans’ DNA profiles, which match to a certain extent those of Turkish Sephardi Jews. This study, not the first of its kind, suggests that as much as 23% of Latin Americans could be of converso origin.1

Whether the intentions are political, personal, or scientific, such public revelations are not obscure curiosities but part of a larger movement in the Latinx, Hispanic, Latin American, and Iberian worlds to assert previously submerged Jewish origins. These identifications, which have emerged more openly in the last few decades in the Americas and Iberia especially, have expanded further since the popularization of genetic ancestry testing and, more recently, since the 2015 Spanish and Portuguese laws granting citizenship to descendants of Sephardi Jews.

The largely forced conversions of Jews to Catholicism in fourteenth-and fifteenth-century Spain and Portugal and the dispersal of their descendants in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Americas have been known, especially in the Jewish and Hispanic worlds, as phenomena of the distant past. However, especially since the 1980s and 1990s, we have witnessed a return of converso history to our present in media, literature, politics, scholarship, and testimonies. In variations of the more famous examples just noted, countless individuals have told tales of growing up in the Catholic Church and eventually discovering their ancestors’ secret or unknown Jewish identity and past. Although many people, like Ocasio-Cortez, only have affinity for the ancestry and do not profess current Jewish identity, others embrace the Judaism of their remote ancestors. Commonly, individuals shared their sense that their families had always been “different.” Some had practices strange to their (usually Catholic) larger milieu, such as Friday cleaning, mirror covering during mourning, or avoidance of pork.

The emergence as though from underground of such familial whispers and secrets and hidden residual Jewish practices has been narrated frequently as an uncanny survival of what has been presumed dead and buried. In addition to testimonials of individuals who disclosed such family confidences, revealed to them upon reaching adolescence or by accident, other striking stories also surfaced in the media. For example, a young woman who was drawn to Judaism hid her conversion because she deeply feared rejection, but once she was found out, older family members admitted Jewish heritage. Another convert to Judaism by personal choice inherited Jewish relics after her grandmother’s death. A woman in Barcelona was exhorted by her grandfather on his deathbed to “return” to a Judaism of which she had had no knowledge. Then there was the story of a legendary Puerto Rican musician who brokered a famous truce between rival New York City gangs in 1971. At around the same time, he discovered his Sephardi origins and spent his later years as a fervent Jewish believer. An Albuquerque Catholic priest who verified rumors about his ancestry through genetic testing continued to be a man of the Church, albeit one who sported a Star of David around his neck and openly acknowledged Jewish heritage.2

Less publicly but no less insistently, Brazilians, Colombians, Ecuadorans, Catalans, Spaniards, Portuguese, and many others in the Luso-Hispanic worlds of the Americas and Europe have reported suspecting and verifying Sephardi converso roots, despite the doubts of some scholars as to their veracity, as I explain later. Even without familial revelations or special practices, they have explained, they deduced their Jewish roots based on their family’s alienation from Catholicism, unusual surnames, or provenance from towns known to have had a significant Jewish or converso population, and sometimes, by just knowing it “in their bones.”

The scientific findings of genetic genealogy that have been reported by major publications have circulated further in blogs and social media and spurred new ancestral pursuits. Although for some individuals identity exploration through DNA testing is a hobby, albeit sometimes a meaningful and occasionally a life-changing one, hidden Sephardi heritage has also been presented as doubly charged for some Latinx in the United States, who were told, controversially, that they are carriers of the Jewish genetic mutation that causes breast and ovarian cancer (Wheelwright 2012).

A community that is not immediately identified with descent from Jewish converts to Christianity but in fact has some roots in that group is the dönme, also known as Sabbatean or Salonican descendants in Turkey. Some of the dönme have Spanish and Portuguese Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity and returned to Judaism in the Ottoman Empire and subsequently became followers of the Ottoman rabbi Sabbatai Sevi in the seventeenth century. Sevi, the self-declared messiah who sought to transform Judaism, was known to have converted under duress to Islam, along with many of his adherents. The endogamous Ottoman dönme families who lived publicly as Muslims were often known to the larger society and attracted negative attention in different periods. Starting in the 1990s, roughly in the same years when media attention was directed to claimants of crypto-Jewish background in the Americas and Iberia, known families of Sabbatean descent in Turkey became the target of widespread stigmatization. A few chose open identification as Sabbateans or as having Jewish ancestry or both. Because some dönme, like many normative Sephardis, also had ancestors who were Christians for a time, those who have knowledge of the community bring together multiple conversions in telling their stories.

