I love historical novels that make me dig deeper into the history told in the books. And such is Hidden Ones, a novel about the Conversos, or Crypto-Jews of the new world.
Set primarily in the 1650’s in Mexico City, the book traces the lives of Celendaria Crespin and her grandmother, Doña Clara Henriquez de Crespin. They are victims of the Tribunals of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of the Spanish Catholic Church (and therefore Spanish government, there being no separation of church and state) against heretics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, rationalists and unorthodox believers. The Inquisition was not limited to Spain, but included Italy, Portugal, the Papal States, and Spanish and Portuguese colonies. It began in 1231 and officially ended in 1834.
The Crespin family are Sephardic Jews, originally expelled from Spain in 1492 (yes, the same year Columbus discovered the New World) and the from Portugal in 1497. The resulting diaspora spread Sephardic Jews throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, Europe and into the New World. At first, the choice given the Jews was convert to Catholicism or be arrested as heretics. Later, even Conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) were arrested for their Jewish background and the belief they still practiced in private. It was a no-win situation, driving Jews into complete denial and occlusion of their heritage. Today, their descendants, most living as Catholics are amazed to find Jewish ancestors on the family tree. The Crespins followed other Jews they knew to Mexico, hoping for a better life. The Inquisition followed the diaspora.
In Hidden Ones, the Crespins leave Mexico City in the 17th century for parts further north, eventually ending in Santa Fe, New Mexico by the 19th century. Celendaria marries into a Converso family and they continue to carry on Jewish traditions without rabbis, books, synagogues, or minyans. They learn to identify fellow Jews and bond with them.
I was raised in the Catholic Church. They don’t dismiss the role of the Inquisition in church history, but we learned more about bringing heretics and radicals to trial (think Galileo) than about Jews and Muslims. It was uncomfortable and enlightening to put sympathetic, though fictional, characters through the gauntlet of accusation, arrest, bribery, torture and imprisonment.
Until recently, the Crypto-Jews have remained an unknown part of the settlement of the Southwestern U.S. When I moved to Tucson, part of the fascinating history was the role played by famous Jewish families who settled here to provide supplies for the mines: Levis, Goldwaters, Drachmans, Appels. But they came in the 1850’s from St. Louis and points east or west. Little did I realize that Crypto-Jews had been living in Arizona for centuries, immigrants from Mexico and other Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The University of Arizona website has a page on Crypto-Jews with links to historical research. http://swja.arizona.edu/content/crypto-jews
Marcia Fine wrote this book in short chapters (a plus) titled to identify the point of view, Clara or Celendaria, and the date. This enables a different type of dialogue using no quotation marks or attributions, as you know who is speaking. It makes for smoother reading and eliminates unnecessary words. Initially, I had to make little associative leaps to get the rhythm, but after two chapters, I was into the flow.
The story of the Crespin family is a solid foundation on which Hidden Ones is written. The plot is straight forward and linked believably to the historical context. It’s an easy read and one that may lead you to look more closely at local history and your family tree.
Reviewed by Ann Boland