Why We Shouldn't Be Surprised by Ocasio-Cortez's Jewish Heritage

The congresswoman-elect is one of an estimated 65 million Latin Americans whose Sephardic roots can be traced back to the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal a half millennium ago

Democratic Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holding a Puerto Rico flag as she greets supporters at her election night party in New York, November 6, 2018.
\ ANDREW KELLY/ REUTERS

When U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revealed on Sunday her recent discovery of her own Jewish heritage, it should not have been a great shock to anyone. 

In the five centuries that have passed since the Jews of both Spain and Portugal were forced to choose between conversion to Christianity or expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula, the number of descendants they have in Latin American alone has grown to an estimated 65 million.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revealed her Jewish heritage

In the case of the 29-year-old democratic socialist who won New York’s 14th Congressional District in November, Ocasio-Cortez explained to an audience gathered for a Hanukkah candle-lighting in Queens that she had learned about her Jewish connection by “doing a lot of family trees in the last couple of years.” 

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Both of her parents are of Puerto Rican descent, and the first Jews are likely to have set foot on the Caribbean island in 1493 when Christopher Columbus visited it during his second voyage to the New World. (Columbus initially named it San Juan Bautista.) 

An 1846 print of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World. His crew would have included Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc

There are many different theories and legends about Jews having sailed with Columbus – and even speculation that the great explorer himself was Jewish. What is clear is that his first journey to the New World set sail from Spain in early August 1492, which is also when the deadline passed for the country’s Jews to leave the country. It is likely that his crew included Jews who had waited until the last minute to flee Spain. 

The direct antecedent to the Expulsion took place a full century before 1492, when the Jews of Castile, Aragon and beyond came under violent pressure to convert to Christianity.

Rioting against Jews in Seville in August 1391 spread throughout the peninsula, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Jews but also in the conversions of many thousands more. Many of those who elected to convert were well-regarded rabbis and teachers, which in turn encouraged other Jews to do the same. 

Over the next hundred years – and culminating with the Expulsion – an estimated 200,000 or more Spanish Jews at least nominally converted to Christianity. They were called New Christians. Between 50,000 and 100,000 are thought to have gone into exile, many of them to Portugal (which at the time was still relatively tolerant of Jewish practice). 

Some of the New Christians were sincere in their adoption of the Christian faith, while others continued to cling to Jewish beliefs and/or practices in secret, even as they presented themselves in public as Catholics.

The Holocaust memorial in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan.
Judy Maltz

The hatred and fear of insincere converts – referred to as crypto-Jews or Marranos (meaning “pigs”) – may have been more invidious even than hatred of Jews who refused to give up their faith. It was for the purpose of exposing secret “Judaizers,” as well as to root out heretics of every other shape and kind, that the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1480. The Jews who converted to Christianity under the pressure of the Spanish Inquisition later became known as conversos.

By the turn of the century, Portugal too had lost its tolerance for Jews, and the thousands of Jews who had fled there from Spain were now compelled either to convert or go into exile. In short order, an Inquisition was also established in Portugal to root out heretics. 

The prohibition on Jews extended to Spain and Portugal’s territories in the New World. But the journey across the Atlantic offered both great commercial opportunities and the possibility of starting a new life, whether as a converso or a crypto-Jew. 

In fact, the Catholic Church granted Spain permission to establish the apparatus of the Inquisition in its Latin American colonies, and suspected heretics were subject to arrest, torture and often execution. However, it was relatively easy to escape detection outside of major urban areas. 

It has been estimated that some 10 percent of the Spanish and Portuguese settlers in Latin America were of Sephardic background, although their distribution was not uniform. 

DNA tests, which offer the opportunity to detect certain genetic markers that are common to both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, have been helpful in recent years in pinpointing regions where Iberian Jews apparently settled. These include the Seridó region of Brazil, the River Plate basin in Argentina, and sections of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. Similarly, it is known that many Jews settled in the remote northern states of Mexico and in what are today the Southwest states of the United States.  

Not surprisingly, then, it is in parts of the U.S. Southwest – for example, New Mexico and Colorado – where there are large numbers of people who have family traditions saying they are descended from Jews. 

In other cases, there are families that preserved certain practices reminiscent of Jewish customs without necessarily knowing they had any connection with Judaism. For example, New Christians across much of the region created a putatively Catholic feast day called the Festival of Saint Esterica, which mimicked the Jewish feast of Purim.

Just as Esther in the biblical book bearing her name fasted for three days before her meeting with the king, anusim women in Latin America would also fast for three days at the outset of Saint Esterica’s holiday. 

It was often the women who sustained the Jewish customs – lighting candles on the Sabbath, keeping a Hanukkah menorah in the home, keeping some of the Jewish dietary laws. But because secrecy was necessary, at least so long as the Inquisition continued, into the 19th century the origins of such customs were not openly discussed. Only in rare and remote communities – like Belmonte in Portugal and in Majorca, where the Xueta Jews live – did the Jews consciously maintain their traditions and marry only other members of their group. 

Ocasio-Cortez has identified as Catholic, and gave no indication Sunday that she intends to begin living as a Jew. But she told her audience at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights that “a very, very long time ago, generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews,” and this fact in itself seemed to provide her with satisfaction. 

“A strong group of people, who wanted to continue living life the way they wanted to live it, decided to get on a boat and leave Spain,” she added. “Some of these people ended up in Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico only allowed Jews to openly practice their faith at the turn of the 20th century, following the Spanish-American War of 1898. And it was only after the rise of the Nazis in Europe that Jewish immigration to the island began in earnest, in the 1930s and '40s. 

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated in 2016 that Puerto Rico is home to between 1,500 and 2,500 Jews (although that number may have fallen since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017). Despite its small number, the Jewish community includes members of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams. 

The capital, San Juan, is also home to three active synagogues – though they may have to wait a while before Ocasio-Cortez makes an appearance.