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The secret Jews of El Paso and other Latino communities

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By Rabbi Stephen Leon

There is a huge secret which lives in our  unique city of El Paso. Most of our residents are unaware of it and  yet this secret has had an impact on El Paso since it’s very existence.

Rabbi Stephen Leon

On the other hand, what is well known is that the overwhelming population of our incredible city is Hispanic. This  wonderful ethnic group has brought to our border town marvelous contributions in the culture, art, music, food, traditions, and values of our community, just to name a few. It is also known that most members of this large Hispanic population identify themselves as Catholic or  Christian.

Here is where the secret  is revealed. The Jewish population of El Paso is very small, approximately 5,000 people. In reality, according to new studies, DNA results, sociologists, and scholars, as much as 25% of the Hispanic population in America has Jewish roots. The largest number of those who have this identity live in the  Southwest, in border towns, in New Mexico and yes, in El Paso.

This means that there is a possibilty that if you add the populations of El Paso and Juarez, the number of those with a Jewish past could be almost 200,000 souls.

The secret is even more significant because most of those who have Jewish roots don’t even know about it. Among the names given to this unique population are Conversos or crypto-Jews, which literally means “secret” Jews.

As a Rabbi, I have been studying, teaching, welcoming and even wrote about the crypto-Jews of El Paso. My interest and involvement in this amazing group of people started 35 years ago when I moved here.

The Ramos family outside of their Texas home before the beginning of Shabbat in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Peter Svarzbein)

I would like to inform everyone that a very interesting and inspiring film on this subject will be presented on our local PBS station this Saturday, Jan. 2 at 6 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 3 at 3 p.m. It is entitled ” The Long Journey” and it will include the stories of crypto-Jews in El Paso and Juarez.

The film will explain how these crypto-Jewish traditions began and go back over 500 years ago. It will reveal why so many descendants of the Spanish Inquisition settled in El Paso.

I urge you to see this important film. If you have any questions please contact Rabbi Stephen Leon at rabbisal@aol.com. My book, “The Third Commandment and the Story of an Incredible People,” is available on Amazon.com.

Rabbi Stephen Leon is emeritus rabbi at El Paso’s Congregation B’Nai Zion.

Cover photo: Fathers and sons share a moment of remembrance and joy before the Friday night Sabbath meal in Mexicali, Mexico,  in 2006.  (Photo courtesy of Peter Svarzbein)

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