The term “Sephardic” itself often tends to obscure this diversity. At its root, the word refers to Jews who can trace their origins back to the Iberian Peninsula, but it is often used as a catchall label for any Jew who is simply not Ashkenazic. Although even many non-Ashkenazic Jews themselves may employ the label, it glosses over a diversity of communities stretching from Iberian Peninsula all the way to Latin America, the Balkans, to North Africa, to the Arab world, to the Caucasus and beyond. The genetic picture is not far behind.
For years assimilation has been threatening the future of Sephardi Jewish communities in Latin America.” Of Latin America’s 450,000 Jews, about 180,000 are Sephardi, with ancestors from Spain and Portugal who later settled in Latin America, Syria, North Africa and the Balkans. About 20 percent of the world’s Jews are Sephardi; the rest are Ashkenazi with ancestors from Germany and Eastern Europe. The two groups have different liturgy, religious customs and Hebrew pronunciations.
Of interest to all, is the fact that three hundred and fifty years ago, 23 Sefardic Jews landed in the harbor of New Amsterdam (New York) . Several of the men in the group were certified shohets and slaughtered their meat themselves. But a much larger community was already settled in Mexico, the Caribbean such Dominican Republic and Curazao and South America such as Brazil, Peru and Colombia.
“The massacres and forced conversions of at least tens of thousands of Jews of Spain in 1391, starting in Seville and sweeping across Spain, did not mark the last years for Jews in Spain. The process of Christian victimization of the Jews of Spain had started long before, and continued also for the next century. The year 1391 was a watershed event because it split Spanish Jewry into two communities that evolved quite differently. The many thousands who were forcibly converted to Christianity in 1391, and their descendants, were known as New Christians, or as Conversos. Many, many of them practiced Judaism secretly, or at least continued various Judaic practices. Very often, they were related by blood and marriage to families who survived the horrors of 1391, rejected attempts at conversion, and remained Jewish afterwards. Also, conversionary pressures, which had persisted for centuries, intensified in the early 1400’s and many thousands of Spanish Jews joined the New Christians of 1391.
There was no Inquisition in Spain until 1480’s. As a result, it was possible for many New Christians or “Anusim” (forced ones) to outwardly appear as Christians and yet inwardly retains aspects of their Judaism, their firm belief in one G_d, and the observance of Jewish religious practices. At the same time, while the Christian rulers of the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille, and the Church, continue to victimize the Jews and subject them to oppressive restrictions and confiscatory taxes, New Christians or Conversos were permitted to prosper. In time, there was much jealousy among Old Christians and the Conversos became targets of violence – just as Jews had been earlier.
In January 1492, the Christian monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife Isabella of Castille conquered Granada, the last Moorish outpost in Spain. Seeing Spain unified as a Christian kingdom, Ferdinand and, Isabella, at prompting of the Church (through its holy office of the Inquisition and its grand inquisitor Torquemada), issued a declaration expelling all Jews from Spain (except for Navarre, which they did not control, and from which the Jews were expelled in 1498 at their urging). The purported purpose of the Expulsion was to extinguish the contacts between Conversos and Jews that supposedly had prevented many Conversos from becoming faithful Christians.
In the aftermath of the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in 1492, the Inquisition continued to function with exceptional savagery as it claimed to look for Jewish practices among the Conversos. Much of this same history was later repeated in Portugal, where the Jews were forcibly converted en masse in around 1497, and then subjected to the Inquisition that was adopted about 40 years later.
As has been noted, many name changes occurred. In time, many of the Conversos of Portugal left for other places and openly declared their Judaism. Along with them they brought their Spanish and Portuguese surnames. I might guess, for example, that my great-great-grandmother, Catherine Hererra (who lived in Antalya, Turkey around the early 1800s) came from one of those families of Spanish Conversos.
I hope that this provides some light as to the mystery of the Jewish roots for many who live in Spain (and Portugal too). There is some much valuable literature on this subject. If you would like a few good references, please let us know.