1596: A Jewish Family Burns at the Stake in Mexico City

Luis de Carbajal didn't even know he was Jewish until a brother told him; by the end he thought he was a latter-day Joseph.

David Green
David B. Green
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Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon.
Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon.Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

On December 8, 1596, Luis de Carbajal the Younger, together with a total of nine members of his extended family, was burned at the stake in a Mexico City auto da fe. Thus came to an end the long, tragic saga of a family of Portuguese Jews who converted to Christianity, but some of whom continued to secretly practice Judaism.

Luis de Carbajal was born in 1566, in Benavente, in northwestern Spain. His family were New Christians, Jews who had converted under the pressure of crown and church.

He grew up unaware of Jewish roots of his parents, Francisco Rodriguez de Matos and Francisca Nunez de Carabajal, who sent him to a Jesuit school. At the age of 13, however, Luis had his family’s heritage revealed to him by his older brother Baltasar. What Baltasar didn’t reveal – or perhaps even know – was that their parents were continuing to practice some Jewish rituals in secret.

Soon after, in 1580, his parents accepted the offer of Francisca’s brother, Luis de Carbajal y de la Cueva (c. 1540-1595), an explorer and slave-trader, to emigrate to the New World. There, he had been appointed the governor of Nueva Leon province, a huge region compromising contemporary northern Mexico and parts of Texas. (Many historical sources confuse the two men.)

Non-normative but still Jewish

Because of its geographical remoteness, the usual rule requiring immigrants to New Spain to be at least third-generation Christians was suspended in Nueva Leon. Some historians think that Luis the Older, having heard rumors of his sister’s family’s Judaizing, hoped to get them out of harm’s way by inviting them to join him.

In Mexico, the younger Luis began to assist his father in business. When his father fell ill, he started talking with Luis about his Jewish beliefs and practices.

Historian Martin Cohen, author of the 1973 book “The Martyr Luis de Carvajal,” says the crypto-Jews, with very limited access to Jewish texts other than the Bible (which they read in Latin), kept a very non-normative form of Judaism alive. For example, they observed only four Jewish holy days – the Sabbath, Purim, Pesach and Yom Kippur – and marked them on the civil calendar.

In 1587, two years after his father’s death, Luis the Younger became the de facto leader of New Spain’s crypto-Jews, though he kept his activities secret from his Uncle Luis the Elder, who had plans of making his nephew his successor and heir.

Confession under torture

The beginning of the end for the family was in 1890. Luis’ sister Isabella was arrested by the Mexican Inquisition on suspicion of heresy. Under torture, she confessed to being a secret Jew, and in succession, her mother and two of her siblings, one of them Luis, were arrested.

During this, his first imprisonment, Luis the Younger not only succeeded in converting a Franciscan monk whom he met in prison to Judaism, but he convinced the authorities that he had repented, and was in turn sent to work in a school as penance. There he had access to a decent library, which allowed him to pursue serious Jewish studies.

He also began writing his memoirs. These, together with the letters he wrote to his family during his second imprisonment – which were intercepted by the authorities explain how so much is known about his case (the other reason being the copious records kept by the Inquisition).

Luis was arrested a second time on February 1, 1595. By now, he had begun having visions, imagined himself being a latter-day (biblical) Joseph, and referred to himself as “Lumbroso” – the Illumined One.

The auto da fe planned for December 8, 1596 was one of the largest and most dramatic to be held in the New World, with 48 victims of heresy and lesser crimes burned at the stake, and another eight burned in effigy.

Luis de Carbajal the Younger remained defiant to nearly the end, when, at least according to the confessor assigned to watch him, he supposedly expressed his desire to repent. For that reason, he was permitted to have his neck broken, so that he would be dead before he was consigned to the flames.

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