As a surviving emblem of the bitter end of convivencia (medieval Iberian coexistence of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures) in its various forms, the converso reappears when we are most concerned about endings, including of democracy and its fragile promises of conviviality (Gilroy 2004), and when we expand and transform our practices of return. In her important monograph Figurative Inquisitions, which is also one of the only lengthy treatments of conversos in contemporary Hispanophone and Lusophone literature, Erin Graff Zivin explains that “the Marrano subject matters to us—here, now—because it signals, from the beginning, the other side of reunification, nationalism, and colonialism, as well as the necessary failure of these modern political, religious, and identitary projects” (Graff Zivin 2014, 23). Our own return, in contemporary thought and literature, to the conversos as illustrations of the impossibility and dangers of unitary and authentic identities is accompanied, as I show in this book, by questions about returns of the conversos or, rather, their descendants.

Widespread interest in converso pasts, speaks in part to a particular need today for stories of survival under repression. We want to know about “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990) and survivals that have been submerged but are imbued with a spirit of resistance to hegemonic powers. Built in is also a curiosity about how survival might have taken place: Given our heightened awareness of surveillance and control, evasion and circumvention as modes of resistance capture the imagination and are inscribed in texts about conversos as figures who built lives, identities, and communities by hiding, mixing, masquerading, and moving.

Iberian forced conversions and the Inquisition have been treated in modern literature at least since the nineteenth century, but the past few decades have seen an unprecedented number and array of fictional texts and testimonials on both sides of the Atlantic. These works are written in many languages by authors whose own origins may be close to or at a distance from this history. The return of this past and its reverberations in many cultures and bodies of writing teach us that the converso narrative is located not only in Jewish memory and historical consciousness but also elsewhere, including in unexpected contexts. As several key scholars have pointed out, Sephardi history, like the Holocaust (Rothberg 2009), may appear in the multiple literatures that are not considered Jewish per se, whether Caribbean (Casteel 2016), Latin American (Graff Zivin 2014; Halevi-Wise 2012a), or Iberian (e.g., Linhard 2014). Although crypto-Jewishness has sparked the imagination of literary writers on several continents and descendants of conversos have made identity claims in the Americas and Iberia, leaving their mark on local and global histories and cultures, the multifaceted resurgence of conversion stories has not been studied sufficiently as a literary and cultural phenomenon. Yet it merits attention for what it reveals about the afterlives of past events, the cultural politics of history, and contemporary world narrative.

Although conversion has been a chosen or forced tool of conformity to past and current dominant ideological agendas and modern biopolitics, it also can be widely unsettling. In her important study of colonial conversions, Gauri Viswanathan observes that conversion, individual or mass, interior or public, poses a “severe challenge to the demarcation of identities set by the laws that govern everyday life and practice (1998, 75). Similarly, for Ira Katznelson and Miri Rubin, conversion “is a radical deed” entailing “movements” in social status and to new institutions as well as “interior states of mind . . . and new options for economic and political standing. Conversion can be ‘riddled with pain’ and disruptive as it occasions separations from people and places” (2014, 3).

Revivals of ancient identities born of conversions are no less demanding and disruptive in word or deed. Nor can they be bracketed off from contemporaneous transnational political and social exigencies, even when they seem to be individual or narrowly localized choices based on distant pasts. The texts I have chosen to examine eschew bounded and regressive versions of returns and remnants; indeed, their representations of the converso condition challenge precisely the kind of interpellation of historicized collective identity that produces new certainties and boundaries.

In The Converso’s Return I examine literary fiction and memoirs that show how remote histories can animate contemporary identities and cultural politics. Recent literary narratives about the migrations of secret Jews to the Americas and the Ottoman Empire—such as the Latinx American, French, Spanish, and Turkish novels and autobiographical texts by Achy Obejas, Kathleen Alcalá, José Manuel Fajardo, Doreen Carvajal, Edgar Morin, Victor Perera, Elif Shafak, and Yeshim Ternar—not only represent converso history but also enable new reflections on the wider issues of genealogy, history, memory, and archives. These works raise questions that preoccupy communities with traumatic histories of genocide, slavery, forced conversion, and expulsion: How does one recuperate a past that has little documentation and extant evidence besides what was generated by the perpetrators, in which victims’ perspectives and experiences are erased?

