When Spain expelled its Jewish population in 1492, tens of thousands opted to convert to Catholicism rather than leave. Yet these conversos and their descendants faced legal discrimination, social prejudice, and sometimes-justified suspicion that they remained secretly faithful to Judaism—suspicion that could lead to torture and execution. Untold numbers therefore left Iberia for the Americas, where it was easier to disguise their ancestry and where they hoped to get away from the long arm of the Inquisition. In recent decades, many Latin Americans, from Colorado to Argentina, have reported family legends, customs that may be vestiges of crypto-Jewish practice, and other claims of Jewish descent. Now there is some science to back up these claims, writes Sarah Zhang:
The stories have always persisted—of people across Latin America who didn’t eat pork, of candles lit on Friday nights, of mirrors covered for mourning. A new study examining the DNA of thousands of Latin Americans reveals the extent of their likely Sephardi ancestry, more widespread than previously thought and more pronounced than in people in Spain and Portugal today. “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.
This study is one of the most comprehensive genetic surveys of Latin Americans yet. . . . Chacón-Duque and his colleagues pieced together the genetic record by sampling 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 5 percent or more of their ancestry with people living in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including self-identified Sephardi Jews.
DNA alone cannot prove that conversos were the source of this ancestry, but it fits with the historical record. This pattern of widespread but low North African and eastern Mediterranean ancestry in the population suggests that its source is centuries old, putting the date around the early days of New Spain. In contrast, more recent immigration to Latin America from Italy and Germany in the late 19th century shows up concentrated in relatively few people in a few geographic areas.