Barriers rise for descendants of Spanish Jews who demand the right of return | Local news

More than 500 years after Spain banished tens of thousands of Jews during the Inquisition, the Spanish parliament attempted to atone for the transgression by offering descendants a right of return and a path to citizenship.

The program, approved in 2015, has proven to be popular. But after receiving an avalanche of nominations, perhaps more than 50,000, Spain recently changed its rules, leaving many candidates in limbo and categorically rejecting others – a move that risked reopening the injuries that the nation had sought to heal.

Several New Mexico descendants of banished Jews were among those whose nominations stalled. They turned to elected officials for help.

In October, US Representative Teresa Leger Fernández and US Senator Ben Ray Luján joined other Democratic lawmakers in appealing to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

“This situation negatively affects our voters and strain the bonds between our nations,” wrote congress delegates. “We respectfully urge you to investigate and remove the arbitrary bureaucratic barriers that have made the approval of Sephardic Jews nearly impossible after spending countless hours and thousands of dollars to profit from this important program.”

US Representatives Andy Levin of Michigan joined Leger Fernández and Luján in signing the letter; Mike Levin and Lucille Roybal-Allard from California; and Alan Lowenthal, Ritchie Torres and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of New York; and US Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

“We urge you to reverse these changes and ensure that every eligible Sephardic Jewish descendant can receive the citizenship of their ancestral home under the law, as desired by the Cortes Generales,” lawmakers said.

Leger Fernández said they had not received a response from Sánchez.

“True heritage”

Jean Stevens, a retired teacher who lives in Ranchos de Taos, began the process of applying for Spanish citizenship in 2017. She had learned that her father’s ancestors had come from the states of Sonora and Baja in southern Mexico. -western United States when she discovered a number of marriage licenses. and death certificates in his family archives.

Stevens, 72, spent two years collecting his ancestral documents while studying Spanish and taking online courses to prepare for the Spanish constitution test required for citizenship.

“I went [to Spain] for a few weeks in 2018 to put my papers in order with the lawyer and the Spanish notary [magistrate]”Stevens said.

She waited over two years for an answer.

“August 2021, the Spanish government let me know what was going on. My request was refused, ”she said. “They hooked me for all these years, since the start of 2019, when they said everything was going for the candidates at that point.”

Stevens said the denial of his candidacy was traumatic. “I had really trusted the Spanish government.”

Stevens has a half-brother who she says didn’t tell her about her father’s death until his last hours. She asked for, but never received, money from her father’s estate, she said. She also asked for duplicate family photos and never got them.

Digging into his ancestors was a way to be close to his father again. “I saw this as a way to get my real inheritance,” Stevens said.

Conversions and evictions

The Spanish Inquisition began in 1478 under King Ferninand II and Queen Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in Spain and its colonies. Formerly known as the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, it replaced the medieval Inquisition, which was under papal control.

The Inquisition, dissolved in 1812, forced the conversion or expulsion of up to 300,000 Spanish Jews, according to various estimates. It was also used to identify heretics (called Judaizers or Crypto-Jews) who continued to secretly practice Judaism while outwardly professing Catholicism.

Juan Blázquez Miguel, author of Inquisition y cryptojudaísmo, wrote that over 37,000 crypto-Jews have been tried and over 3,700 have been burned alive.

Jews who fled Spain settled in other parts of Europe, as well as in North Africa and the Middle East. Many then settled in Spanish-speaking areas of the New World, including Mexico, and some moved to northern New Mexico.

“Undo these changes”

In 2015, Spain’s King Felipe VI delivered a speech to Sephardic Jews and their descendants, apologizing for the wrongdoings of the past and welcoming them back to Spain.

“Thank you for having preserved, like a precious treasure, your language and your customs. They are also ours, ”he said. “Thank you also for having made love outweighed by resentment and for teaching your children to love this country.”

Over the next four years, Spain accepted tens of thousands of citizenship applications from descendants of Spanish Jews.

Many people in New Mexico seeking to establish their genealogical heritage for a right of return have received assistance from the New Mexico Jewish Federation.

“This represents one of our core values, which is to bring together exiles,” said CEO Rob Lennick.

Lennick examines history, migration patterns, and family names to establish Jewish ancestry, and makes references to professional genealogists.

“They are our neighbors and friends, and their historic migration brought them primarily to New Mexico,” he said. “And this discovery is very important and very significant for them whether or not they apply for citizenship in Spain.”

Recently, however, a number of major bureaucratic changes to the Right of Return program have slowed – and even stopped – the process.

Leger Fernández and his colleagues wrote in their letter to the Prime Minister: “Before this year, only one person had been turned down and some 34,000 had been accepted. This year, thousands of people have been turned down and even more have not received a response.

“Although the ambassador [to the U.S. Santiago] Cabanas told our offices that the process of granting nationality through this channel has not changed, it seems that there are many changes that have resulted in rejections, ”the letter continued.

These changes include the cancellation of the authority to notaries verify Sephardic ancestry, refuse certificates of Sephardic origin issued by authorized Jewish organizations, change the requirements of genealogical records already submitted, and retroactively require that a “special connection” – such as a donation to a Spanish charity – be occurred before the right of return was offered.

“We urge you to reverse these changes. The broken promise of the noble act of reparation hurts more than if Spain had never made the return offer in the first place, ”the US lawmakers wrote.

About fifty demonstrators, including Leger Fernández, gathered on October 11 in front of the Spanish Consulate General in New York to express their frustrations at the delays and refusals of applications.

“When Spain offered the right of return, it meant a lot to my community,” said Leger Fernández. “We don’t want the hope and leadership that Spain has shown the world to fade away.”

Jason Guberman, executive director of the American Sephardic Federation, added, “This is an issue that brings together the Hispanic community and the Jewish community. Together we will win. Together we must overcome.

Genealogy verified

Tim Rivera, owner of Rivera Family Funerals & Cremations, was one of the protesters outside the Spanish Consulate General that day in Manhattan.

Rivera, 60, had seen an exhibition titled Fractured Faith: Spanish Judaism, Inquisition and New World Identities at the New Mexico History Museum in 2016.

“It was something my grandmother – her siblings, my uncle – used to talk about,” he said. “When I saw this exhibit, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess it wasn’t just family traditions.’ “

Rivera had studied in Spain at university. His wife is Jewish. He said that when his Jewish genealogy was verified, “it was a very moving moment.”

He started the process of applying for Spanish citizenship in October 2017: gathering documents, studying Spanish, going through an FBI background check, and learning about the Spanish constitution.

After two years of preparation, Rivera flew to Spain in the fall of 2019 and applied through his lawyer. “We were told that the notary is the gatekeeper in terms of checking documents to make sure you have met government qualifications.

“There is a web portal where you can monitor if something has been done,” he said. “He kept saying it was under review.”

After months of waiting, Rivera’s lawyer told him that the Spanish government was holding back not only his claim, but many others.

River said, “Everyone lives in fear of being rejected. “

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