Conversos left an imprint on early modern Spanish literature, and those who returned to Judaism outside Iberia after the fifteenth century, in the early modern period, left behind a wealth of writing several generations after 1492. But little remains about how ordinary converso descendants, especially the crypto-Jews with secret identities or practices, conducted their lives in the Americas, and still less remains anywhere of this legacy of secrecy after the early modern era. Contemporary literary texts inflected by distant and suppressed histories, such as the novels and memoirs about converso descent in this book, tell stories about what we know and what we do not know about the past or its remnants. Thus they not only expand the themes and plots of the narrative universe but also offer a sense of what this history and its unknowns mean today and reflect on the ways in which conversos entered contemporary discourse.

My analysis shows how the “missing archives” of the past are presented in narrative. First, in complex ways, literary writing imagines what is unknown but “might have been” (Ricoeur 1988) and calls attention to the narrative and political conditions of disappearance and secrecy of origins, underlining the reasons for the absence of archives. Moreover, despite the loss of records and erasures of experiences, both fiction and memoirs notably and insistently point to remnants, whether in written texts (books and files), oral traditions (e.g., family lore or gossip), or what we can think of as the embodied archive (e.g., the revelations of genetic ancestry testing). At times, this means not only finding extant traces to write about but also involving what I refer to as the production of remnants. By “production” I do not mean to evoke a falsification. Rather, I aim to characterize the particular processes of authors’ autobiographical or fictional narrations about the recovery of ancient converso or crypto-Jewish identities. These processes require following historiographic, familial, religious, genealogical, and genetic trails and involve a deliberate assertion of survival contra disappearance. “Production” also evokes the selection that may be involved in all genealogy: Some ancestors hold more weight than others, and descendants might engage in an active process of choice—they “clip” some roots and “stretch” and “prune” others (Zerubavel 2012)—if the right social conditions permit it. New or preexisting affiliations (such as with Jewishness) and emotions and political ideas about large-scale traumatic events become intertwined with filiation and perceptions of descent.

The idea that collective traumas cannot be contained in the past but remain with us, leaking into our present secretly or invisibly, affecting our chemistry, and sometimes rearing their heads unexpectedly, has been popularized through therapeutic and historical discourses. The narrative by or about someone who feels strongly that at some point they had a secretly Jewish ancestor of Iberian descent can reveal how the quest for the past can be both productive and problematic. The desire to recuperate buried histories can essentialize identities by reaching back to supposedly authentic and fixed definitions, including those interpretations in which certain looks, behaviors, talents, and choices are marked as “Jewish” and serve as evidence. At the same time, such personal and imaginative narratives can assert what the hegemonic religious, political, and economic powers have long suppressed. And, as Viswanathan (1998) argues, they can effectively destabilize essentializing categories, such as uninterrupted religious (e.g., Catholic or Jewish) or national identities. Reinstatements can also open doors to thinking in terms of convergences, such as the circulations, overlaps, and crossings of convert, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and indigenous histories throughout the Atlantic that are the subjects of the novels and memoirs in this book. But partitions also emerge. For example, the relinquishing or valorization of one affiliation over another, “truer” one can congeal autarchic identitarianisms, despite the warning that history is necessary not to restore but “to dispel the chimeras of the origin” (Foucault 2013, 80). In the fictional and nonfictional texts that are the subject of The Converso’s Return, we find reflection on both tendencies, though convergences are foregrounded.

Contemporary discourses about crypto-Jews and crypto-Jewishness include not only historical and genealogical reconstructions of Sepharad (Hebrew for Spain) and plausible converso worlds but also ideas about the metaphorical or representative status of this history. As we will see in the coming chapters, the crypto-Jewish “condition” is presented as a past phenomenon that anticipates and is instructive for the present; it prefigures the internally divided modern subjectivity or modernity’s compulsion toward assimilation. Jacques Derrida suggested that we

figuratively call Marrano anyone who remains faithful to a secret that he has not chosen, in the very place, where he lives, in the home of the inhabitant or of the occupant, in the home of the first or of the second arrivant, in the very place where he stays without saying not but without identifying himself as belonging to. . . . This secret keeps the Marrano even before the Marrano keeps it. (Derrida 1993, 81)

This figurative approach to the crypto-Jewish condition is shared by many critics. As Erin Graff Zivin observes, “Derrida is interested in not so much identifying historical instances of cultural marranismo—which he declares to be ‘finished’ (Aporias, 74)—but rather in the Marrano as metonym” and of the “right to secrecy” (Graff Zivin 2014, 20). In the complementary views of Argentine critic Ricardo Forster, “The Marrano represents the alter ego of the modern subject [and] exposes the impossibility of the modern Cartesian subject’s claim to wholeness, rationality, and autonomy” (quoted in Graff Zivin 2014, 23). Indeed, for Forster, the marrano is a fiction whose origins are unavailable, because there is no fixed point at which the individual becomes a Catholic or returns to Judaism, the “real identity.” “The art of the simulacra” is available for those who insist on knowing origins (Forster 2003, 136).

