A recently published study surveyed the DNA of Latin Americans and revealed that despite immigration restrictions, many more bnei anousim (Jews forcibly converted during the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th Century) arrived in the New World than previously thought. The results indicate that there may currently be over 150 million Latinos with Jewish ancestry.
The study, published in Nature last Wednesday, was one of the most comprehensive genetic surveys of Latin Americans ever. Their Jewish ancestry is more pronounced than in people in Spain and Portugal today, indicating that a significant segment of the immigrants that settled the New World were of Jewish descent.
“We were very surprised to find it was the case,” says Juan-Camilo Chacón-Duque, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum in London, who co-authored the paper.
Chacón-Duque and his colleagues sampled DNA from 6,500 people across Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, which they compared to that of 2,300 people all over the world. Nearly a quarter of the Latin Americans shared five percent or more of their ancestry with people living in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including self-identified Sephardic Jews.
It is no surprise that a large portion of the population descended from Spain have Jewish ancestry. It is estimated that when the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, approximately one-fifth of the Spanish population, between 300-800,000 people, were Jews. By 1492, when the Alhambra Decree gave the choice between expulsion and conversion, the number had dwindled to 80,000, half of who migrated. The vast majority of Jews converted with many of them retaining their Jewish identity in secret. The most intense period of the Spanish Inquisition lasted until 1530 and the last trial took place in Spain in 1818.
Ashley Perry, head of the government caucus for the descendants of Jews of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, was surprised by the results:
“This study indicates that there are far more people of Spanish descent that have Jewish roots than previously thought, not only South Americans but also Latinos living in North America. As a result of this DNA research, it is now estimated that one-quarter of all Latinos in North America have five percent Jewish ancestry.”
Perry noted that the study only dealt with one specific population that may have Jewish roots.
“There are also a significant number of people in Spain, Portugal, and Italy who have a very high percentage of Sephardic Jewish ancestry,” Perry said. “I used to think there were 100 million people in the world that had Jewish roots but it now seems the number is closer to 200 million.”
The researchers were surprised to find that the Jewish population succeeded in moving to the New World. During the Inquisition, Jews were prohibited from immigrating to the New World. This remained true until Felipe III’s Royal Pardon of 1601, and Pope Clement VIII’s Papal Pardon three years later, both obtained through massive bribes. Jews began to immigrate despite the official ban and despite the Inquisition continuing in South America most notably in Mexico.
“There is a plethora of historical evidence to show that many of the people immigrating to the New World had Jewish ancestry,” Perry said. “Priests were writing back to the Church in Spain and Portugal complaining that the Jews outnumbered the Christians. They managed to forge documents or bribe their way.”
Perry explained their motivations for wanting to emigrate from Latin America.
“It was understandable since it was their way to get away from the center of persecution. Also, Brazil was under Dutch rule for a period of time and the Dutch government permitted the Jews to remain Jewish. When Portugal conquered Brazil, some of the Jews immigrated to the Netherlands.”
Perry noted that many of the countries in South and Central America had thriving Jewish communities despite the hardships. One of the more prominent examples he cited was the Jewish community in Suriname which was settled in the 18th Century by Jews from Spain, Portugal, Holland and Italy via Brazil. One of the original synagogues, Neve Shalom, had a floor covered in a thick layer of sand. Tradition holds that the sand was to muffle the sound of prayer, a holdover from when Jewish prayer was punishable by death.
Perry, a descendant of Spanish Jews, founded Reconectar, an organization to help people of Spanish and Portuguese descent with Jewish ancestry.
“We want to help them reconnect with their past,” Perry explained. “We are not a missionary organization. The person decides to what extent and in what manner they want to relate to their identity,” Perry said.
“One extreme could be a person who decides to move to Israel while another may just be interested in creating a family tree to map his heritage. Many people feel personally connected to Israel and this will help them express that. There are thousands of shades of gray in between. This is especially true now that we are dealing with a potential pool of hundreds of millions of people for who this is relevant.”
Reconectar is working on a social media app that will facilitate this process.