Luis Carvajal’s 400th Yartzheit
Reid Heller *
On 11 December 1996, Reid Heller wrote: «The Dallas Carvajal Yartzheit» was successful, both in terms of the numbers attending (150-200) and the enthusiasm of the audience. Simon Sargon performed his Ladino song-cycle, At Grandfather’s Knee in the Meadows Museum amidst masterpieces of Baroque Spanish Art and I delivered a lecture on Luis, El Mozo next door in the Bridwell Library.» The following essay is a condensation of research Mr. Heller conducted in preparation for the lecture.
Tzaddik of the Southwest
In Dallas, on the eastern edge of the great southwestern desert which extends southward through the hill country and past the Rio Grande, we are still mindful of the Indian and Spanish cultures that saturate the landscape. Since Hernando Cortez commenced the conquest of our region in 1521, this desert has been the setting for a parade of colonial oppressors and heroes. The Jewish imagination has much to reflect on here. For example, the story of Pope, leader of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, continues to conjure images of Bar Cochba and another desert freedom struggle.
The Jewish role in this landscape is very real, though largely ignored. Nearly three hundred years before Adolphus Sterne and his fellow Jewish merchants made homes in and around our region, a young Jewish man known to history as Luis de Carvajal, el mozo, lived, prayed, and exactly 400 years ago, on December 8, 1596, was burned at the stake in Mexico City. His life is known to us, not merely through inquisition records, but in his own words, for he left to posterity a memoir, letters, poetry and a spiritual testament which together constitute the sole surviving Jewish writings of the Spanish colonial period.
Luis was born c. 1566 in Benavente, Spain and given the birth name of Luis Rodriguez de Carvajal. His uncle, Luis de Carvajal, el Conquistador, bore the title «Admiral» and later «Governor of the New Kingdom of Leon,» a province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Luis, his parents and siblings arrived at the port of Tampico in the entourage of this famous uncle in 1580. In the New World they, along with thousands of other Jews, hoped to find a refuge from the fires of the Inquisition.
Commencing with the mass expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the practice of Judaism was outlawed throughout Spain and her territories. We do not know how many of the Jews who chose to remain under Spanish jurisdiction were secretly loyal to Judaism, but the number was not insignificant based on the Inquisition records available to us. These «crypto-Jews» superficially observed Catholic rites. But in small family groups and underground «congregations» they continued to observe and transmit as much of Judaism as their situation permitted. Luis’ father, Francisco Rodriguez was one such crypto-Jew and, through his influence, his wife and most of his nine children lived as crypto-Jews. Francisco died in 1584.
Luis’ situation was exceedingly complex following his father’s death. He succeeded his father as the head of a large family. He was also designated the principal heir of his childless uncle, who, though descended from Jews, had no sympathy for crypto-Jews and could never be entrusted with Luis’ secret. Luis explored the northern territories with his uncle, almost as far north as the present Texas border. On those journeys he sought the company of fellow crypto-Jews and attempted to learn what he could of Judaism from those more learned. Although a well educated man of his time, Luis’ Jewish learning was not profound. His Jewish practice, like that of most Mexican crypto-Jews, was based on a Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible and a few fragments from the Jewish prayer book. Yet his memoirs evidence a remarkable and insatiable drive to acquire Jewish learning and to observe Jewish practice whenever possible.