The recent testimonies and ancestry narratives of crypto-Jewish descendants and of those who have been writing about marranism, marranismo (in Spanish), and marranisme (in French) in terms of the metaphorical figure of the crypto-Jew are contemporaneous, appearing at around the same time. But between them is a tremendous gulf: Many claims to descent in the Americas and most of Europe are motivated by a recovery of authentic identity that contrasts with the concept of “Marrano as metaphor” (Marks 1996) or as metonym (Graff Zivin 2014). The metonym approach deploys “the marrano” (a term in increasing disuse, as I explain in the Preface) precisely in the opposing manner, that is, in order to underline the indeterminacy of the marrano, who is not a defined historical crypto-Jew but rather a condition that is similar to or a part of modern subjectivity (Graff Zivin 2014, 2017; Moreiras 2012, 2017). Although those who identify as contemporary crypto-Jewish descendants raised as Christians from Nuevo León to New Mexico and Barcelona take pains to counter skepticism and prove that they are not a “fiction,” theorists valorize precisely the constructed quality of the marrano figure without a true or singular identity. In a further difference, in much of recent Hispanophone and Francophone thinking on crypto-Jews, suffering and martyrdom are not always at the center (though indeterminate or divided subjectivity is), whereas many descendants who have come out recently and most fictional and scholarly narratives highlight the oppressions, secrecy, and fear as historical experiences and legacies.

The authors I analyze in this book occupy a different place in this landscape of sometimes contentious, diametrically opposed approaches, validating many of them and conforming to none. Without overturning the possibility that there is something unfinished about crypto-Jewishness in the contemporary period, Alcalá, Obejas, Fajardo, Shafak, Ternar, Morin, Perera, and other authors I study also valorize its comparative and figurative possibilities. Although the other observers do not necessarily draw on Sephardi history or culture even when conversos are the focus, our authors do; and they examine conversos from within this engagement. Some scholars and critics dismiss figurative and critical analyses and others overlook the possibility of the continuity of the history and its costs, but the literary texts in this study shed light on all approaches. In doing so, they expand on the potential of the crypto-Jewish story, which would otherwise be more limited to the metaphoric import, ideological implications, genealogical fixities, or literary pyrotechnics around crypto-Jews’ and conversos’ quasi-gothic internal dualities and dissimulations.

The goal of my analyses is not the delineation or verification of crypto-Jewish or converso identities in the present. Rather, I ask what kind of contribution the reemergence of crypto-Jewishness makes to literature and I investigate its shaping of the imaginaries of Sephardi identity and history, the known and unknown ties between Jewish and other histories, and the larger discussions around multiplicity, convergences, entanglements, historical consciousness, (absent) archives, and critical genealogies.


1. On Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, see Stanley-Becker (2018); for an analysis of the reactions, see Daniel and Greenberg (2019). See Linda Chavez’s first-person article on her roots (Chavez 2012). On Maduro, see “Venezuelan President: My Grandparents Were Jewish,” Jerusalem Post, May 16, 2013, (accessed May 16, 2013). On Laurie Cardoza-Moore, see Lieberman (2016); and Hoffman (2019). For studies on converso genes in the Americas, see Vélez et al. (2012) and Chacón-Duque et al. (2018).

2. As examples of countless published pieces on these contemporary revelations, see, for example, Kelly (2004), who reports that Father Sánchez “sensed that he was different” even as a child and that for another New Mexican the acknowledgment of Jewish heritage was “like coming home.” See also Milgrom (2012), Schwartzman (2015), and Chacón-Duque et al. (2018). The cases of northern Portuguese judeus or marranos, as they are known in Portugal and on the Spanish island of Mallorca (the Chueta community), are different in that the label of “Jew” has long been attached to them, voluntarily or involuntarily (see, e.g., Leite 2017; Pignatelli 2019; Yovel 2009). Although the revelations are not so new, as I explain later in this chapter, the attention and the return to Judaism are. The Portuguese contexts are important as well in the background of the Latin American migrations (as I explain), but in the chapter and the book as a whole I focus largely on the Spanish-speaking contexts.