Sisters Recapture Their Heritage

Gloria Hernandez Trujillo, 51, grew up in what she thought was a traditional Catholic home in Monterey Park. Her mother sent the children to mass and catechism classes at Our Lady of Solitude church in East Los Angeles. Trujillo made her first communion at the age of 8, wearing the requisite white frilly dress. At 12, she was confirmed, like many of the Latino children in her Eastside neighborhood.

Trujillo, a tax administrator, still lives in her childhood home, but she now worships in a synagogue rather than a church. On Rosh Hashana last week, she attended Conservative services at UCLA. And on Yom Kippur, she will take a day off from work to engage in what has become a deeply significant personal ritual. In the modest house where she grew up Catholic, she will fast and pray from a siddur written in the medieval Spanish-Jewish language of Ladino. “I will think of my ancestors,” says Trujillo, whose forbears could not publicly observe Yom Kippur without fear of torture and death.

Eleven years ago, while researching her family tree, Trujillo learned that she is descended from Crypto-Jews, those forced to convert to Catholicism in 15th-century Spain and Portugal. Her forbears were among the secret Jews who fled the Inquisition to become the first settlers of the state of New Mexico. Today she is president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, a scholarly group that gathers and exchanges information about Crypto-Jews.

Ask Trujillo if she was surprised to learn of her Jewish roots, and she shakes her head. “It makes sense,” she says. “In church, I never felt connected or comfortable. I never felt I belonged.”

Then there were the strange family stories her mother and aunts used to exchange around the kitchen table. They reminisced about Trujillo’s grandfather, born in Taos, N.M., who set foot in a church only once in his life, on his wedding day. Thereafter, he walked his wife to church but never crossed the threshold. Instead he said his prayers alone at home, in the basement. He always wore his hat indoors.

Trujillo’s grandmother, meanwhile, cleaned house every Friday morning and used different pots and pans for different dishes. When asked why, she would reply, simply, that her mother had done the same. Whenever a relative died, family members used to invert all the mirrors in the deceased’s house.

The stories so fascinated Trujillo that she decided to research her family tree 18 years ago. With her younger sister, Mona, she began perusing microfilm copies of birth and death certificates at historical archives in Colorado and New Mexico. It was during a visit to the New Mexico state archives in Santa Fe in 1987 that she learned the truth.

As Trujillo recalls, she was rattling off some of her forbears’ surnames when a distinguished-looking scholar suddenly looked up from his work. Dr. Stanley Hordes, New Mexico’s former state historian, urgently beckoned Trujillo into an adjoining room. “He said he was researching my mother’s line,” the tax administrator says, “and that there was strong evidence my family was Jewish.”

Four hundred years ago, Hordes told Trujillo, the Inquisition targeted her family and others for the crime of “Judaizing” (secretly practicing Judaism) in the Kingdom of Neuvo Leon in northeastern Mexico. They arrested the governor and burned most of his family at the stake. The remainder of the accused fled north to settle what would become the province of New Mexico in 1598. Their descendants passed down Jewish traditions, knowingly or unknowingly, throughout the generations.

Trujillo, transfixed, eagerly took in the news. “It was one of those moments when everything falls into place,” she says.

But her relatives did not believe the story; even Mona was initially skeptical. “The first words out of my mouth were: ‘That’s impossible! Latinos are Catholic’,” Mona says. Relatives were convinced, however, when the sisters discovered menorahs at a cousin’s home in Sacramento.

Mona, who had also felt like an outsider in church, soon joined Trujillo in an avid search for books on New Mexico, the Inquisition and Sephardic Jewry. The sisters visited Toledo, Spain, to search for records of a 17th-century ancestor who was imprisoned after Inquisitors learned he was circumcised.

Trujillo and her sister also began attending a Conservative synagogue in Alhambra and Introduction to Judaism classes at the home of Rabbi William Gordon. Trujillo underwent a “rite of return” ceremony two years ago, where she received her Hebrew name, Hannah Leah. Both sisters hope to formally convert back to Judaism.

As the holiest day of the Jewish year approached last week, Mona reflected that she has found her place in the world. “I know who I am and where I come from,” she says. “And if I have children, I will raise them Jewish. Part of my heritage was kept from me, because of the events of long ago. I have reclaimed my roots.”