This drive to become an observant Jew can be clearly seen in these simple, moving words where he describes how, after his father’s death, he circumcised himself in a ravine of the Panuco River:
«When the Lord took my father away from this life, I returned to Panuco, where a clergyman sold me a sacred Bible for six pesos. I studied it constantly and learned much while alone in the wilderness. I came to know many of the divine mysteries. One day I read chapter 17 of Genesis, in which the Lord ordered Abraham, our father, to be circumcised — especially those words which say that the soul of him who will not be circumcised will be erased from among the book of the living. I became so frightened that I immediately proceeded to carry out the divine command. Prompted by the Almighty and His good angel, I left the corridor of the house where I had been reading , leaving behind the sacred Bible, took some old worn scissors and went over to the ravine of the Panuco River. There, with longing and a vivid wish to be inscribed in the book of the living, something that could not happen without this holy sacrament, I sealed it by cutting off almost all of the prepuce and leaving very little of it.»(Translated by Seymour B. Liebman)
Luis’ family gradually emerged as the focal point of a network of crypto-Jews based in Mexico City. He and his sisters encouraged former Jews to return to Judaism. Through their efforts, Jews were circumcised, studied the Hebrew Bible together and observed the Festivals. But their enthusiasm led them to take risks. Luis, for example, spoke openly about Judaism with his brother, Gaspar, a Dominican friar. He then delayed an opportunity to escape to Italy out of concern for his sister, Isabel, who had been denounced to the Inquisition. Once Isabel was taken into custody, it was simply a matter of time. In this pathetic passage he describes his and his mother’s first arrest in 1589:
«Two or three days after my return, I went to see my mother during the night, for I dared not visit her or be with her during the day. When we were about to sit at the table for supper, the constable and his assistants from the Inquisition knocked on the door. Having opened it, they placed guards on the stairs and doors and went to take my mother prisoner. Although deeply shaken by the blow from such a cruel enemy, my mother accepted her fate with humility; and crying for her sufferings but praising the Lord for them, she was taken by these accursed ministers, torturers of our lives, to a dark prison. » (Translated by Seymour B. Liebman)
Luis overheard his mother’s screams as she was tortured on the rack, the horrible account of which appears in his memoir. In prison Luis experienced divine visions while asleep and in response to them took a new name, Joseph el Lumbroso (the «Enlightened»). He remained imprisoned with his mother, in separate cells, until he and his family were «reconciled» to the Church in a public auto da fe on February 24, 1590. Luis and his family were sentenced to service in convents and public hospitals. Additionally, Luis obtained access to an extraordinary library and used his free time to study and write. His literary production between the years 1590 and 1594 include his Memoirs, poetry and Jewish liturgy. For years to come Luis’ mother and sisters trembled under the surveillance of the Inquisition. Once Luis’ sister dropped a small book of Jewish prayers, written in Luis’ hand, into the street. Luis lived in terror that it would be found and lead the authorities back to him. For four years he worked to buy his and his family’s freedom from the penance and shame imposed by the Inquisition authorities. When he at last succeeded he believed it to be a miracle. But it was short-lived.
In the spring of 1595, Luis was arrested for the last time. Luis’ friend, Manuel de Lucena, a crypto-Jew, had been denounced to the Inquisition by a brother. At Manuel’s fourth hearing before the Inquisition and following several rounds of torture, Manuel denounced Luis. Luis was promptly charged with «judaizante relapso pertinaz» (being a perpetual, relapsed Judaizer) and arrested. While in prison Luis penned a spiritual Testament and some 20 letters of encouragement to his family.
Luis was imprisoned and tortured for nearly 2 years and finally, on December 8, 1596, he was burned at the stake in Mexico City with his mother, Francisca, and three of his sisters, Isabel, Leonor and Catalina. No Jewish woman had been executed in Mexico until then. Conflicting accounts of his death have been circulated. Before his body was consumed in the flames a priest claimed that he had been garroted. The same priest suggests that he kissed a crucifix held up to his lips. If the priest’s account is correct (which is by no means certain), he almost certainly did so soley to avoid the pain of being burned alive, for such was the price of an expedited death. He was survived by his saintly sister, Anica, and a beloved disciple, Justa Mendez. His brothers, Baltazar and Miguel, escaped to Europe where they too changed their names to Lumbroso. Baltazar settled in Italy where he became a surgeon. Miguel may have settled in Salonica but is not to be confused with the famous Rabbi of that name.
Luis and his family are now all but forgotten in the United States, despite the efforts of his English translator, Seymour Liebman, and Martin Cohen’s outstanding biography in English. The four hundredth anniversary of his Yartzheit has yet to receive a single line in our better known Jewish periodicals. But Luis’ life continues to inspire us with his spirit of fidelity and remembrance. He is the proof that the Jewish spirit is forever in the process of resurrecting itself. In an era where Judaism is routinely defined with vague terms such as «identity» and «spirituality,» Luis reminds us of the commitment and nobility that Jews have aspired to throughout the millenia. He is our region’s connection to the pre-modern era of Jewish heroism and greatness.
This summer, I anticipate that my thoughts will turn several times to a small prison cell in Mexico City where an «enlightened» young Jew wrote these words amidst the terror:
«Oh Lord have mercy on Your people fill the world with Your light so that heaven and earth will be filled with Your glory and Your praise, amen, amen. Dated in Purgatory, the fifth month of the year five thousand three hundred and fifty-seven (six?) of our creation.»
Luis de Carvajal, el mozo, Joseph Lumbroso, 1567- December 8, 1596, his memory is a blessing!
The primary sources for this essay are Seymour B. Liebman’s The Enlightened, (University of Miami Press, 1967) and Martin Cohen’s The Martyr: The Story of a Secret Jew and the Mexican Inquisition in the Sixteenth Century (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973).
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2nd rev. 121401; 1st rev. 122396; originally submitted 130996