By: Enrique A Navarro-Pinto
I was born in Montebello, California (just east of Los Angeles) to a Mexican father and Venezuelan mother, both of which were immigrants. I was raised as a Catholic and had my baptism, first communion, and confirmation as a Catholic. On Labor Day last year, I found out that my last name on my father’s side, Navarro, is Sephardic and I started learning about the history of my last name. I discovered that I share my family name with many Jews. Although my last name isn’t exclusively Jewish, it is a popular last name amongst Sephardic Jews, and two Portugese chief Rabbis were Navarros. I also found other important Jews who had the same last name in Spain and Portugal.
The more searching I did, the more I started to believe that I was a descendant of conversos. I started noticing subtle differences between my family and other Latino families living here in Southern California. It has been especially hard to make the connection on my father’s side because my grandfather is the last survivor of his family and he has a very bad memory, and he also didn’t pass down any traditions. I would later find out that traditions were usually passed down through the females, so that explained it. One thing that I did have to go on was the fact that my entire family looks very Jewish and we had a last name that was popular with Sephardic Jews. My father, my uncles and myself were always getting mistaken for being Jewish everywhere we went. I also knew through my grandfather that his family (Navarro) came from France.
After doing research I learned about how Jews fled Spain during the Inquisition to France and other countries, and a couple of days ago. someone actually posted a few names on the forums (www.sephardim.com forums) of Jews living in France from some old records, and my last name was among them. I also knew that our family owned a mine in Mexico and that we were from Guadalajara, which had a pretty big Jewish population. I was skeptical at first because there were still a lot of holes to be filled. After meeting with a Rabbi several times and learning more about the Jewish faith, I started to explore my mother’s heritage. I came to find that my grandmother and great grandmother both had the last name Pinto, which is also very Sephardic. There are several Sephardic Rabbis who have that last name, including one in Los Angeles who comes from the Pinto family of Rabbis from Morocco, and I discovered many other Jews who have that last name too. The difference with my mother’s side, is that her family has passed down some very Sephardic Jewish traditions. For example, they cover the mirrors in the house when someone dies, they always have immediate burials, they are very wary of the evil eye, (they tie a red string on newborns to ward off the evil eye) they always drain the blood of animals into a special bowl after slaughtering them, and they will not eat or cook an animal until all the blood has been removed.
I also did some more searching on the location of where in Venezuela my mother’s family was from, and what I found further made me believe my mother’s side also were conversos at one point. My grandfather came from Coro, which is on the coast and very close to the Dutch island of Curacao. There were many Jews who went to Curacao from Holland who were originally from Spain and Portugal, and these Jews in Curacao came to Coro, and were kicked out and eventually came back again, here is a very interested article on it http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/coro.html.
My grandmother’s side came from the state of Lara, which is directly beneath Coro, and still pretty close to the coast. I found that many Sephardic Jews that came with the ones that went to Coro and others that came after settled all over the country, including in Lara.
After doing more research, I learned that assimilation was a big problem for the Jewish community in Venezuela. I actually recently found out from my grandmother in Venezuela that my great great grandparents (Pinto side) were born in Portugal, and probably came to Venezuela in the early 1800’s.
After I attended a Friday night Shabbat service at my synagogue out of curiosity, something drew me back, and I started going every week. I started focusing on learning about the religion, and after learning more about the religion, I came to find that it was directly in line with my beliefs. There were many things in Catholicism and Christianity that I didn’t agree with, and Judaism seemed to be exactly what I had been looking for. Although I had been religious as a Catholic, I always felt I had a strong relationship with G-d, but never with Jesus. I never accepted Jesus and I couldn’t make myself believe in it. I used to always question people about why they believed in Jesus and like I said, I was never convinced. There were also other things I didn’t agree with, and I always thought I was different from other Christians because of it.
Since I’ve been practicing Judaism, I feel a connection to G-d that I’ve never felt before, I feel so much more alive spiritually, and a deep connection with something. I’ve been learning about the concept of having a Jewish soul that brings you back to your roots that many people who find out about their Jewish roots say they have. Honestly, that’s the easiest way I can explain what I think I have. Something inside me drew me back to Judaism, and when I’m there at my synagogue on Shabbat it feels so natural, like it feels so right and like something inside me feels differently than I ever felt when I was a Catholic.
When I celebrated Hanukkah for the first time in my life last month, I was in my girlfriend’s apartment, she was working I believe, and when I lit the candles, and started to say the prayers, I started to cry. It wasn’t like when a family member dies and you cry because of it or when you lose your dog when you’re a little kid and you cry, it felt much different. It felt as though my soul was crying, something inside of me was weeping and it was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I finished reciting the prayers with tears in my eyes and I had this feeling like I’ve done this before, maybe it was that I was making a strange connection to my ancestors who did the same thing I just did maybe hundreds of years ago and I am continuing the traditions and keeping them alive. Maybe I am the first person on both sides of my family to light Hanukkah candles in centuries. About 5 or 6 months ago I decided to convert and I am going through the conversion process right now, and will hopefully be done by Passover.
I am now very sure I am of Sephardic descent on one or both of my family sides, I’ve considered getting a DNA test done, but they can only check to see if your descended from Cohanim, not to see if you have Jewish roots period. I hope that I can continue to learn about Judaism and live an observant life and someday teach my children about their roots and teach them all of the things that I’m learning to do right now for the first time as a 22 year old.